Due to rising COVID-19 case numbers all NOLA Public Schools must move back to virtual classes until at least Jan. 21, district officials announced in a press release Monday afternoon — the same day students at dozens of schools returned to in-person class after a two-week holiday break. 

“The City’s data tracking the pandemic showed a significant jump in the rate of positive cases over the past few days, indicating a worsening trend — one of several metrics NOLA-PS considered in order to make this grave but necessary decision,” the district statement read.

The announcement came one day after at least one school told families it would not reopen its doors for a week due to potential staff and student exposures and rising case numbers — including a citywide seven-day average new case count of 215, well above the district’s initial threshold of 50. 

Bricolage Academy CEO Troave’ Profice said she wanted to keep her students learning online while any exposures from the holidays could time out. She criticized the district for surpassing its previous case count and positivity threshold of five percent without initially announcing a district-wide shift to virtual. 

“It’s a lot of conflicting information. The numbers keep going up but we’ll say, ‘Oh we’ll still bring kids in that’,” Profice explained earlier Monday. “I’ve had staff members who have had to quarantine at least three times this year.”

But by late Monday afternoon, district officials said all classes must shift to distance learning no later than Jan. 7. That delay is to allow families to adjust their schedules to the otherwise sudden shift. 

“NOLA-PS will continue to monitor COVID-19 data and trends and reevaluate this decision no sooner than Jan. 21, in hopes that the local trend in positivity rates and case counts improves,” the statement read.

“Citywide data over the past few days has shown a dramatic uptick in positivity rates, and so, based upon the advice of our health advisors, we felt we had to make the very unfortunate but necessary decision to return to distance learning to keep our students, staff, teachers and community safe,” schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said according to the release. “We recognize this will be extremely difficult for our families and hope that everyone takes the necessary precautions to reverse the spread of this terrible virus.”

Newly elected Orleans Parish School Board member J.C. Romero said he shared concerns of educators he’d seen, and wrote to the superintendent Sunday regarding them. United Teachers of New Orleans wrote to Lewis over the holiday weekend expressing concerns. 

The shift marks the first system-wide change since the initial decision to start school remotely last spring. Since students began returning to the classroom — young students in September and older students in October — a handful of schools have sent home specific classes or grades to quarantine based on exposure, but the district had not taken district-wide action. 

Currently, the City of New Orleans is averaging 215 cases per day. That rolling seven-day average is up from 166 at the end of December and below 40 for much of the fall. The city’s official test positivity rate, according to the state Department of Health, is 5.5 percent. 

Over the two-week holiday break, the city was forced to shutter indoor bar service when its average test positivity rate rose above five percent. 

New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno told The Lens in a Monday email that the city is examining additional restrictions in light of the rising case numbers. The city and district have worked to prioritize in-person learning, highlighting its holistic benefits for children.

At an afternoon press conference Monday, Avegno said while she was glad new vaccines were rolling out, the city was “not out of the woods.”

“We are probably at a worse place than we’ve been since April. We have grave concerns about what has happened over the holidays,” Avegno said.

The week before New Orleans public schools broke for a two-week holiday break, there were 76 reported COVID-19 cases tied to schools and 769 people quarantining. 

At Bricolage alone, an elementary school on Esplanade Avenue, Profice said at least seven of her teachers needed to quarantine this week. Which would have created more significant staffing challenges if class was in-person. 

The district is expected to update its numbers later today. 

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...