An outdoor classroom at Esperanza Charter School.

People packed the French Quarter over the long Labor Day weekend, raising concerns about another potential spike in COVID-19 cases less than a week before the city’s youngest students are set to begin returning to school. 

Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office called the weekend activity “unacceptable” and “dangerous.” Cantrell, along with NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., have urged the public for weeks to follow the state’s masking law and social distancing recommendations to reduce the spread of the disease and ensure students can return to school. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards has attributed the summer second spike in cases in part to Memorial Day weekend. (Data analyst Jeff Asher examined case trends before and after Mother’s Day, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and found that the holidays didn’t change the trajectory of case counts.) Edwards is expected to announce whether the state will move to phase three of reopening as early as Wednesday. 

District leaders and educators say they are watching the data closely and will make adjustments as needed, but the district’s phased reopening that starts with returning pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students to classrooms between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25 is still on track. Older students may start to return to class in mid-October if health data supports the move.

Infection trends from Labor Day weekend won’t be clear by next week. Symptoms can take up to two weeks to develop, and test results can often lag for several days or more. 

“We are continuing to monitor the same key health indicators, along with our partners at the City, that have guided us through this process over the past several months,” NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Dominique Ellis Falcon wrote in an email Tuesday. “NOLA-PS is ready to pivot and quickly adapt … should evolving health data trends require it.”

Regarding the Labor Day crowds, Ellis said they join myriad factors the district considers.

“While there have been many factors that have impacted the community spread of COVID-19 over the past several months, events like those that took place over the Labor Day weekend are only one factor to consider, and we do not currently have cause for any change in plans,” Ellis said. “That being said we will continue monitoring the data and asking the community to stay vigilant and cautious as we prepare for a return to in-person learning.”

Just last week, the district announced that it would pivot its focus to data on testing positivity, rather than absolute case numbers. School and city officials previously called for a sustained daily new case count of under 50 in the city. That changed, officials said, because a rise in cases was coming from increased testing at local universities.

The city has long been below the district’s positivity rate target of 5 percent, according to the city’s COVID-19 data dashboard. On Monday, according to the city’s database, the seven-day rolling positivity rate was 3.1 percent. But daily case counts have recently seen a bump. The rolling seven-day new case average was 57.43 on Tuesday. 

Throughout the summer, United Teachers of New Orleans and the city’s two unionized schools have expressed concerns about returning to in-person instruction amid a pandemic.

On Monday, Morris Jeff United Educators, the union at Mid-City’s Morris Jeff Community School, released a Labor Day statement honoring former labor organizers in the city and stating there is still work to be done.

“We know this fight is far from over. As we look at our city, we see a teaching force employed at will, overworked, underpaid and fearful that using their voice could cost them their jobs,” it read. “We see educators and students being put in harm’s way by a system rushing to return to in-person schooling.”

UTNO was critical of the district’s failure to publicly disclose many of the cases at 19 schools among staff as teachers have returned to campuses over the last six weeks. The district said it plans to update the public weekly once students return to the classroom. State data on COVID-19 infections at schools disappeared from the Louisiana Department of Health’s website last week as universities started welcoming students back on campus. Officials say school data will return to the site.

Staggered Starts

Schools are taking different approaches to the start of in-person learning, with many campuses introducing one or two grade levels per day over several days. 

FirstLine Schools is scheduled to be one of the first networks out of the gate, bringing third and fourth graders back on Sept. 14 and younger students in the following days. 

FirstLine CEO Sabrina Pence said the decision to start right away was for families. 

“We certainly have different families that want different things,” Pence said. “Some families need in-person instruction and some want to continue virtual instruction and I think one of the things we like to do while also keeping everyone safe is to meet the needs of our families.”

“We know our youngest kids are struggling in the digital space so we’re wanting to make sure they can get as much in-person time for the sake of learning,” she said. 

She estimates about 50 percent of students are coming back to campuses, while the others will continue to learn from home. That number varies at each of the charter group’s five elementary schools. 

Asked whether she had concerns over Labor Day crowds, Pence said the network is in constant contact with the city and district regarding health data. 

“I think every data point related to COVID is always a concern,” she said. “Our number one goal is always safety. We are in touch with NOLA Public Schools who is working with the city who is focused on the positivity rate.”

“We really trust our city to make good decisions,” she said. “We’re in touch with them all the time.”

At Crescent City Schools, CEO Kate Mehok said the network is waiting until the last day to restart for a few reasons. She praised the district allowing schools to pick their start date. 

“First, we wanted to make sure we had developed some good habits in our kids on virtual learning because we anticipate we could have to do that again,” Mehok said in an interview Tuesday. “The second reason was we knew it would take a while to route buses and build schedules around both virtual and in-person learning.”

Typically, most Crescent City Schools students ride the bus, but this year with some students continuing to learn at-home and others having their parents drive or walk them to school there will be fewer than normal. Finalizing bus schedules involves surveying parents, then the bus company has to create bus routes for the charter group to double-check, Mehok said. 

“Going on the back end of the window gave us enough time to have those communications with our parents,” she said. 

The state is currently in phase two, which limits class sizes and reduces bus capacity to 50 percent. 

Mehok estimates 60 percent of the networks students are returning to campus. 

Mehok said Labor Day was not a factor in starting later. (The network selected the date prior to the holiday weekend.

“The major reason was just establishing routines and just getting a few more weeks in,” she said. “And the planning that’s required so that we open well and safely for our kids.”

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...