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JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s department of health reported Monday that the state saw almost 5,000 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 over the weekend as the virus surges statewide.

That’s an increase of more than six times the number of new cases — 796 — reported three weeks ago on July 12.

“Delta surge accelerating quickly — please be safe and protect your family, allergic to prednisone help ” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs tweeted.

The state of around 3 million people has seen almost 350,000 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. The increase in new cases, predominately the highly contagious delta variant, comes as schools across the state prepare to return to the classroom for the start of classes.

Republican Gov. Tate Reeves says he won’t require students or teachers in K-12 schools to wear masks. Many schools have chosen to do so anyway.

Around a week after the board of trustees for the Oxford School District decided to make masks optional for vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff, Oxford School District superintendent Bradley Roberson announced in a letter sent out to families Saturday that masks will now be required in school.

The Oxford Eagle reports that masks for all students and staff will be required at least between Aug. 2 and Aug. 20. The district will continue to assess the situation as the school year progresses. Teachers returned to their classrooms on Monday. Students start school on Friday.

“As education leaders, we have all seen the negative impact last school year has had on student learning which is why an overwhelming majority of districts across our state have been determined to open schools with as much normal school operations as possible,” Roberson wrote in his letter. “Unfortunately, in recent days we have learned from some of our district friends from around the state who have already started school that a normal return may not provide us with the best opportunity to keep kids in school.”

Districts like Gulfport School District and Jackson Public School District are requiring masks. The issue is more contentious in other districts, however.

A Lowndes County School District board meeting last week was attended by protestors holding signs that read, “Mask Choice,” “Masks Optional” or “Our Bodies, Our Choice.”

The board voted 4-1 during that meeting to make masks optional. Superintendent Sam Allison said the district will require mask-wearing on buses and will “strongly encourage and have masks available” for unvaccinated students and staff in school buildings.

“We can debate mask wearing, but I don’t want to do that,” said Allison, according to the Commercial Dispatch. “We’re going to start the year with no requirement. Hopefully, we’ll continue to be safe and healthy.”

At the meeting, board members dictated a requirement of a 10-day quarantine at home if unvaccinated members of the school community are exposed to the virus. They also have the option of remaining at school, but they must take a negative rapid test every two days for 10 days.

Vaccinated students who come in close contact with someone who tests positive do not have to quarantine, unless they have symptoms.

The rule angered some parents in the crowd, who said unvaccinated and vaccinated children shouldn’t be treated differently. Some also expressed concerns about finding child care if their children was forced to quarantine.

Valerie Riley, who held the “Our Bodies, Our Choice” sign, said her children would not be vaccinated or tested for the virus.

“I refuse to get something stuck up my child’s nose just so they can come back and be educated,” Riley said, according to the Dispatch. “My kids should not pay the price for not being vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs Jr. released a statement Monday that he would be quarantining for the next five days while sick with the virus.

“After being administered two COVID-19 tests, the first of which was negative, my physician has confirmed that the second test was positive,” he said.

Flaggs said he is “looking forward to a quick recovery” and that he plans to return to work in a week. Vicksburg is a city of around 22,000.

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