Most of the 11 school districts on the Mississippi coast are not enforcing a mask warrant as students return to in-person classes this week after the holidays and a rapid rise in omicron COVID-19 cases.
Biloxi, Pass Christian, Ocean Springs, Gulfport and Jackson County school districts are open this week with optional masks for students and staff, despite calls from state Department of Health officials of Mississippi to adhere to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for universal indoor masking by all students and staff, regardless of their immunization status.
State epidemiologist Paul Byers said schools should expect a surge of positive COVID cases during Wave 5 in Mississippi, fueled by the highly transmissible variant of omicron.
“Schools have historically been a reflection of what’s going on and we’re seeing a lot of community transmission right now,” Byers said. “So I predict that when the schools return, we will see a significant number of cases affecting school-aged children. “
The spread in schools “is going to depend on some of the internal practices that the school puts in place,” Byers said at a press conference last week.
“The masks are going to be vital. We have been recommending masks as part of the indoor school really all this school year and last year as well. It will be very difficult to come back. “
Moss Point is the only coastal district to remain compliant with the state’s recommendations for wearing masks at their facilities. The district had never eliminated facial coverage requirements.
The Sun Herald has not heard from school districts in Bay St. Louis-Waveland, Long Beach, Pascagoula-Gautier, Harrison County and Hancock County on whether their COVID protocols would change or whether masks would be required upon return to school.
Some school districts change COVID rules
Several school districts on the coast have changed their COVID policies.
The districts of Biloxi, Gulfport, Ocean Springs and Harrison County have said they are adopting recent CDC and MSDH guidelines regarding the length of days in quarantine and isolation.
Last week, the CDC shortened the length of isolation from 10 days to five days if they are asymptomatic or if their symptoms go away, with five days of wearing the mask.
They have also shortened the recommended quarantine time for people exposed to the virus. People who are vaccinated only need to quarantine for five days now, and those who are boosted may not need to quarantine at all.
Pass Christian Schools, one of the last on the coast to eliminate their mandatory mask policies, began in-person classes Tuesday in the first phase of their transmission plan, which recommends only face coverings.
A spokesperson said he would monitor COVID cases closely over the next week and plan to make changes accordingly.
The Ocean Springs School District said while masks are still optional, they have resumed weekly deep cleaning of all buildings.
“We have also stocked all of our buildings and classrooms with PPE supplies and cleaning supplies to use throughout the day,” a spokesperson said.
Jackson County School District “is making a comeback like we did at the start of the year,” a spokesperson said, not forcing masks for students to return to in-person learning Tuesday.
“Since the onset of this virus, we’ve always used data to make our decisions… and I think that’s how we’ve stayed in school when many schools across the state and country don’t. haven’t, because we’ve insured our parents and our community and we really haven’t had much of a reaction to that, ”Superintendent Dr. John Stryker said during a WLOX segment on Sunday night.
Omicron’s impact on children
Last week, state health department officials said the majority of COVID cases in the state are now the omicron variant, a strain more than 50% more contagious than delta. In just a few days, omicron cases across the state rose 80% and threw Mississippi into a fifth wave.
Omicron “is the most contagious variant we’ve seen, and we’re in the midst of a transmission spike we’ve never seen, quite possibly this whole pandemic,” the state chief medical officer said, Dr Thomas Dobbs, on a Wednesday. press conference.
Most of those positive cases are in the younger population, Byers said, and the state has already started seeing pediatric hospitalizations.
“When you look at where most of the cases are right now, it’s in the younger ages. This is sort of where the rapid growth usually happens when you have a new variant, ”he said.
“These people between 25 and 39, that’s where we see most of our cases now. It is rapid growth. We are also seeing an increase in the number of children between the ages of 18 and 24. There are more children in intensive care and in hospital than we have had since ending the delta variant.
Pediatric vaccination rates in Mississippi are significantly lower than national averages. Only about 4% of children aged 5 to 11 are vaccinated in the state. More than 20% of the country’s children have received their COVID vaccines.
“We know that vaccination, especially in these age groups, can help prevent serious illness, hospitalizations and death. We must do better. We need to get more children immunized, ”Byers said.
Mask-wearing and social distancing are also effective strategies for reducing the spread of COVID, officials say, especially with the new variant’s high transmission rates.
“We really want to encourage parents, encourage schools to continue to wear masks… in this inner school setting really regardless of your immunization status,” Byers said.
“If we can do this simple thing, to make sure everyone is wearing a mask, we can really try to limit some of the transmission. Do not go to school if you are sick. Have your children tested.
This article is supported by the Journalism and Public Information Fund, a fund of the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
This story was originally published January 4, 2022 11:52 a.m.