Students at 42 Charter School arrive on the first day of in-person classes since COVID-19 shuttered schools in March of 2020. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

NOLA Public Schools officials say a data error led them to drastically underreport COVID-19 related quarantines over the last two weeks, according to a Monday press release that accompanied the district’s weekly COVID-19 data report.

The error resulted in the number of reported quarantines being barely more than the number of cases among students and staff, even though under district policy, all unvaccinated close contacts of a confirmed case are supposed to quarantine. 

The majority of cases reported over the last two weeks were in elementary schools, where the majority of students are under 12 and ineligible for the vaccine.

The district has apparently fixed the data problem. Monday’s report showed 45 “active” cases of COVID-19 — meaning they were diagnosed in the past two weeks — that have resulted in 536 people quarantining.

“The increase in quarantined individuals over the data reported for the week of Oct. 2-8 triggered a review of the previous reporting period’s quarantine numbers,” spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote. That review identified a data error in which quarantines for unvaccinated individuals were not accounted for.”

That also led the district to correct its COVID Case Tracker data from last week. Instead of the initially reported 80 people in quarantine, district officials now say 442 individuals were quarantined in that time period. 

It’s unclear what exactly led to the underreporting. Asked for more details, district officials did not immediately respond. 

During those two weeks, the district reported noticeably low ratios of cases to quarantines. Asked about those low numbers last week, spokesman Richard Rainey said the district’s proactive work in encouraging testing before returning to school after Hurricane Ida may have helped.

“Our school community did a tremendous job of testing students and staff before they returned to classrooms after Hurricane Ida, which likely kept COVID cases and exposure very low for reopened schools,” Rainey wrote in an email Friday. “Due to Hurricane Ida, our community had an unintended two week quarantine period, as a result of many people leaving  the city. Therefore, any bump in COVID-19 cases associated with students coming back to school was essentially mitigated.”

It now appears the low number of quarantines reported was due to the data error, district officials explained Monday. They also said they were not surprised.

“These updated quarantine numbers are not unexpected, given the District’s full population of public school students and number of active cases reported across the District,” Alfonzo said. 

Last week, Lens reporter Philip Kiefer explained how the district and its schools carry out contact tracing to determine who should be quarantined. It’s complicated and, in a district made up entirely of independent charter schools like NOLA Public Schools, it varies somewhat from school to school. 

Of the 45 cases reported this week, 41 are among students and four are among staff. The cases are spread across 27 campuses.

Four campuses have over 50 people in quarantine. That includes Akili Academy, Bricolage Academy, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School and Paul Habans Charter School. Bethune has 101 people in quarantine from five reported cases. All four are elementary schools, where most students are under 12.

The district has reported 1,343 cases among staff and students so far this school year, including those cases no longer considered active. 

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...