By RUSSELL TURNER
The Richton School District is joining a growing number of Mississippi school systems in shutting down parts or all of their campuses due to Covid-19.
School officials in Richton told students Friday morning that campus would be shutting down and all students in grades K-12 going to virtual learning for at least the next two after an outbreak of coronavirus. Teachers were notified of the decision on Thursday.
“Our number one concern is our kids and the people that work for (the school district),” Supt. of Education Clay Anglin told The Dispatch Friday morning in discussing the decision to close campus. “That is what we base our decisions on. How can we be as safe as we can be for them and then obviously, the next thing, is how do we educate them.”
“These kids safety is our top priority. Believe it or not we are very in tune to what is going on with Covid-19 and how to handle it here at the school. We are going to keep working to make sure that all of our kids and all of our employees are safe.”
Anglin said that as of 7 a.m. Friday morning he knew of 12 students who had tested positive for Covid-19. He said that number could likely grow as results from additional testing come in and he gets updated information from his principals.
He said a lot of the students who have tested positive are in one particular grade, but after looking at all the facts, the decision was made to take action across the entire campus.
“There are a significant number of ninth graders that are impacted,” Anglin told The Dispatch.
Anglin said that the outbreak appeared to be primarily in the high school and that officials considered limiting the actions to just those grades while allowing kids in grades K-8 to continue on-campus learning. However, with a good many teachers and teachers’ spouses with underlying health conditions, and other contributing factors, the right decision was to clear the entire campus for two weeks.
“You get to the point where you ask why would I do that and jeopardize people,” he said. “So, we decided, let’s just close it down and do our virtual learning. We have those plans in place. Let’s just utilize the resources and plans we have and get (teachers and students) away from each other for a while and hopefully let this outbreak run its course and come right back to school and go from there.”
Complicating matters for school officials is the fact that some of the students that have tested positive have parents that are school teachers on the Richton campus. Anglin confirmed that several teachers are out on quarantine after positive tests.
“That being said, we have more teachers out than we can find subs to cover their classes right now,” he added.
Anglin said while students will be learning from home, teachers who remain symptom free and do not test positive for the virus will continue to come to campus for work each day to prepare lesson plans and manage the distance learning efforts. The faculty and staff will be kept separate and isolated from one another as best as possible during that time frame.
Anglin said school officials believe the outbreak can be traced back to a single bus that carried student athletes across the county to New Augusta last Friday for a jamboree football game.
“What we determined through our contact tracing efforts is the common thread was a bus the students traveled on to the ball game,” he said. “Most of the students on the bus were ninth graders. We identified that there was a student on the bus with the virus and from that point on we could see where the dominos have fallen.”
Anglin said there was concern that one of the infected students had been on the field during the game, potentially exposing players on both teams to the virus. He said efforts are made to avoid just that scenario, but that school officials had no indication there was a problem when the football team loaded buses to travel to the jamboree at Perry Central.
“The truth is that the player in question didn’t see much action in the game and spent most of his time on the sideline wearing a facemask,” Anglin added. “We check their temperatures regularly and he didn’t have a temperature when he got on the bus and wasn’t showing any other signs or symptoms of the virus.”
Along with cancellation of classes on campus comes the cancellation of extracurricular activities, including football and volleyball. Three football coaches are among the staff that have tested positive and Anglin said the Rebels football team will miss at least two games, but should be able to return to the field for the Sept. 25 game against Salem, which ironically is the school’s Homecoming. While he understands and appreciates the value of high school sports to the student-athletes, the school and community as a whole, Anglin said the overall health and safety of the students and faculty at the school take priority.
Anglin said that while school board members were notified and consulted, the decision to send students home was made by him and his leadership team at the school. He added that he understands that some in the community might disagree with the decision.
“These things develop in such a fast-paced way that you have to make decisions in a hurry based on the best information that you have readily available,” Anglin said. “Some people may be upset and criticize the decision, but I would suggest that they don’t have all the information available that we do.”
“Transportation, extracurricular activities, nutrition programs, etc. all have to be considered. It is just a lot that goes into these decisions. They aren’t made on a whim.”
Anglin acknowledged what many in the field already understand in that the 2020-2021 school year is going to be a very tough year for school teachers and administrators as they attempt to navigate the pandemic while continuing to educate children.
“And, not just that, this is going to be very hard on parents and families,” Anglin added.
Along those lines, school officials encourage parents and guardians educate themselves on the symptoms and signs of infection from the virus and to keep a close watch on their students for those indicators. They also ask that school officials be notified if a student does become sick so they can better plan for a safe return to campus.
According to a report in Mississippi Today, Mississippi now has more than 1,200 students, teachers and support staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 since students began returning to campus in August.
And, it isn’t just the schools. According to reports, the fourth-highest infection rate per capita in the nation since the pandemic began now belongs to Mississippi. And, the state has now surpassed northeastern states such as New Jersey and New York that had big surges early in the pandemic, but have since tapered off.
Mississippi is now only behind Louisiana, Florida and Arizona for cumulative cases per 100,000 people.
As of Thursday, Perry County had 333 confirmed cases of the virus with 11 related deaths. The number of cases will climb significantly when the data from the school outbreak is calculated.