Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district will no longer require a sustained decrease in daily new COVID-19 positive cases to determine how it will reopen for in-person classes. The change is due to expanded testing in local universities, which is expected to lead to a higher daily case count, the district stated in a Thursday afternoon release. 

Up until now, district officials have said they would need to see two or more weeks of fewer than 50 new cases per day and a test positivity rate below five percent to reopen school buildings, a metric that was endorsed by city of New Orleans Health Director Jennifer Avegno.

Now, as schools approach a phased in-person opening beginning Sept. 14, district officials say that has changed. The plan calls for the youngest students to begin first, with older students starting in October. But when officials announced those plans, they said both would be dependent on the data on infections in the city. 

“With large increases in testing it is expected that the number of new cases may increase,” the statement said. “Our focus will remain on the city’s positive test rate and ensuring that it is at or below 5 percent, regardless of the volume of new tests.”

Though only 40 new cases were reported in Orleans Parish on Thursday, the city had case counts above 50 three times this week. On Sunday, which includes results for two days, there were 168 new cases, on Tuesday 59 new cases and on Wednesday the city had 114 new cases. The city’s seven-day rolling average of new cases has crept above 50 in the last several days as well. As of Thursday, it was at 64, according to the city’s COVID-19 data dashboard.

However, its average positivity rate remained well below the 5 percent threshold, at 2.5 percent as of Thursday. 

Both Tulane University and Louisiana State University have quarantined hundreds of students since their campuses reopened. Other city universities also have students in quarantine after contact with an infected individual. The state is not currently publishing outbreak data from universities, but officials with the Louisiana Department of Health and Louisiana Department of Education are working together on a new data dashboard.

“The metrics and health data the District is monitoring takes into account the changing nature of testing and campus-based measures. We are reviewing all data consistently with the City and health officials. Case count alone is not an immediate data point to stop our current plans to reopen, given these new factors, as we have highlighted in our update today,” school district spokesman Dominique Ellis wrote Thursday afternoon. 

City spokesman Beau Tidwell said Avegno has been working closely with the state health department, Tulane and NOLA Public Schools

“There is a good deal of uncertainty around the actual trends, but we recognize this data may impact how we analyze certain COVID metrics as part of the overall picture,” he wrote in an email to The Lens. “Average cases are just one of the data points used to evaluate our current status. Once we have a better understanding of how the data is being collected and reported, the specific 50 cases/day threshold may need to be re-examined.”

Thus far, without students on campus, several staff at Hynes UNO have had to quarantine and some at Morris Jeff Community School had to quarantine after exposure as well. 

Last week schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced schools would begin a phased in-person reopening mid-month after several weeks of lower case counts and positivity rate. Pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students will return between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25. Older students will return mid-October if it is safe to do so, Lewis said. Neighboring parish school districts, like St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes, brought students back to the classroom already. 

The district also announced Thursday that it will report positive cases on a weekly basis once students are back in class. 

“Schools are required to report positive cases of COVID-19 found on their campus to the District as well as the Louisiana Department of Health as they are found,” the statement read. “We will include a round-up of any positive cases reported to us each week in these weekly press release updates once students return to in-person instruction on campuses.”

The district did not immediately respond to a question about whether that data will identify cases by school campus. 

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...