UPDATE: Hours after this story published on Monday, Jan. 4, the NOLA Public Schools district announced that all of its schools would shift to virtual from Jan. 7 to at least Jan. 21.

Students and teachers won’t return to the classroom at Bricolage Academy this week due to rising staff and student exposures to COVID-19, resulting potential staffing shortages, and what CEO Troave’ Profice said is a commitment to safety and transparency amid skyrocketing case counts in the city.

“Our teachers at Bricolage have been committed and it’s because we’ve been transparent,” Profice said.

She noted that the city of New Orleans has recently seen daily case counts and test positivity rise above the levels that officials previously said could trigger a reevaluation of in-person school.

“Early on, we shared with them the metrics shared by our authorizer. And we have surpassed two of those measures. It is unwise, unethical to have surpassed two of those and continue to do business as usual.”

Sophie B. Wright High School’s website also says the school will operate virtually when students return from winter break on Tuesday. The statement posted on the site does not say that rising COVID-19 numbers triggered the change. The Lens reached CEO Sharon Clark and spoke to her briefly on Monday, but the interview was cut short by an emergency call with NOLA Public Schools district officials. 

Following an extended statewide shutdown of in-person school last spring, the NOLA Public Schools district took a cautious approach to reopening in the fall, keeping schools shuttered for weeks longer than other districts in the state.

The district, which oversees Bricolage and the majority of city schools, in August insisted that in order for schools to open, daily case counts would have to remain below 50. Later, the district shifted its key metric, instead focusing on test positivity rates, which they wanted to remain below five percent. The district’s other key component when deciding whether to shift school operations back to virtual is the availability of testing. 

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. While testing is widely available in the city, Profice said she is concerned about potentially exposing students and staff to the virus after holiday break when many people visited family and friends. 

Even as those numbers have gone above the district’s and the city’s thresholds, officials have previously emphasized that they see continued in-person learning as the top priority. Asked Monday about any district-wide shift in operations, NOLA Public Schools spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district would make a statement later in the day.

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.

“We are discussing additional citywide restrictions this week given significantly worsening number, with the goals of 1) preserving hospital capacity; 2) preventing hospitalizations & deaths; and 3) keeping schools open as much as possible,” Avegno said in a statement.

“The balance of public health evidence supports preserving in person school as much as possible – ie shutting down most other activities first before schools, given the significant health, wellbeing & economic effects of schools. However, if community spread is severe, it will find its way into schools and necessitate closings. We want to avoid that as much as possible.”

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.

Holiday Break

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, that included two student cases and one staff case, with 47 people quarantining. The district will update its numbers later today.

Staff quarantines can put a real strain on the system and substitute teachers aren’t cheap, Profice said. 

In an interview Monday, Profice said she was worried about the higher coronavirus numbers she’s seeing now.

“We didn’t have this number of potential cases after fall break,” she said.

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

“I’m the CEO but I’m an educator at heart. My office is in this building, I do morning duty and afternoon duy with the kids,” she said. “I think you have a different mentality of what it’s like to be an educator during COVID when you are in the building. I think it makes a difference.”

Profice relayed the change to families on Sunday afternoon. Students didn’t have school on Monday.

Bricolage music teacher Brittany Scofield said she was grateful she would be teaching virtually this week. (The school had a professional development day for teachers on Monday.)

“I know that myself and many other staff members were very nervous about going back in person as we watch the numbers continue to rise in our city. I know it was a really hard call to make but I’m grateful that safety for our community is taking priority.”

“Even though I think a lot of us felt moderately safe when we first started, the numbers in our community were lower,” Scofield said, reflecting on the September return to in-person school. “But now that the numbers are so high in our community, I don’t think it’s possible to be in a congregate setting without there being a pretty big risk of being exposed.”

Scofield was skeptical of the school district’s COVID-19 case tracker, which shows only “active” cases, not a cumulative total. 

“The NOLA-PS Covid tracker doesn’t even keep a running list of data. They refresh it every week, so there’s not really a great way for the public to see what’s going on in the schools,” she said. “I think school leaders are doing their best to keep everyone as safe as possible. But I do think there comes a point where it’s so rampant in the community that it’s not a safe option.”

Through last week and over the weekend, Profice said more and more students and staff reported a positive test or exposure that would require them to quarantine. With at least seven staff members out, Profice said that would have left them short-staffed. 

“We could unknowingly expose way more students and staff to the virus and potentially have to do way more quarantining. What we could do is take Jan. 1 as the most likely date that people gathered and that would put us, using the 10 days (of CDC recommended quarantine), at Jan. 11,” she said. “For us it was pretty much a no-brainer — can we wait a few more days with the hope we will not have to have more disruption throughout the semester.”

Profice said telling staff they’ve been exposed is gut-wrenching.

“Their response is unnerving. They worry they have it, they have people in their household and worry they gave it to them. When people are quarantining it’s not a vacation. It’s an extra layer of added stress,” she said.

Several other schools in the district also had professional development for teachers Monday, meaning students were not in school buildings. But others returned to in-person classes.

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...