Students at 42 Charter School arrive on the first day of in-person classes since COVID-19 shuttered schools in March of 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

As New Orleans hits near COVID-19 daily case records and tops test positivity rate records in its fourth surge of the virus amid the pandemic, the NOLA Public Schools district is reporting 116 “active” cases of COVID-19 among students and staff in the early days of the 2021-2022 school year. As a result of potential exposures, 638 students and staff are quarantining. 

However, of the 116 cases, officials said 63 of those people, or slightly more than half, had not been on campus. In a press release the district reported those cases were among 39 staff and 77 students, the district did not break down case data by staff and students in its public-facing tracker, as it did last school year.*

At least one neighboring parish is also seeing some COVID-19 cases in schools. St. Tammany Parish Public Schools has reported 54 student cases and 26 staff cases. The district has an enrollment of roughly 37,000 students. 

St. Bernard Parish Public Schools did not have case data available as of Monday. And Jefferson Parish Public Schools did not immediately respond to an inquiry. 

As of Monday, the Louisiana Department of Health hasn’t resumed weekly reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools at the parish level. 

The Monday report from NOLA Public Schools is the first since the 2021-2022 school year began. District officials said the cases are spread across 34 schools, some of which are not yet open to students. Some district schools have begun. Others will begin next week. 

The district’s top officials remain committed to keeping schools open — so long as mitigation measures, such as social distancing and mask wearing requirements are in place. Schools in the district — and around the state — will require anyone entering school buildings to wear a mask.

While there are no districtwide, or even school-wide, vaccine mandates for students, all of the district’s charter high schools have agreed to require the vaccine for students participating in extracurricular activities. Staff at those schools must also be vaccinated or receive weekly COVID tests. The requirements could be extended to middle schools, but schools likely focused their resources on high schools, which begin activities earlier in the school year.

But children 11-years-old and younger aren’t eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations, and the state is reporting rising case rates among children. 

“We have more children sick with COVID-19 than at any other time in the pandemic,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said at a Friday press conference.

Louisiana Department of Health Director Joe Kanter said children are “very effective spreaders of COVID-19.”

“We continue to see the largest transmission in the two youngest age groups,” he said Friday. “We are the epicenter of the national outbreak of the delta variant right now.”

Late last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics urged the FDA “to continue working aggressively towards authorizing safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines for children under age 12 as soon as possible.” Vaccine trials for children ages five to 11 currently underway.

“In our view, the rise of the Delta variant changes the risk-benefit analysis for authorizing vaccines in children,” president Lee Savio Beers wrote.

Beers encouraged the FDA to look at already available two-month trial data instead of waiting for six-month trial data to come out. “Waiting on a 6-month follow-up will significantly hinder the ability to reduce the spread of the hyper infectious COVID-19 Delta variant among this age group.”

The state’s official positivity rate for Orleans Parish came in at 12.2 percent, though city data now show a rate of 9.7 percent. The state data, though considered a better measurement, lag a week behind the city’s. 

But even health experts want to see students in school.

Dr. John Vanchiere, a Pediatric Infectious Disease Specialist based in Shreveport, also spoke at last week’s press conference. 

“I’ve talked with many of our educators and they’re working hard to balance two things — and that’s the safety of our children and education of our children,” he said. “The reality is yes there will be some bumps in the road. Some schools that may have to close. But the mitigation strategies we have are very effective in keeping kids safe — school is the best place for them right now.”

‘It’s going to be a tough go’

Some New Orleans schools have already had to quarantine in the city — due either to exposure or staff shortages from forced quarantines. One student case at Samuel Green Charter School, which is run by the Firstline Schools charter network, has led a classroom to quarantine. 

At another Firstline Schools campus, Phillis Wheatley in Mid-City, sixth, seventh and eighth grade students had to go virtual on Aug. 5, after just two days in the classroom. But it didn’t stem from student cases, Firstline CEO Sabrina Pence said Monday — it was a “critical staffing issue” resulting from infections among staff. She believes those happened while staff members were in the building for professional development. 

A few days after many schools began their annual teacher training sessions, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell implemented a mask “advisory” in the city as COVID-19 cases rose. NOLA Public Schools soon followed suit with a mandate.*

“We obviously implemented the mask mandate immediately but unfortunately we got caught,” Pence said. “We’ve had a couple teacher cases, so we did not have enough people to run the middle school.”

Four reported teacher cases led to five quarantines and without those nine staffers they were caught short staffed, Pence said. The middle school students will be remote for two weeks.

Encore Academy also delayed the start of its school year, due in part to earlier delays in teacher professional development training because of COVID-19 cases. The school also shifted a planned in-person parent orientation online. 

At Booker T. Washington High School, run by KIPP New Orleans Schools, eight cases have led to 174 quarantines. At KIPP East, 3 cases have led to 94 people quarantining and at Warren Easton Charter High School 21 cases have led to 57 quarantines.

While officials hope to keep kids in school, they acknowledge that there will be disruptions.

“I think it’s the right thing to do to keep kids in school but I think for the next month or so it’s going to be a tough go,” Pence said. “The key message on this is we need to wear masks.”

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis shared similar sentiments in a Monday letter to the staff, students and families. 

“To give our students the best opportunity to catch up and excel, NOLA-PS is committed to keeping our school buildings open, our teachers teaching and our students learning in the classroom, in person, full time, together. The well-known benefits of in-person learning for a child’s emotional and social development, and the access to resources like hot meals and mental health services, are irreplaceable,” he wrote, following up with a call for all eligible adults and students to get vaccinated.

*Correction: This article initially stated the district did not provide a breakdown of cases in students and staff. However, they provided that information in a press release. This article also initially incorrectly stated the timing of the district’s mask mandate.

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...