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NOLA Public Schools Will Resume In-Person Learning For Youngest Students

Aubri Juhasz
A temperature checkpoint at Dwight D. Eisenhower Charter School in Algiers. A limited number of students are attending the school's learning hub while regular in-person operations are suspended.

New Orleans’ youngest public school students will return to the classroom full-time starting in mid-September, the district announced late last week. Older students will continue to learn virtually until at least mid-October.

All students started the school year virtually last month after the district decided it was too dangerous to return to the classroom. Now officials say the city has turned things around and exceeded all health and safety requirements necessary for the reopening of schools.

“We are so pleased that the health data indicates we can and should begin plans for returning students to the classroom,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis said. “We know nothing can beat an in-person education, especially for our youngest students,”

According to officials and data released by the Louisiana Department of Health, in recent weeks, the city has consistently met its health benchmarks: The daily number of new COVID-19 cases have continued to decrease and meet Phase 2 targets and the positive test rate is lower than the city’s 5 percent benchmark.

“When cases of COVID-19 were rising in New Orleans, we asked our community to step up and reduce the rate of spread in order to create conditions that would allow for students to start safely returning to classrooms,” Department of Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said. “Our announcement today means that our community listened.”

She said the health department fully supports the district's plan to return students to the classroom in a “slow and phased manner.” To be successful in keeping schools open and eventually bringing more students back, Avegno said the city must keep transmission rates low.

"Transitioning back to in-person learning means that we have to show up for and support our educators, school administrators, staff and their families, starting with prioritizing their COVID-19 testing,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

The district has increased its ability to test students and staff for COVID-19 by partnering with several healthcare partners including Louisiana Children’s Medical Center Health, Ochsner Hospital for Children and Tulane University.

PreK through fourth-grade students will return to the classroom between Sept. 14 and Sept. 25. Older students will continue with distance learning until at least the middle of next month. All families have the option to remain fully virtual.

“While we’d love to welcome our older students back into classrooms as well, we are committed to a step-wise approach that will prioritize health and safety, while getting our youngest students the social and emotional learning that we know is foundational to their growth,” Lewis wrote in a letter to the public school community.

In addition to the new testing program, the district has outlined health and safety standards in its Roadmap to Reopening Schools. Measures include mandatory face coverings, temperature checks, and enhanced cleaning of classrooms, buses and other facilities.

Some parents still have significant concerns about sending their kids to school and may choose to keep them at home. Schools are waiting to see just how many families choose to stick with remote learning. This will have significant impacts on staffing and a school’s ability to distance students who choose to attend in-person.

NOLA-PS has said they will observe social distancing measures “when possible.” Under their reopening plan, distancing isn’t required for groups of 25 or less as long as they remain consistent and separate from other groups.

Lewis reiterated that if COVID-19 data starts moving in the wrong direction, the district maintains the authority to close any school building at any point if it feels the safety of students and staff is at risk.

COVID-19 Testing Plan

The district has teamed up with LCMC Health’s Children’s Hospital New Orleans and Ochsner Hospital for Children to provide rapid testing to students and staff who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. Tests will be available through urgent care facilities, mobile units and hospitals.

NOLA-PS also announced that they’re working with Tulane University to develop an asymptomatic testing program to regularly screen teachers and other school employees. Staff members will also have access to LCMC Health’s nurse hotline to help inform situations involving adults or children who may have the virus.

Many private and parochial schools in New Orleans have been open for weeks, as well as public schools in neighboring districts. During this time, some have publicly reported positive cases and the number of students or teachers asked to quarantine.

When someone tests positive for the virus, schools are required to inform all those who may have been in close contact, but as of now, they aren’t required to inform the larger school community.

Local school leaders have brought up privacy concerns and said they’ll leave it up to the district to decide how information is shared.

NOLA-PS has said that once in-person instruction resumes, it plans to share weekly COVID-19 updates on any confirmed cases and will provide additional guidance for schools on “how best to communicate with students and staff who may have been in close contact with a confirmed case.”

Ted Beasley, director of communications at Louisiana’s Department of Education, told The Lens early Friday that they’re working with the state’s Department of Health to develop a system for school-level reporting. Details have not yet been released.

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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