From June 2021, seventeen-year-old Terrence receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Booker T. Washington High School after the CDC lowers the eligibility age to 12. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

New Orleans charter school networks have begun to collect data on their students’ vaccination statuses since a NOLA Public Schools district requirement that students over the age of 5 years old be fully vaccinated for COVID-19 went into effect last week. 

The vaccine mandate, the strictest in the state, required all NOLA Public Schools students be fully vaccinated by the beginning of this month. 

The NOLA Public Schools district requested the vaccine be added to its schedule of required vaccines in mid-December. It mirrors a similar city rule that requires children be vaccinated to enter public buildings and certain establishments. Families can opt-out of the school requirement by submitting a letter of dissent. Gov. John Bel Edwards passed a similar rule for schools across the state but that requirement won’t go into effect until next school year.

The NOLA Public Schools district — which oversees the overwhelming majority of the city’s public schools — didn’t achieve full compliance by the Feb. 1 deadline. But major charter networks tell The Lens they are working aggressively to boost their numbers. 

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok said in an interview last week that half the network’s students were fully vaccinated before the Feb. 1 deadline. The three-school network enrolls just over 2,200 students.

“Prior to Feb. 1, 50 percent of our students have had at least their first shot that they reported,” she said. “What we started to do after the holidays is start tracking vaccines because we knew the mandate was coming.” 

New Orleans charter schools have not yet taken the step of barring unvaccinated students from attending in-person classes. But Mehok said that  school administrators have informed families they’ll need to report to the school in one of three ways: showing proof of vaccine, signing up for a vaccine, or opting out. (Louisiana allows parents to sign an opt-out form without providing a doctor’s not or claiming a religious exemption.)

“You have to do something and that’s the message we’ve been saying,” she said. Rather than a flood of opt-out forms, her schools saw increased vaccine sign-ups. 

“Our principals and their teams are heroes. They have pretty much been turned into a public health campaign team,” she said last week. “They have managed to get another 500 kids to sign up for their vaccine in the last week.”

Mehok also thinks vaccination status reporting could be slightly delayed, meaning they may have more students vaccinated then they have officially counted.

“We recognize that — that is why I think these numbers could be a little higher than what I am telling you.”

At the city’s largest charter network, KIPP New Orleans Schools, which runs nine schools enrolling just over 6,000 students, roughly two-thirds of students in middle school and older are vaccinated according to CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise. 

“Currently, almost 62% of students age 12 and up and 36% of students under 12 at KNOS have received at least one shot of the vaccine,” Kalifey-Aluise wrote in an email. “A minimal number of families have already completed exemption forms to opt out of vaccines, approximately 2-5% of students overall.”  

According to city data, 84 percent of adults in the city are fully vaccinated while close to 42 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 17 are fully vaccinated. Another 15 percent of children have received their first shot. 

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely*, which enrolls the second highest number of students in the city at just over 5,500 said his employees would begin collecting students’ vaccination status this week.

KNOS is relying on the state’s vaccination database, CEO Kalifey-Aluise said.

“All vaccine records come directly from the state’s LINKS database,” she wrote. “If a student submits documentation that we are unable to locate in the database, our school nurses verify the information with the provider.”

“We have scheduled additional vaccination events and provided community resources to continually increase our students’ vaccination rate.”

Back at Crescent City Schools, Mehok thinks the network is on track to have three-quarters of students vaccinated by the end of the month.

“By Mardi Gras we’ll have 75 percent of our kids vaccinated and that’s amazing because we’re edging toward herd immunity,” she said.

*Correction: This story originally misstated the CEO of InspireNOLA’s last name.

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...