From September 2020, a 42 Charter School staffer gives a student a face mask on the first day students were allowed back in class since the pandemic closed school buildings six months ago. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

After previously announcing plans to allow vaccinated staff and students to go maskless this fall, the NOLA Public Schools district announced Wednesday that everyone — regardless of vaccination status — will have to wear masks inside school buildings as teachers return to training and students approach the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. 

“This requirement is designed to protect our youngest students who are the most vulnerable and not yet able to get the vaccine,” a district press release explained. 

Children under 12 years old are not yet eligible for the vaccine. Though clinical trials for younger children are underway. 

The news followed Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Wednesday press conference announcing a mask “advisory” — essentially a strong recommendation, not a legal mandate, that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks in indoor public spaces —  in the face of rising COVID-19 case numbers across the city and state driven by the highly infectious delta variant.

“Transmission is increasing at a rate we have not seen since last spring,” Dr. Jennifer Avegno, the city health director, said at that press conference.

The school district’s new restriction begins Friday. And the other precautions that district officials announced earlier this month will stay in place as schools prepare to open to students in August.

“We trust the recommendations of our health officials, and this requirement will not affect the start of in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year. We are looking forward to a great school year where our children will, once again, be able to learn alongside their teachers and peers,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. said in a press release. 

United Teachers of New Orleans representatives are also happy with the restored mask requirement.

“Given the sharp rise in cases and the way things look like they’re going right now I think it’s a really good idea. I think safety is really important and it’s not that big of a deal to ask people to wear a mask,” UTNO vice president Dave Cash said in an interview Thursday afternoon.

“I’m glad that safety is a priority,” said Cash, who also teaches at Rooted School.

Cash said he knows of at least two schools that have had positive COVID-19 cases recently.

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.

District officials will collect vaccination rate data for each school campus. 

The district announced its intention to return to in-person Orleans Parish School Board meetings next week, though officials have also been clear they will follow local health department recommendations as they change. Attendees must wear masks.

The district will host two vaccine events for anyone age 12 or older in the coming weeks. On July 31, vaccines will be available at Warren Easton Charter High School in Mid-City, and on August 6, a mobile vaccine clinic will be held at Einstein at Sarah T. Reed High School in eastern New Orleans.

*Update: This story was updated with comments from UTNO representative Dave Cash.

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...