NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

More than 30 people, many of them parents of New Orleans school children, appeared at an Orleans Parish School Board meeting Thursday evening to demand the NOLA Public Schools district expand distance learning options in response to an ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases. 

Coalitions of parents and activists, including Erase the Board NOLA, all came out to the Thursday meeting for what many said was a life or death matter.

“You have kids in hospitals, kids that are sick, kids that are quarantining, you’re not giving parents the opportunity to prepare for childcare. A virtual option is needed now. We don’t have a choice,” said Jess Martell. 

The district this week reported record-high numbers of COVID cases among students and school staff, with more than 299 active cases as of last Friday, though officials have noted that 102 of those people had yet to enter a school campus. Including those no longer considered active, the district has tallied 370 cases so far in this new school year, nearly half as many as it reported for all of the 2021-2022 school year. At least 3,004 people are currently quarantined, according to the latest NOLA Public Schools data. 

The spike among New Orleans students and school staff reflects a broader pattern throughout the city and state resulting from the highly contagious delta variant, which has led to increased hospitalizations among both adults and children.  

Last school year, much milder spikes led to periodic school shutdowns, and district charter schools offered expanded remote learning programs for students. But NOLA Public Schools officials are intent on keeping as many students as possible in school buildings this year, saying that precautions — quarantines, mandated mask-wearing at all schools, social distancing and vaccinations for staff and eligible students age 12 and over — will curb school infections. 

The school board on Thursday passed a vaccine mandate for about 200 people directly employed by the NOLA Public Schools district. Most of those employees are already vaccinate, officials said Thursday. But the remainder will be required to have gotten their shots by the end of next month.

That measure will not apply to school teachers, administrators and support staff employed by the city’s independent charter schools. But charter operators are increasingly adopting their own mandates.

Still, many attendees at Thursday night’s meeting said the mitigation measures are not enough.

“My children are grown but I wouldn’t dare send them to any of these schools,” said Sandra “18” Wheeler Hester, a longtime longtime voice in the community and well-known critic of New Orleans public officials. 

Other speakers said the threat of COVID exposure is compounded by several factors including a lack of communication between school administration, teachers, families, and the child that is exposed. 

Stacy Howard said her daughter was pulled out of her school bus hours before the school board meeting after a potential exposure and was not told why. 

“They called her off the bus, and still had yet to tell her what’s going on,” Howard said. 

Bridgette Martin also spoke about communication problems after a potential exposure at her child’s school. 

“I showed up to get my child, and the office staff don’t even know why I’m there because they feel like they don’t have to let the entire staff know there’s an outbreak at their school,” she said. 

‘We have the tools in place’

In the spring of 2020, just days after the first confirmed COVID cases were reported in Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards shut down schools throughout the state. At the time, attention was focused on the virus’ effects on the elderly who were most vulnerable to succumb to its wrath.

But the delta variant is much more contagious than earlier strains. While rates of severe complications are still low among children, much higher numbers of children are becoming infected. And pediatric hospitalizations have surged to levels not seen earlier in the pandemic. 

But NOLA Public Schools officials have said that schools are safe for children when they are following safety protocols.

Earlier Thursday, NOLA Public Schools officials held a news conference, seeking to reassure parents in anticipation of the evening meeting.

District Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delacour detailed the numerous health and safety protocols for students and staff.

“We have the tools in place. We have the mitigation measures,” she said. 

At the press conference, NOLA Public Schools Medical Advisor Dr. Benjamin Springgate acknowledged that the numbers, particularly the number of quarantines, may be alarming to parents, but said they actually show that district schools are being appropriately cautious.

“The number last week may seem high but this is good,” because the quarantines mean potentially infected people are not in school. “At this time we do not see uncontrolled or unmitigated transmission in schools and [the Louisiana Department of Health] has not called for any school closures.”  

New Orleans schools are pushing to increase rates of vaccination among staff and students.

The district vaccine mandate passed on Thursday will not apply to people employed by the city’s independent charter schools. But a number of charter operators are adopting their own mandates. In a Wednesday press release, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools said that 15 charter operators, representing about half the schools in the city, are implementing vaccine mandates for staff.

But distance learning remains an option for students who are quarantining and those with medical conditions that make them particularly vulnerable, following a consultation with a doctor. (The distance learning eligibility request form is available on the NOLA Public Schools website.)

“If you have a concern, go to your child’s school. Go to our website. The form is there. Go to your child’s physician,” said superintendent, Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr. at the morning press conference. 

He also repeatedly emphasized the huge role the schools play themselves in addressing parent concerns and how creative administrators have been when facing challenges from the pandemic day in and day out. “If you come to tonight’s school board meeting and haven’t gone to your child’s school to have your conversation, you’ve missed step one.”

But parent Bee Turland — who said she is disabled and immunocompromised — said she wasn’t made aware of the process for requesting virtual school before the beginning of the school year. She and her husband have four children between the ages of 9 and 17. The oldest has health issues, she said. All except the youngest are fully vaccinated.

After figuring out the process on her own, Turland said she has been working on getting the required documentation to submit the request form. Meanwhile, she has pulled her children out of school 

“The schools’ insistence on continuing to operate as if nothing is wrong is tone-deaf at best and dangerous at worst,” Turland said. 

Medical exemptions for distance learning aren’t guaranteed. Schools have the power to review and deny the request even after the form is signed by a physician, but parents can appeal those decisions to the district.