Vaccinated students and staff of NOLA Public Schools won’t be required to wear face masks this fall when they return to the classroom, according to new COVID-19 guidelines released by the district this week.
Unvaccinated staff and students, however, will still need to wear masks and enter a 10-day quarantine if exposed to someone who tests positive for the virus. The district has advised school officials to confirm all individuals’ vaccination status through a state system called the Louisiana Immunization Network School Nurse Portal or via vaccine cards and has requested schools report the percentage of staff and students who have been fully vaccinated.
As vaccination rates increase in the city, the district is also lifting caps on school bus capacity and classroom capacity — so long as distancing rules are in place in certain situations. That is likely a financial relief for charter organizations that had to operate extra buses last year due to capacity restrictions. All students, regardless of vaccination status, will still be required to wear masks on buses and follow a seating chart to assist in contact tracing should it be necessary.
Sixty-one percent of adults residing in Orleans Parish have been fully vaccinated but only 49 percent of all residents have been vaccinated, according to city health data. Only children 12 and older are eligible for the vaccine, though clinical trials for younger children have begun.
Though district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has stressed the importance of in-person instruction this fall, the guidelines note students with health concerns can request distance learning.
“It will be so liberating for our students 12 and older and staff, who are fully vaccinated, not to have to wear a mask. So, we’re doing everything we can to make sure it’s easy for our students and their families to get their shots,” Lewis said in a statement released by the district. “Our new guidance will help our students once again enjoy being with their teachers and peers. We know our classrooms are where they are safest and strongest, socially, physically, and emotionally, as they continue to develop and thrive.”
The new rules for the 2021-22 school year mark a seismic shift from the restrictions of the 2020-21 school year and prior spring, when public health and school officials were still learning to navigate the evolving virus and class sizes were limited along with a host of other measures aimed to prevent its spread.
Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered schools to close statewide in March 2020 as the pandemic emerged in Louisiana and the remainder of that school year was completed remotely.
In August, public schools reopened virtually and eventually transitioned to in-person classes in late September and October. NOLA Public Schools required all students to wear masks and students were greeted each morning by staff in personal protective equipment, such as face shields, and temperature checks when they arrived on campus. Other than a brief return to remote learning when cases spiked after the winter holidays, school has remained largely in-person this spring.
This fall, buses can operate at full capacity and classrooms have no capacity limits, as long as social distancing rules are observed. All students and adults on buses must wear masks. Students, staff, and visitors entering schools will no longer need to have their temperature taken, a measure that was emblematic of the pandemic early on and throughout last school year.
Students in static groups — the same students every day — won’t be required to socially distance, but students in changing groups — such as high school students who switch classes — must keep three feet from each other in the classroom and six feet away from adults, according to the new guidelines.
The district also wants to focus resources on students involved in extracurricular activities and recommends student athletes either be vaccinated or participate in weekly COVID-19 testing. Testing and vaccinations will be available at school campuses by request, the guide states.
“Schools should prioritize testing participation among participants in interscholastic sports, band, chorus, and other extracurricular activities that may either involve removal of masks or engaging with individuals outside of the immediate school community,” the guide states.
If all students in a particular activity are vaccinated, schools can loosen restrictions even more.
“If all students and staff participating in band or vocal music are either vaccinated or participating in a weekly molecular testing, these activities can occur indoors. If not, it is recommended that these activities occur outdoors,” it states.
As the more contagious “delta-plus” variant emerges in southeastern Louisiana, it’s unclear how it could affect reopening guidelines for schools. But officials are accounting for it.
“These guidelines are developed based on the current context of the pandemic and are likely to change over the course of the year as we observe the course of the pandemic locally and continue to learn from the science of vaccinations, viral transmission, and effective public health practices.”
District officials will collect vaccination rates at each school.
“It is critical for schools to know the vaccination status of all staff and students to aid in contact tracing protocols and to identify those that may discontinue the use of face coverings while in school facilities,” the guide states. “Schools will be asked to update NOLA Public Schools with the rate of vaccination among students and staff with a yet to be determined frequency.”
Unvaccinated students and staff will have to quarantine after an exposure for at least 10 days. Vaccinated staff and students who are exposed to a known case of COVID-19 but do not display any symptoms will not need to quarantine.
District officials are also stressing the need for schools to be ready to pivot from in-person learning to remote learning should it be necessary.
“In the event of a school closure, it is critically important that schools be able to pivot from in-person to distance learning so that disruption can be minimized while students and staff need to be away from a school building for extended periods of time.”