Newly sworn-in NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Avis Williams greets Sci High students on the first day of the 2022-23 school year. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Newly sworn-in NOLA Public Schools superintendent Avis Williams welcomed New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School students back to the classroom on a warm Monday morning.

The city’s roughly 44,000 students are returning to nearly 80 school sites throughout mid-August. More than two years since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, students are once again returning to school amid warnings about local transmission levels. Throughout the summer, the city saw an increase in daily case counts due to the highly contagious BA.5 omicron subvariant. Though very recent data appear to show a slowdown, the city and most of the state are still considered to have high COVID community levels, according to the Louisiana Department of Health.

But unlike last year, students are, for the most part, going back to school this month without a mask mandate. The NOLA Public Schools district dropped its districtwide mask mandate last year, leaving the decision up to individual charter school operators. 

Williams, joined by Sci High Principal Monique Cola, greeted roughly 530-students for their second full year in their new, state-of-the-art, Mid-City campus on Bienville Street. 

Students clad in blue and white polos, smiles and tired eyes filed into the school just after 7 a.m. 

“Wakey, wakey! Welcome back,” Williams said as she invited them in and asked if they were excited for the year.

Cola joked that they complained about school when it was virtual due to COVID-19 and that she was happy to see them back in the classroom. 

Students have endured a rollercoaster of in-person and virtual schooling over the past two and a half years — beginning in March 2020 when school was canceled throughout the state in the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak. Students have largely been allowed back in the classroom over the last two school years though exposures can still lead to some quarantines. 

District spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo said the district is recommending students and staff wear masks as COVID-19 community levels remain “high,” as defined by the CDC. 

“Currently, federal, state, and local leaders have not called for a mask mandate. Rather, they are recommending everyone age 2 and older wear a mask indoors and on public transportation to protect themselves and others,” Alfonzo wrote in a recent email. “Keeping in line with these current guidelines, due to our COVID-10 Community Level being HIGH NOLA-PS recommends all students and staff wear masks for the start of the school year. We will continue to evaluate this need as our community level changes.”

Sci High was not one of the schools that opted for its own mask mandate. And on Monday morning, masking was mixed among Sci High students as they entered the building from Johnson Street, where media were staged by the district.

“This recommendation will remain in place until our city’s COVID-19 Community Level falls back to medium or low, upon that time the indoor masking recommendation will be lifted,” Alfonzo wrote.

The city has seen an increase in average daily new cases and test positivity rate over the last month, though those numbers appear to be dropping in recent weeks.

Williams, who was selected by Orleans Parish School Board members for the district’s top spot this spring, is wrapping up her first month on the job. She took over from former Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. in mid-July as he wrapped up a 7-year career with the district — quite long for a superintendent. 

Williams is kicking off a series of “listening sessions” on Tuesday evening. The first one will be held in New Orleans East at a PJ’s Coffee Shop on Read Boulevard.

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...