At a press conference Wednesday, NOLA Public Schools district officials announced that school campuses will offer voluntary weekly COVID-19 testing with financial incentives, along with vaccines, when school starts this fall.
The district will also require all people entering school buildings — including students, staff and volunteers — to wear masks. That change from the district’s initial plans to allow vaccinated students and staff to go maskless was made last week as cases surged in the city amid an outbreak led by the delta variant. Yesterday, the CDC also recommended all students in schools wear masks.
“The best way to combat this pandemic is and will remain getting vaccinated for those who are eligible and to provide ongoing testing for our students who are not,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said.
District officials are strongly urging those eligible for vaccines to get them, as they stress the importance of allowing students to attend school in-person.
“After safety, keeping students in the classroom is this district’s number one priority,” Orleans Parish School Board President Ethan Ashley said Wednesday. “Because we know students learn best when they’re in the classroom next to their colleagues and in front of their teachers.”
The district’s press conference came as the city appears to reach new heights in COVID-19 cases with a 10 percent positivity rate and an average of 231 new cases each day, according to city data.
The district will continue to offer mobile vaccine clinics at schools for students and their families as well. Vaccines will be offered at Warren Easton Charter High School on Saturday and at Sarah T. Reed High School next week for anyone age 12 and older.
The district however, is stopping short of a vaccine mandate, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said. He will not require district staff to get vaccinated.
“We’re going to strongly encourage those who are eligible to get vaccinated,” Lewis said. “As far as a mandate for students, that’s not going to happen at this time.”
Asked about school teachers, Lewis explained that because the district doesn’t directly employ charter school teachers or staff, that would be left to charter schools.
“Each of our charter schools have the opportunity to work with their legal teams,” he said.
Asked if any charters were requiring vaccines, he said, “I do not have that information at this time.”
The district has also told schools to collect vaccination rate data. School nurses have access to a state vaccination database that they already use to ensure students have other vaccines required to attend public school. They will now be able to see COVID-19 vaccination statuses as well.
“We’re very fortunate that there are several vaccinations that they take that are required and there’s a state database that we are able to verify those vaccinations,” Lewis said.
Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour estimated the data on vaccination rates would be available for each school campus in September. She said the district will publish them.
Throughout August, Delcour said the district will continue testing through CORE, a partner it has worked with since last fall. Then, in September, they will launch weekly testing throughout the district.
“With the support of LDH we will have weekly routine surveillance testing for all students and staff in our schools. This plan is being funded by the CDC through the American Rescue Plan,” Delcour said. “Also there will be financial incentives to every person who receives a test every time they receive a test.”
She did not provide details on the financial incentives, saying the Louisiana Department of Health and the CDC will determine how the program is run. When younger students become eligible for the vaccine they will be eligible for associated incentives as well.
Asked for details on the testing program, Delcour said testing would occur one day a week on each campus, between Monday and Thursday and data would be compiled on Fridays.
“It will be a nasal swab test,” Delcour said. “They’ll be providing it on an “opt-in” basis.”
At a Tuesday Orleans Parish School Board committee meeting, board member Olin Parker asked district officials to consider mandatory or “opt-out” testing.
One reporter asked whether unvaccinated staff and students will be required to test.
“It will not be mandatory,” Delcour said.
Delcour said school operating guidelines would be updated as needed and in line with local health officials. Last year, district officials set clear health metrics, based on upper limits of new cases per day or percent test positivity, that would trigger school closures. They won’t do that this year, Delcour said.
“What has changed since then is there is clear and resounding guidance that students should be in the school,” Delcour said. “So we do not have a line in the sand.”