The line for COVID-19 tests wraps around the block at the International School of Louisiana, where a negative test is required to return to school after Hurricane Ida. (Photo submitted by Caitrin Gladow)

On a wet Tuesday morning — as rain from the remnants of Hurricane Nicholas flooded some New Orleans streets — public school students across the city were out with their families hoping to obtain what are now the most critical back-to-school supplies: negative COVID-19 tests.

Following an extended school closure after Hurricane Ida, many New Orleans schools are requiring students to be COVID-free in order to start class again.

A powerful Category 4 hurricane, Ida roared ashore Aug. 29 and battered Louisiana’s Bayou and River Parishes. New Orleans saw less damage, but hurricane-force winds caused a citywide blackout. It took more than ten days to restore power to 98 percent of city businesses and households. The storm and its aftermath closed schools — which had just started the 2021-2022 school year last month — for more than two weeks. 

New Orleans schools are only starting to reopen this week. NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has said the “majority” of schools should reopen by Sept. 22. A few schools with significant storm damage will reopen remotely.

NOLA Public Schools officials are “strongly encouraging” a test before returning. But the district is made up entirely of independent charter schools, some of which are requiring a negative test before students come back. There’s no central list, but one of the city’s largest networks — Firstline Schools, which oversees five schools — is requiring negative tests.

International School of Louisiana is also one of those schools requiring negative tests, and this week, it was offering on-campus testing for its students. The line to get tested wrapped around the block Tuesday afternoon as students and their parents waited in the rain with umbrellas. One parent said it took about an hour to get to the testing area.

Epidemiologists are concerned that evacuations to hotels and with extended families, as well as emergency post-storm gatherings — at cooling centers, shelters and food kitchens — could result in higher COVID transmission. On top of that, the data the state collects on COVID is likely going to be less reliable, at least temporarily, because testing has dropped in the wake of the storm.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig, who works at Tulane University, said in a Tuesday interview that getting testing back online is crucial to understand case spread.

“Case counts are probably not the best marker because of how much infection is in a community because there is so little testing post storm,” Hassig said.

She pointed out many National Guard testing sites had shifted into supply sites, giving away water, meals and ice during Hurricane Ida relief.

“We are once again going to have a relatively limited view on where infection really is and looking at people presenting with symptoms is probably going to be our best information.”

School testing

Lee Lemond, an environmental scientist, started the Louisiana Coronavirus Data Twitter account in the early days of the pandemic. He is also a New Orleans public school parent. His 17-year-old daughter attends Benjamin Franklin Charter High School.

In a phone interview, Lemond said he was happy to see the increased focus on testing students before returning to the classroom.

“I deal with a lot of data so I guess my coping mechanism was to fall into a spreadsheet and look at it in numbers,” he said.

Franklin is not requiring students to get a negative test before returning. But the school was offering COVID-19 testing on Monday in advance of a planned in-person restart to classes on Tuesday. As it turned out, the in-person start was delayed due to problems with the school’s air-conditioning system. But the testing event went forward as planned. 

“We were hoping to get the test at school and the wait ended up being way too long for what she could wait for,” Lemond said on Tuesday. “I guess it worked out well that the AC was broken so we have this extra day.”

Along with the incentive of knowing whether they are infected with COVID, students are also being given a $25 cash incentive for getting a test. The money comes from a federal program through the Louisiana Department of Health, which is working in partnership with the school district. 

“We think the line was indicative of how many of our students wanted to get tested for the health of their community,” Franklin spokeswoman Eve Peyton said Wednesday.

“We were excited to see so many kids come out,” Peyton said, noting they tested over 600 students on Monday. “I think a lot of the kids were enjoying a chance to socialize post-storm.”

“It was our first time doing it,” she said. “I think we learned a few things.”

Franklin will continue offering weekly tests, like many other city schools, this school year.

After giving up on waiting in line Monday, Lemond’s daughter, who is vaccinated, got tested at a city site on Tuesday instead.

Remote instruction will begin for Franklin students on Thursday. They will return to in-person classes on Sept. 22. 

During virtual learning, Franklin’s campus will be open to students. They can work from the school’s cafeteria “if you have internet issues at home or simply want a change of scenery,” an email to families stated.

Lemond, like many families in Ida’s path, evacuated from the city. Extended power outages meant the evacuation went on longer than expected. 

“We went to Mobile first, and then we were actually with my mom and grandparents, it ended up being six of us,” he said. “There were six of us from 17- to 85-years-old and definitely it was a little more scary because it was the very few times we’ve been that close together — since we’ve been vaccinated.”  

“We were all shocked at the difference in masks there,” he said about Mobile. “After two days there we went to Orange beach and there were almost no masks at all.”

“I think that brought more concern, and need, for all of us to get tested,” he said.

Orleans Parish School Board member Olin Parker was also going through the testing process with his three kids this week.

“Two of them were tested yesterday, and we got their results this morning,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “We parked, we got out, I think there was one family in front of us and we got our noses swiped and went out.”

He said he’s proud of the district and school employees for transitioning quickly from storm recovery to preparing students to return to school.

“This is something that is not only not happening in most districts in Louisiana but in major districts across the country,” he said. “We’re ahead of the curve.”

“The fact that schools are taking this step before they return to school is showing that they are committed to keeping our kids safe so that we can have uninterrupted learning which is the best for kids.”

As of Wednesday, Lemond’s daughter was still waiting on her test results.

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...