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‘An issue of life or death’: Reeves weighs statewide mandate on school reopening



Gov. Tate Reeves during a March press conference. (Photo by Eric Shelton, Mississippi Today, used with permission)

Gov. Tate Reeves, the only official who can issue a statewide mandate that postpones school or forces virtual learning, finds himself in a tough political position as schools across the state are just days from resuming in-person instruction.

As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are skyrocketing in Mississippi, many parents and teachers are rallying across the state and asking Reeves to postpone the start of school. They say already cash-strapped school districts can’t handle the demands of virus preparation and warn that students, teachers and staff will suffer.

Meanwhile, many parents are worried about how they’ll keep their jobs or handle childcare if their kids don’t start school on time. Parents and teachers alike express deep concern over students’ wellbeing if they miss school and in-person interaction in a rural state where many districts lack the ability to provide adequate distance learning.

The state’s 138 districts have been asked to decide for themselves when and how to reopen, and they face a Friday deadline to submit their plans to the state.

For now, Reeves is holding off on any statewide edicts about public school operations as most schools are set to return to the classroom the first full week of August.

“It has long been the view of Mississippians that we want local control of education,” Reeves said this week.

Though he has made clear he expects schools to reopen soon and to provide in-person classes, Reeves said he will review the districts’ plans carefully and decide if any statewide mandates for schools are required.

“It’s not something I want to do, and it’s not something I can tell you with certainty I will have to do,” Reeves said. “… Those of you who have watched me over the last 16 or 17 years will know that I am not scared to make a decision.”

No matter his decision, Reeves will face criticism.

Some advocates and educators have called on Reeves or the Mississippi Department of Education to provide more leadership on the issue. MDE says neither the department of State Board of Education has the authority to delay school reopening or mandate any closures. Reeves, who has broad emergency authority, said he wants to leave it to local school districts if possible.

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said that while schools face an unprecedented challenge, “our state’s leaders are nowhere to be found.”

“There’s no standardized guidance,” Jones said. “There is no mask mandate in schools. There is no plan in place to support districts who lack the resources to have an effective distance-learning model. Teachers are being asked to sanitize their own classrooms. And educators across the state are terrified to go back into schools, afraid for their own health and the health of their families and their students.”

The Mississippi State Medical Association and state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians have called for the state to not reopen classrooms until pandemic cases are on a “downward trajectory,” which does not appear to be in the offing any time soon.  They urged a delay until at least Sept. 1, and called for a mask mandate for everyone in schools.

But Reeves indicated the state is not likely to waive the “180-day rule,” a state law that requires schools to provide at least 180 days of instruction each year by June 30. And, he said, those schools contemplating 100 percent virtual classes “are ignoring the reality that we are going to have testing that occurs in the 2020-2021 school year.”

All states are struggling with similar questions and debate over school restart. State plans are mixed, with some having strict statewide mandates and others allowing local decisions as Reeves wants to do.

In Alabama, the state’s superintendent has urged all schools to reopen on regular schedule, but individual districts will ultimately decide. Arkansas’ governor has called for in-person classes to open in the fall, but urged schools to be ready with virtual classes as well. Florida’s top education official issued an order for all schools to reopen and provide normal services. Many states are still trying to figure it out.

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs this week was asked if the Mississippi Health Department could provide schools COVID-19 case metrics for when it’s safe to reopen, when to close buildings and teach remotely.

“There’s not an easy answer,” said Dobbs, “not a specific number.”

Dobbs noted that given the current trajectory of the virus in Mississippi, school reopenings may be short lived.

“There may be some schools that have to close pretty quickly after they open,” Dobbs said. “It just depends on if there are outbreaks.”

He said that what appears to be less transmission among younger children and experience from day cares shows some promise, particularly for younger grades.

“We never closed down the day cares,” Dobbs said. “I’m not saying we never saw cases in day cares, but there were no major outbreaks.”

Reeves last week vowed: “I am going to do what I think is best for kids, and let the politics play out however they play out.”

As to criticism about the state not providing standardized rules and mandates for school reopenings so far, Reeves said: “Many of these are the same people who for years said stay away from them and stay out of their business.”

“Now they are calling me, asking, ‘Hey, will you please make these decisions for us?’,” Reeves said.

Still, the political rhetoric hasn’t eased the concerns of many educators across the state.

“Make no mistake: Schools will eventually close,” Jones said. “It can happen safely now, with a comprehensive plan in place, or it can happen when the first outbreak happens, or when the unthinkable happens and we lose a member of a school community. This is quite literally an issue of life or death, and the ripple effects of this absence of leadership will be felt far beyond the confines of a school building.”

A model for reopening?

The Corinth School District, known for innovation and its “year-’round” school schedule, has already reopened on its normal start date, July 27. Reeves said he will be watching Corinth schools closely over the next few weeks to see if the district offers lessons that can be applied statewide.

Corinth is offering in-person school, with optional virtual classes. Superintendent Lee Childress said he expects about 13% to 18% of parents will have chosen virtual teaching for their kids this fall.

Children and school staff in Corinth each morning walk through thermal temperature scanners set up at strategic locations so everyone is checked. Many are checked again during the school day. So far, Childress said after the first couple of days, no one had an elevated temperature or symptoms.

Corinth schools are requiring face masks, and providing them to students and staff. All students have to wear them as they are transported to and from school and moving within buildings. For pre-K through third grades, masks are not required during instruction — although many are still wearing them — but teachers are working to maintain social distancing. For grades four through 12, students are required to wear masks all day unless there is a setting allows them to maintain social distancing.

Hand sanitizer is available throughout the schools, classrooms and other spaces are being reconfigured for distancing students and teachers are disinfecting classrooms at the end of each day, among many other safety protocols, Childress said. Meals are being eaten in classrooms instead of cafeterias.

If a teacher or student comes down with COVID-19, Childress said, the district has plans in place, including contact tracing and notification of anyone potentially exposed. Childress said a positive case would not necessarily mean whole classes or grades being dismissed and quarantined.

“It will depend on the circumstances,” said Childress, who added that the Health Department has given schools guidance, provided published guidelines, webinars and video conferences for school leaders.

Childress said he, his school board and staff have worked diligently on reopening plans and safety protocols since the pandemic hit Mississippi in March. He said his district involved the community in the decisions and he has kept them informed of the plans with regular Facebook live chats. He said MDE and the Health Department offered guidance and assistance, and he had no criticism of lack of state mandates or leadership.

“Ultimately, when it gets down to making those decisions — when to reopen, what strategy will be in place — that is a local school decision and should be left up to the local school district board,” Childress said. “… A school is a reflection of its community. Every community is facing a different situation, different transmission rates … Those different things should allow for the flexibility for you to make the decisions for what is best for your districts.”

As for pushing school start dates back much further this year, Childress said, “I think whether you open in July or August or September or October, we’re still going to have to deal with it.”

The virtual approach

Last week, Jackson Public Schools, the second largest school district in the state, announced it would provide completely virtual learning in the fall. When asked about Jackson Public Schools plan to reopen with online-only teaching, Reeves said he didn’t want to discuss a specific district’s plan yet but doubts some schools have the ability to provide an adequate education with distance learning only.

Of the school districts that have made their reopening plans public so far, most appear to be opting for in-person schooling, at least as an option.

Reeves said he has reviewed some districts’ plans and, “Some of them look very good, and some do not.” He said he expects to make a decision late this week or early next on any state intervention or mandates.

Reeves has urged school leaders to “think outside the box,” and be innovative with reopening plans.

Maurice Smith, superintendent of North Bolivar Consolidated School District, said his district is “going all virtual.”

“We’re going to open August 20, but that is subject to change and we will reevaluate where we are depending on the number of cases coming out of Bolivar County,” Smith said. “We chose the virtual route because of concern for our students and staff. About a week ago Bolivar county was added to a list of counties that had a high coronavirus positive rate. So for those reasons, we felt like it was the prudent choice.”

Smith said he’s glad his school board had autonomy to decide what’s best locally.

“I would have preferred that the state would have been a little more helpful with guidance as it relates to receiving funding and timely order of electronic devices,” Smith said.

Reeves said Mississippi schools are receiving a total of “half a billion dollars” in federal funds through the CARES Act and other measures to defray pandemic costs. He said that after conversations with the vice president and others in Washington this week, he expects a fourth round of federal funding will include “a significant portion” for school restart expenses.

Childress said purchasing personal protection equipment and making changes has not caused his district any financial hardship so far, and that federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding has helped cover expenses.

But some are concerned that poorer districts, already struggling financially, will have a tougher time coping with reopening safely.

“I don’t anticipate a problem there,” Reeves said. “Will there be challenges? Yes. I don’t want to minimize those, but I don’t think they will be financial in nature.”

Kelsey Betz contributed to this report.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


Mayor to hold news conference Friday on COVID-19



Mayor George Flaggs Jr. at a news conference Oct. 8. (photo via video screen grab/Video by Thomas Parker)

 Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. will hold a news conference Friday at 2:30 p.m. in the Robert M. Walker Building Board Room regarding COVID-19.

The current proclamation expires Monday, Nov. 2 at 8 a.m.

Look for updated information and plan to watch the news conference live on the Vicksburg Daily News Facebook page.

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Bethune-Cookman cancels all sports due to COVID-19



Bethune-Cookman Wildcats (photo courtesy BCU Athletics)

Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona, Florida, has opted out of all sports for the remainder of the 2020-2021 academic year including football and basketball due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The university has ceased all student athletic activities until further notice out of an abundance of caution.

“In the face of a surging COVID-19 spike across much of the country and the State of Florida, we have concluded that the risks are too great for our student-athletes and staff to travel and compete at this time,” university President E. LaBrent Chrite said in a Thursday press release. “The health and safety of our student-athletes, as well as our coaches, staff and fans will always be our top priority.”

Bethune-Cookman is in its final year playing in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference and will be joining the SWAC conference in July 2021.

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Mississippi adds another 970 new COVID-19 cases Thursday



With 970 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Mississippi Thursday, the state’s seven day average continues to creep upward toward 800. The Magnolia State is among the majority of U.S. states with rising case counts. Nationally, 81,457 cases were reported Wednesday, with the seven-day average rising 41% in the last two weeks. Deaths rose by 9% over the same period, with 1,016 deaths reported Wednesday.

The Mississippi State Department of Health reported five new COVID-19 cases Thursday in Warren County and no new deaths. The cumulative number of cases in Warren County to date is 1,566, and the county’s death toll is 56.

Statewide, MSDH reported 970 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total cumulative confirmed cases in Mississippi to 118,587. The seven-day average of new cases is 787, higher by 270 cases from a month ago.

Most new cases are seen in younger people recently, and they are more likely to survive the virus than those 65 and older. By far, the age group reporting the most cases in Mississippi are young people from 18 to 29 years old.

MSDH reported Thursday that eight additional Mississippians died of COVID-19 statewide. The cumulative number of deaths in the state is 3,310. The state’s rate of deaths to confirmed cases is about 2.8%.

Deaths are a lagging indicator. While July saw the highest number of new cases since the crisis began, August saw the highest number of deaths. The highest number of deaths in any one day was 67 reported Aug. 25.

The deaths MSDH reported Thursday occurred between Oct. 23 and Oct. 27 in the following counties:

County Deaths reported Thursday
Benton 1
Chickasaw 1
George 1
Hinds 1
Itawamba 1
Marion 1
Newton 1
Panola 1

New cases and deaths were reported to MSDH as of 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28. MSDH usually reports statistics on the COVID-19 coronavirus each day based on the previous day’s testing and death reports.

The primary metric concerning state health officials are the numbers of people hospitalized, and that number rose steadily with the rise of new cases in July and August. On June 6, the number of Mississippians hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 was at 358. Hospitalizations nearly tripled by late July. They leveled off in early August and began noticeably dropping in the middle of the month including critical cases and numbers of people requiring ventilators. Hospitalizations continued to drop in September but levelled off at the middle of the month. They dropped again through Oct. 3; however, hospitalizations began rising since then. They have leveled off this week.

The number of Mississippians hospitalized for the virus as of 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 27, is 666, more than half of the late July peak of about 1,200. The number includes 577 with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 89 people with suspected but unconfirmed cases. Of those with confirmed infections, 157 were critically ill and in intensive care units and 62 were on ventilators.

Source: MSDH

MSDH has estimated the number of people who can be presumed recovered from COVID-19 in Mississippi. That number is 101,385 through Sunday, Oct. 25. This figure is updated weekly. It represents about 85.5% of the cumulative 118,587 cases reported as of Thursday, Oct. 29.

The number of cases in Warren County three weeks ago, Thursday, Oct. 8, was 1,452, therefore the estimated number of people presumed recovered in the county is 1,396, or about 89.1% of the 1,566 cumulative cases reported as of Thursday, Oct. 29. The county has an estimated 114 active cases.

These estimates are based on MSDH’s guidelines for calculating estimated recoveries when hospitalizations are not known, using the number of cases 21 days ago, less known outcomes (deaths).

The total number of Mississippians tested for COVID-19 (PCR and antigen tests identifying current infections) as of Saturday, Oct. 17 (the latest testing results reported by MSDH), is 949,085 or about 31.9% of the state’s 2.976 million residents. Without an updated number of tests, it is impossible to accurately calculate Mississippi’s positivity rate (positive results to tests, seven-day average), however, the rate was 13.8% Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The national rate is 6.3%, and 5% or lower indicates adequate testing.

The total number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities was 134 Thursday. About 39.8%, or 1,317, of the state’s total deaths were people in long-term care facilities.

A total of 26 deaths in Warren County were residents of LTC facilities.

MSDH is no longer reporting outbreaks in individual long-term care facilities in Mississippi and has replaced it with access to a database from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. You can access and search the data here. The latest data available is for the week ending Oct. 11.

For additional information, visit the MSDH website.

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