From September 2020, a 42 Charter School staffer gives a student a face mask on the first day students were allowed back in class since the pandemic closed school buildings six months ago. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district is reporting 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in city school staff and students, while the number of students and staff in quarantine decreased by 10 over the last week, according to a district release Thursday afternoon.

That number — 12 cases — is the same number the district reported last week, though Thursday’s report includes four newly diagnosed cases. That’s because district officials are providing only “active” confirmed cases instead of a cumulative count. 

Rich Rainey, a spokesman for the district, said that’s because they think this is the most useful “real-time information” for families and students. 

“At this time, we believe the confirmed cases that are actively within their isolation period, and quarantined cases actively within their isolation period, gives people a real-time snapshot of what’s happening in the schools,” Rainey said. 

Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said the district does not present a cumulative count and confirmed cases roll off the district’s COVID-19 dashboard at a date set by the Louisiana Department of Health upon an individual’s initial diagnosis.

“All active cases are confirmed cases, active is just a period of time in which they are included in the dashboard,” Delcour explained. 

Last week’s report showed 12 active COVID-19 cases across nine schools, resulting in 156 people quarantining. Of those 12 cases, eight were staff members and four were students. The district did not disclose whether those quarantining were staff or students.

This week, officials said the 12 cases are split evenly among students and staff across eight schools. Currently, 146 people are quarantining, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Arise Academy, where one staff case was reported last week, now has one student case too. The number of people quarantined increased from 16 to 37 at the school. Landry-Walker now has three student cases, up from two last week, and 71 people continue to quarantine due to exposure at an undisclosed extracurricular activity. 

In an effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Gov. John Bel Edwards closed school buildings statewide in March and kept them closed through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Schools across the state began reopening for in-person classes in August, but New Orleans public schools opted to delay its reopening, and then phased in students, beginning with the youngest ones.

New Orleans elementary schools reopened for in-person classes in mid-September, and last week, district staff finished safety inspections at those campuses. Officials looked for safety measures included in their guidelines, such as mask wearing, social distancing, sanitation practices and safe practices at student arrival. Asked what their major findings were, district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said guidelines were generally working.

“Our inspectors worked with staff at our pre-K – 4 school buildings and offered advice, such as ways to make the arrival process efficient and best practices to assist students showing symptoms,” Alfonzo wrote in a Tuesday email. “Balancing safety measures with the arrival process presented a challenge for many of our schools. But they did a great job quickly figuring out a new process that worked for them in an efficient and safe manner.”

High schools began opening to in-person classes this week. Most are operating on a hybrid schedule where students rotate on a daily or weekly basis between learning at home and in the classroom. 

Along with the later reopening, the city’s schools have also taken a more gradual, cautious approach to other parts of their in-person plans than what is allowed statewide, similar to what the city’s government has done under Mayor LaToya Cantrell. Cantrell kept the city in phase two of reopening for weeks after Gov. John Bel Edwards allowed the rest of the state to move into the less restrictive phase three. And the city is moving into phase three incrementally, beginning with what Cantrell is calling “phase 3.1” and “phase 3.2,” both more restrictive than Edwards’ phase three order on items like permitted indoor capacity for some types of businesses. The city is set to move into phase 3.2 this weekend. 

Likewise, NOLA Public Schools officials have adopted lower capacities for schools under phase three. Alfonzo said school leaders were involved in a decision to cap class sizes at 30 people in phase three, rather than the cap of 50 allowed by the state. In phase two, classes were capped at 25.

The largest COVID-19 case impact reported last week was due to two student cases at Landry-Walker High School that led to 71 people quarantining. The district’s inspections center on practices in the buildings, not extracurricular activities like sports.

“Extracurricular activities are often managed by other entities,” Alfonzo wrote. “For example, high school sports are managed by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association (LHSAA), which also manages schools’ adherence to COVID-19 protective guidelines.”

A Landry-Walker spokeswoman said the school couldn’t comment on the cases and wouldn’t disclose which extracurricular activity led to the quarantines. However, the high school did cancel two football games, including one scheduled this week.

One additional student case at Landry-Walker was reported this week. 

Louisiana Department of Health data — which, unlike NOLA Public Schools, shows a running total over time — was updated Wednesday. It showed 24 new cases in the last week in Region 1 schools — which includes New Orleans. Region 1 also includes Jefferson, Plaquemines and St. Bernard parishes. That’s in addition to 116 previously reported cases, making for a total of 140 since the department started collecting information on Sept. 3. Of the 140 cases, 85 were in students.

The state’s count began Sept. 3. Prior to that, emails show 25 cases were reported in July and August in New Orleans schools when some buildings had opened for staff only. 

Alfonzo said high school COVID-19 safety inspections should be completed by early November.

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...