Morris Jeff Community School began the 2020-2021 school year online with the rest of Orleans Parish public schools amid the pandemic.

New Orleans’ youngest students will return to classrooms beginning on Sept. 14, while older elementary through high schoolers will continue remote learning into mid-October at the earliest, NOLA Public Schools officials announced at a Friday press conference.

The decision came as the city has continued to see improving data on COVID-19 infections.

“For two weeks and counting we have met all the health targets we outlined in July. Daily new cases have fallen below 50 and are continuing to decrease. The positive test rate has been at or below 5 percent,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis said. “Assuming the data remains the same, we will begin our measured approach to in-person learning.”

Distance learning will be the only option until then.  Individual charter schools will determine their own opening dates between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25 and young students will return to class five days a week. All students have the option to continue virtual learning. 

Pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students will be allowed back in the classroom, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis said, noting the specific grade range is “a district order.”

Schools face a variety of challenges in bringing students back on campus during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as capacity limitations on school buses and a cap of 25 people per classroom, including teachers and teachers’ aides. 

Students in fifth grade and above will continue in virtual-only classes until mid-October at the earliest, Lewis said. But that reopening will depend on case transmission data.

City of New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno supported the decision and said it came after considering a variety of health metrics. She praised the community for following safety guidelines and helping keep case numbers down.

“This progress must be sustained for the long term — we cannot go back,” she said. “We cannot forget the guidelines that have gotten us this far.”

At a press conference last week, Lewis called recent COVID-19 data “promising” and said officials were also watching local universities to see if their return affected cases in the community. The district wants to see fewer than 50 new cases a day over 14 days and a testing positivity rate below five percent. 

Officials have said they would prioritize returning youngest students first both because in-person learning is most critical for them and because it may help alleviate child care concerns.

“We know schools are dynamic places to the whole child grow,” Lewis said Friday. “We know our youngest students have the most to gain from in-person learning, which is why we focus on getting them back into the classroom first.”

“For our little ones, classrooms provide more than just reading and doing math. They allow for social and emotional growth,” he said. “This is paramount and a challenge to translate through distance learning.”

Edwards first closed public schools statewide on March 13 as COVID-19 cases rose in New Orleans and across the state. His order was eventually extended through the end of the school year. Schools were allowed to reopen for in-person classes this month, but a handful of districts throughout the state, including NOLA Public Schools, decided to remain closed, typically citing concerns about the state’s high infection and hospitalization rates. Throughout the pandemic, the city and district have had tighter restrictions that the state.

Though the state has allowed for in-person classes, with restrictions, Edwards has thus far not allowed businesses to reopen fully. Following a stay-at-home order in the spring, he moved the state into the first phase of reopening in mid-May, and then into phase two in early June. As case counts began to rise in June and July, however, his administration repeatedly extended his phase two order, and, in early July, he modified the order to include a statewide mask mandate and limited bars to takeout and delivery service only. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has closed bars altogether in the city. 

In the face of Hurricane Laura this week, Edwards has again extended his phase two order. The category 4 hurricane slammed into Southwestern Louisiana mid-week and more than 1,700 evacuees are sheltering at hotels in New Orleans. Edwards said the storm will hamper the state’s ability to test for the virus in some areas and cited it as another reason to continue in phase two. He also cited schools reopening as a factor in his decision.

Over the summer, camps slowly began to reopen with restrictions as the city and state moved into phase two. But in late July, with cases again on the rise, Lewis and Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced that New Orleans schools would start online and remain that way through at least Labor Day. All students will be required to wear masks unless they have a medical condition, a tougher stance than the Louisiana Department of Education has taken. 

On Aug. 12, the week many schools were scheduled to open, Avegno said the only restriction the city should consider lifting in the “foreseeable future” was the school campus closure. 

In order to reopen, Avegno said the district wanted to see at least 14 days of new cases below 50 and a test positivity rate below five percent. 

At that press conference, Avegno said the city had 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. 

Meanwhile, public schools in neighboring parishes — and some private schools in the city — opened to in-person learning throughout August.

St. Bernard Parish reopened the week of Aug. 11. Jefferson Parish school officials ordered a two-week delay just two days before schools were set to open and their students will return on Monday, following contentious Jefferson Parish School Board meetings that lasted late into the evening. 

Despite Jefferson’s delay for traditional, direct-run schools, charter schools in the parish opened that week. But after only one day of classes, Discovery Schools, a large charter school network in Jefferson Parish, had to send all first graders at one school home for two weeks because all first grade teachers had to quarantine. One day later, the network decided to close both its schools through Sept. 11

A week later, in New Orleans, Hynes Charter School staff had to quarantine. And 150 students and staff at Catholic schools overseen by the New Orleans Archdiocese had to quarantine beginning Aug. 19. 

What remains unclear is to what extent students, families and staff will be made aware of positive cases at their schools. In mid-August, the state was only notifying close contacts of people exposed to someone with a positive test result. But officials were working on a way to make reported cases more publicly available while maintaining individuals’ privacy.

“We are working with LDH on a system for school-level reporting, but do not have any additional information available at this time,” Beasley said in an email Friday morning.

The district’s medical advisor, Benjamin Springgate, said the district was working with local hospitals to develop a “broad and varied strategy” to ensure students and staff who need a COVID-19 test can receive one. He said the district is also working with Tulane University to develop routine testing plan for teachers and school staff.

The city’s largest charter operator, KIPP New Orleans Schools, is offering voluntary COVID-19 testing to all staff members, spokesman Curtis Elmore confirmed in an email last week. 

“Our partners at Louisiana Academic Health are providing these services and employees are able to use their healthcare insurance to cover the cost of the test. Due to privacy concerns, we are not releasing COVID-19 testing results. All results are given directly to staff members from Louisiana Academic Health professionals.”

Officials also said the district was prepared to help Hurricane Laura evacuees.

“Please know that this district will continue to be open and provide all the resources we have available to help those families in need as we remember all the neighboring parishes, cities and states did for us 15 years ago,” Orleans Parish School Board President Ethan Ashley said.

Update: This story was updated with additional information from Friday’s press conference and comments from Dominique Ellis.

Clarification: District Spokeswoman Dominique Ellis clarified that the specific grades that will first be allowed on campuses — prekindergarten through fourth grade — is a district order.

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...