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Outbreaks strand some students at home with minimal learning

RALEIGH, N.C. • Within his first week back at school after a year and a half, 7-year-old Ben Medlin was exposed to a classmate with COVID-19, and he was sent home, along with 7,000 other students in the district, for 14 days of quarantine.

Not much learning went on in Ben's home.

On some days last week, the second-grader was given no work by his teachers. On others, he was done by 9:30 a.m., his daily assignments consisting of solving 10 math problems or punctuating four sentences, according to his mother.

"It was very much just thrown together and very, very, very easy work," Kenan Medlin said.

As coronavirus outbreaks driven by the delta variant lead districts around the U.S. to abruptly shut down or send large numbers of children into quarantine at home, some students are getting minimal schooling.

Despite billions of dollars in federal money at their disposal to prepare for new outbreaks and develop contingency plans, some governors, education departments and local school boards have been caught flat-footed.

Also, some school systems have been handcuffed by state laws or policies aimed at keeping students in classrooms and strongly discouraging or restricting a return to remote learning.

The disruptions — and the risk that youngsters will fall further behind academically — have been unsettling for parents and educators alike.

The school board in Ben's district in Union County, outside Charlotte, relented on Monday and voted to allow most of its quarantining students to return to the classroom as long as they aren't known to be infected or have no symptoms. On Wednesday, the state's top health official threatened legal action against the district unless it returns to stricter quarantine procedures.

Union County school officials said they are not offering virtual instruction but are contacting parents of affected children to help them line up tutors or other help for their youngsters. One in 6 students in the mask-optional district were quarantined last week.

In the rural district of Wellington, Kansas, students got a week off from schoolwork when a COVID-19 outbreak struck. Instead of going online, the district decided to add 10 minutes to each day to make up for the lost time when it reopened on Tuesday. Masks also are required now.

Districts in Kansas risk losing funding if they offer online or hybrid learning for more than 40 hours per student per year.

In Georgia, Ware County's 6,000-student district halted schooling altogether for three weeks in mid-August. The district said it was unreasonable for teachers to have to offer virtual and in-person instruction at the same time. It also cited a lack of internet service in some rural areas.

In Missouri, the Board of Education rescinded a rule in July that allowed school districts to offer hybrid and remote instruction for months at a time. Districts that close entirely because of COVID-19 outbreaks, as eight small rural school systems have done this year, now are limited to 36 hours of alternative instruction, such as Zoom classes. After that, they have to make up the time later.

The U.S. Education Department said Tuesday that states and school districts should have policies to ensure continued access to "high-quality and rigorous learning" in the event COVID-19 cases keep students from attending school.

The Illinois State Board of Education recently passed a resolution forcing districts to make remote instruction available to quarantined students.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said laws restricting virtual instruction are short-sighted. She noted that some of these states have no mask or vaccine requirements either.

"It is just crazy because this is a pandemic still, and as much as we had all hoped that it would be over, delta has made clear that it is not over," she said.

In North Carolina, state health officials in July eliminated the requirement that districts provide remote learning for quarantining students, saying virtual options are "not supported by current evidence or are no longer needed due to the lower rates of community transmission and increased rates of vaccination."

In the meantime, parents are left with some difficult decisions to make.

Medlin said she is leaning toward pulling her two children out and home-schooling them as she did last year.

Emily Goss, another Union County parent, said she likewise is planning to home-school her 5-year-old kindergartener after he was put under quarantine six days into the school year with no remote learning option in place.

"He's supposed to be playing outside, riding bikes and learning how to make new friends, and he's wondering what's going to happen to him. That's not how childhood is supposed to be, and it's just heartbreaking," she said. "We can't do this all year."

State economist refutes politicians’ claim that Mississippi cannot afford Medicaid expansion

The most common refrain of prominent Mississippi elected officials who have long rejected the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — that the state cannot afford the costs of the program — was refuted this week by the state’s leading economic expert.

State Economist Corey Miller, a researcher employed by the state’s public university system, released a comprehensive report this week showing that expanding Medicaid would effectively pay for itself and the state would incur no new expenditures.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government would cover 90% of the health care costs related to expansion, while Mississippi would have to cover 10%. The economists found that the 10% state match would be more than covered by health care-related savings to the state and new tax revenue generated.

Two of Mississippi’s most prominent elected officials — Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn — oppose Medicaid expansion, repeating that the state cannot afford the costs. But this week’s research directly refutes their claim for Mississippi, one of just 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid.

“Based on our estimates of the costs and savings associated with Medicaid expansion, Mississippi could enter Medicaid expansion in 2022 and incur little to no additional expenditures for at least the first decade of expansion,” Miller and senior economist Sondra Collins wrote in the report.

What’s at stake, the researchers found, is providing health care coverage to between 228,000 and 233,000 Mississippians who are not currently insured. This estimate primarily includes Mississippians who politicians often refer to as the “working poor” — people who are employed but cannot afford health insurance.

Mississippi, if leaders chose to expand Medicaid, would have to foot a bill between $186 million and $207 million from 2022 to 2027, the researchers found. But cost savings to the state in several other areas — most significantly from reductions in uncompensated care costs that the state’s hospitals must currently cover — would more than offset the costs to the state in at least the first 10 years of expansion, the research found.

The report was released this week, as there’s more incentive than ever to expand Medicaid. In addition to covering 90% of the costs, the federal government would provide Mississippi an additional $600 million to expand Medicaid under recent legislation passed by Congress. Mississippi lawmakers would have virtually no limitations on what they could spend that money on.

READ MORE: Mississippi chamber of commerce mulling Medicaid expansion

In addition to the health care benefits, the researchers showed that expansion would be an economic boon to the state, creating almost 11,300 jobs a year between 2022 to 2027. A majority of these jobs would be added in the health care and social assistance sector.

Medicaid expansion would also increase the state’s gross domestic product (GDP) each year between about $719 million and $783 million, and it would increase the state’s general fund revenue by about $44 million per year. That added revenue would come primarily from an increase in individual income tax collections, the researchers found.

Additionally, Medicaid expansion would also increase the state’s population by about 3,300 to 11,500 new residents per year between 2022 and 2027. This is notable given that Mississippi was one of just three states in the U.S. to lose population between 2010-2020.

Similar reports from economists in recent years have not moved several prominent elected officials. Reeves, an ardent opponent of Medicaid expansion, will not hear a question about expanding without quickly using the term “Obamacare” and promising to never support it.

Gunn is also among prominent leaders to reject talks of Medicaid expansion.

“I am not open to Medicaid expansion,” Gunn said at the end of the 2021 legislative session in April. "I don’t see Medicaid expansion as something that is beneficial to the state of Mississippi. I just don’t think the taxpayers can afford it. That is what it boils down to is the taxpayers. It is their money. I just don’t have taxpayers calling saying we want you to raise taxes so we can expand Medicaid.”

Gunn argued that the “most sick, those who are the poorest” have health care coverage now. He said expansion is “to bring in another class of citizens who are not in the lowest category. This would be the next tier up. I just do not think we can afford it.”

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann is open to considering some version of Medicaid expansion, though he will not refer to it by that term. The Senate, under Hosemann’s leadership, plans to hold hearings on the issue in October.

“We are working on making healthcare more accessible and affordable in Mississippi,” Hosemann said in July at the Neshoba County Fair. “The time for simply saying ‘no’ to our options for working Mississippians has passed. When a cancer diagnosis can bankrupt a family, we have a responsibility to help. Further, no Mississippian should be further than 30 minutes from an emergency room.”

READ MORE: Could lawmakers horse trade on income tax cut, Medicaid expansion?

The post State economist refutes politicians’ claim that Mississippi cannot afford Medicaid expansion appeared first on Mississippi Today.

A Poodle for Piper: Make-A-Wish grants a Vardaman girl's wish (copy)

VARDAMAN • Piper Livingston has had quite a journey in her six years; now she has a new companion for that journey thanks to Make-A-Wish Mississippi.

Livingston was born with Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), a disease that affects the blood flow through the heart and lungs.

“She was born with TOF and by 3 years old, she was in heart failure,” said Piper's mother, Ashton Pettit. “We got transferred from Jackson to Memphis, to Le Bonheur. We were there 115 days before Piper got her new heart. We were there maybe a month after her getting her new heart and then we came home.”

However, the problems were far from over.

“We were home maybe a few months after that, and she developed cancer in her stomach from the transplant. She quit taking treatments in December of last year, and she's been doing wonderful since.”

Although her health has improved since then, Livingston’s ordeal earned her a referral to the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

During her interview, which was carried out by Houston Alderlady Shenia K. Jones and Houston Assistant City Clerk Barbra Buggs, she asked for one thing above all else.

“I want a Poodle!”

So, Make-A-Wish and the volunteers set out to make that happen.

It all came to fruition last week, at a reception specially planned for her. Piper was gifted with her very own Poodle.

Livingston’s face lit up with joy when she saw that furry face looking back at her. She immediately latched on to her new friend and the Poodle did the same, greeting Piper with kisses. It was like the two were meant to be united.

“It is good!” said Piper when asked what she thought of her new puppy.

The challenge then became giving the new member of her family a name.

After some thought, however, Piper decided on a name ... Sky.

“It was just in my brain,” she said when asked how she came up with the name.

The community showed up in support of Piper, lining Main Street in Vardaman to wave as her parade passed by. Livingston’s family appreciated the show of support.

“It warmed all of our hears to be able to do this and to maker her wish come true,” Pettit said.

Livingston also received a meal of her choice — she went with pizza, chicken strips and cupcakes — and gifts to help with her new puppy, such as leashes, a collar, shampoo, chew toys and various other dog-related items.

While Make-A-Wish fulfilled the wish, the nonprofit’s organizers credited Livingston’s family for the reveal’s success.

“Shenia and Barbra met with Piper's family and kind of figured out what she wanted and she talked through it and decided that she wanted a wish, so it was really all Shenia and Barbra that planned the whole thing,” said Abbie Kate Hancock, Development Director for the North and Delta Territories of Make-A-Wish Mississippi. “They got the fire department here and the police department here and they made it happen.”

Hancock said Livingston’s wish was the organization’s first of the new fiscal year. Last year, Make-A-Wish Mississippi granted 64 wishes.

“We are really excited for Piper to be our first wish,” Hancock said.

Buggs and Jones, as mentioned were responsible for interviewing Piper and her family, and this is a crucial step in the process, however, they were also responsible for another aspect that is just as important.

“We get to do the fun part,” said Buggs. “All we do is make sure that the reveal goes well. We try to make it just so exciting, with all the whistles and bells, and the sky's the limit. This is what makes today real special. To me, it's the biggest part of Make-A-Wish, the reveal.”

Piper ran around the venue playing with her new puppy and it sealed the occasion, friends for life, united through the kindness of others.