UPDATE: On Friday, March 13, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that all Louisiana public schools will close on Monday, March 16, and remain closed until April 13.

A charter school in New Orleans is closing its doors for the rest of the week after the nonprofit’s board president told parents in an email they received notice of a “possible community exposure” to coronavirus related to someone at the school. 

The novel coronavirus affecting the nation and the world has risen to 13 presumptive positive cases in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Wednesday evening. Late Wednesday, city officials announced multiple cases were tied to an Uptown retirement home.

In an email late Wednesday, Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans board president Lisa Tropez-Arceneaux wrote that the school would close Thursday and Friday “out of an abundance of caution.”

“We have received notice of an unconfirmed but possible community exposure to the coronavirus not due to international travel. Out of an abundance of caution, and for the safety of our students, families, and staff, tomorrow and Friday (3/12 and 3/13) our school will be closed. We will communicate more details as soon as available,” she wrote in an email to parents co-signed with school CEO Marina Schoen.

In the United States, cases topped 1,000 this week and more than 30 people have died, according to the Washington Post. The majority of deaths occurred in Washington state. 

Unlike the flu, which typically impacts both the very old and very young the most, children have been much less seriously affected by coronavirus. The elderly, however, are at high risk for complications from the virus. 

The virus has now been confirmed in 38 states and Washington D.C., reports the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump banned travel from Europe for 30 days

The concerns in New Orleans’ schools came following a weeklong Mardi Gras break in which many families and school employees choose to travel. At least three schools in the city had staff and students self-quarantine after traveling abroad to high-risk countries during that break. The district held a meeting with school leaders two days after employees and students returned to school. 

Lycée officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Wednesday, including an inquiry on whether the potentially exposed individual was a student or staff member.

District response 

New Orleans’ unique school district is made up of independent charter schools that have the freedom to decide who to hire, as well as decisions like choosing curriculum and setting school calendars, including cancellations. A state law does allow the district to intervene in cases of emergency to close schools.

Lycée is one of a handful of charter schools in the city under the oversight of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Most charters are authorized by the NOLA Public Schools district. Generally, state-run charters adhere to district advice, but the chain of command for the two types of schools is different. 

In a press release late Wednesday, NOLA Public Schools announced its schools would remain open. 

“Recently, Lycee Francais of New Orleans announced that it will close for two days after an unconfirmed potential community exposure.  Lycee Francias of New Orleans is a BESE authorized charter school and the school’s actions are not in line with the guidelines set forth and discussed by NOLA-PS.  Currently all schools under NOLA-PS are remaining open,” the statement read. 

“Any closure decisions will be made in-line with the CDC’s guidance and recommendations from local and state health agencies.”

At a city council committee meeting Wednesday, NOLA Public Schools officials detailed their plans to respond to confirmed cases in school communities. Their presentation included specific action steps for schools. 

Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said at the meeting that the district had been focusing on ‘social distancing,’ or discouraging public contact between individuals to limit transmission, and encouraged self-quarantining for any faculty and staff who had traveled to high-risk countries for two weeks. A handful of city schools, including Lycee, had staff who were staying home for those reasons. 

“As we move forward we are now focusing on how to react to positive cases,” Delcour said. 

In these cases, Delcour said, the district would work with the city and state health departments to make a decision on school closure. If schools close, that would likely require plans for distance learning, or working from home, which means schools must consider who has access to devices and the internet. 

Should schools close, Delcour said the district also has a public access television channel that could be utilized as one option in delivering lessons. 

“We are focused on planning for potential prolonged closures — whether it be site specific or systemwide,” Delcour said. 

Schools must also establish procedures for how and when to send home students or staff members who have flu or cold-like symptoms and create plans in the event schools are closed for a prolonged period of time. Schools will have to provide those plans to the district next week. 

“We are currently monitoring absenteeism of students in families,” she said. “Beginning Friday, that report will be coming daily.”

“We are also asking schools to revise their sick leave and paid time off policies,” she said. 

In its Wednesday night release, the statement said the district “continues to work with local, state, and federal agencies and schools to plan for short-and long-term impacts of the virus, inclusive of prolonged school closure. Specifically, NOLA-PS is prioritizing planning for continued delivery of critical services, such as instruction, child nutrition, social and medical services.”

The Orleans Parish School Board will meet Thursday morning to discuss coronavirus preparations. 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...