More than 20,000 students in Mississippi are in quarantine from exposure to the coronavirus, accounting for about 5 percent of the state's public school pupils, according to state data.
As infection rates increase throughout the country because of the highly transmissible delta variant of the coronavirus, the state has been hit particularly hard since students returned to classes Aug. 9.
There were 20,334 students in quarantine after the first week of school, which ended Friday, according to data from the State Health Department.
During that week, 4,521 students also contracted the coronavirus, bringing the total of students who have tested positive since the beginning of August to 5,933, the health department reported.
Teachers and staff members from the 803 schools from 74 counties that reported to the state also fared poorly.
State records show that 948 teachers and staff tested positive for Covid from Aug. 9 to Friday. A total of 1,496 teachers and staff members have contracted the coronavirus since the beginning of August. And as of the end of last week, 1,463 teachers and staff members were being quarantined because of exposure to the virus.
In Mississippi, less than 36 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, according to government data from earlier in the week.
The state epidemiologist, Dr. Paul Byers, told reporters Wednesday that the number of students who are in quarantine is "dramatic."
"When you look at a number like 20,000 students that are on quarantine in any given week, that exceeds what we've experienced ... when we were at our previous peak for the impact on the schools," he said.
Because of the high quarantine numbers among students and staff members, at least 29 schools have opted to "go virtual for a short time in order to interrupt transmission," Byers said.
Coronavirus infection rates among children ages 5 to 17 have increased sharply, Byers said, and children ages 6 to 10 account for a lot of the new cases.
"This will translate to potentially more hospitalizations of children under the age of 18. And unfortunately, we may see additional deaths," he said.
The best protection against Covid-19, Byers said, is for children 12 and over to get vaccinated along with their parents.
A teenager died from complications related to Covid over the weekend, marking the fifth death of a minor killed by the coronavirus in the state, Byers said.
The girl, Mkayla Robinson, 13, an eighth-grader, died Saturday in Smith County, said Megan Reed, her aunt.
"I found out Friday it was a positive test. And then on Saturday, she passed. She was healthy, perfectly healthy," Reed said Wednesday.
Reed, of Atlanta, last saw Mkayla in August. She said her late niece was an A student who had Ivy League aspirations and played in the school band.
"She wanted to attend Harvard," Reed said. "She was very smart, very caring, very kind. She was a nurturer. ... It's devastating to all of us."
A fundraiser for Mkayla had raised nearly $7,500 from 139 donors by Wednesday afternoon. The fundraiser's goal is $20,000.
A Facebook post from the Raleigh High School Lion Pride student band described her as "the perfect student."
"Every teacher loved her and wanted 30 more just like her," the post said. "Please pray for Raleigh Junior High, the band, and especially the family as they deal with this."
The Smith County school superintendent could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.
Gov. Tate Reeves is not mandating masks in schools; instead, he is leaving it up to school districts, NBC affiliate WLBT of Jackson reported. Reeves has criticized the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's updated policy on masks, calling it "foolish" and "harmful."
Multiple emergency field hospitals have opened in Mississippi since last week to accommodate the rising number of hospitalizations from the coronavirus. The state's only children's hospital has converted parts of its garage into a makeshift hospital. The garage's bottom floor is packed with air-conditioned tents, beds, monitors and oxygen.
The state health officer, Dr. Thomas Dobbs, said many of those racing to the hospital will be young.
Unlike earlier surges, this wave is predominately affecting younger, unvaccinated people just as classes are resuming, Dobbs said. More children are hospitalized than ever before, he said.
"Instead of seeing women bury their parents, we're seeing women bury their children," he said Tuesday. "It's a sad and heartbreaking thing."