Mississippi medical groups call for delayed start to school year

Last week, Governor Tate Reeves expressed his support for a safe return to in-person instruction with the 2020-21 school year right around the corner. Two major medical groups are now pushing for a set of statewide guidelines to be implemented to ensure the safety of students and teachers across the state. 

The Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (MS-AAP) and the Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) issued a joint statement Saturday noting that “schools should make every effort to open in-person school safely this fall, while also considering the earlier White House guidance that cases in a given region or state should be on a downward trajectory before reopening.”

The joint statement comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to rise in Mississippi with ICU bed space becoming a cause for concern in recent weeks.

Individual school districts in Mississippi will ultimately decide how they return to instruction this year – deciding between a traditional, online or hybrid schedule. Districts must submit their plans to the governor and the Department of Education by the end of the month. 

With that deadline just a few days away, the MS-AAP and the MSMA are asking districts to consider the implementation of the following “minimum standards”

  • Delayed re-entry to at least September 1, 2020, to allow sufficient time to implement mitigation strategies, allow time for reduced COVID-19 transmission, and possible availability of financial assistance (state or federal) for schools to apply appropriate plans.  Physicians call for a state-wide mask mandate to reduce viral transmission and facilitate safe school attendance.
  • Mandatory masks for all individuals in the school building, no matter their age. Children with certain conditions (such as intellectual disabilities) or in pre-kindergarten may require special consideration.
  • All Mississippi children should have the option for virtual learning for ANY reason, without medical justification

Currently, 29 Mississippi counties are under a state-issued mask mandate, but the governor has continued to oppose the idea of a statewide mask mandate. As for students returning to their classrooms, he believes it can be done with proper planning. 

“Our districts have had months and months to come up with plans and to think outside the box to come up with innovative ideas on ways in which they can safely get back in the classroom,” Governor Reeves said last Thursday. 

The governor suggested the use of hybrid schedules, reducing class sizes, bringing different grades into the building at different times, and several other options.

The statement from the two organizations did discuss the concern regarding the spread of the virus within schools. 

“We are encouraged by the fact that young children appear not to be super-spreaders of COVID-19. Young children can become sick with COVID-19, but the illness tends to be milder and is usually contracted at home. On the other hand, older children and teens may be able to spread COVID-19 similarly to adults.”

State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs has previously stated that outlines have been drawn up to instruct schools and districts on how to handle an outbreak. Large outbreaks at schools could lead to disruptions and closures during the school year. $150 million is also being spent to distribute PPE to schools across the state.