The NOLA Public Schools district's reopening plan for schools. (NOLA Public Schools)

The NOLA Public Schools district released its “roadmap to reopening” Wednesday detailing how it plans to open schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic this fall, including prioritizing the full-time return of the city’s youngest students to campuses first.

“As a system of schools, we have prioritized in-person learning whenever possible, especially for our youngest learners in grades Pre-K to 4th grade,” schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wrote in a letter introducing the 17-page document

In a stricter measure than what the state is recommending — but following the lead of city officials — nearly all students will be required to wear masks, with limited exceptions. Hand washing, spaced out desks, and small groups will also be the norm when schools reopen in early to mid-August.

The unprecedented three-month statewide closure of schools, due to rising cases of COVID-19 in March, left schools scrambling to put together remote learning plans, equip students with internet access and computers and find a way to feed them. The state managed to “flatten the curve” significantly during a statewide stay-at-home order. But it is now in its second phase of reopening the economy, and cases are once again on the rise

“I appreciate the thought and care that went into this plan that prepares for every possible scenario,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a joint press release with district leaders. “It’s imperative that we continue to work together, especially during this changing landscape, to ensure students and teachers, as well as their families, are as safe as possible this upcoming school year.”

“Requiring face coverings for staff and older children, limiting large groups and gatherings, and strict sanitation on school campuses are simple but critical steps we can take for preventing the spread of COVID-19,” City Health Director Jennifer Avegno said.

It’s not clear how the district’s guidelines will be implemented, since nearly all schools in the city are charter schools and enjoy a greater degree of autonomy than traditional, direct-run schools. 

The district only directly oversees one school, Mary D. Coghill Elementary in Gentilly Woods. Individual charter school plans, which could vary greatly based on busing and classroom sizes, are expected to be released next week, according to the district. 

The district described the document as “operational expectations,” but independent charter schools could implement variations of the district’s plan, as each charter school group has final say in how it reopens. 

Under the guidelines, if the city is in phase two when school returns, students in fifth grade through eighth grade will receive a mix of in-person and remote learning and schools with larger classrooms. High school students will attend school a minimum of two days each week. Schools can also allow students of any age with high-needs to return to in-person classes. 

Buildings may open to more students if they can appropriately space them out and remain within the state’s group size limits. In phase two, groups are limited to 25 people. That limit rises to 50 people in phase three. 

“Any family who does not feel comfortable returning to school for in-person learning will have the option to learn from home,” the document explains. Most schools will likely ask students to commit to remote learning for a quarter at a time to minimize students coming in and out. 

Transportation will likely remain a key challenge for schools. If the city is still in phase two when students return, buses will be limited to 50 percent of their manufacturer’s capacity. Limited capacity on school buses in the city’s open-enrollment city will present logistical and potentially financial challenges.

If the state or city regresses to phase one, all schools will return to remote learning and cease in-person classes. In phase three, schools will still largely operate under phase two guidelines, but additional capacity, on school buses and in classrooms for example, may allow more students to attend class in-person.

The district worked with the Louisiana Department of Education, charter groups and state and city health departments to craft the guidelines. Its plan heavily mirrors guidelines released by the state last week. A one-page explainer illustrates how city schools will operate in phase one, two and three. 

“All students and staff are required to wear a face mask/covering while in school,” the document says. 

That is a slightly harder line than the Department of Education took, only requiring masks of students in third grade and older. However, the district’s plan does state it could include exceptions for younger students “given the developmental stage of students, which may require additional flexibility, along with the use of face shields.”

Students with medical conditions, behavioral issues or other issues may be exempt from wearing masks. 

Students must use hand sanitizer when they board the bus but their temperatures will not be checked until they arrive at school. Students and staff with a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will not be able to enter the building. Schools should designate doors as entrances or exits, and mark hallways with tape to ensure students move in one direction.

Students will still be able to receive therapy services at school. The provider must wear a mask

The state has also provided guidance to schools to ensure that any students with disabilities who were adversely affected by the school closure receive special education services to ensure they meet their goals.

Read the district’s full guidelines here and one-page summary here. Additional guidelines will be released in mid-July and as otherwise necessary, district officials said.

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...