More K-12 students in Mississippi have now tested positive for COVID-19 since going back to school last month than did so during the entirety of the previous school year, an examination of Mississippi State Department of Health data reveals.

Over a 10-month period between early August 2020 and late May 2021, Mississippi’s public schools reported about 17,600 cases of COVID-19 among students. Between Aug. 1, 2021, and Sept. 3, 2021, more than 18,825 students tested positive for COVID-19 infections.

Along with the arrival of the more contagious delta variant, another significant difference from the previous school year is that Gov. Tate Reeves issued a statewide school mask mandate in August 2020. Last year, he cited masks as a crucial tool to keep children safe and keep schools open. This year, though, he refused to mandate masks in schools, citing the availability of COVID-19 vaccines during August press conferences despite the fact that schoolchildren younger than 12 years old are not yet eligible.

“If you look at those individuals under the age of 12, what you find is that it is very rare that kids under the age of 12 have anything other than the sniffles,” the governor said on Aug. 13, 2021. “Does it happen from time to time? Sure it does. I believe we have had one fatality of an individual, maybe it could’ve been two—I think there’s three under the age of 18 at this time? Two?”

Mississippi’s pediatric death toll at the time was actually four, including a Picayune teenager who died three weeks before those remarks. The day after Gov. Reeves’ Aug. 13 remarks, 13-year-old Mkayla Robinson died of COVID-19; she had begun eighth grade at a mask-optional school just over a week earlier and had attended classes unaware she was sick as recently as three days before her death.

Two other Mississippi children younger than five have died of COVID-19 since then, including an infant. During August, Mississippi reached all-time highs for child pediatric hospitalizations and has reported four deaths in children ranging from age 0 to 16 since July 25. More than 1,000 Mississippians of all ages died due to COVID-19 last month as the delta surge pushed daily case numbers to new highs.

Teen Vaccinations Rise, But Remain Low

“The overwhelming majority of cases and hospitalizations that we’re seeing are sadly in unvaccinated individuals, and remember we have children less than the age of 12 that are not eligible for vaccination,” Mississippi State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said during an MSDH press conference yesterday. “So it’s going to be important for us going forward that we keep those children as safe as possible. Certainly, vaccination of adults and eligible members of the household is one of the best ways to keep children safe.”

Dr Thomas Dobbs looks at Governor Tate Reeves as he speaks at a press conference
Mississippi State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs, right, watches Gov. Tate Reeves during a news briefing regarding Mississippi’s COVID-19 response in Jackson, Miss., Aug. 13, 2021. During the briefing, Gov. Reeves struggled to accurately say how many children have died of COVID-19 in the state. AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippi has the third lowest vaccination rate in the country, just ahead of Alabama and Wyoming, with about 40% of residents of all ages vaccinated. Among school-age children who are eligible, though, that figure is even lower—despite the fact that Mississippi leads the nation in vaccination rates for other childhood diseases. On Aug. 6, when many schools were just reopening, 9% of Mississippians between the ages of 12 and 15 were vaccinated along with 15% of those between the ages of 16 and 17. In the months since, those figures have jumped to 24% and 28% respectively.

Though most schools began the year without mask mandates, the rapid spread of COVID-19 forced many to change course, with some outbreaks forcing schools to close or temporarily move to all-virtual learning. The vast majority of schools now require students, faculty and staff to wear masks indoors, though some school districts, such as the DeSoto County School District, continue to resist mask mandates.

During yesterday’s MSDH press conference, Dr. Byers reiterated that MSDH “strongly recommends universal masks in the school environment” and touted the department’s efforts working with schools on testing and vaccinations.

“Over 5,000 tests have been conducted in schools so far, and we have almost 100 school districts that have signed up to be part of a vaccination program. … Over 1,100 vaccines have been given to school-age kids in those schools so far,” Byers said. More than 440,000 students are enrolled in Mississippi’s public schools.

At Least 3,612 Educators Test Positive For COVID-19

Teachers and other school employees have seen higher rates of infection this year than they did last year, though the jump for them is less extreme than among students. Since last month, at least 3,612 teachers and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 compared to about 5,400 during the entire fall 2020 semester and about 3,400 during the spring 2021 semester.

Since August, schools have quarantined at least 92,607 students and 4,351 teachers for COVID-19 exposures. Still, case numbers and quarantines have fallen since the week of Aug. 16-20, when MSDH reported a high of 5,763 positive cases among students and 28,990 quarantines. During the most recent week for which MSDH data is available, Aug. 30-Sept. 3, 2021, schools reported 2,869 cases among students and 18,564 student quarantines.

Headshot of Paul Byers
“The overwhelming majority of cases and hospitalizations that we’re seeing are sadly in unvaccinated individuals, and remember we have children less than the age of 12 that are not eligible for vaccination,” Mississippi State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said during an MSDH press conference on Sept. 8, 2021. Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Some of the decline could be due to the fact that fewer schools in fewer counties reported COVID-19 data during the last two weeks, though. During the all-time high week of Aug. 16-20, 835 schools in 75 of Mississippi’s 82 counties reported COVID-19 data. Due to Hurricane Ida, that number fell drastically to just 669 schools in 71 counties for the week of Aug. 23-27. Still, 18 fewer schools in three fewer counties reported data for Aug. 30-Sept. 3 compared to two weeks earlier.

The number of COVID-19 cases among students and educators so far this year are likely higher than officially reported due to the fact that dozens of schools have failed to report data during any given week so far this year.

The MSDH reports also do not include information on cases from private schools. Since last year, the Midsouth Association of Private Schools, one of the largest private-school accreditation organizations in the state, has rejected orders from the Mississippi State Department of Health to share COVID-19 data.

Award-winning News Editor Ashton Pittman, a native of the South Mississippi Pine Belt, studied journalism and political science at the University of Southern Mississippi. Previously the state reporter at the Jackson Free Press, he drove national headlines and conversations with award-winning reporting about segregation academies. He has won numerous awards, including Outstanding New Journalist in the South, for his work covering immigration raids, abortion battles and even former Gov. Phil Bryant’s unusual work with “The Bad Boys of Brexit" at the Jackson Free Press. In 2021, as a Crirec reporter, he was named the Diamond Journalist of the Year for seven southern U.S. states in the Society of Professional Journalists Diamond Awards. A trained photojournalist, Ashton lives in South Mississippi with his husband, William, and their two pit bulls, Dorothy and Dru. Follow on Twitter @ashtonpittman. Send tips to [email protected].