NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters. (Marta Jewson/The Lens) Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

More than 80 schools in New Orleans will be offering cash incentives to students and staff who participate in on-site COVID testing, officials announced on Tuesday. 

In partnership with the Louisiana Department of Health, the federally-funded program is “one of the best tools we have to combat this virus in our community,” said Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr. at a Tuesday press conference at the NET Charter High School in Gentilly. 

The district is offering $25 for an initial test and $10 for subsequent weekly tests. The payments will be made on virtual e-cards.

“This is a tremendous resource to help keep our schools COVID free and help our families and staff monitor their own health,” said Chief Operating Officer, Tiffany Delcour. “This is the largest testing program in public schools in the state of Louisiana.”

The program began on Monday, and the first round of results have already been delivered electronically to families. As the program rolls out, families can expect results to be given within 24 hours. 

In its weekly data report released Monday, the NOLA Public Schools district reported 453 cases among students and staff, an increase of 154 from the prior report. More than 4,600 students and staff were quarantined due to potential exposures, according to the report, up from just over 3,000 the previous week. 

On Monday, New Orleans Charter Science & Math High School — which has reported 13 cases so far this school year and 47 people in quarantine this week — announced that all students would be attending virtual learning until Sept. 7 due to “operational challenges related to COVID-19 absences,” according to the school website.

The numbers in the first few weeks of school have prompted some parents to call for the district to expand virtual learning programs, which are now largely available only to students with conditions that make them particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19. District officials  maintain that vaccinations, testing, and contact tracing are key to combating the virus. If families need virtual accommodations they should speak directly with their individual schools to sort out the process

“Students learn best when they can be with their teachers and their friends,” Lewis said Tuesday. “It’s crucial for people to understand that these numbers reflect spread in the broader community and not our schools.”

COVID vaccines are available for anyone 12 and older under an emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and schools in the NOLA Public Schools district have been holding regular vaccination events. While many city schools are requiring that staff members be vaccinated, the only existing student mandates apply to district high school students enrolled in extracurricular activities

On Monday, the FDA gave full approval of the Pfizer COVID vaccine for those 16 and older, opening up the potential for student vaccine mandates, but it’s not clear when that may happen. 

A statewide mandate would require the Louisiana Department of Health to add the shot to its list of required inoculations for students. In the meantime, school districts are allowed to add the vaccine to their own immunization schedules, as public universities in the state have done. As of Monday, an LDH spokesman told The Lens that he did not know of any K-12 districts that had taken the step. 

In his remarks on Tuesday, Lewis gave no indication that the NOLA Public Schools district plans to make a request, seeming to suggest that it would wait for a statewide mandate. 

The district is “looking forward to the day that COVID -19 vaccination is added to the list of required immunizations in schools,” Lewis said.