From September 2020, a 42 Charter School staffer gives a student a face mask on the first day students were allowed back in class since the pandemic closed school buildings six months ago. (Michael Isaac Stein/The Lens)

The NOLA Public Schools district will lift its universal masking requirement March 21, which roughly two weeks after Mardi Gras, if levels of COVID-19 community spread remain medium to low, as defined by the CDC.

The news comes one day after city officials announced the indoor mask mandate for restaurants and other establishments would be lifted effective today. City Health Director Jennifer Avegno held a press conference yesterday to announce the city changes.

“Our numbers had started to improve during the height of Carnival but what masking does is keep you protected in that acute time period when you’re getting close with lots of people,” she said, explaining why the mandate had remained in place. 

“I think Carnival is the biggest test of large events — it is three weeks straight of nothing but risky activities,” she said.

But with improving case numbers under new CDC guidelines, Avegno announced Wednesday the indoor mask requirement would be lifted effective today. She did note however, that should the city experience another surge in cases it could be reinstated.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans announced its schools lifted their mask requirement alongside the city. 

“As we have done throughout the pandemic the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans will follow the guidance and requirements of civic officials,” spokeswoman Sarah McDonald wrote in an email Thursday. “Masks will no longer be required in Catholic schools in Orleans Parish though individual schools may choose to implement policies that go beyond what is required based on the needs and desires of their communities.”

But district officials wanted to wait longer. 

“The recommended lifting of universal masking on March 21, 2022 will occur two weeks post Mardi Gras and aligns with the city’s plans to no longer require proof of vaccination or a negative test for indoor spaces,” a district statement said.

“We want to make sure we keep our students and staff safe,” district Superintendent  Henderson Lewis Jr. said according to the statement. “Keeping our many layers of protection in place – social distancing, ongoing testing, and our vaccine mandate – will continue to curb future spikes of COVID-19.”

It’s not the first time the district has kept stricter requirements than city officials. Late last summer, when the delta variant was surging, district officials reinstated the mask mandate prior to city officials. 

Avegno said city officials would support the continued use of masking in schools, should schools continue to require them.

The district is also dropping restrictions it added in the wake of the omicron surge, including reduced use of assembly spaces and increased social distancing. The isolation period for people with a positive COVID-19 test will be reduced from 10 days to five, according to the statement. 

The NOLA Public Schools district is the only district in the state that enacted a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students five-years-old and older, effective Feb. 1, to attend its schools. Gov. John Bel Edwards has announced that the COVID-19 vaccine will be added to required vaccines for all Louisiana schools — but that change won’t go into effect statewide until next school year. 

District officials reported that more than 45 percent of students are fully vaccinated and 60 percent have received at least one dose of the vaccine. 

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...