By LEAH WILLINGHAM Associated Press/ Report for America
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — When given the choice between virtual and in-person learning, Joel Barnes decided to send his four kids back to the classroom in northeastern Mississippi in late July.
Barnes said he thought he was making the best possible decision for his children’s education; he imagined them getting one-on-one instruction from teachers, learning and socializing with other kids for the first time in months.
But now, less than two weeks into the academic year, the Corinth School District has already experienced an outbreak and Barnes is starting to regret his choice.
At least eight students and one teacher in the district recently tested positive for COVID-19, prompting more than 120 students who elected for in-person classes to be quarantined for the next 14 days, including Barnes’s son. Barnes picked up his son from Corinth High School early on Thursday upon receiving a call from the Corinth schools administration.
His kids will now be spending their school days back at home.
“We expected there to be some cases of COVID, but we’re honestly surprised that it happened so quickly and has spread to so many so rapidly,” Barnes said. “Now, It’s taken off — it’s almost to the point of wildfire.”
As students return to in-person classes across the country, districts like Corinth are already seeing the impact of the coronavirus on their communities. A middle school teacher and assistant high school football coach in Lafayette County died on Thursday after Superintendent Adam Pugh said the teacher self-quarantined with coronavirus symptoms. Nacoma James began quarantining a week ago after working with student-athletes throughout the summer, and was tested for coronavirus, although Pugh said Thursday he did not know the results of that test.
James’s death is an immeasurable loss for the community, Pugh said.
“He was a very likable young man – just a pleasure to be around. I still remember as a seventh-grader that smile he had,” said Pugh, who said James was his student in Lafayette County when he first began teaching around 30 years ago. James also coached Pugh’s son in football.
“It was a hard punch to my stomach, when I heard,” Pugh said, of James’s death. “He will be missed.”
Pugh said the district has completed an investigation to see if anyone in the community could have been exposed to the virus while working with James over the summer. When James worked with his student-athletes, the group was always socially distanced and met outside, where there is a lower transmission rate, Pugh said. Lafayette returned to in-person last week, while James was quarantining.
Many parents say potential exposure to coronavirus was part of a calculated risk they were willing to take when they decided to send their kids back to in-person school.
Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi’s state health officer, said sending kids back to school in-person is a “frightening experiment.” However, he said so far school officials have handled it in the best way districts can — they’ve kept the public informed about new cases, completed contact tracing investigations and told students who might have been exposed to quarantine.
Barnes said it’s gotten to the point where he’s worried about his health. He was in a severe car accident three years ago that required him to spend weeks on a hospital ventilator. He has lung and nerve damage, and he’s worried about getting the virus.
“In hindsight, we wish we’d gone virtual from the start,” he said.
Corinth parent Kimberly Kilpatrick-Kelley said she has been keeping her middle schooler and high schooler at home because she anticipated that if schools opened, outbreaks would happen.
“I told my mom I didn’t give it a month and there would be positive outbreaks, and as you see it was the first week,” she said. “I really think the officials need to re-evaluate the situation.”
She said she spends a lot of time worrying about the kids and the teachers who are still there. She feels glad she made the decision she did.
“My kids’ health and well-being are too important to risk it, in my opinion. I mean, why take the chance?'” she said. “I would rather keep my kids out of harm’s way, than to take a chance of them losing their life in the worst-case scenario.”
The Health Department said Friday that Mississippi, which has a population of about 3 million, has had at least 65,436 reported cases and at least 1,848 deaths from COVID-19 as of Thursday evening. That’s an increase of 1,036 confirmed cases and 23 deaths from numbers reported the day before.
The true number of virus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested and studies suggest people can be infected without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.