Warren Easton Charter High School in Mid-City.

City of New Orleans’ Health Director Jennifer Avegno on Wednesday said that reopening classrooms should be the city’s first priority when it comes to lifting restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. 

“Reopening schools is the only restriction we should be relaxing for the foreseeable future — when we can,” Avegno said at a press briefing. 

“Having consistently open schools is an absolute necessity to move our economy forward,” she said. “So this is a goal that unites us all and crosses every sector across our community.”

Avegno has been working with the NOLA Public Schools district and other schools throughout the pandemic. In late July, with COVID-19 case growth in the city still higher than what local public health officials said was safe for in-person school, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that the city’s public schools would begin the year remotely. Many charter schools in the district began virtual classes this week.

At the end of this month, the district and city will evaluate health data and decide whether students can return to classrooms after Labor Day. The decision ultimately falls to the school district, unless the city or state intervenes in another way.

“The metrics they’re tracking with us … are sustained cases — 14 days plus of new cases — below 50, adequate testing, and positivity rates before five percent,” Avegno said. “We are making progress. We are getting there. We need to keep it up.”

During the last three days, the city has reported between 33 and 48 cases each day. The state doesn’t report cases on Saturday, but the city had 98 new cases over the weekend. Avegno said the city has remained below five percent positivity since the beginning of August, compared to more than 10 percent for the state as a whole, possibly resulting from tighter restrictions in New Orleans than elsewhere in the state. 

Avegno didn’t specifically address other restrictions, such as closed bars and limits on group sizes. But she said school reopening should be a “slow and steady approach.” 

“If we believe that opening schools may cause more virus circulation we have to prepare for that and we have to really sustain our low levels,” she said. “It would be at least several weeks once the kids are back.”

“We can’t make the mistake of doing too much. That will jeopardize our children,” she said, noting New Orleans area hospitals are taking patients from other parts of Louisiana and Mississippi with higher infection rates and where hospital capacity is running low.

Hard data on when to reopen is hard can be hard to come by with a new virus. Avegno said other countries that opened schools after positivity was below five percent saw success. 

“There’s been unfortunately no real national standards or guidance on how to do that,” Avegno said regarding opening schools. “Or what level of outbreak it’s even appropriate to consider that.”

Schools in other parts of the country and state reopened this week, sometimes followed by a quick decision to shut down again after surging infections. One of the first districts to reopen for in-person classes in Georgia has reported 59 confirmed cases, leading to more than 900 quarantines, since last week. The district announced this week that one of its high schools would move to virtual learning as a result. In Livingston Parish, 150 students and teachers have been quarantined for two weeks after virus exposure

Most health experts agree in-person school is important to health, Avegno said, but opening too quickly can cause additional issues. 

“That cycle of open close open close is incredibly detrimental from a health standpoint, psychological standpoint and business standpoint,” she said. 

There are other factors that will come into play this month as private schools and universities reopen, she said. “We don’t know the effects of other school systems opening.”

Avegno was also asked about childcare centers, many of which remained open throughout the pandemic. 

According to the Louisiana Department of Health, 24 outbreaks at childcare centers have resulted in 85 cases across the state. While four tied to colleges and universities have resulted in 151 cases.

“Daycares don’t seem to be a large source of outbreaks. We don’t know why,” she said. “There may be differing ways in which young children are transmitting versus how middle schoolers would.”

Schools host orientations, district officials hope to get access to COVID-19 tests for reopening

At a separate press conference Wednesday, Lewis said schools were hosting orientations with parents and students this week. Some are in-person, where parents and students can pick up supplies. Others are online, where students and parents meet with teachers to learn more about virtual learning expectations and software. 

Several teachers spoke about preparing their online classrooms and learning how to use new software themselves.

At ReNEW Schaumburg, Corey Williams said teachers had been working all summer. 

“We have supplied each student and each family with a chromebook and also a digital hotspot, he said.

“This is our season,” he said. “This is our season for educators because we are essential workers.”

Thomas Wright teaches Algebra I at Hynes Charter School. 

“It’s been a learning experience for all of us. The teachers have had a little steeper learning curve to adopt but I think we’ve all risen to the occasion,” Wright said at the press conference. “Keeping student safety, as far as their social and emotional needs has been our priority.”

Lewis said the district has been working hard to support schools. 

“That’s how we’re going to get through this school year together. By working together.”

The district hopes to help provide adequate COVID-19 testing for students and school staff once schools reopen,  spokeswoman Dominique Ellis Falcon told The Lens.

“The district is working to build a comprehensive strategy for testing once schools have students return to in-person instruction on campuses,” she wrote in an email.

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...