John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Amid a rise in coronavirus cases nationwide and locally, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards announced schools across the state would shut down effective Monday through April 13. The closure will affect public elementary, middle and high schools, including both traditional and charter schools. 

At a joint press conference with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell on Friday afternoon, Edwards said the order would be reevaluated as the situation develops.

Edwards’ Friday order will also ban all gatherings of more than 250 people until April 13. That section applies only to gatherings in a single space where people will be in close proximity but will not apply to regular operations of places like airports, hospitals office buildings, malls, factories or grocery stores. It does apply to religious services with more than 250 attendees.

At Friday’s press conference, Edwards emphasized that these measures are being taken to minimize person-to-person contact and, hopefully, slow the virus’ spread. As of Friday afternoon, Louisiana had 36 presumptive positive cases, most of them New Orleans residents.

Edwards and Cantrell both acknowledged the strain closed schools could put on working families, but said the closure was necessary. Edwards said timing was key.

“What we didn’t want to happen was for school districts to start making the decision to close without adequate notice,” he said. “We made sure that people had the weekend to make the best possible arrangement they can make for their school children.”

“Of all the decisions that I made today … this was the one that was toughest to make,” he said.

Cantrell said her team was keeping childcare in mind.

“Right now there is no coordinated effort I can report to you right now, but know those conversations are being had and we are laser-focused on the needs of all our people in the city. And childcare is one of them.”

She also said she was particularly proud of school leaders’ efforts to ensure students could continue to receive meals during the closure. Both said all Louisianans share responsibility in preventing the further spread of the virus.

“We must be responsible citizens and good neighbors,” Edwards said. “It’s obvious we’re not alone in taking these measures. … All of us are considering how to rearrange our lives to avoid unnecessary interactions.”

The order also suspends a number of state regulations on unemployment insurance, including a provision of the law that requires that benefit recipients actively look for work. The rules suspensions apply only if the recipients’ unemployment is directly related to a coronavirus-related business closure or cutback; if they are sick, isolated or quarantined; or if they are unable to get to work because their children’s school is closed or they are caring for sick relatives. And the order suspends late fees, until May 10, on driver’s license renewals and license plate expirations, if the expiration occurred on or after March 9.

OPSB approves emergency funding for closure

In a special meeting on Friday, the Orleans Parish School Board approved a $5 million allocation for “systemwide emergencies purchases” related to the coronavirus outbreak. 

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the funds would be used to support distance-learning, cleaning supplies for schools and meal distribution during the closure.

“Now we know that school is going to be out,” Lewis said. “These are things school leaders have been asking for.”

$3 million of the allocated money will be used for distance learning, which could include the provision of internet or devices to students, $1 million for sanitation and up to $1 million for meal distribution. 

“These are our best estimates,” Lewis told the board.

New Orleans charter school leaders working on plan to provide free meals during closure

Chris Hines, chief operating officer of charter school network Crescent City Schools, told The Lens on Friday that city charter school operators are finalizing a plan to continue free school meal service to New Orleans students while schools are closed. The NOLA Public Schools district is working with the group to coordinate the effort.

“A group of school leaders from across the city earlier this week recognized that a long-term closure was possible,” Hines said.

“This is most likely going to look like a combination of some school facilities being opened during designated hours,” and transportation of meals to drop-off site for students who do not live near those schools. Schools receive federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their normal meal service, which is provided to all students at low-income schools. Cantrell on Friday said federal funding had been approved for the special program during the closure.

According to Hines, the meal pick-ups and drop-offs will be available to children citywide, not just those who attend schools that are participating in the plan.

Hines said the group is still finalizing plans but expects to get the meal service up and running by the middle of next week. He said he would provide more details — including pick-up and drop-off sites — to the media and the public as soon as they are available.

“We know this is most nutritious meal of the day for many of our students,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Hender said in an interview on Friday. “This is what school leaders do. They come together to creatively problem solve for their students.”

Announcement follows string of closures, cancellations across the country

As of Friday afternoon there were 36 known cases in Louisiana, an increase of 17 from the day before. Across the nation, more than 1,700 cases have been confirmed, resulting in 41 deaths, according to the Washington Post. Scientists have found the virus can live for days on hard surfaces.

Edwards’ move follows a national trend, as of early Friday at least six states announced statewide closures and dozens of district-wide closures, including Los Angeles Unified, the second-largest in the nation. Many closures begin Monday and last at least two weeks. 

The announcement follows a string of coronavirus-related cancellations of public events this week, including parades and concerts in New Orleans. Nationally, professional sports leagues, including the NBA and NHL, have suspended their seasons. And on Friday, Louisiana’s presidential primary election was moved from next month to June 20.

This story has been updated throughout the day.

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...