Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Nearing the end of a two-week closure announced early this month, NOLA Public Schools won’t immediately return to in-person classes as the city of New Orleans’ COVID-19 outbreak remains classified as “active or imminent,” district officials announced at a press conference on Thursday afternoon. 

“We are seeing progress in data, but in-person learning, at this time, can not resume,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said. 

The city’s schools will remain closed through at least the end of next week, at which time officials will review the latest data on COVID-19 infections. 

District officials said while the city’s COVID-19 health data — such as average new cases per day and test positivity on the same day students returned to campus after winter break — continues to improve, more improvement must be shown before students return to the classroom. 

Chief Operating Officer Tiffany Delcour also made clear the district has adjusted the metrics that would determine whether students can return to in-person learning. Earlier this month officials announced they were examining the metrics previously set in the fall.

“We’re not looking at hard and fast data that have basements or floors; we’re looking at ranges,” Delcour said.

“The ways other states and other educational institutions evaluate this information is with ranges, directional trends, over a period of time,” she said.

“We’d previously talked about wanting to be below 5 percent positivity or below,” Delcour said. “We are more comfortable with 5 to 9 [percent positivity] as long as the other metrics are trending in the right direction and they are low.”

Asked about new case numbers, which the district had previously set at 50 new cases per day as the limit to trigger a switch to virtual learning, Delcour said the district could consider higher numbers if other metrics were in good ranges.

“For our new cases I think we had previously looked at 50 being a metric, but we are also more comfortable with higher numbers if our positive test rate is lower, and stays lower,” she said. 

“We want our new cases to trend similarly for a longer period of time,” she said. 

A reporter asked Delcour whether schools could reopen if “cases were still over a 100 … and (other metrics) coming in is acceptable?”

“Theoretically? Yes,” Delcour said.

On the day students returned to campus this month after winter break, the district announced schools would close their campuses for at least two weeks. That two weeks was up as of the end of Thursday. District officials, however, declined requests earlier this week to share their plans about whether students could expect to return to in-person class on Friday.

The week after returning to remote learning, the district reported a record-high 93 cases. This week, district officials were tracking 62 “active” cases, 34 of which had been newly reported within the week.

The city of New Orleans remains in a modified phase one reopening plan, with reduced capacities at businesses. The city’s seven-day average new daily case count has dropped over the past ten days, from a recent peak of 266 on Jan. 9 to 143 on Wednesday. The city’s average positive COVID-19 test positivity rate has also dropped in recent weeks. While the city numbers are believed to be less accurate than the state, district officials say they use the two data sources in tandem as the local data can provide real-time information. The state’s official positivity rate for the city, which lags a bit behind city data, was 9.7 percent last week and dropped to 5.7 as reported yesterday.

Meanwhile, the district has launched on-site testing at schools and school nurses have begun to receive vaccines, in addition to some specialized employees.

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...