A 42 Charter School staff member talks to a student entering school for the first time since the pandemic shuttered schools in March of 2020. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. looks on in the background.

The NOLA Public Schools district is tracking a staggering 2,233 “active” cases of COVID-19 diagnosed in students and staff — the highest single-week total ever reported since the district began tracking cases. 

The spike in local schools comes amid a surge in cases across the city and state, largely due to the highly contagious omicron variant. District officials say surveillance testing conducted last week, before and as students returned to the classroom after a two-week winter break, helped catch cases.

“More than 18,100 tests were administered between Jan. 1-7 with a positive test rate among those tested of approximately 13 percent,” district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo wrote in a Monday afternoon release. 

Across the district, 2,192 people are in quarantine after coming into contact with someone diagnosed with COVID. The number of people quarantining is lower than the total case count. Part of that may reflect cases that were caught before students or staff returned to campus. But The Lens also learned on Tuesday that some quarantine data was not reported by the usual Friday deadline and did not appear in this week’s report.

The numbers come as the overall New Orleans population notches records for average daily case counts — above 1,300 — with a test positivity rate of 31.7 percent. 

A handful of schools started 2022 off in remote learning or delayed class a few days to allow families to get their children tested for the virus. As of Saturday, at least 12 New Orleans public schools reported they would be in virtual learning this week. But officials are not recommending a districtwide pause in in-person learning. 

“At this time, NOLA-PS is not issuing a Districtwide directive for distance learning,” Alfonzo wrote.

Of the 2,233 cases, 597 are among staff and 1,636 are among students. The cases were reported from 81 schools, representing the vast majority of schools in the district. 

However, Monday’s data report showed quarantines at only 40 out of 91 school campuses in the district. But based on interviews with officials at some schools not showing any quarantines, the data is incomplete.

Among the charter school networks that showed zero quarantines was the city’s largest: KIPP New Orleans Schools, which operates eight schools in the city. In an email, CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise told The Lens that, in fact, about 90 KIPP students or staff members were quarantining as of Friday.

Kalifey-Aluise attributes the low quarantine count to surveillance testing prior to reopening schools after the two-week winter break.

“We delayed two days and started in-person on Thursday so that we could have all staff test on Monday and students test on Tuesday,” she said. “We therefore were able to minimize exposure on campus during our two days operating in person last week.”

Another network that showed eight quarantines across five campuses in the report, FirstLine Schools, in fact had between one-quarter and one-third of its students — or between roughly 750 and 1,000 students — in quarantine.

In a Tuesday email, Maya Wyche, Chief Talent Officer of FirstLine explained the district had offered a reporting extension. The network’s quarantines are due to a mix of exposures and staff shortages, she wrote.

“Due to the significant increases in cases across all schools in the city, NOLA-PS granted a data reporting extension until this Friday to sort through all of the information,” she wrote.

Asked Tuesday, Alfonzo said that due to the high number of cases “some schools may not have been able to fully report all associated close contacts from each positive case.”

“NOLA-PS allowed schools to report case totals by school for the cases they were not able to report to NOLA-PS with full details by end of day last Friday,” she wrote in a follow-up email. “All case and all details associated with each case are still required to be entered into the NOLA-PS and the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH) reporting systems.”

Last week, the district announced it was tracking 136 “active” cases reported between Dec. 27 and Dec. 31. But Monday’s report was the first look at data since students returned to school after winter break. 

By Dec. 31, the district had recorded 1,898 cumulative cases for the 2021-2022 school year. That more than doubled with this week’s data, bringing the count to 4,010.

School officials say the case counts are largely reflective of the virus’ spread in the city. 

The city was averaging 1,368 new cases per day at the end of last week. On Monday, that dropped to an average of 1,233 new cases per day. But experts like Tulane University epidemiologist Dr. Susan Hassig say the rise in at-home testing, which is not reflected in state and city case reports, likely means cases are underreported. 

“The problem with interpreting the cases is we’ve always known we’re not capturing all the infections that are out there and now we know we people have better access to at-home tests,” Hassig said. “The case numbers are probably not as useful at judging our position as they might have been in previous waves.”

Asked about today’s decrease in average new cases per day across the city, Hassig said more data is needed to draw any conclusions about a downward trend.

“There’s so much noise in the numbers. I would not put a lot of weight on that,” she said. “If we have another day where it goes down 200 and another day it goes down 200 from that then I’d start to feel a bit better. But because of the jumpiness of numbers (collected over the weekend) … Monday’s data is probably the most difficult to interpret.”

Hassig encouraged all people ages five and older to get vaccinated, including boosters for those 12-years-old and older, and continue masking and taking other mitigating measures to prevent the spread of the virus. She also expressed concern for schools experiencing staffing shortages due to positive tests. 

“I do think that the district and individual schools need to be prepared first of all for staffing issues,” Hassig said. “If these numbers include anyone from custodial and cafeteria to teaching and instructional aides, are they going to be able to maintain coverage?”

Staffing shortages have driven a number of local schools to revert to remote learning this week. At Bricolage Academy, CEO and Principal Antigua Wilbern announced in a Saturday morning email to students’ families that the school would be fully remote this week.

“​​We anticipated being short staffed, but still operational next week,” Wilbern wrote Saturday morning. “Things changed overnight as the remainder of our weekly COVID testing results came in. We are now faced with a critical shortage of key staff including myself, our COO, our nurse and several teachers and support staff.”

Several other schools cited staffing issues and campus case counts as the reason for shifting to remote. The list of temporarily closed campuses includes New Harmony High School, Bricolage Academy, Arthur Ashe Charter School, Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School, Lusher High School, Einstein Shorewood, Einstein Village de l’est, Einstein Middle School, Einstein High School, Sci High, L.B. Landry High School and Martin Behrman Elementary School. 

Several additional schools have specific classrooms or entire grades in quarantine and learning remotely. Six elementary schools reported quarantines in the triple digits, with Harriet Tubman Charter School reporting the most at 544 individuals. Tubman enrolls 827 students, but the district does not break out individual school case counts or quarantines between students and staff. 

Ben Franklin Charter High School had the highest number of cases reported at 122. Franklin enrolls just over 1,000 students. 

Hassig stressed that schools and families must continue to follow public health guidelines. 

“Masking all day in the classroom can be messed up by lunchtime in a big crowded cafeteria,” Hassig said. “I think parents need to recognize how their kids stay in school is not only how they adhere to the mitigation, masks, but also how the family is comporting themselves outside of school.”

This story was updated with additional information from school leaders. (Jan. 11, 2022)

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...