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As The City Moves To Phase 3, Public Schools Will Not Loosen Restrictions

Aubri Juhasz
PreK students wear masks and are separated by a plexiglas divider at KIPP Central City Primary on Oct. 2, 2020.

New Orleans public schools are in the middle of a slow return to in-person learning and they don’t plan on speeding things up.

Even after the city enters Phase 3 of reopening this weekend, schools will continue adhering to Phase 2 restrictions, the district announced Thursday.

After a virtual start to the school year, NOLA public schools began offering in-person instruction to PreK through fourth-graders two weeks ago. Since then, the district has reported three cases of COVID-19, all among staff members.

About 11,000 students are back in the classroom, with another 7,000 electing to stay virtual through at least the first quarter of the school year. Families have the option to remain virtual for the entire school year.

“We have not seen any negatives associated with returning our PreK through fourth-grade students back into the classroom,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said at a press conference Thursday.

There have been fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases per day for the last two weeks and positivity rates have been less than 3 percent for the last 21 days, Cantrell said.

“In the past week, we have seen no COVID-related deaths in our community, which is a big, big demonstration of progress here,” Cantrell said.

If the health data holds, the district plans to welcome older students back to the classroom as early as Oct. 12. Return dates vary by school and some students may not have the option to return to the classroom until later in the month.

Under Phase 2 restrictions, older students will return to the classroom part-time, at least two days a week.

“Students in these grades will return to school on hybrid schedules, with a mix of in-person and distance learning which will vary campus to campus,” the district said in a statement.

When high school students return to the classroom, teachers expect some safety standards will be difficult to maintain. Since every student has a unique schedule, keeping them in static groups is impossible. That means it’s even more important to make sure they stay far apart. But educators say that’s a daunting task when you consider the width of a typical high school hallway.

There are other concerns as well. With so much movement, surfaces will need to be sanitized several times throughout the day, and potentially between every period. Elementary school leaders have said in some cases it’s been difficult to obtain the disinfectant and personal protective equipment they need to operate. High schools will likely face the same problems, potentially on a larger scale.

When the district does enter Phase 3, schools will have the option to bring more, and potentially all, students back full-time. Under Phase 3, the maximum group size increases from 25 to 50 individuals, and bus capacity increases from 50 to 75 percent.

Since last week, two staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, the district announced Thursday. No students have tested positive since returning to the classroom.

One case was confirmed at Mary D. Coghill Elementary School, the district’s only traditional non-charter school, and the other at Success Preparatory. Both schools serve students in kindergarten through the eighth grade.

At Success Preparatory, the positive staff member was not in close contact with any other members of the school community, according to the district. At Mary D. Coghill, the positive case had close contact with 10 individuals. NOLA-PS did not specify whether the individuals are students, teachers, or staff.

“To protect the privacy of staff and students, the district is committed to reporting, on a broad level, who has tested positive for COVID-19 and who has been asked to quarantine,” NOLA-PS director of media relations Taslin Alfonzo said in an email Friday. “All schools have systems in place to support teaching and learning continuity when a positive case is reported.”

Close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days in accordance with CDC guidelines. Students who are required to quarantine are expected to transition to virtual learning until they can return to the classroom.

The district also said they’re inspecting all of their schools to make sure COVID-19 safety precautions are in place. All elementary schools will be inspected by Oct. 9. High school inspections will begin in mid-October once students have resumed in-person learning.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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