One week after NOLA Public Schools officials announced that schools would go back to a virtual learning model amid rising COVID-19 cases, district officials on Monday reported 93 active cases of the virus connected to schools — though not necessarily transmitted in classrooms — and told board members that the district is reevaluating its previous metrics that determine when to return to learning in-person. 

Of those cases, 41 are in students and 52 are in staff, and 198 people are quarantining. That’s the highest total in any weekly update since the beginning of the school year and is a rise from the 76 cases associated with schools just before winter break. However it is a drop in quarantines. Before break, 769 people were quarantining. 

At a board training session Friday, district Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said the district was reevaluating its previously set thresholds at which it would consider calling off in-person school. Those thresholds are 50 new cases per day and a five percent test positivity rate citywide, both of which were exceeded in the weeks leading up to last week’s closure. There was a significant increase in cases over the first weekend in January and the city’s positivity rate increased significantly.

That caused the city to revert to a modified phase one reopening plan last week, which further reduced indoor dining capacity, among other restrictions.

Delcour said in the two days before students returned to school from winter break on Jan. 4, the city’s percent positivity rate hit nine percent.

“That was significant,” she told board members.

That concerning shift caused at least one New Orleans public school, Bricolage Academy, to call off in-person learning before the district did. Bricolage students did not return to classrooms after break, unlike a number of students at other district schools, who returned briefly only to find out that they would soon be going to virtual.

This week, the city of New Orleans is averaging 233 cases per day, up from 215 last week. 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, was 5.5 percent when the district announced it would reopen, as scheduled, after winter break. Last week, it nearly doubled to 10.4 percent positivity rate. The state will update that rate on Wednesday.

The district does not release a cumulative count of cases connected to schools, but based on what the district has released, the case count over the its 12 weekly reports appears to be 379 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, 60 in week ten and 46 in week 11. The 12th report this week, which came three weeks after the 11th, the district reported 93 cases. 

Hynes Elementary Charter School has six student cases and one staff case at its Lakeview campus. That has led to 70 people quarantining. At it’s University of New Orleans campus, two student cases led to 55 people quarantining.

At their training on Friday, board members John Brown Sr. and Katie Baudouin asked the district to consider presenting COVID-19 case data over time at the schools, rather than just active cases. 

“I think it might be helpful to have system-wide data showing change over time,” Baudouin said. “Does it follow the same peaks and valleys of the city and state? I think that data would be helpful.”

Brown echoed her request. 

“I’d like for us to have those key indicators,” he said, noting he thought real-time city data, district thresholds and case numbers would be helpful. “So anyone can see it and know what the data is.”

Delcour said she’d consider the idea.

“There is a lot of nuance in the data. But it is worth considering,” she said. “It’s not always black and white.”

New board member Olin Parker praised district officials for their work over the last ten months.

“We have people who want as many kids in school as fast as possible and other people who are rightfully concerned,” he said. “It’s not an easy job.”

Delcour said the district will reevaluate public health data in the coming weeks and make an announcement on reopening schools no sooner than Jan. 21. She said the district would present more information about any change in its public health data thresholds soon. 

“They will be different than what those key criteria were to open in the fall,” Delcour said, noting there have been several studies since then and generally more is known about the virus.

Asked if the reopening of school buildings would be phased, as in the fall, Delcour said it was a possibility. 

“That was how we approached the fall,” she said. “It is feasible it could be staggered by grade but it will also be data driven as well.”

She also announced that school nurses will begin receiving their first dose of COVID-19 vaccination this week and that schools will begin offering testing onsite as well. 

“Do you see a world where we get to asymptomatic testing?” Parker asked.

District officials said systemwide asymptomatic testing would be “extremely expensive,” but the mobile symptomatic testing should be able to handle between 100 and 250 tests per day. 

On Monday, Orleans Parish School Board members unanimously re-elected Ethan Ashley their board president. They also unanimously elected the longest serving member, Nolan Marshall Jr., as board vice president at the brief procedural meeting. It was the first meeting of the year and first meeting for four newly elected members.

New members Baudouin, Parker, J.C. Romero and Carlos Zervigon were sworn in earlier in individual virtual ceremonies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

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...