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COVID & kids in Shelby County: School mask mandate reaction from the front line

27% of Shelby County's population is under 18, and child COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Beginning Monday, every child in Shelby County attending a daycare, preschool, and elementary school all the way through senior year in high school will be required to wear a mask. The universal masking includes both kids in public and private school.

Friday, the Shelby County Health Department amended its most recent directive making the change. It also requires all teachers, staff, parents, and visitors to wear masks on school grounds - whether they are vaccinated or not. 

The mask mandate comes as the number of juvenile cases in Shelby County are rising at at an alarming rate. The health department announced this week one out of four cases are children, and about 1,000 Shelby County children contracted the virus in the past two weeks. Hospitals are filling up.

At MC Learning Center in South Memphis, a sign warns people they need to mask up if they are coming inside. 

"I don’t let the parents past the front door. I have masks available for parents, kids, and the staff as well," said Arnita Brooks, daycare owner.

Brooks said with so many little ones' lives on the lines, she supports the new mask mandate for everyone at daycares, preschool, and schools.  

Brooks said the rising COVID rate in children is scary, and making everyone mask up will hopefully help.

"It may slow it down. I’m not going to say it’s going to stop it, but may slow it down. But we have to be careful and mindful of our kids," said Brooks.

According to the Urban Child Institute's published data, there are about 200,000 children in Shelby County under the age of 14 - which means a large percentage of our population is not eligible to be vaccinated.

RELATED: Shelby County Health Department now requiring masks at all schools, preschools, daycares, regardless of vaccination status

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Doctor's offices and hospitals have seen a large influx of patients. However, Dr. Michael Holder, the Medical Director of Baptist Children's Emergency Room, said the current children's COVID-19 cases are different than in the past.

"The children are sicker in a sense. They are having more complications than we have seen prior. They are having more pneumonia but in general. The illness is still mild - it’s still fever, cough, vomiting, flu-like symptoms, but we are seeing more children with respiratory distress, which is disheartening," said Dr. Holder.

Holder said its not that the Delta variant seeks out children, but because they are not vaccinated, they are more vulnerable to infection. Plus their immune systems may not be as strong, because they have spent a lot of time indoors since the pandemic began. Plus, he adds, the Delta variant is much more contagious than previous strains.

"You put that in a school where kids are so-so compliant with masks, so-so compliant with social distancing - you put all these factors in and you can have a very large surge," said Holder.

Holder applauded the health department's decision to require masks in schools..

As for Brooks, her daycare watches kids 12 weeks to 12-years-old. So far, she has avoided an outbreak and hopes to keep it that way.

"All I can pray is that it will slow down. But at the rate it is going I don’t think so," said Brooks.