COVID-19 vaccinations at a school vaccine event in June 2021.

The NOLA Public Schools district will require students five years of age and older to get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by Feb. 1. School officials hope the mandate will ensure students are fully vaccinated by the time Carnival season begins, city and district officials announced at a joint press conference Thursday afternoon. 

The school deadline aligns with new city vaccine rules announced Thursday. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said that beginning Jan. 3,* children ages 5 to 11 will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to enter restaurants and other businesses, just as those older than 12 are required to now. Beginning in February, they will have to show proof of two doses.

The announcements come as case numbers — which have been low for months — have begun to rise in the city and the state and as more cases of the newly discovered omicron variant, which is believed to be highly contagious, have been reported in the area. 

“Unfortunately with the rise of omicron that seems to be changing,” City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said Thursday. “Just in the last few days average caess have jumped significantly, nearly doubling. Positivity is on the rise too.”

Cantrell, however, stopped short of reimposing a mask mandate on Thursday. She said the city will reconsider one two weeks prior to Mardi Gras, which is on March 1, depending on public health data. 

Families can opt-out of the school district’s requirement for religious or medical reasons, or by citing their own personal beliefs. But NOLA Public Schools Superintendent said he hoped to have all city students vaccinated by February. 

“We stand with you on the things you have shared today,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said. “We all know vaccines are the best tool we have at our disposal at this time to keep our children in the classroom so they can learn and grow with their teachers as well as their friends. That’s why our schools have all come together to require all students 5 and up are vaccinated by Feb. 1.”

Avegno said roughly 43 percent of children between the ages of five and 17 in the city have received their first vaccine, while just over 32 percent of children those ages have completed the two-shot series.

“That’s understandable since kids have only been eligible for a few weeks but it highlights the need to ramp up the effort,” Avegno said. 

District schools made the request for the requirement, which the Louisiana Department of Health approved this afternoon, Lewis said, as COVID-19 cases are again on the rise and the omicron variant has been detected in increasing numbers locally. Ninety-three cases of omicron have been detected in the state. The majority of those cases are in the New Orleans area. 

The Department of Health, meanwhile, is in the process of adding the vaccine to its list of required school immunizations, which officials have said would apply to every school district in the state — along with private schools — but would not take effect until next school year. 

The New Orleans district’s request takes effect earlier, essentially requiring students begin their vaccination series before the end of December. And it’s much broader. The state order underway would only require students to receive vaccinations that have full approval for their age group. Right now, that only applies to those 16 and older.

The district requirement will apply to all age groups that have been approved for vaccination — whether through full FDA approval or an emergency use authorization. Children between the ages of 5 and 15 can currently receive the Pfizer vaccine under an emergency use authorization.

“Our job as school leaders has always been to keep kids safe,” Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok said in an interview Thursday. “We’ve worked really hard to do so first by supporting mask mandates and enforcing them in our schools. Then last summer we made sure our staff were vaccinated. And this fall when we found out (children over the age of five) could get vaccinated we thought let’s consider a mandate.”

“This is why I support it and why I’m in favor of us doing this,” she said. 

Mehok shared the letter she sent State Health Director Joe Kanter requesting the requirement for the three charter schools she oversees. In it, she said the requirement was “vital” to keep students safe, schools open and reduce quarantines. Last school year, after the holiday break, the district had to revert from in-person learning back to remote schooling due to an increase in cases. That lasted nearly four weeks for elementary and middle school students and through Mardi Gras for most high school students.

Statewide vaccine requirement

Last week, a state House legislative committee voted to deny the health department’s request. But this week Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that he is overriding that vote, which will add the vaccine to the required shots for school children. 

The state requires several vaccines, including measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria and tetanus. However, parents can opt out of the requirement with a doctor’s note or a “dissent form” stating that they do not want their children to receive a vaccine. 

The New Orleans school district has already put a vaccine requirement in place for central office employees, and several charter school networks have required it for their employees as well. Over the summer, the district’s charter high schools came together and decided to require the vaccine for students participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.

Asked about booster shots, Avegno said it’s possible the COVID-19 schedule is increased to a three-dose series in the future.

“A lot of public health experts think this is going to be a three dose series instead of two, but we don’t quite know yet,” Avegno said.

At a committee meeting earlier this week, NOLA Public Schools district Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said the district would focus on promoting vaccinations to students prior to Mardi Gras. 

Asked about Mardi Gras, Cantrell said she’d be making Carnival announcements at a press conference next week.

*Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported the start date of the new city rule for restaurants. It is Jan. 3, not Jan. 1. (December 16, 2021)

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...