Nearly 5,000 children, educators and school staff are quarantined in Mississippi after returning to classrooms at the start of the new school year, some under mask-optional policies. The 69 outbreaks reported between Aug. 2 to Aug. 6, which was the second week of school for some districts, resulted in nearly 1,000 children and 300 teachers and staff testing positive for COVID-19, according to a weekly report from Mississippi’s Department of Health.
While many school districts adopted a mask mandate for the beginning of the school year, it was not universal throughout the state, despite pleading from the Mississippi State Medical Association last week for all districts to require students and staff to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.
The highly contagious delta variant is ripping through Mississippi, which also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, more than quadrupling case numbers since June and causing a deficit of ICU beds.
The state’s early start to the new school year is providing a grim bellwether for school districts set to return more than 50 million students to classrooms over the next few weeks, many under mask-optional policies.
In southern Mississippi, Lamar County School District shuttered two of its schools during the last week in July and returned students to virtual learning until Aug. 16 after a week-long staggered reopening resulted in one high school identifying six cases among staff and 41 cases among students, forcing the quarantine of roughly 100 people. Highlighting just how contagious the delta variant is, after one week of in-person learning last year, the school district recorded only five cases among staff and five among students.
Despite the early warning signs from states like Mississippi and Arkansas, where than 800 students, educators and staff from one school district were quarantined just days after they began the new school year under a mask-optional policy, a handful of Republican governors are refusing to reconsider executive orders and state laws barring school districts from requiring masks.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Republican governors are under increasing pressure this week as school districts defy their executive orders, some in the face of increased threats of financial penalties, and cities and counties take them to court over the matter. In Texas, school leaders in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio plan to require masks for students and school staff, as do Miami-Dade and Broward Counties in Florida.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addressed the Republican governors blocking school districts from enforcing masks, saying the Biden administration is actively looking for ways to safeguard districts who challenge state laws and executive orders.
“We are continuing to look for ways,” she said, “for the U.S. government to support districts and schools as they try to follow the science, do the right thing, and save lives.”
“If you’re not interested in following the public health guidelines to protect the lives of people in your state, to give parents some comfort as they’re sending their kids to school,” she said, “then get out of the way and let public officials, let local officials do their job to keep students safe. This is serious, and we’re talking about people’s lives.”