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Tracking COVID-19: After Record-Setting Week, Cases In Public Schools Hold Steady

Akili Academy fourth-graders sit in the school's courtyard on Nov. 13, 2020.

NOLA Public Schools reported 80 active cases of COVID-19 Thursday, two cases less than the week before. The number of people in quarantine was also down from 839 to 712.

The flattening comes after weeks of explosive growth. In mid-November, active cases jumped from 14 to 54. The week after Thanksgiving, they climbed to 82, setting a new record for the district. Of the 80 active cases reported Thursday, 60 had been reported in the last week.

New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno told reporters Thursday morning that COVID-19 transmission in schools continues to be rare, due to the extensive safety protocols in place. Instead, the rising number of cases among students and teachers is an indication of unchecked community spread.

“All of the key numbers that describe our current outbreak are above what we have set as safe thresholds,” Avegno said. “We are currently seeing an average of around four to five times the number of cases daily that we were a month ago.”

Last week, New Orleans broke its positive test rate threshold when it crested 5 percent. According to the Louisiana Department of Health, Orleans Parish’s percent positivity rate was 5.2 percent for the week of Nov. 26 to Dec. 2.

Avegno said other key metrics like hospital capacity and the rate of COVID-19 transmission are also dangerously high. Avegno said if people don’t start changing their behaviors now, schools may be forced to close.

“There is simply a point at which it just won’t be safe because of what will be coming into the schools,” Avegno said.

NOLA Public Schools follows the same threshold as the city, but has said they won’t take action until the heightened numbers are “part of a trend.” At that point, the district would likely place increased restrictions on schools rather than shut them down.

Avegno said in most cases, children are contracting the virus after school hours at playdates and extracurriculars.

“As a parent, one of the hardest things to do is say no to a sleepover or a party or a get together that you or your children might want to do,” Avegno said. “But where we are right now, that simple social event could set off a cascade that puts our loved ones at risk.”

This week’s 80 active cases are spread across 46 schools and include 54 students and 26 staff members, according to the district’s tracker.

Lusher Charter School’s Willow Campus and Foundation Preparatory Academy reported the highest number of cases, with four each. KIPP Morial has the highest number of people in quarantine this week, with 76.

The Louisiana Department of Health tracks cases reported by K-12 schools by parish. The data includes both public and private schools. In New Orleans, 130 cases were reported during the week of Nov. 30, compared to 110 cases the week before.

Changing quarantine standards

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reduced quarantine minimums from 14 days to seven or 10 days depending on an individual’s symptoms and test results.

In response, State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley asked Louisiana health officials to allow public schools to operate using the new standards. Brumley said schools had found the two-week quarantine challenging, disrupting school operations and forcing some students to miss weeks of in-person instruction.

State health officials approved the CDC’s guidelines on Monday, but not all schools moved to adjust their standards. NOLA Public Schools still require a 14-day quarantine, according to district spokeswoman Taslin Alfonzo.

“The recent update from the Louisiana Department of Health is under the review of NOLA Public Schools and our medical advisors,” Alfonzo said in an email Monday.

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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