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New Orleans Public Schools May Use ‘Escape Clause,’ Choose Not To Reopen Under Phase 2

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NOLA Public Schools
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NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Dr.  Henderson Lewis Jr. stands next to PPE supplies for the coming school year.";

Before the recent statewide surge in coronavirus cases, New Orleans public schools were preparing to reopen buildings for the coming school year. Now, school and health officials say they may have to reassess.

NOLA-PS Superintendent of Schools Dr. Henderson Lewis Jr. and New Orleans Health Department Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno spoke to reporters Tuesday and said they’ll be meeting early next week to decide whether schools can still safely reopen for in-person instruction.

“We may have to keep buildings closed again if the critical health data trends require us to do so,” Lewis said. “We are reviewing that data right now and our plan is to make an announcement next week if we must pivot citywide.”

New Orleans public schools are scheduled to open between Aug. 4 and Aug. 11 and will offer limited in-person instruction with younger students returning to the building full-time. 

Neighboring school districts are making their own calculations. Jefferson Parish is considering whether to push the start of the school year back a week. A similar delay has already been announced by St. Tammany Parish.

“You know, three weeks ago I would have said no question,” Avegno said when asked whether she’s comfortable sending her own young children back to school. “Now I think we really do need to look at the trends in the next few weeks.”

Avegno and Lewis plan to look at two-week data trends since the July 4 holiday weekend to determine whether there are any “current health threats” requiring them to adjust the district’s back to school plan.

“I think that the plan that the public schools have is very good in terms of when we get into schools keeping those schools as safe as possible,” Avegno said. “Right now, I think we still have a little more uncertainty before we can know for sure what happens at the beginning of this school year and when that beginning will be.”

The district’s roadmap is aligned with the city’s larger reopening plan. Under Phase 2 — which the city is currently in — NOLA-PS plans to have students in pre-K through fourth grade back in the building full-time. Older students will split their time between online and in-person learning.

Parents are not required to send their children to school and teachers are expected to provide both in-person and online instruction.

But Avegno told reporters that just because the city or state remains in Phase 2 doesn’t mean the district can’t drop back down to Phase 1 on its own, closing buildings and transitioning all students to virtual learning.

She pointed to specific language in the district’s Roadmap to Reopening as an “escape clause.”

“In the event of increased risk of the spread of COVID-19 in our community, schools may return to a 100% distance learning model during any phase,” the Roadmap to Reopening reads.

“I think that we shouldn't just say, ‘Well, we'll just wait for phase one,’” Avegno said. “Even if we're in phase two, but things aren't looking good it may very well be that school buildings need to be closed.’”

There is no national standard that determines when it is safe for schools to reopen and Avegno said it is up to every municipality and school district to make their own decisions.

Avegno said New Orleans is looking at “the totality of milestones” in the city including the raw case count, testing capacity and number of hospitalizations.

“If they're going in the wrong direction, that's going to be pretty clear. And I think it's going to be clear to the school officials that we’re going to have to adjust before the start of school,” Avegno said.

BACK TO SCHOOL PREPARATIONS

NOLA-PS announced that the district has acquired personal protective equipment for all Orleans Parish public schools and that supply kits will be delivered later this month.

Each school site will receive disposable and reusable face masks, face shields, gloves, hand sanitizer, hand sanitizer stations, no-touch thermometers, insulated food storage bags and disinfectant.

The district’s reopening guidelines currently require that all children, teachers and staff wear a face covering during the school day. Henderson acknowledged that many children may not have access to masks or other face coverings, making it necessary for schools to provide them.

When it comes to enforcing the policy, Lewis said he hopes that given the current mask mandate in New Orleans, parents are already teaching their children to wear face coverings.

“I really want us to think about the health and safety of our young people,” Lewis said. “Our educators will do what they have to do to make sure that we’re supporting our students during this transition to masks. It’s not about discipline.”

Lewis also announced the district’s decision to hire Dr. Benjamin Springgate as the district’s medical advisor. Springgate is an associate professor of clinical medicine at Louisiana State University.

Springgate advised in the creation of the reopening plan and will be available to schools throughout the year to help them implement health and safety standards, according to Lewis.

The district is currently working with Springgate to develop procedures for schools to follow when a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19. They plan to release these resources on Friday.

When it comes to enforcement, Lewis said it will be up to NOLA-PS to ensure that each individual charter is following minimum safety standards as outlined by the state’s highest education board.

Lewis said schools will maintain their autonomy over things like curriculum but will not have the ability to opt out of reopening guidelines as determined by the district.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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