Students at 42 Charter School have their temperatures checked on the first day of in-person classes since COVID-19 shuttered schools in March of 2020.

City officials announced this week that there is “no indication” of COVID-19 spreading in the classroom as the NOLA Public Schools district announced 12 new cases of the virus in staff and employees.

The district currently has 14 active cases — 12 of which are new — across 13 schools, and 137 people are quarantining, a decrease from last week. The total case count is fairly consistent with previous weeks’ totals.

Of the 14 active cases, seven are among students and seven are among school staff. Once a case is old enough to no longer be considered “active” — as determined by the Louisiana Department of Health — the district stops listing it

In an interview Thursday, City Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said she is concerned about cases rising across the state and country but that schools are largely reflective of their community. 

“What we are seeing is the rate in schools reflects the rate in a community. So when community spread is really high, as it is in so many places across the country, that creeps into schools. Not the other way around,” she said. 

She said officials are closely monitoring national and local data and mentioned Chicago, where Mayor Lori Lightfood issued a stay-at-home advisory earlier in the day due to rising cases. Some nearby districts are reverting to virtual classes. 

“We do not want to do that to our schools, we do not want to go backwards,” Avegno said. “It is so critical for our students to learn.”

At a press conference earlier in the week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell praised citizens and educators for their hard work in keeping the virus at bay.

“We are able to do many things in this city that other cities are not able to do right now — education. Our children are in school pre-k through 12th grade, public, private and parochial,” Cantrell said. “This isn’t happening in many states across the country.”

The city moved to phase 3.3 of its reopening plan on Wednesday, allowing larger crowds and bars to open indoors at 25 percent capacity. Avegno and Cantrell both said should the city need to bring back restrictions they would look elsewhere before closing schools again. 

“Really what we want to do is keep the community spread low, and not be concerned about schools so much,” Avegno said. “I think the key is what we’re seeing is not really in the school — it’s around schools. Really when we look at the data with the state we’re seeing very little transmission in school, from teacher to student or student to teacher.”

Additionally, state data has shown cases are generally evenly split between teachers and students, Avegno said.

This is the sixth week that the district has reported cases on its website. While there have been new cases each week, officials say they are relatively small numbers and Avegno said new cases don’t appear to come from the classroom. 

“Where we are seeing cases is in gatherings and extracurricular activities outside school. So the slumber party … and we have seen some outbreaks on athletic teams,” she said, noting there hadn’t been athletic outbreaks in the two weeks.

“With teachers, if it’s more than one teacher, it’s if they went out to dinner after school,” Avegno said. “Just like office spread, like in a breakroom. That’s not anything unique to schools.”

The district does not release a cumulative count, but based on what the district has released, the cumulative count over that time appears to be 54 cases: 12 cases in week one, four new cases in week two, 11 new cases in week three, nine in week four, six in week five and 12 in week six.

The district reports cases by campus location and student versus staff members. 

The Louisiana Department of Health has recorded 123 cases of COVID-19 in staff and students in Orleans Parish since Sept. 3 when it began collecting such data. Schools self-report cases to LDH.

Still as cases creep up across the country, Avegno worries. 

“I am concerned. We are setting records in cases and deaths every day,” she said.

She asked the community to stay vigilant with the holidays approaching. Tulane has seen a rise in cases city officials attribute to Halloween celebrations. 

“We really just have a week or two to make sure we’re continuing our behavior. We really have to do Thanksgiving different this year,” she said.

“We’re starting to see little trends and ticks up in our statewide data. I don’t want to be the harbinger of bad things, but now is the time to double down on safety precautions.”

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...