Like many states across the South and Midwest, Mississippi set new records for COVID-19 cases this week. On Thursday, the state Department of Health confirmed 1,775 new cases, along with 48 deaths. Deaths were up again on Friday, breaking the record for the third time in a week. Across the state, hospitalizations are also way, way up. Covid Exit Strategy shows the state at 96% of capacity, earning it a “severely constrained” rating. Mississippi also rates as one of the worst states for testing, with a current daily testing level that’s only 14% of its target—and the results of those tests are coming in at a staggering 21% positive rate. Mississippi is in serious trouble.
Naturally, in the middle of this week, the first school district in Mississippi reopened. And that school immediately demonstrated why experts believe that state, and others, are headed for a “pediatric COVID crisis.”
As the Mississippi Free Press reports, Corinth School District in Alcorn County reopened on July 27, providing not just virtual classes but “traditional in-class instruction.” Not only did this come at a time when the state is seeing its highest rate of cases for the entire pandemic, the same is true in Alcorn County, where cases were up 10% the week before school opened and showed a terrifying 39% increase in the few days since students returned to the classroom. With numbers like those, it’s not surprising that at the end of the first week of classes, Corinth School District had to send parents a letter informing them that a student had tested positive, and that “anyone in close contact (someone who was within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more)” would need to quarantine for 14 days.
That definition of close contact is extremely generous, as encounters much shorter than 15 minutes have proven adequate to pass on the virus effectively. In any case, this would represent a number of students, and potentially teachers, in every single class attended by the infected student. And that’s not even considering any other school activities where the infected student may have been present. That was week one. Corinth students—those not already in quarantine—will be back in the classroom on Monday.
Despite Donald Trump’s continued false statements, evidence shows that school age children get infected by COVID-19 at the same rate as adults. They not only pass this disease along to other children and adults, they can suffer severe symptoms, including one debilitating illness that appears to be exclusive to children. Sending kids back to class in this environment is an invitation not just for the death of parents and teachers, but the death of children.
As part of their story, the Free Press interviewed University of Southern Mississippi historian Douglas Chambers who compared the disease to polio and warned that both Mississippi and the nation face a “pediatric COVID crisis” if schools reopen normally—one that could overwhelm hospitals and disable a generation. “There’s been nothing like this, whether we look at the polio epidemic after World War II, which lasted 10 years, or the 1918 Great Flu pandemic, or in the 19th century, everything from Yellow Fever, to Typhoid, to Cholera, to Smallpox,” said Chambers. “This pandemic is unlike any because, first, like all the rest, COVID-19 spreads exponentially, but unlike the others, it presents incrementally.” Even a small number of cases in a school district can become an overwhelming number in short order—and since children seem more likely to be asymptomatic than adults, the disease can spread unchecked across a school system before anyone realizes that hundreds, or thousands, of students have been exposed.
In Mississippi, 86% of teachers reported that they didn’t feel safe about returning to school. A majority of parents felt the same way. But Corinth schools opened anyway. Why? Because school board members are politicians. They’re politicians with one foot on the bottom rung of the political ladder, but many of them also regard that rung as just the first on their ascent to higher office. For Republicans in these times, moving up means agreeing with Donald Trump on every point—even if it means putting children at risk. Corinth is another demonstration of why individual school boards should not be given the “flexibility” to place children at risk for politics.
Without a set of national standards that say schools cannot open until surrounding communities demonstrate that local cases are under control, and that the school itself is providing adequate measures of protection and testing, that “pediatric COVID crisis” is a sure thing.