In response to the growing number of cases of the novel coronavirus in Louisiana, the Orleans Parish School Board on Thursday approved a local emergency declaration, allowing the NOLA Public Schools district to make emergency purchases quickly. The move will allow the district to  bypass purchasing procedures and laws that normally apply in non-emergencies. 

The state and the city of New Orleans have already issued similar emergency declarations. 

The vote came as NOLA Public Schools district officials updated OPSB members on the district’s response plan, including advising schools to cancel large assemblies, preparing for school closures and tracking absenteeism citywide. 

“We are requesting the need for emergency procurement for supplies to support our schools in this crisis,” Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour told the board. 

Delcour said those needs could include nursing services at schools. 

“We anticipate the need for additional nursing support,” Delcour said. That might include checking students’ temperatures when they enter the school, she explained. 

But students may need additional support should schools close, she said. The district may need to purchase wireless internet service or devices for students to use to receive academic instruction at home. Additionally, in the event schools close, the district hopes to continue to provide them with meals at home.

“We’re looking at how we can use our yellow bus transportation and bus routes already established to distribute meals,” Delcour said. 

Board member Sarah Usdin said some local schools were having trouble obtaining cleaning supplies. Delcour said that was a problem nationwide.

One school in New Orleans closed for cleaning Thursday “out of an abundance of caution” and will remain closed Friday. The school, a charter overseen by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, does not follow NOLA Public Schools directives. A district statement issued late Wednesday said “the school’s actions are not in line with the guidelines set forth and discussed by NOLA-PS.”

In the United States, cases topped 1,200 this week and more than 30 people have died, according to the Washington Post. The majority of deaths occurred in Washington state. 

The virus has now been confirmed in 44 states and Washington D.C., The New York Times reported Thursday morning. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday. On Wednesday evening, President Donald Trump banned travel from Europe for 30 days. 

On Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health said there were 14 presumptive positive cases in Louisiana. The first case in Louisiana was reported Monday. 

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. 

School board members asked Delcour what the district was doing to determine if students had the virus or the common cold. Delcour said only people who meet certain criteria are allowed to be tested for the novel coronavirus and that determination is not made by the district.

“In a situation where there is a lack of testing, our tool is to separate sick individuals from well individuals,” Delcour said. “That’s what we’re focusing on here.”

“So if students are ill, if staff members are ill, we’re asking them to stay home,” she said. 

Delcour said schools are creating “two weeks of paper-based, back-pack home learning and plans for distance learning.”

The district will begin collecting daily student and staff absence data from all schools starting Friday. Delcour said the district is focused largely on staff absences which could create the need for substitutes or additional service contracts. 

“All schools are asked to identify key duties of positions and begin cross-training immediately, as we expect absenteeism may affect workforce more than student population,” Delcour said. 

“In the event we experience a presumptive positive in a staff, student or faculty member we do anticipate school closure for that site specific school,” she said. “We will make those decisions with the Health Department.”

Board member John Brown encouraged the district to work with schools to ensure charter schools had flexible sick leave policies so employees who may have exhausted sick time weren’t discouraged from staying home.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., acknowledging the decentralized nature of the all-charter district, “There is a difficulty in that, because those are independent organizations.”

He said the district is advising schools to review their policies. Brown asked the district to do the same for its employees.

Board member Sarah Usdin also suggested the district consider partnering with high schools and universities to ensure young students have caretakers in the event schools closed and their caretakers were ill. 

FirstLine Schools CEO Sabrina Pence said the five-school charter network is preparing to teach students online, should schools close.

“If we do have to have some type of physical closure, we do not need a learning closure,” she said. 

“The largest thing that we need from the city is assistance in wireless access,” she said.

Delcour said the district spoke with city officials this week and are working on solutions. 

Usdin urged the need for creative solutions. 

“I think this is going to be a real time of innovation and ingenuity.” 

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...