Active cases of COVID-19 connected to New Orleans public schools hovered at 80 this week while people quarantining dropped by more than 100, according to a weekly report from the NOLA Public Schools district. 

The district is tracking 80 active cases — 54 among students and 26 among staff. Sixty of those cases were newly reported in the last week. At least 712 people are quarantining across at least 44 campuses. Despite the higher case count in students, the most student cases at any one school was four at Lusher Charter School’s elementary campus where 41 people are quarantining.

Last week the district reported 82 cases — 40 among students and 42 among staff. In addition, 839 people were quarantining. Of the 82 cases, 81 were newly reported in the last two weeks before the report. The cases stretched across 40 campuses — nearly half of the district’s schools. 

Earlier in the day, city of New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno held a press conference to review growing COVID-19 case data and urge New Orleanians to follow health guidance so classrooms could remain open to students. 

All the metrics “are above what we have set as safe thresholds,” Avegno said, noting the transmission rate of 1.1 as particularly concerning.

“Whenever this number is above 1 it can have pretty staggering consequences. About six weeks ago, on Oct. 23, we were averaging 31 new cases a day of covid. Our rate of transmission was .95. Yesterday, we had an average of 121 cases and our rate of transmission was 1.1. It doesn’t seem like a big difference but we end up with five times as many cases,” she said.

“The potential for explosive growth is real and can overwhelm systems and communities and very quickly,” she said, pleading with the public to wear masks and limit social interactions.

Avegno said New Orleans was lucky because the city was able to open schools in mid-September and keep them open, while many large districts across the country never opened at all or have reverted to virtual learning amid a third wave of rising cases nationwide.

“Most cases … are not transmitted within the school building,” she said. “And that is because schools … have really had to double down on their distancing, barriers, and sanitation.”

She said officials were seeing the virus spread at outside activities, such as sleepovers, parties, riding together in the car, and some sports practices, a position city and school officials have repeated over the last several weeks. 

District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo again reiterated that point in a Thursday email, noting schools work with the Louisiana Department of Health on every case and when there are multiple cases at a school.

“Only in one instance has the district requested a school return to distance learning for a 14-day period out of the abundance of caution to limit the potential spread of COVID-19 in a school setting.  As a result of the operations and safety guidances in our schools, our school buildings remain one of the safest places for students and staff,” Alfonzo wrote.

Asked about COVID-19 cases related to school sports, Alfonzo said the district and health department evaluate all cases.

“No specific, sustained pattern among new cases has emerged regarding one activity or another, but we remain in close contact with our schools and our health advisers and will take appropriate action if and when it is necessary,” Alfonzo wrote.

Avegno urged the public to stay vigilant so schools can remain open.

“The problem is, if community spread continues, that affects children. If we can’t make changes in our behavior now, fewer children will be able to go (to school) in person,” she said.

Additionally, she said, the state is reporting the city’s testing positivity rate at over 5 percent. That number has been cited by the state, city, and school district as a trigger for tighter restrictions. For example, Avegno said indoor seating at Orleans Parish bars is likely to close next week due to the positivity rate. 

However, school district officials did not announce any changes to school operations with the updated numbers. They said they use the city’s metrics. Avegno presented both the city’s percent positive rate of 4.2 and a higher than 5 percent rate that had been calculated by the state at her press conference. A district release stated a higher than 5 percent positive test rate would have to be “part of a trend” before they would make changes in school operations. 

City and school officials have said they would restrict extracurricular activities and lower classroom sizes before closing schools to students as they were from March 13 to mid-September. 

The district does not release a cumulative count, but based on what the district has released, the cumulative count over the last ten weeks appears to be 240 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, 81 over weeks eight and nine, and 60 in week ten. 

KIPP Morial and KIPP East Community Primary had the highest number of quarantining individuals, at 76 and 56 respectively.

Additionally, the state reported 130 new cases in Orleans Parish private and public schools that were self-reported between Nov 30 and Dec 6. That was the highest single-week total since the state began reporting Sept. 3. The week prior, which included Thanksgiving, 110 cases were reported.

“We are at a truly critical point in controlling the outbreak,” Avegno warned.

This story was updated with additional information from NOLA Public Schools.

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...