NOLA Public Schools nurse Venus Parker receives her first does of the COVID-19 vaccine. Marta Jewson/The Lens

All NOLA Public School students will be able to return to classrooms next week, after a weeks-long campus closure following a spike in COVID-19 cases after winter holiday break. 

The temporary closure — announced Jan. 4 — lasted nearly a month for elementary school students and continued through Mardi Gras break for high school students. They will now be allowed on campus at least a few days per week. High schools are using a hybrid in-person and virtual model. Schedules will vary from school to school.

“As the city’s health data continues to improve, NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS) will continue its phased return to in-person learning for our high school students, starting Monday, February 22nd,” district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote in a Wednesday email. 

While city health data has improved, potential effects from the Mardi Gras holiday or associated travel won’t begin to be clear until next week or later. Additionally, the holiday and winter weather did at times reduce COVID-19 testing capacity over the last week, and statewide vaccinations slowed.

NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. and city officials have continually stressed the importance of in-person education throughout the pandemic. Students initially returned to campus in September and October after schools throughout the state were closed last March through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

“We know our students thrive when they’re with their teachers and peers, and high school is a critical time as our children develop into young adults on every level — academically, socially, and emotionally,” Lewis said. 

High school students will attend a mix of in-person and online learning that will vary depending on their unique charter school’s schedule. 

Educator vaccinations

Late last week, the CDC issued new guidelines on how to safely reopen schools nationwide. The guidance did not include a requirement to vaccinate teachers before returning to classrooms. At the same time, teachers unions nationwide, along with Vice President Kamala Harris, have been advocating for teachers to be bumped up onto the priority list for the vaccine. 

“Teachers should be a priority along with other frontline workers,” Harris said in an interview this week, noting the states make those decisions individually. 

Educator eligibility for the vaccine varies state by state. Earlier this month, there were 22 states, including Louisiana, that had not specifically given priority to teachers as a group CNN reported.

Educators will be eligible to receive a vaccine beginning Monday, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced on Thursday. School nurses began receiving the vaccine in mid-January. 

Approximately 1.2 million people in Louisiana are currently eligible for the vaccine under the state’s first two tiers. That includes Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Feb. 4 expansion to nearly 275,000 people, which lowered the eligibility age from 70 to 65 and added certain law enforcement, first responders and poll workers.  

Edwards’ announcement on Thursday, adding teachers and daycare workers, among others, will add about 475,000 people to the eligibility list beginning next week.

As of Thursday, the Louisiana Department of Health reported nearly 542,000 people have begun the vaccine series — leaving roughly 622,000 people, or 53 percent of the groups eligible as of this week, remaining. 

The NOLA Public Schools district is asking all educators to sign up for a vaccine survey — asking whether they want to be vaccinated — through their school sites.

This story was updated to include Gov. John Bel Edwards’ Thursday announcement, made after publication, that teachers would soon be added to the eligibility list.

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...