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Relaxation of COVID rules for the new school year

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Mississippi education leaders largely plan to continue using their COVID policies from last school year, but some have waived the protections altogether.

Schools have been required to offer face-to-face tutoring as their primary teaching method since the start of last school year. Local school boards are allowed to develop their own specific policies regarding virtual options, but must ensure that students receive direct instruction from a teacher for the same number of minutes each day as in-person. Any other decisions regarding masking, quarantine, sanitation and vaccination have been made by districts at the local levell for the past year.

The new school year begins with a rise in cases of COVID-19 in Mississippi, with 1,705 positive cases as of July 27, up from 105 in early May. Although high, they have not yet risen to the levels seen during the delta and omicron waves. The Mississippi Department of Health recently announced that families can receive eight express tests every month through the regional health department.

Policies vary among districts, but most appear to be relaxing or maintaining relaxed COVID safety protocols for the upcoming school year, which for most districts begins in early August.

Greg Ellis, a spokesman for the Tupelo School District, said the district generally is continuing to follow its 2021-2022 plan, but has added cameras in classrooms so that students who are quarantined due to testing positive or exposed can continue to participate remotely in training. The district’s quarantine policy states that it complies with CDC and MSDH guidelines.

The Greenville School District is also maintaining its 2021-2022 policy, but it requires all students, staff and visitors to wear masks, have their temperatures checked and social distance.

In contrast, the Jackson Public Schools District has waived the mask and vaccine mandate for employees, but will continue contact tracing and sanitation efforts.

“Covid-19 appears to be another disease that we will have to deal with for the rest of our lives,” said Gulfport Superintendent Glenn East. He clarified that the district will require a doctor’s note to return to school.

The DeSato County School District is also largely returning to pre-pandemic norms, including regarding campus activities and school lunch prices. Their plan directs parents to contact the school nurse for instructions on the length of the quarantine, and the district clarified that absences due to COVID are still excused.

Lauderdale and Vicksburg-Warren school districts did not make significant changes to their plans, which do not require masks and say students should be quarantined if they show symptoms.

State epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said MSDH will no longer require weekly reports from schools about positive cases or students in quarantine as they “move to more routine, sustained surveillance.” In general, MSDH recommends wearing masks when community transmission is high, encourages parents to review CDC guidance, and can provide support to districts for testing and vaccination.

Dr. Anita Henderson, president of the Mississippi chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said vaccination will be the most effective way to slow the transmission of the infection and urged parents to vaccinate their children and staff to get additional shots if they are eligible. Babies aged 6 months and over are also now eligible for vaccines, which can be scheduled through MSDH.

She also urged families to get tested at home and get retested before attending group events, visiting family who are immunocompromised or if they have cold symptoms.

“We’re very concerned, as we were when school started last year, and we saw a huge surge in the delta in the fall,” Henderson said. “We’re already in the middle of a big outbreak of omicrons right now, and we’re concerned that it’s going to happen in schools as well. We already know that school teachers are in our area, we know that kids who tested positive missed their first week of school … These are things that will continue to happen if we don’t do everything we can to slow transmission in schools . ยป

Mississippi Today intern Alison Santa Cruz contributed to this report.

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