A 42 Charter School staff member holds hand sanitizer to offer students as they return to the first day of school Sept. 17, 2020, nearly six months after the pandemic closed schools.

Orleans Parish School Board members voted on Tuesday to support a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all NOLA Public Schools district employees. 

Because the board’s seven members were meeting as a Committee of the Whole, the policy will still face one more vote at the OPSB’s full meeting on Thursday.

“That was easy. Thank you very much,” said policy chair Olin Parker after a unanimous vote by the board quickly moved the mandate forward.

The district mandate, proposed last week by NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr. would affect district staff in 13 departments at OPSB headquarters and family resource centers across the city. That amounts to about 200 people, according to district officials. Should the board approve it, those employees will be required to be fully vaccinated by the end of September or face disciplinary action, which could ultimately lead to changes in job assignments, suspension or termination. 

The vote comes a day after the district released a report showing 299 active COVID cases among students and staff, leading to more than 3,000 quarantines. Including cases no longer considered active, the cumulative total is 370 for the brand-new 2021-2022 school year, with many schools just opening this week. That’s compared to 774 for all of the 2020-2021 school year. 

If approved, the district vaccine mandate would not apply to employees who work for schools in the all-charter district, a much larger group than those who work directly for the district. Independent charter operators have been tasked with making their own decisions regarding COVID mandates. 

But many schools have opted to implement their own mandates. On Monday, the InspireNOLA charter network that runs 8 schools in New Orleans — over 5,500 students — mandated all of its employees to be vaccinated unless they request and are granted a disability-based, medical or religious exemption. Exempt employees will be tested weekly. The network also announced that anyone attending a school event, including athletic events, will need proof of vaccination or a recent negative test. 

The three-school charter network Crescent City Schools first announced an employee mandate in June. And late last month, district high schools, including those in the InspireNOLA network, announced that they would mandate vaccinations or weekly tests for employees

The state and local government bodies have recently enacted a number of mitigation measures intended to slow the spread of the highly infectious delta variant, which has caused an alarming spike in case rates and hospitalizations. Following months of relaxed restrictions as vaccines became widely available, infections began to surge again last month. 

In late July, the school district, which had previously said that masks would only be required in schools for unvaccinated students and staff, changed course, requiring masks for anyone entering school buildings regardless of vaccination status. New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, who initially responded to the fourth COVID wave with an indoor vaccine “advisory,” reinstated a mask mandate on July 30. She was followed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who issued a statewide mask mandate early this month.

And on Monday, a city policy requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test in order to enter certain businesses went into effect, making New Orleans one of the first cities in the country with such a requirement. 

New Orleans schools have not yet issued a vaccine mandate for students who are 12 or older and eligible for a vaccine, other than those involved in after-school sports and clubs. But the district and charter operators are ramping up voluntary vaccination efforts, holding on-campus vaccination events. 

Tiffany Delcour, chief operating officer at NOLA Public Schools, reported over 1,000 students have gotten shots at vaccination events since the beginning of the school year. 

“We’re one of the few school districts in Louisiana that has had a blitz of vaccination efforts across our schools, and we’re going to hear more and more about staff vaccinations being mandated by our schools,” she said.