Morris Jeff Community School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Most public schools in New Orleans will not open for in-person classes until at least September, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. announced in a virtual press conference Tuesday. Many schools scheduled to begin classes next month will now have to shift to virtual learning, rather than a hybrid, in-person and virtual model, that some had planned.

“Our plan prioritized in-person learning, unfortunately at this time the data is going in the wrong direction, indicating we can’t do so just yet,” Lewis said. “We have made the difficult decision to begin the school year in the distance learning model in August.”

The decision applies to all charter and traditional schools that operate under the oversight of the NOLA Public Schools district and the Orleans Parish School Board. (A small number of public schools in the city operate under state, rather than local, oversight.)

The announcement comes as the state and city — which had both drastically reduced growth in cases during May and early June — have since seen cases rebound. Statewide, new cases have increased at levels not seen since the early days of the crisis during the spring. Testing has increased, but the rate of positive tests has doubled since early June, according to Louisiana Department of Health data. Recent growth and positivity rates in New Orleans — an early hot spot — have been less severe than much of the rest of Louisiana over the past month-and-a-half, but they have increased in the city as well.

In-person classes may begin as early as Labor Day on Sept. 7, Lewis said, as officials, including city Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno, continue to assess cases in the city. The school district plans to reassess the data at the end of August.

Appearing at the press conference, Avegno said no other country with this level of spread has been able to successfully return students to schools.

“Our spread rate is continually above the number one, which indicates community transmission. We do not have enough testing regularly available to test students, staff, teachers in a meaningful way,” she said. “We have all agreed this level of community transmission …  could be disastrous for our students, teachers, families and health care system.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Lewis implored the city to “mask up” and consider the city’s students when deciding whether leaving the house is truly necessary to help cut down the virus’ spread so schools can reopen eventually.

“There could possibly be some other restrictions coming, but we are assessing them,” Cantrell said.

Schools are committed to continuing to offer meals, OPSB President Ethan Ashley said. Additionally, school buildings will be open to staff if they choose to work there and independent charter schools can offer special education services at their facilities.

“The expectation is that the employees of our schools will be in the school building providing those distance learning services,” Lewis said.

The majority of city schools were slated to open in early to mid-August. Gov. John Bel Edwards first closed schools in mid-March as cases began to rise in the state. 

Tuesday’s announcement comes a week after two local teachers’ unions and newly appointed Orleans Parish School Board member Grisela Jackson called for the school year to start virtually. Last week, Lewis and Avegno acknowledged school buildings may need to remain closed based on public health data. Other board members expressed similar concern, The Times-Picayune reported Sunday. An advocacy group of parents joined that call Monday.

The district joins many across the country, including Los Angeles Unified — the country’s second largest district — as officials try to better understand how children may contract and transmit the virus. A recent study out of South Korea found children 10 and older can spread the virus just as effectively as adults. On Tuesday, The Advocate reported East Baton Rouge Parish School Board was reconsidering its plans to reopen in-person and would make an announcement Wednesday.

Whether and how to reopen schools amid the pandemic has become deeply political, with arguments over in-person education, student and staff safety and mask requirements shifting toward party lines. The White House and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos pushed for schools to reopen in-person at a press conference in Tiger Stadium with Vice President Mike Pence last week as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the state and nation. Earlier, President Donald Trump demanded schools reopen, tweeting, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” 

Last week, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved minimum safety standards for schools to reopen for in-person classes. Those standards, such as reduced class sizes and school bus capacity, will greatly affect school operations. The standards were designed to be general and provide local school districts some flexibility. The state, for example, does not address at what point schools should consider closure should students or staff become infected. The district has also released a reopening plan, with details for each of the three reopening phases, but it too lacks details on what would trigger school and/or classroom closure.

“Returning to school won’t be easy — but it must become our city’s top priority,” Lewis said Tuesday.

Edwards’ announced on Tuesday that he will extend his current phase two emergency order — set to expire later this week — until at least Aug. 7. The order primarily deals with restrictions on businesses, and does not address school reopening for the 2020-2021 school year.

The state moved into the second phase of reopening in June. But as cases rose in the state, Edwards announced additional restrictions on July 11, including closing bars and limiting group sizes.

During a Tuesday press conference, reporters repeatedly asked Edwards and Assistant Secretary of Health for the Louisiana Department of Health’s Office of Public Health Dr. Alex Billioux if schools around the state should reopen on schedule for in-person classes. Billioux said it was too early for him to make a recommendation, adding that decisions on schools will not be left up to the Department of Health.

Edwards, meanwhile, said he is not planning on issuing another statewide order on schools, saying he will leave the decisions up to individual districts.

Lewis was also asked about attendance and whether the school year could be extended. He said the state superintendent had not waived instructional minute requirements and that schools will be taking attendance daily. 

Avegno also addressed private schools.

“That’s a personal question because I have children in all three school systems,” Avegno said, noting the Catholic school system spans eight parishes. 

“They have all of the same metrics and data,” she said. “There are definitely some arguments to be made in terms of consistency in starting the school year together and using that data in the same way.”

She said the school systems are communicating with one another. “There’s a lot of desire to want to work together for all of our schools.”

Update: This article was updated with additional information from the NOLA Public Schools press conference and Mayor LaToya Cantrell, as well as Gov. John Bel Edwards’ announcement that he will be extending his phase two emergency order into August.

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...