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)

Active cases of COVID-19 connected to New Orleans public schools jumped again to 82 this week, according to a weekly report from the NOLA Public Schools district. 

The district is reporting 40 cases among students and 42 among staff and 839 people are quarantining. Of the 82 cases, 81 were newly reported in the last two weeks. The cases stretch across 40 campuses — nearly half of the district’s schools. 

“While city data show a rise in the average daily new cases, other metrics are staying strong. As a city we are below the 5-percent positivity rate and our community has robust access to COVID-19 testing,” a district release said Thursday. “These factors and information delivered from our schools show there isn’t a need for a system-wide closure at this time.”

City of New Orleans spokeswoman LaTonya Norton agreed, stating the rise in cases reflects what’s happening in the community and highlights the need for mask wearing and social distancing.

“Increasingly, data suggests that transmission happens outside of the school day rather than inside the classroom, so most public health experts believe that keeping schools open but limiting extracurricular activities would be the most prudent step,” she wrote in an email. “If cases among young people continue to increase, limiting school related activities like sports and spectators at events would be the first step before system closure.”

The spike in cases connected to schools comes as the city has experienced a surge in daily case counts, positivity rates and hospitalizations. That followed the city’s move into phase 3.3 on Nov. 11, expanding capacity at bars and restaurants. Unlike the rest of the state, the city’s move into phase three came in three subphases. Phases 3.1 and 3.2 were more restrictive than Gov. John Bel Edwards’ phase three protocols, but phase 3.3 was roughly in line with them.

As case counts and hospitalizations began to worsen in New Orleans as well as the rest of the state, Edwards returned Louisiana to tighter restrictions in late November: the state reverted to a modified phase 2 and the city did as well. The moves came days before Thanksgiving, when city and state officials cautioned citizens against traveling and celebrating the holiday with people outside their household to prevent further spread of the virus.

The week prior to Thanksgiving the school district reported 54 active cases connected to schools with just over 700 people quarantining. The district did not release any data last week due to the holiday, but data from the Louisiana Department of Health released last week and on Wednesday suggested an uptick in cases, too.

In the past, city of New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno has suggested that seeing cases split equally among staff and students — as we are seeing in this week’s numbers — is a sign of community spread.

District leaders have also said they would consider other restrictions before closing schools. Those could include limiting extracurricular activities, reducing grades served on school sites and reducing classroom sizes. 

Two schools have more than 100 people quarantining, according to district data. At Langston Hughes Academy Charter School, two students and three staff members have confirmed cases resulting in 113 people quarantining. At Homer A. Plessy Charter School’s French Quarter campus, one student and three staff members have active cases and 192 people are quarantining. Eleven schools have between 14 and 30 people quarantining.

The highest student case counts came at Sophie B. Wright Charter School and Edward Hynes Charter School’s Lakeview campus — each have five student cases. At Wright, 22 people are quarantining, while at Hynes that number is up to 52 people. 

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 180 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, 12 in week six, 45 in week seven and 81 over weeks eight and nine.

Notably absent from the case counts is Encore Academy. The Arts Street school moved back to a virtual model in mid-November after three staff and four students tested positive for COVID-19. They returned to in-person classes yesterday.  

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...