Sophie B. Wright School welcomes back teachers to the 2020-2021 school year. Teachers were allowed back into buildings while students learned remotely amid the pandemic.

The vast majority of New Orleans public high schools will require vaccinations or weekly COVID-19 testing for students participating in extracurricular activities. All staff at the high schools, regardless of whether they are involved in extracurriculars, will also have to be vaccinated or face weekly testing, school leaders confirmed Wednesday. 

“You’re either going to have to be vaccinated — or participate in routine testing to participate in extracurricular activities at our high schools,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at an Orleans Parish School Board meeting last week, shortly after receiving the letter. 

Because the district operates a decentralized network of charter schools, such a decision could not be made at the central office. Leaders of 15 charter groups, representing 23 high schools signed on to the letter to Lewis stating they would require vaccinations for students participating in activities, “except in exceptional circumstances where regular COVID-19 testing will be allowed.” The letter did not say what would qualify as an exceptional circumstance.

“We believe that this is the least restrictive and most effective means currently available to assist our schools in combating this ongoing pandemic,” the charter leaders wrote.

Only one high school in the NOLA Public Schools district was not included in the letter: Dolores Taylor Arthur School for Young Men. It was not clear as of Wednesday afternoon whether the school, which is opening with just a ninth grade class this fall, will have similar requirements. A call to its administration was not immediately returned. (Public high schools overseen by the state board of education — rather than NOLA Public Schools and the Orleans Parish School Board — were also not included.)

Sophie B. Wright Charter School CEO Sharon Clark and KIPP New Orleans CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said the conversations started a few weeks ago, with the intent to keep students safe and keep schools in-person. Clark said they focused on extracurricular activities — such as football or band — because it’s harder to guarantee strict social distancing in those environments than in the classroom. 

“It’s the greatest hope that the students are able to participate in and be active in school this year and be in-person. Especially because you have athletes and band members who receive scholarships or if it’s a personal goal that they have, we want to make sure they have that ability to be able to shine,” Clark said in an interview Wednesday. “This sort of helps guarantee that can happen for our kids — we do not want to shut down our sports programs.”

Students not involved in extracurricular activities will be offered vaccines and voluntary testing, but neither will be required. In-person classes at most schools are beginning over the next several weeks. 

Positive COVID-19 cases in schools have a ripple effect on the school community — forcing large numbers of staff and students to quarantine after a potential exposure. Activities, particularly sports, can pose an elevated risk of exposure. And infections and exposures among players have sometimes led to cancelled practices or games. Clark said they’re hoping to restore some sense of normalcy to extracurricular activities.

The highly infectious COVID-19 delta variant began to take off in the city last month, just as conversations among school leaders began, Kalifey-Aluise said. The variant has led to a statewide surge in cases and record-breaking hospitalizations and public health leaders are begging eligible residents to get vaccinated

“This is an excellent way to make sure large populations in our high schools are protected and potentially inspire more students to get vaccinated,” Kalifey-Aluise said in a Wednesday interview.

“We started talking to our coaches and everybody quickly got on board,” she said. “We had, at JFK (High School), the entire football team go to get vaccinated last week.”

She said any students enrolled in extracurriculars and staff who aren’t fully vaccinated will have to undergo weekly testing. All students have the option to participate in weekly voluntary testing. The district is partnering with the Louisiana Department of Health for that program.

“Our staff at KIPP New Orleans are at about 85 percent vaccinated and we are really pushing to get that number even higher,” she said. 

At Sophie B. Wright on Napoleon Avenue, CEO Sharon Clark said 99 percent of staff are vaccinated. 

“We have orientation on Monday and Tuesday and we will have DePaul Daughters of Charity to vaccinate students,” Clark said. “We’ve sent out permission slips to the parents.”

“This is a way to keep everybody in school and safe,” Clark said. At Wright, “we’re going to offer the vaccination at least twice a month or more.” 

The schools signed onto the letter include all InspireNOLA, KIPP New Orleans Schools and Collegiate Academies high schools. Additional schools include L.B. Landry High School, Benjamin Franklin High School, Sarah T. Reed High School, Cohen High School, New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, Rooted School, Warren Easton Charter High School, Sophie B. Wright High School and The Net’s two high schools. And ninth to 12th grade students at Lusher Charter School, Morris Jeff Community School and Martin Luther King Jr. High School.

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...