John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

NOLA Public School buildings can reopen to elementary and middle school students starting Monday as COVID-19 cases decline in the city after a spike in early January caused officials to call a two-week shutdown.

The announcement on schools followed a Wednesday press conference where city officials said the city would move into a modified phase two reopening plan beginning Friday. The lifting of restrictions will allow more up to 30* students in a classroom and restaurants can again serve more people inside — but bars will remain closed for indoor service through Mardi Gras. 

“Today, the city of New Orleans has made an announcement that here in our city data has improved. The city will be moving to a modified phase two. This aligns with our plans and the trends that we have been tracking at NOLA- PS. Based upon the metrics … we are seeing the trends we’ve been hoping for,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. 

“Our elementary and middle school students can transition back to in-person learning beginning Monday, February 1,” he said.

The majority of high school students will be able to return after Mardi Gras, Lewis said. However, he also said that on Monday, high schools could begin serving small groups of students — up to 15 people — if they are made up of special populations, such as students with special education needs. 

“The staggered approach allows us to be responsive to any changes that may arise,” Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said.

Cases among New Orleans public school district staff and students declined again this week — down from an all time high the week after winter break.

Last week, district officials said they would keep schools closed through this week to ensure positive trends in daily case counts and test positivity rates. But as numbers stabilize, there is new uncertainty about new strains of the virus — some of which are said to be more contagious.

School officials have repeatedly said that most cases are not connected to classrooms. Though the recent decrease in weekly case counts among students and school staff has occurred during a suspension of in-person classes, it has also coincided with a wider decline in daily case counts and test positivity throughout the city. Delcour said the district was pleased to see the city’s test positivity rate drop to 4 percent. In late December it breached 10 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and prevention this week released a study finding little evidence of the virus spreading in schools. However, the report cautioned that indoor sports and other extracurricular activities that don’t allow for social distancing can still pose a risk. The Louisiana Department of Health confirmed a COVID-19 outbreak at a wrestling tournament in Gonzales that took place Jan. 16.

“We are confident that COVID-19 has not spread in our schools,” Lewis said, commending educators on following social distancing and health care protocols. 

Asked whether he had concerns about Mardi Gras given the spike after winter holidays, Lewis said he believes schools will be able to reopen without interruption. 

“We also had Thanksgiving break and we were able to return to school after Thanksgiving,” Lewis said. 

“We need everyone to mask up, wash their hands and follow social distancing guidelines.”

*Correction: This story initially listed the wrong class size cap.

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...