From September 2020, a 42 Charter School staffer gives a student a face mask on the first day students were allowed back in class since the pandemic closed school buildings six months ago. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

Known COVID-19 cases tripled in NOLA Public Schools over the last week — from 33 “active” cases among staff and students the district reported last week to 99 reported Monday — in the second week students are back in school after Hurricane Ida shuttered schools for weeks

While this week’s numbers are notably higher than the district’s first post-Ida report on Monday, Sept. 20, they are significantly lower than the 453 cases and 4,657 quarantines reported the week before the storm

Of the 99 cases — considered “active” because they have been diagnosed in the past two weeks — 10 are among staff and 89 are among students. The cases are spread across 34 schools in the district, slightly less than half of the district’s charter schools. It’s unclear how many schools reported to the district, though they are required to. Some schools have reopened virtually due to storm damage and others are just reopening this week.

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. strongly encouraged — and some schools required — students to have a negative COVID test before returning to the classroom after the storm. That likely prevented several classroom exposures and resulting quarantines. 

“Keeping on top of the data will help keep the coronavirus at bay and ensure our schools remain among the safest places for our children to be,” Lewis was quoted as saying in a district release Monday afternoon. “I encourage everyone to please keep up the great work and continue to get tested every week.”

District officials also said some test results may have lagged behind over the past two weeks as schools are required to complete a number of steps, including contact tracing, before reporting to the state and district. The storm damaged 29 district-owned schools and several had to reopen virtually, which could have affected reporting as well. 

A weekly schools case report from the Louisiana Department of Health last Wednesday showed only 26 schools in Orleans Parish, including public and private, reported to the state. Before the storm about 80 schools were reporting weekly.

Citywide, testing plummeted by 90 percent during Hurricane Ida and its aftermath, which included days and weeks without electricity in the city, but it began to rebound last week and is back to — if not higher than — pre-storm levels, according to city data

The district has restarted its testing partnership program, where many schools host nonprofit or medical testing sites. More than 13,500 people were tested two weeks ago and last week, officials said they tested 11,236 people.

The vast majority of student cases this week were reported from K-8 schools.

Children 12 and older are currently eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. The district’s high schools are requiring students who participate in extracurricular activities to get the vaccine or receive weekly testing, and many schools have the same requirement for staff. Vaccinated students and staff who were exposed to a case can return to the classroom after testing negative — a significant change in quarantine measures from last school year that will also affect reporting numbers.

But children 11 years of age and younger cannot yet receive the vaccine. However, Pfizer leaders have said they will submit data to the FDA in the next few days to ask for approval to administer the vaccine to children between the ages of five and 11.

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...