Gov. John Bel Edwards’ recent order repealing the statewide mask mandate excluded schools, though it did include a special provision that allows school districts to opt out of requiring masks if they follow CDC quarantine guidelines for COVID-19 — but no state agency is tracking school compliance, The Lens has learned. 

The quarantine provision of Edwards’ latest COVID-19 emergency order is especially noteworthy because it directly conflicts with a Louisiana Department of Education policy enacted last month that allows schools to skirt CDC quarantine guidelines if they choose. 

The policy change comes as families and school officials across the country await FDA approval for a COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds, who represent roughly half the school population. In New Orleans, they’ve had a majority of reported COVID-19 cases in schools over the last several weeks. Officials expect approval in a matter of weeks.

The CDC recommends that any student or school staff member who is unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated should quarantine for 14 days if identified as a close in-school contact with someone who tests positive. (The agency says the time can be reduced if the person receives a negative COVID test after several days of quarantining.)  But the new Louisiana Department of Education quarantine policy, called “parent-choice,” allows parents of students identified as close contacts to immediately send them back to class if the district adopted the policy. 

State education officials argued the parent-choice quarantine policy was necessary for childrens’ educational well-being because many were missing several days of school due to quarantining. But other state officials, such as State Health Officer Joe Kanter denounced the change and said it would “put kids at risk.” 

For weeks The Lens has asked LDOE officials which districts opted into the parent-choice quarantine policy. Several have, according to news reports, though the NOLA Public Schools district came out fiercely against it. (NOLA Public Schools has also decided to keep its mask mandate, and New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s order this week repealing a citywide mask mandate still requires masks inside K-12 schools.)

But on Wednesday, Department of Education spokesman Matt Johnson said the state doesn’t know which districts enacted the optional-quarantine policy. 

“We don’t have a list of the districts enacting parent-choice,” he said Wednesday. 

Nor do the Louisiana Department of Health or State Fire Marshal, officials from those offices confirmed.

“We don’t track that,” LDH spokesman Kevin Litten wrote in an email, noting he thinks some people assume LDH is responsible for enforcement. 

“Our office has never been involved with Covid regulations in schools, only businesses,” Ashley Rodrigue with the State Fire Marshal said via email. “That has been managed by LDOE.”

In other words, the state doesn’t know which school districts that have over the past several days made gone mask-optional are following the quarantine protocols required in Edwards’ order. Asked about the apparent gap in oversight, Edwards’ spokeswoman Christina Stephens said it is in the hands of local school districts, some of which are run by elected school boards whose members have resisted or criticized COVID-19 mitigation measures

The LDOE has also deferred to local officials.

“School districts have the ultimate say on if they will opt out of the mask mandate for schools by using the CDC quarantine guidance,” Stephens wrote in an email. “They are communicating directly with their parents about this decision and how it impacts their students.”

In a Thursday interview, Tulane University epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig said the lack of state oversight is “a mistake.” She also criticized Edwards’ decision to drop the mask mandate. 

“I personally think we should still have indoor mask mandates for everybody — at a lower point in transmission is when masks will do the most good to prevent infections that will launch this next surge,” Hassig said. “From a public health prevention perspective, keeping it in place when infections are still low is the way we may be able to get ahead of a surge.” 

St. Tammany drops mask mandate, says it will start following quarantine guidance

At a special meeting Wednesday night, the St. Tammany Parish School Board voted to drop its mask mandate. The school district, which took state Superintendent of Education Dr. Cade Brumley up on his offer to make quarantine optional last month, says it will now follow CDC quarantine protocols.

“Beginning Thursday, October 28, masks are highly recommended but not required in STPPS schools and buildings,” the district’s website states in an update posted Wednesday.

The district’s site also says “CDC quarantine and isolation guidelines were added,” but that update is not contained in the most recent COVID guidelines document last updated Sept. 30.

And kids shouldn’t leave their masks at home just yet — they are still required on school buses, under a national mandate that applies to public transportation.

St. Tammany Parish Schools Director of Communications Meredith Mendez said they have updated quarantine guidelines.

“We did update the website with the guidelines, which links to the same guidelines listed in the Governor’s proclamation,” Mendez wrote in an email. 

The Lens also asked whether students currently in school under the parent-choice quarantine policy — meaning their parents opted to let them return to school rather than quarantine — were notified and kept out of school.

“Since the policy goes into effect today, the students who previously opted out of quarantine by parent choice did not need to be contacted- it is only moving forward,” Mendez wrote.

Hassig said that decision goes against the spirit of the quarantine guidelines. 

“Those kids that were exposed prior to their change in policy should be in quarantine because they were exposed. I’m not surprised but it certainly is not keeping in principles of the guidelines,” she said. “They will further infect their classmates if they were in fact infected and start a snowballing effect. It’s really, really misguided.”

Asked to clarify whether there are students in class today who should be quarantined under the CDC’s policy, Mendez wrote, “It is not retroactive.”

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...