After just two days in class, Algiers Charter Schools Association CEO Talé Lockett announced Wednesday that the network’s two schools — L.B. Landry High School and Behrman Elementary School — would revert to remote learning beginning Thursday for student and staff safety amid an unprecedented surge of COVID-19 cases in New Orleans. The network plans to reopen the schools for in-person instruction later in the month. 

“We are proud that so many of our faculty/staff and families tested this past Monday prior to our return on Tuesday, January 4th, in an effort to protect our school community and help mitigate the spread,” Lockett said. “We have been monitoring our school community’s test results and have determined that for the health and safety of our students and faculty/staff, it would be safer to pivot to virtual learning at this time.”

The 756-student high school and 849-student elementary school are scheduled to return to in-person instruction on Jan. 24. In the interim, the schools will provide laptops to students in third grade and older. 

After a two-week holiday break that ended on Monday, the two West Bank schools are among dozens navigating a safe return to the classroom as the city averages a record-breaking 1,064 new cases per day. The test positivity rate calculated by the state, which lags about a week, is 31.7 percent, while city data pegged it at 22 percent on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the NOLA Public Schools district said it was tracking 136 “active” cases. The cases were reported between Dec. 27 and 31, district spokesman Richard Rainey noted in a press release, and do not include testing that occurred this week. 

In the city’s decentralized charter system, individual charter groups set their own calendars and can make decisions about whether or not to move to a virtual setting. In a few cases the state health department has recommended a switch to remote instruction due to outbreaks in a particular classroom, grade or school.

Asked whether that was the case at Algiers, spokeswoman Uyen Yi said the schools have not had any outbreak. 

“​​This was a decision made independently by our network out of an abundance of caution as results come in, primarily due to staffing concerns,” she said. 

District data from Dec. 31 shows zero cases at Landry and four at Behrman. Yi said the network is reporting cases to the state but did not provide updated information.

Over the last week, district and school officials encouraged students to get tested for the virus before returning to the classroom, offering some school test sites and sending other families scrambling to search for high-demand tests. Some schools started as scheduled Monday and others delayed their reopening so students and staff could get tested. 

City and school officials have pushed for in-person instruction, citing the benefits of on-site instruction and students’ ability to interact with their teachers and peers, but health officials have warned the highly-contagious omicron variant could spread in schools. 

At an end of the year press briefing, state officials cautioned that the omicron variant was capable of spreading quickly. They now estimate it accounts for more than 90 percent of cases in the state.

State Epidemiologist Theresa Sokol recommended schools suspend extracurricular activities while case counts are high and enforce masking outdoors in addition to indoors. 

“This variant is capable of causing widespread outbreaks in schools,” she said. “My son was in basketball camp over winter break — I pulled him out because I felt the risk was too great.”

The NOLA Public Schools district added those and other recommendations to its own guidance this week, but it is up to the city’s independent charter schools to decide whether to adopt the guidance. 

NOLA Public Schools is still requiring masks for everyone inside the charter schools it oversees — which includes nearly all public schools in the city —  citing a fall city advisory. But the New Orleans city government dropped its mask requirement for school buildings this week, allowing private schools to go mask-optional. The Archdiocese of New Orleans dropped the requirement in its schools located in the city on Monday. 

The NOLA Public Schools district did not respond to specific questions about what would trigger it to call for individual or systemwide school closures. 

Return after break

While the Algiers Charter Schools Association resumed in-person learning after the holidays, only to pivot to remote days later, other schools in the city announced delays, or staggered class schedules, prior to the return to classes.

In an announcement prior to its scheduled Jan. 4 return, Warren Easton Charter High School alerted families it would spend the week in remote learning. 

“Due to the continuous rise of COVID-19 cases, Warren Easton will hold virtual classes from January 4th to January 7th.” Officials said they plan a return to in-person instruction on Jan. 10 and the school is distributing meals two days this week. 

Audubon Gentilly, which reported 23 cases and 129 quarantines, delayed the reopening of school by two days so all students could get tested. And while most students returned to Bricolage Academy this week, two of its grades restarted remotely due to staffing shortages.

Other networks, like InspireNOLA Schools, had a staggered start by grade level with all grades set to be in-person by Friday. 

The Tuesday NOLA Public schools data release marked the first update from the district since Dec. 13, when the district was tracking 30 “active” cases and 263 people were in quarantine. 

In the report, the school district reported that 304 COVID-19 cases had been disclosed over the last three weeks of 2021. That includes the 136 currently “active” COVID-19 cases in students and staff reported in the final five days of the year, which have led 451 people to quarantine. The cases are among 56 staff and 80 students across 27 schools.

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...