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Tracking COVID-19: NOLA Public Schools Will Remain Open Despite Surge In Cases

Aubri Juhasz
Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. A staff member at Akili Academy is among 54 active COVID-19 cases the district is tracking this week.

Public school students will continue learning in-person despite a city-wide spike in COVID-19 cases, New Orleans public school officials announced Thursday.

COVID-19 cases are “exponentially increasing,” according to the city’s dashboard. The number of NOLA-PS students and staff who have tested positive for the virus is at an all-time high since the district began publicly reporting cases back in September.

Active cases have more than tripled since last week, according to the district’s tracker. As of Thursday, 54 active COVID-19 cases — 30 staff members and 24 students — had been reported across 27 schools. Last week, the district was tracking 14 active cases.

Forty-five of this week’s active cases have been reported in the last seven days and more than 700 people are in quarantine due to possible exposure.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Thursday that despite the surge in cases, medical officials have not advised the school system to close.

“The data today does not require any system-wide shift in serving our students in-person. [The data] does require us all, especially those who have forgotten, to continue to follow the rules,” Lewis said, reminding New Orleanians to mask up, socially distance, wash their hands and stay home when sick.

“What we do today and over the next week will make all the difference to our students in the weeks to come,” Lewis said.

Schools across the country have returned to remote learning over the past few weeks, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb.

New York City, the country’s largest public school system, shut down its schools Thursday after the city exceeded its 3 percent positivity threshold. It’s unclear when students will return.

In nearby Mississippi, many schools have closed their doors ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday, though they hope to resume in-person learning in early December.

New Orleans Public Schools Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour said while there will be no system-wide changes at this time, individual schools and classrooms are responding to student and staff cases and changing their operations as needed.

“This is not a binary choice between school openings and school closures,” Delcour said Thursday. “We have lots of options to consider before we get to that point.”

Options include eliminating spectators at athletic events, restricting extracurricular activities, reducing class sizes or the number of grades served in-person, and quarantining individual classes, grade levels or campuses.

Delcour was unable to share the total number of schools and individual classrooms that have reverted to online-only learning but did identify one school, ENCORE Academy, as the site of a potential COVID-19 cluster.

ENCORE, which serves PreK through eighth-grade students, will close its buildings for two weeks out of “an abundance of caution.” Students will learn remotely until Dec. 2, according to a message sent to families on Tuesday.

Three staff members and four students have tested positive for COVID-19 at ENCORE, according to the message. There were no reported cases at ENCORE as of last week, according to the district’s COVID-19 tracker.

By Thursday, the district's tracker listed 13 active COVID-19 cases at ENCORE. Seven students and six staff members have tested positive for the virus. Eighty-five people are in quarantine due to possible exposure. 

At this point, there’s little evidence that the virus is spreading inside of classrooms, though community spread has been linked to other youth activities including athletics and social gatherings. The district currently serves more than 45,000 students, 60 percent of which are learning in-person at least part-time.

New Orleans has seen about 1,000 new cases in the past two weeks. Percent positivity doubled this week and now hovers around 2 percent. Officials are concerned the city may hit 5 percent, which is considered “the critical threshold.”

Delcour said Thursday that the district considers several key metrics when making decisions about school operations. These include average daily new cases, the city’s percent positivity rate, and the availability of COVID-19 testing.

While the city has reported a growing number of daily new cases, Delcour said the other two metrics “remain strong.” If either slips or daily new cases can be linked to widespread community spread, rather than a contained outbreak, Delcour said the district will reassess its operations.

Expanding School Testing

Earlier this week, the district announced $675,000 in new grant funding from the Rockefeller Foundation and another $100,000 from the Greater New Orleans Foundation to put towards COVID-19 testing for students and staff. The money will also be used for health and safety staffing and to increase data tracking.

The district already offers testing to students and staff through partnerships with Children’s Hospital New Orleans and Ochsner Hospital for Children, but said in a press release the additional funding will make it possible to provide testing to schools through the end of the 2020-21 school year.

While the district encourages frequent testing through their partnerships or the city’s community testing sites, it currently does not conduct any regular surveillance testing of students or staff.

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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