From September 2020, young students return to Plessy Community School for the first day of in-person classes in six months after the pandemic shuttered schools. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district is tracking 1,603 “active” cases of COVID-19 among staff and students in the district and 3,674 are quarantining after being exposed to a positive case.

The case numbers are a significant decrease from last week — which was the first report since the holiday break — when the district reported a record-breaking 2,233 “active” cases

Quarantines are up from the 2,192 that appeared in the official report last week. But several school officials told The Lens last week that quarantine data was not accurate due to delayed test results and contact tracing and several hundred additional people were in quarantine. 

Of the 1,603 current cases, 201 are among staff and 1,402 are among students. Seventy-one  schools reported cases. The district facilitated 15,900 tests last week with a test positivity rate of seven percent, nearly half what it was the week prior. 

The surge of cases after winter break prompted several campuses to shift to online learning. Other schools had certain grades or classes that were forced to learn from home after staff shortages due to positive cases or exposures. Some schools returned to in-person learning this week while others continued with distance learning. 

During an Orleans Parish School Board committee meeting on Tuesday, Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour gave a brief overview of COVID-19 operations since schools returned from break. 

“We had one-third of our schools in some form of distance learning. The majority of those schools returned to in-person today,” Delcour said. “About 10 schools are still doing some form of it. So, much better situation than we were in last week.”

Delcour told board members the district was working to continue testing and vaccination events at its schools. 

“Last week we saw our positive test rate drop by half as compared to that first week of 13 percent,” Delcour said Tuesday. “We will see less than 7 percent when we report today.”

The city is reporting an 11.1 percent positivity rate, a significant drop from the turn of the new year, while the state-calculated rate for the parish hit 31.7 percent — last calculated as of Dec. 29. The daily average case count in the city has also dropped significantly over the last week from an average of more than 1,300 cases per day to less than half of that at an average of 611 cases per day. 

The district is less than two weeks away from a Feb. 1 deadline that will require all eligible students, five-years-old and older, to be fully vaccinated. The district’s requirement goes above and beyond any other requirement in the state, although the state has broad exemptions for student vaccinations.

That deadline aligns with a similar requirement by the city that children over 5 show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to enter restaurants and other types of establishments. 

On Tuesday, OPSB member Katie Baudouin asked how schools would track whether students complied with the vaccine requirement. 

“How schools designate who is tracking that will differ by school,” Delcour said. “They can also see that information through the Department of Health’s LINKS website. So we have asked schools to do it both ways.”

In Louisiana, parents can opt out without a medical exemption, simply filling out a form saying they object to the vaccine. 

“There’s no approval process, the family must just simply turn in the exemption,” Delcour said. 

At the meeting, board members voted unanimously to recommend that the district require a booster shot for employees, who are already under a vaccine mandate. The full board will consider the recommendation at its full meeting on Thursday. 

That policy would only affect central office employees. The vast majority of teachers and school staff are employed by charter organizations throughout the city rather than the district itself. Charter groups set their own policies. Many have already set policies requiring teachers and other staff to be vaccinated.

But some of the city’s largest charter groups, FirstLine Schools, InspireNOLA, and Crescent City Schools had not instituted a booster requirement as of Friday. Collegiate Academies Chief Strategy Officer Davis Zaunbrecher said the four-school network will require the booster. Zaunbrecher said that the deadline will vary for employees based on when they received their initial shots. 

KIPP New Orleans CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise also said the eight-school network had not yet made the booster a requirement either. 

“We are in the process of analyzing our staff booster rates and have found that thus far many of our staff members have already received a booster dose,” Kalifey-Aluise wrote. “We are strongly encouraging boosters and will consider a requirement in the future.”

Crescent City Schools and NOLA College Prep representatives said they will consider a requirement moving forward. 

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...