Students at 42 Charter School arrive on the first day of in-person classes since COVID-19 shuttered schools in March of 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Masked students returned to New Orleans public school classrooms Thursday, six months after the COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered public schools in March

In the Seventh Ward, McDonogh 42 Charter School students were welcomed by teachers and staff in masks, plastic gloves and face shields. Educators’ friendly voices carried through their layers of personal protective equipment to greet students donning brightly patterned face coverings and waiting to have a touchless thermometer pointed at their foreheads. 

New Orleans public schools started virtually in August. But amid improving data on the city’s rate of infection, the NOLA Public Schools district allowed pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students back to campus this week. Older students remain at home to learn online and can return to campus in mid-October if health data allows.

The return to in-person learning was delayed by three days when Hurricane Sally threatened New Orleans earlier this week. 

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. was on hand at McDonogh 42 Charter School, which is run by the InspireNOLA Schools charter network. Lewis and Inspire CEO Jamar McKneely said they were thankful that New Orleanians were able to help control the spread of the virus and allow schools to reopen. 

“We’re excited. Today is truly a great day,” Lewis said, noting students had already been in school for about a month. 

“It’s not like as they see their teacher today, that it’s going to be the first time. They’ve had orientations and also been able to see their teachers in virtual learning,” Lewis said. “So this is just another process along the way as we work through these trying times.”

This will remain a “fluid year,” Lewis said, noting the dual safety concerns of hurricane season and an ongoing pandemic. But now that the storm has passed, young students are expected to continue to return to class in the coming week. As part of the phased reopening, charter schools were given a window of this week and next week to begin in-person classes.

Twelve schools opened for in-person class this week, NOLA Public Schools Chief School Support and Improvement Officer Dina Hasiotis said during an Orleans Parish School Board committee meeting Thursday afternoon. Others have decided to wait to start until next week. 

McKneely said his staff have been working to make sure students are comfortable at the school despite some new rules. He said roughly 55 percent of pre-kindergarten through fourth at 42 Charter School are back in class, the others will continue to learn online. 

“I think a lot of families are waiting to see how today goes, to even feel more confidence to actually return so it was important for them to see it,” he said. “Although we’re in different times, school can be the same place.”

District plans to publish data on cases connected to schools

Districtwide, Lewis said roughly 38 percent of families opted to continue learning from home. 

After teachers and staff returned to school, emails show at least 25 staff had a positive test across 19 schools. The district has specific outlines, which require “close contacts” — anyone within six feet of a known infected person for more than 15 minutes — to quarantine for two weeks. 

“Just because there may be a case at a school does not mean an entire school will shut down. It does not mean we are going to have a system-wide closure,” Lewis said Thursday. “We are leaning heavily on our roadmap, the New Orleans Health Department and our medical advisor.” 

District officials have said they will publish case data, broken down by campus, when students return to class. Late last month, the Louisiana Department of Health  removed its limited data on schools and universities. It has since brought it back for K-12 schools that have enrolled in its reporting program. When the new system rolled out, only 389 schools — 25 percent of public K-12 schools in the state — were enrolled. In its first week, the system reported 59 cases.

Enrollment in the system has since increased. By mid-day Thursday, LDH was reporting 256 cases among 948 enrolled schools. About one-third of those cases were in staff, the rest were from students. The published data only include those numbers and do not show which schools or school districts have reported the cases. 

‘He’s got a Minecraft mask, so he doesn’t mind wearing it’

Young students return to Plessy Community School for the first day of in-person classes in six months after the pandemic shuttered schools.

At Plessy Community School in the French Quarter, which also started Thursday, the scene Thursday was a bit more relaxed. A brass band played on the front lawn of the historic school, formerly the McDonogh No. 15 School. Educators wore face masks and students’ temperatures were taken with a wall-mounted thermometer, rather than the pointed model. 

Plessy CEO Meghan Raychaudhuri walked up and down St. Phillip Street Thursday morning, pointing students in the right direction and fielding parent questions, while carrying a large iced coffee. “This is my second,” she said shortly before 8 a.m.

“We’re really excited to see our kids. We’ve missed them terribly for the last six months,” Raychaudhuri said. “There are definitely a lot of challenges and concerns to this school year but we feel we are following the guidelines of NOLA Public Schools and the Roadmap to Reopening.”

Parent Vatney Tate said she was OK sending her first-grader Omere back to school. 

“I feel comfortable with him going back. The decision wasn’t too hard for me to make because I work from home too and it’s been very trying, trying to do virtual school with him and trying to work,” she said. “I just feel that at his age he needs to be in a classroom.”

This is her son’s first year at Plessy but she says she’s met parents online and they had even had a playdate already so school shouldn’t be too tough of an adjustment. 

“He’s fine,” she said when asked about masking. “He’s got a Minecraft mask, so he doesn’t mind wearing it.”

As students return, teachers will be balancing the task of educating some students in-person and others online. Schools can offer “asynchronous” or “synchronous” learning — asynchronous lessons are often recorded while synchronous ones are live, like a typical classroom experience — in addition to assignments to meet the minimum educational minutes required by the state. Some schools will have students at home tune in live for class while others also record the sessions so students can watch later in the day. 

At 42 School, McKneely said returning to the classroom is a big step. 

“For us it’s important that we build some confidence in our students that we can do this. It’s important for them to understand that we can go through hard times and difficult times,” McKneely said. “That’s what today brings us, another opportunity to show our students we can rally together, we can do the right thing and we need our community to wear a mask every single day and protect each other.”

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...