In its first data release since Hurricane Ida closed schools for weeks, the NOLA Public Schools reported on Monday that it is tracking 34 “active” cases of COVID-19 among staff and students, meaning cases diagnosed in about the past two weeks. Thirty-three people are quarantining due to exposure to those individuals, according to the report. 

The numbers are a significant decline from the hundreds of active cases the district reported last month, during the first few weeks of classes across the city. Testing has dropped throughout the region since Ida, but district schools have been hosting on-campus mass testing events. 

“More than 13,500 students and staff were tested Monday through Friday last week through NOLA-PS’ own testing program and its partnership with the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH),” an official press release stated Monday afternoon. “The positivity test rate among those tested is approximately 1 percent.”

However, the press release notes that the case data reported Monday comes from individual schools, which are required to perform contact tracing prior to reporting their numbers to the school district, likely causing a data lag, especially with tests performed later in the week. 

Hurricane Ida struck the city in late August and forced schools to close for more than two weeks. Schools have slowly reopened over the last week and the majority of city schools will be back in person by Sept. 22, Lewis has said. Due to damage from Ida, a handful of schools are starting virtually.

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. Additionally, the COVID data is likely going to be less reliable, at least temporarily, because of the post-Ida testing drop. 

Because of those concerns, many schools in the city were requiring students to be COVID-free before returning to the classroom.

The city as a whole is averaging 83 new cases each day, which is lower than before the storm, according to data released on the city government’s website. But according to city data, average tests per day in the city plummeted by nearly 90 percent after Hurricane Ida, from over 4,200 in late August to less than 500 early this month. Testing has begun to rebound, but the average is still down about 40 percent, according to NOLA Ready data.

Of the 34 active cases the school district reported Monday, seven are among staff members and 27 are among students. Those cases are spread across 19 schools — about one-quarter of the city’s public schools. And while the 33 people in quarantine is a relatively low number, it is important to note that children 12 and older and adults who are fully vaccinated are following different quarantine protocols this school year. 

The week before the hurricane, district officials reported 453 cases and 4,657 students and staff quarantining in the roughly 45,000 student school district.

While the district has not released weekly reports since last month, schools apparently continued to self-report data on students and staff who were infected after the storm. In the weeks following Ida, the district received reports of 333 cases. That would bring the total known case count for the current school year to 1,073. That’s compared to 774 for the full 2020-2021 school year. 

“I’d like to stress the importance of not letting up and having your children tested on a weekly basis,” district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. was quoted as saying in Monday’s press release. “This is the best way to help ensure we keep the coronavirus out of our school community.”

The district is also encouraging vaccinations for eligible students over 12 years old. All of the city’s high schools require students to receive the vaccine to participate in extracurricular activities and many schools have vaccine mandates for staff as well. 

Vaccine eligibility is still limited to the district’s oldest students, those 12 and over. But Pfizer, the developer of one of the vaccines approved for use in the U.S., announced Monday that its vaccine had been found safe and effective for children between the ages of 5- and 11-years-old. They will soon seek FDA approval for that age group.

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...