Mayor LaToya Cantrell speaking at a March 15, 2020 press conference regarding the coronavirus crisis. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Despite Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to move the state into phase three of reopening from COVID-19 restrictions, New Orleans will remain in phase two so that public schools can begin to reopen classrooms next week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced at a joint press conference with NOLA Public Schools officials on Thursday. 

“The primary reason for us staying in phase two, not moving with further easement of other restrictions, is to get our kids back in the classroom and have the time to look at the data, look at the impact and trends to determine positive or negative,” Cantrell said. “That is the priority for our city, for all of our children to have access to onsite instruction, because it is imperative to their health and our economy.”

Earlier in the day Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state would move to phase three, though details on what that would look like were not immediately available Thursday. Edwards did say, however, that his statewide mask mandate would stay in place. 

But Cantrell said the city is focused on getting all students back in class.

“Until we are at 100 percent, that is the priority,” she said. 

Pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students will return between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25 as part of the NOLA Public Schools district’s two-part reopening plan. Older students will return in October if health data supports it. The district’s public schools began remotely this year and all students have the option to continue learning online.

City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno acknowledged a small uptick recently in daily new cases, but said that other health data supports the reopening of schools. 

“This is the only restriction that warrants easing right now,” Avegno said. “Students back in school is the number one priority. … It is the greatest benefit to public health and the economy.”

Though case counts have crept above 50 per day at times, Avegno said other metrics “have remained robust,” including a positivity rate below five percent. Last week district officials announced they were focused on positivity rate “regardless of the volume of new tests.”

“So far, those cases, that rise, seems to be largely tied to testing of asymptomatic college students returning to the city,” Avegno said. “We will continue to monitor these cases to make sure we understand if these cases translate to greater community spread.”

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said youngest children “have the most to gain both academically and emotionally from in-person learning.”

He said the district is continuing to monitor health data in partnership with the city.

“We’re keeping a close watch on these, from the college students returning to the holiday weekend,” he said. 

Earlier in the day Edwards said the impacts of Labor Day and Hurricane Laura on case counts was not yet known. COVID-19 symptoms can take up to two weeks to develop and some people with the disease remain asymptomatic.

Asked about crowds on Labor Day weekend and whether she’d consider closing Bourbon Street in the evenings, Cantrell said her public safety team is looking at options, including “being more proactive.”

She also said her team was looking into whether it was possible to strip people of unemployment benefits if they receive a citation for violating COVID-19 restrictions.

“It’s my opinion you can’t receive public resources but at the same time violate public mandates to keep people safe,” Cantrell said.

Public school buildings have been closed since March 13, when Edwards ordered a statewide closure.

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. 

Meanwhile, high school athletes have been allowed to practice but contact sports aren’t allowed in phase 2. Avengo said the city was awaiting guidance from LHSAA on how it would keep students and families safe. 

The Louisiana Department of Health began reporting coronavirus data on schools this week, but only a fraction of schools are registered in the system thus far. In New Orleans, at least 25 school employees from 19 campuses had COVID-19 over the summer. 

Students will begin returning to school Monday.

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...