The Orleans Parish School Board central office, much reduced since Hurricane Katrina, is headquartered in Algiers. Credit: Jessica Williams

NOLA Public Schools officials are preparing to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to younger students as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves a shot for the currently ineligible age group, district leaders told Orleans Parish School Board members at their Tuesday committee meeting. 

Pfizer has requested approval for its vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11-years-old. 

“We anticipate that the FDA will provide an emergency use authorization for the Pfizer vaccine for five to 11 year olds during the last week of October,” district Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour told board members Tuesday. 

According to weekly data reports from the school district, cases among staff and students have recently been most prevalent in elementary schools, where the majority of children are ineligible for the vaccine. 

Delcour said that while the district hosted in-school vaccine events for middle and high school students they recognize the need for parents to accompany younger children for inoculations. For that reason they’ll focus their efforts on Saturday vaccination drives. They hope the first drive that can include kindergarten through fifth grade students can occur Nov. 6.

Additionally, the district plans to host a town hall for parents with City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno and other pediatric specialists during the first week of November. 

Delcour also said that because COVID-19 case numbers have been improving in the city, the district is relaxing some of its mitigation guidelines. Schools may now use cafeterias for meals and indoor assembly space can also be used again. Though there may continue to be some restrictions on events that include outside visitors.

Though cases have remained relatively low, there are still a significant number of students in quarantine, which the district recently underreported due to a “data error” officials said Monday. 

The district continues to offer COVID-19 testing to students on a weekly basis, Delcour said at the Tuesday meeting. She said 20,000 students are enrolled in the program — meaning their parents have consented to testing — though not that many participate every week. For example, during the first week of October, the district tested just over 15,000 students. 

Delcour also gave a brief update on facilities, noting repairs for an overnight fire at Eisenhower Elementary School are underway. The fire caused such extensive smoke damage to the second floor of the facility that students in those classrooms will move to the old Habans Elementary School while repairs are completed. Students on the first floor, which was mostly unaffected, can return to school Monday, she said.

“Eisenhower has really good firewalls — the fire had nearly smothered itself by the time the fire department arrived,” she said. 

She also told board members that the first phase of repairs at Frederick Douglass High School — the school most severely damaged by Hurricane Ida — would focus on the least damaged classrooms and aim to be complete by winter break. The board approved a $306,710 contract for that work. 

“Phase II — windows blown out, floors needing work, electrical repairs — it was extensive,” she said. “We think we’ll be able to complete phase II by the summer of 2022.”

Charter renewals

Interim Chief Schools Accountability Officer Litouri Smith informed board members the district was finishing up important steps in its “comprehensive review” process. Charter schools that do not meet the district’s academic, operational and financial standards for an automatic contract renewal must go through this process. 

The comprehensive review allows the superintendent to take additional factors into account, “including but not limited to academic outcomes across a variety of student populations, enrollment, organizational leadership, and financial and organizational compliance.” This year there are six schools that failed to meet the renewal criteria. (Elan Academy is one, but is included on a technicality because it has never received a state rating.)

Smith said the district has just completed interviews with those schools’ leaders and board representatives. Now, district staff are compiling and analyzing school data for renewal recommendations. Those recommendations will be made at the Nov. 18 board meeting. 

Moving forward, Smith said next year’s renewal decisions could be even more complicated. That’s because, for the second year in a row, the state’s top school board voted to cancel the A-F state letter grades. The decision still requires federal approval, though the State Superintendent has expressed confidence the waiver request will be approved.

“We need to look at how that might impact the [Charter School Accountability Framework] and 2022-2023 renewals,” Smith said. 

Elan Academy is going through the comprehensive renewal process for this very reason. As a small school that opened with students too young to take state tests, it  has no letter grade on record. The first year it had enough students to test was the spring of 2020 — when the pandemic shuttered school buildings and cancelled state testing. 

New policy and resolution

Orleans Parish School Board member J.C. Romero introduced a “Family Engagement and Rights” policy for first reading on Tuesday. The move appears to attempt to fill parents’ requests for an anti-retaliation policy. It defines retaliation and a series of “legally protected” actions, such as filing a complaint against a school or participating in an investigation into a complaint at a school.  

“Schools shall not retaliate against any student, parent or legal guardian, or employee for participating in legally protected conduct as defined in Section A(3) of this policy,” it states.

The policy includes a section allowing the district to act with warning notices or other actions if the policy is violated. 

Romero also introduced a resolution asking the Louisiana Department of Education to consider making it easier for English Learners to earn high school diplomas. There was no discussion but the board voted to move the resolution to Thursday’s full board meeting.

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...