October 28, 2020 10:08:31 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
Public school districts in Lowndes and Oktibbeha counties have witnessed a total of 110 cases of COVID-19 since school started, sending hundreds of students into quarantine, according to data from the districts.
Among all three districts in the area, Starkville-Oktibbeha Consolidated School District witnessed the most confirmed cases of COVID-19. Columbus Municipal School District -- the smallest district and the only one not currently holding traditional, in-person classes five days a week -- has the fewest, with only 19 cases so far this year while the other districts' cases are approaching 50.
CMSD also started school 18 days earlier than SOCSD and 26 days earlier than LCSD.
As of Friday, SOCSD had a total of 46 positive cases -- including 35 students and 11 staff members -- since school started Aug. 24, according to district Public Information Officer Nicole Thomas. The district saw its largest weekly spike last week, adding 17 confirmed cases among students and two among staff.
All three districts rely on a self-reporting system to track COVID-19 cases, officials said. Following Mississippi State Department of Health guidelines, schools require those who test positive to stay at home for 10 days, and students and staff who were in close contact with the individual -- meaning they were within six feet or were together for more than 15 minutes -- are required to self-quarantine for 14 days. In the case of an outbreak, where three or more people in the same group test positive, the entire group will be quarantined.
The increase last week led to large-scale quarantines, including the entire Starkville High School football team, the high school girls basketball team and an elementary class, The Dispatch reported. By Friday, 224 students were still in quarantine, 6.8 percent of the 3,297 students enrolled in traditional in-person learning as of Friday, Thomas said.
However, most students who tested positive were infected after a family member tested positive, SOCSD Assistant Superintendent Anna Guntharp said, and not many cases suggested the infection took place at school.
"We have not found that it's been student-to-student contact within a classroom environment that's caused (the infection), so that's really positive," Guntharp said. "We have had maybe a couple of staff cases where they were ... working in close contact."
Nevertheless, the spike serves as a reminder for the district to remain cautious, Thomas said.
"It reminds us that we must continue to be diligent in those behaviors, ... always wearing your masks, social gatherings, observing that six feet of distance definitely whenever possible," she said.
Trailing behind SOCSD is Lowndes County School District, which had seen 45 positive cases and had sent 413 students and staff into quarantine by Friday, Superintendent Sam Allison said. Seven students tested positive last week alone, he told The Dispatch on Monday. Allison could not provide The Dispatch with weekly case counts by press time due to his being out of town.
Since school started Sept. 1, Allison said the district only recently began to see an uptick in case counts.
"We're having a few more cases now than we had even without looking at the numbers, and they are more widespread," he said. "Early on, it seemed like it was more each week at a particular school, but they weren't connected."
Columbus Municipal School District -- where school started the earliest on Aug. 6 -- saw fewer cases than others. Only 14 students and five staff members tested positive as of Friday, and 32 students and eight staff members went through the quarantine process, Superintendent Cherie Labat said. The district saw five students testing positive during the week of Sept. 14, which was the highest weekly count since school started, she said. However, she considered that an "outlier."
Labat said she is confident in the measures in place at CMSD. The district is also in talks with Allegro Clinic, she said, to provide rapid testing for its students and staff members who are potentially exposed to the virus.
"We're working out the logistics," she said. "Having that ability with a clinic that can get them in quickly to test is going to help support keeping our students in the classroom."
Labat credited CMSD's low case count to the hybrid and virtual learning models the district provides. Hybrid models allow students to attend classes in person two days a week, and they are divided into smaller groups than usual, she said, which reduces the chance of infection within schools.
As of Tuesday, 1,997 students were enrolled in the hybrid model and another 1,245 were enrolled in all virtual.
"Our small class sizes and our schedule have assisted in keeping our numbers extremely low," Labat said.
SOCSD has 3,297 students learning in person and roughly 1,700 students learning online, Thomas said. The safety measures seem to have worked so far, Guntharp said, and the district will only consider switching to all-virtual learning when 20 percent of its population are quarantined or infected.
"It's just very hard to replace in-person teaching and learning no matter what you do," she said. "For some of our parents and students, they were just ready to go back to that. There's just so many more services and so much more support that we can provide through an in-person or traditional school."
Allison did not provide the number of students in each learning model by press time, but told The Dispatch he has confidence in LCSD's approach of handling the pandemic. The number of infections, he said, should be "significant" for the district to shift away from in-person learning.
"We know that our students need to be in school, and we know the traditional education is much more effective than them being at home," he said. "(The case count) would have to be significant and it would have to have a pattern (for us to switch to all-virtual learning)."
Yue Stella Yu is the local government reporter for The Dispatch. Reach her at 662-328-2424 (ext 106) or follow her on Twitter @StellaYu_Mizzou
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