NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and city of New Orleans Health Director Jennifer Avegno said at a Tuesday morning press briefing that school buildings in the city may remain closed if the state is still in “phase two” of reopening when schools are scheduled to return from summer break in early to mid-August. 

“It is important to note that we may have to keep buildings closed” depending on health data, Lewis said. “We are reviewing that data now and plan to make an announcement next week.”

The district had hoped to prioritize the return of pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students to in-person classes during phase two. But with COVID-19 cases rising across the state and country, district leaders said Tuesday they can’t yet commit to that, stressing the situation was “fluid” and the district may have to “pivot” at any point. 

Avegno said that city and school district officials will meet next week to “reassess.”

“As we’ve said before, the virus sets the timeline,” Avegno said. “Not only for schools, but all other activities we care about.”

The direction that infection and hospitalization data have taken over the past several weeks indicates that it’s very possible the state could remain in phase two into August. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards ended a statewide stay-at-home order in May, moving the state into the first phase of reopening. As infections dropped throughout the state that month, Edwards moved into phase two in early June. After that, however, infections began increasing across Louisiana, and in late June, Edwards has extended phase two another 28 days. With the end of that extension order fast approaching, and infection rates not seeing a significant improvement, Edwards on Saturday announced a statewide face covering mandate and reshuttered bars, which had only been newly allowed to open — at reduced capacity — in phase two. 

Even if the state moves into phase three next month, it’s possible that the city of New Orleans — which has taken a more cautious approach to reopening than the rest of the state — could remain in phase two. 

Whether schools open their doors or not, New Orleans students will have the option to learn online, Lewis said. 

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will set minimum health standards at a meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. 

Face coverings — which are, for now, required in businesses and public buildings for anyone over the age of eight as part of Edwards’ executive order effective Monday — are a point of major political contention in the state and around the country. 

BESE’s draft language stops short of a mask mandate. It appears to offer schools some flexibility, saying children older than eight and adults inside a school building “must wear a face covering to the greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context.” However, If the governor’s mask mandate remains in effect during school reopenings, it will take precedence over BESE standards.

But the Orleans school district’s guidelines require everyone to wear them. Lewis said masks have been purchased for schools and that the district will enforce safety standards at its charter schools. Lewis also said the district has purchased masks, thermometers, hand sanitizer and face shields that will go to schools.

The White House and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have pushed for schools to reopen in-person. With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Louisiana and across the nation, schools — and how to reopen them — have become highly politicized across the country. President Donald Trump demanded schools reopen, tweeting, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” 

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers has demanded all staff and students wear masks to return to school. Attorney General Jeff Landry wrote to Brumley last week and urged him not to mandate masks in schools, according to The Advocate. On Tuesday, The Advocate reported Landry had tested positive for COVID-19. 

In a statement released Monday night, the teacher and staff union at Morris Jeff Community School, the Morris Jeff United Educators, requested that school begin online.

“In-person schooling presents numerous and serious safety risks to students, faculty, and their families,” it said. “Therefore, we urge school, city, and state leaders to move to a distance learning model for the beginning of this school year and delay the start of in-person school until it is safe to do so.” 

In northwestern Louisiana, Webster Parish has delayed the start of school until Sept. 1. 

On Monday, several major school districts across the country, in Los Angeles, San Diego and Atlanta, announced they will begin school online. Many others, including New York City — the nation’s largest school district — are planning to offer hybrid plans. 

Asked what would trigger a school closure, Avegno said “That’s the million dollar question.” 

“It’s going to have to be the totality of circumstances,” she said, noting case count, testing and positivity rate.

Avegno said she is not aware of any outbreaks from summer camps, which reopened in limited capacity in late May and early June. Though children are accounting for a portion of cases.

“We definitely are seeing young children, under 10, infected. Not at the rate of adolescents,” she said. 

Often young children are asymptomatic, she said, which while nice for the child can allow them to spread the virus to others. “We are seeing entire families infected when maybe only one family member had symptoms.”

Asked if she would allow her kids to go back to school, Avegno said ideally kids should be in the classroom. 

“Three weeks ago, I would have said no question. Now, we have to look at the trends.”

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...