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

At least 25 school employees across 19 New Orleans public school campuses have tested positive for COVID-19 over July and August, and others were placed in quarantine, according to NOLA Public Schools district email records obtained by The Lens. 

While students have not yet returned to in-person classes, at the direction of schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., some teachers and other school employees have worked on campuses across the city since late July when teacher training started at many charter networks. 

Some of those teachers have become infected with COVID-19, according to dozens of emails sent by school administrators to a dedicated district email address used to report infections. The records show that at least 27 people — including 25 school employees, one employee of a school contractor and one student — reported becoming infected to schools. Only a few of those infections  — including those at Homer A. Plessy School, Morris Jeff Community School and Hynes Charter School — had previously been disclosed to the general public. 

With some schools set to begin in-person classes in a little more than a week, that’s a problem, United Teachers of New Orleans union President Wanda Richard said.

“Before parents decide whether they should send their children back into school buildings they need to know that reporting of positive cases in every school will be transparent and public,” Richard said in a statement. “The media should not have to request these public records in order to inform the public what is happening with cases of COVID-19 in school buildings.”

She also called for the district to provide a dashboard with COVID-19 data — including case counts and persons quarantine at each campus — and update it daily. “NOLA Public Schools should start this immediately so that families and staff can make informed decisions regarding the return to in person learning in just over a week.”

The emails sometimes set off a flurry of back and forth messages, with the district often asking schools to confirm cases have been reported to the Louisiana Department of Health and inquiring how many people are asked to quarantine. In a handful of cases, positive results were not initially reported to the state and school employees asked for help with proper reporting protocol

On Friday, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis told the Lens that the district was providing training to “our school operations staff, nurses and teachers on all reporting and communications requirements.” She said the district offered trainings over the summer too.

“Schools are asked to report all cases within their school communities (all staff) regardless if those persons are currently reporting to school facilities,” Ellis wrote in an email.

As students prepare to reenter the classroom under the district’s phased reopening beginning Sept. 14, questions remain about how both schools and the state will report COVID-19 cases and who will learn about them. At the same time, the district announced that because daily case counts are rising with local university testing programs, it will instead watch for a test positivity rate below five percent, “regardless of the volume of new tests.”

How schools have responded

At least one charter group, KIPP New Orleans Schools, has offered voluntary testing for all staff, while other schools rely on staff to acquire and report their own tests. KNOS found two positive cases through their program, in one case, the test results took a week to return. Meanwhile, the district has said it is working on ensuring tests are accessible for staff and students across the city. KNOS reported infections at two of its schools: KIPP Believe and KIPP Morial.

Schools reacted in a variety of ways to positive tests, from quarantining other staff who had been in close contact with the infected individual to switching the entire school to remote instruction for two weeks. Elan Academy, a kindergarten through fifth grade school, sent all teachers home for two weeks to teach as a “precaution” after one tested positive. Another school shifted its teacher training online after a staff member tested positive for the virus.

At Hynes’ UNO campus, school nurse Ashley Corbello informed the district on Aug. 18 that nine teachers were asked to quarantine after two reported “COVID like symptoms.” Over the next week, Corbello would report three positive tests from those quarantined.

When a teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School tested positive in mid-August, the head of school asked whether he should inform the school community. The teacher had not been on campus since the spring. District Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour wrote back, “You are not required to communicate to your community if there was no contact.”

District leaders have made it clear that a single case in school likely won’t result in a school closure, but that several cases in a school could result in a classroom quarantine or possible school closure. In Jefferson Parish, one charter school had to send its entire class of first grade students home because all first grade teachers had been exposed to the virus and needed to quarantine for two weeks. 

Lewis has also made clear he reserves the right to shutter a school if they aren’t following health and safety protocols outlined by the district. District staff will inspect campuses as they begin to reopen.

At FirstLine Schools’ Live Oak campus in early August, one student’s positive case resulted in four staff members quarantining. A contractor that worked in the building also reported a positive case and that resulted in two staff members quarantining. The city’s other large charter group, InspireNOLA, has had five cases across three campuses.

New Orleans’ public school students haven’t been in schools since March 13, when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered public schools statewide to close amid a rise in coronavirus cases. Though nearby districts, such as St. Bernard Parish and Jefferson Parish, have opened the classroom to kids. 

Last week, Lewis announced the district would begin a phased approach to reopening Sept. 14 and schools would first allow pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students back on campus. Older students will continue remote learning and return to campus in mid-October if public health data allows.

The district announced Thursday it would publicly report cases on a weekly basis. 

“Yes, at this time the District intends to report cases reported to NOLA Public Schools by campus, once a week,” Ellis wrote Friday. “Those reports will commence as students return to in-person instruction on campuses.”

In a newsletter Friday, Lewis wrote that he hoped the community could relax over the holiday weekend, but asked them to stay safe. 

“With our youngest learners on the cusp of returning to classrooms in just over a week, let’s not let a long weekend of fun get in the way of the tremendous progress we’ve made in slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

Update: This story was updated with a statement from United Teachers of New Orleans’ president.

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...