Students at 42 Charter School arrive on the first day of in-person classes since COVID-19 shuttered schools in March of 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district is tracking 35 “active” COVID-19 cases among students and school staff, 24 of which were newly reported in the last week. And 94 people are quarantining, according to a district spokeswoman. Those numbers are slightly lower than last week’s update, which reported 41 active cases, 24 of which were new cases and 112 quarantines. 

The district added new data to its COVID-19 dashboard this week. Previously the dashboard only showed current “active” cases — meaning cases diagnosed within the past two weeks — and quarantines.  It now includes cumulative counts, by school site, for the school year and week-by-week case counts over time. The data shows that districtwide, the highest spikes in cases have come after Thanksgiving and the winter holiday break. 

Earlier Monday, elementary and middle school students returned to school after a three-week pause on in-person learning due to a post-holiday spike in cases in the city. 

Case counts have recently improved, citywide and in the school district’s weekly reports. Asked whether the campus closures contributed to those declines, Dr. Susan Hassig, professor of epidemiology at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, said it’s hard to draw any conclusions. 

“It’s very difficult to make that determination,” Hassig said in a phone interview Monday afternoon. 

“I think probably part of what you have to recognize is that decline is relative,” she said. “We had hit a really high spike which was probably due to the holiday festivities. Once those festivities kind of wore themselves out, numbers would probably go down.”

She also noted that numbers were dropping across the country

“That’s speculation on my part but to see it happening all across the country that speaks to something that is shared across the country which is the holiday cycle,” she said, though cautiously noting that locally, another holiday is approaching.

The holiday spikes have some people concerned about quickly approaching Mardi Gras, for which Mayor LaToya Cantrell has welcomed tourists to the city if they follow health safety rules. Yesterday, she condemned large crowds gathered on Bourbon Street over the weekend. 

After the holidays, the city’s test positivity rate was hovering around 10 percent and the new cases per day average peaked at 266 — both outside the metrics the district outlined for closure in the fall. New COVID-19 hospitalizations in region 1, which includes Orleans and surrounding parishes, peaked at 83 in early January.

School-related cases declined two weeks in a row during the closure — matching the city’s trend of improving COVID-19 test positivity and daily case averages. Now, the city is reporting an average of 127 new cases each day over a seven day period and a four percent test positivity rate. New hospitalizations also fell to 46. 

Those improving trends led the city to reduce restrictions last week, allowing restaurants to seat more guests inside. 

Over the weekend, crowds gathered on Bourbon Street, raising concerns about spreading the virus over the Mardi Gras holiday as residents cope with the loss of tradition. Last week, Tulane University suspended six fraternities and sororities for flouting public safety rules limiting gathering sizes. 

“We are confident that COVID-19 has not spread in our schools,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a press conference last week. 

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. 

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...