The entrance of Firstline Live Oak Elementary.

When the Louisiana Department of Education announced last month that school districts could stop quarantining asymptomatic students who had been exposed to COVID, the NOLA Public Schools district quickly came out against the policy. 

“It will immediately increase the risk of COVID-19 transmittal within school buildings,” the district said in a prepared statement responding to the state policy change. The New Orleans school district would stick to its current quarantine guidelines — requiring unvaccinated close contacts to quarantine — and would not be implementing the change, which state officials said was optional.

The reaction may seem confusing given past statements from school and city officials, who have repeatedly said they do not believe substantial COVID transmission is occurring in New Orleans classrooms. 

City of New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno told The Lens that based on what she’s seen from school contact tracing data, classroom transmission is rare when strict distancing, masking and quarantine guidelines are all followed together. That’s why she “strongly disagrees” with the Louisiana Department of Education’s decision to allow school districts to make quarantine optional for young students. 

“You have to follow basic health guidance. There’s always a middle ground that is beneficial.”

But it’s hard to know exactly what those officials know about classroom transmission. NOLA-PS doesn’t publish data on in-classroom transmission, and contact tracing procedures, used to determine who had contact with an infected student, aren’t always clear to teachers and students.

Contact tracing used to determine quarantines

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a close contact is someone who has spent more than 15 minutes within six feet of an infected individual. For students in K-12 educational settings, it’s 15 minutes within three feet, as long as everyone was wearing masks.

Those contacts are used to determine who should quarantine, although the specifics quickly get complicated. But for the purposes of evaluating classroom transmission, the hard part is actually documenting those close contacts: in a school, that means tracking contacts in the classroom, on a school bus, in lunch rooms, or during extracurriculars.

The NOLA Public Schools district is made up entirely of independent charter schools, not district-run schools. Though NOLA-PS put out guidelines over the summer, the actual work of contact tracing is carried out by those independent charters. 

According to those guidelines, a student can be identified as a close contact in several ways: “all unvaccinated students and staff who have been in a classroom with a confirmed case … or otherwise have had a close contact (defined as within 6 feet for 15 or more minutes) … will need to be quarantined at home,” the guidance reads. But the guidance goes on to say that in some cases, not all members of a classroom would be identified as close contacts.

As district spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo explained it in an email to The Lens, it depends on the class. In many schools, younger students stay in “static groups” throughout the day. According to the guidance, those groups are supposed to be maintained during lunch and extracurriculars. Older students, on the other hand, move from class to class with different groups, often with seating charts for each class. 

“If a teacher or student within a ‘static group’ is a confirmed case and there is not a detailed seating chart and understanding of how students move throughout the classroom during the day, this could require the unvaccinated members of the ‘static group’ to quarantine,” Alfonzo said. “For schools using seating charts: If a teacher or student is a confirmed case or symptomatic person with a known exposure all unvaccinated teachers, school staff and students who maintained less than 6 feet of social distancing for 15 minutes or more may be required to quarantine.”

However, relying on seating charts alone leaves the possibility open that some close contacts from other parts of the day — in hallways between classes, for example — would be missed, or that the seating chart itself wouldn’t capture contacts between students who might move from their designated places within classrooms. 

Alfonzo said that in most cases, school nurses are responsible for contact tracing to determine any contacts outside of the seating charts. Individual charter policies can also vary from the guidance, and charters who spoke to the Lens described more expansive contact identification.

Scott Satchfield, the director of communications for ReNEW Schools, told the Lens over email that when a student tests positive, the network’s schools quarantine more students than a strict reading of the “close contact” guidance calls for.

“The student’s class or pod are quarantined as close contacts.”

In emails with the Lens, Sabrina Pence, CEO of Firstline Schools, wrote “We have implemented the practice of seating charts for all indoor spaces (classrooms, meal time, busses, etc.) that include appropriate social distancing to limit close contacts and we implement social distancing during our recess time.”

She added: “Generally, we interview a teacher to make sure that the seating chart itself was followed.”

That seating chart has been in place since Hurricane Ida, Pence said, but in that time Firstline administrators haven’t been told about an instance of it not being followed. 

“That being said, we have had significantly less cases than we did prior to the hurricane. Also, we only implement this in grades 3-8, as our little ones are often more on the move… We have had one case in a 1st grade class so far and quarantined the entire class.”

What evidence is there that classroom transmission is rare? 

Schools are supposed to report multiple cases of COVID to the Louisiana Department of Health and the NOLA-PS Medical Advisors. The NOLA-PS guidance says that in some cases, contact tracers from LDH or Children’s Hospital might also help investigate outbreaks, although it doesn’t specify under what circumstances that would take place, and Alfonzo didn’t elaborate.

The Lens asked LDH whether the contact tracing guidelines would be able to identify connections between multiple cases in a class. 

“The number of cases in a class alone is not an indicator of transmission within that setting,” said LDH spokesperson Kevin Litten. “In situations where there are multiple cases in a classroom, despite all public health guidance being followed, an epidemiologist would work with the school to determine if transmission is occurring in the classroom or if cases have had close contact with a case in another school setting, in their household, or in their community. If cases have had no contact with another cases outside of the classroom setting, this may indicate transmission within the classroom.”

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, city of New Orleans health director, said that based on data she’s seen from the district, she’s confident in the assessment that in-class transmission is rare.

Her argument goes like this: if in-class transmission was common, you’d expect to see many students test positive after being identified as close contacts. But Avegno said that those close contacts have tested positive at a similar rate as the overall community positivity rate, suggesting that they didn’t pick up the virus from the contact.

Based on her conversations with the district and school leaders, “When [schools] have a positive case, very few kids that get quarantined because they were sitting next to [the infected student] in the cohort end up testing positive.” 

That data is not publicly available, however, so the Lens has not been able to verify that description.

That would hold true even if contact tracing was missing some close contacts. “If Johnny was truly the vector,” said Avegno, “you’d expect a large number of that class to be positive, more than whatever the percent positivity rate would be, and that would be pretty clear. And we’re just not seeing that happen.”

Avegno also pointed to national data. 

“The previous year, not just locally, but nationally, consistently, when you looked at schools that were really mitigating, they all reported low incidence of low classroom transmission.”

So far, there have only been a few weeks of school to gather data on delta and school transmission, though. Delta doesn’t appear to be any more dangerous to children in relative terms, compared to previous strains, but because it is so transmissible, it is likely to spread more readily in classrooms.

But Avegno said that she hasn’t seen any signs of changes in classroom transmission. 

“I think it might take a little time for the data to suss out, but I didn’t see it before Ida, and I’m not seeing it after Ida, that there seems to be a whole lot of spread within classrooms.”

LDH agreed. “There are no data showing current public health recommendations are less effective at preventing COVID-19 infections for individuals attending in-person school during the delta surge,” said Litten. “There was an increased number of cases reported by K-12 schools at the beginning of this school year, but most cases could be attributed to exposure occurring outside of the school.”

Avegno stressed, however, that the lack of classroom transmission isn’t universal. It only holds true when schools are actually implementing multiple mitigation measures. 

In New Orleans, she said, “It’s pretty easy to see that a school situation is going to have a lot more protective measures mandated and enforced than you going to your friend’s place for dinner.”

In schools that don’t have those measures, outbreaks appear to be much more common. A recent CDC study from Arizona found that schools without mask requirements were about 3.5 times more likely to experience outbreaks than schools with requirements. 

“If you were doing this the right way, the risk of transmission seems to be low, whether you were in Louisiana or elsewhere,” said Avegno.