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Tracking COVID-19: Cases In Public Schools Drop Slightly, Quarantine Numbers Back Up

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
PreK students at KIPP Central City Primary on Oct. 2, 2020.

COVID-19 cases reported by New Orleans public schools were down this week, but not by much. The district reported 76 active cases across 39 schools compared to 80 active cases the week before.

As the district moves further away from its post-Thanksgiving case spike, some numbers are still moving in the wrong direction. The number of students and teachers in quarantine was back up this week, with 769 people isolating at home due to possible exposure compared to 712 the week before.

The district has yet to implement any new restrictions since students began returning to the classroom in September and said they won’t do so until city-wide metrics demonstrate clear trends.

On Wednesday, the city’s COVID-19 percent positivity rate dropped beneath 5 percent, after a week in the danger zone, averting new state restrictions and a potential crackdown from the district itself.

Of the district’s 76 active cases, 54 are students and 22 are staff members. Forty-six are new cases, reported in the last week, and bring the district’s apparent case total to 287.

The highest number of cases were reported at Samuel J. Green Charter School where six students have tested positive and 63 people are in quarantine. The highest number of quarantines were reported at Lusher High School, where five students have tested positive and 80 people are in quarantine.

At Thursday’s school board meeting, Colette Tippy, a lead organizer with United Teacher of New Orleans, questioned the district’s data, particularly instances in which schools reported positive cases but no additional individuals in quarantine due to exposure.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. defended the district’s data and encouraged those with concerns to reach out to the district directly.

“We’ve been very, very transparent all the way and I promise you if there is a positive case or people need to be quarantined, they will be quarantined,” Lewis said. “We have a medical advisor and we also have our partnership with all of the other local medical officials that guide us through every single case that we’ve encountered thus far this school year.”

Parish-wide cases declined last week, with 93 students and staff members testing positive for COVID-19 compared to 130 the week before.

District obtains approval for onsite testing

Public schools will have the option to provide on-site rapid antigen testing for symptomatic students and staff starting next year, according to chief school support and improvement officer Dina Hasiotis.

The district worked with New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno to obtain a Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendment waiver and develop testing protocol for schools, Hasiotis said Tuesday during a school board meeting.

“We're excited that this will be something on hand for families in January as a site-based resource to assess if symptomatic individuals are in fact positive for COVID-19,” Hasiotis said.

She said on-site testing may be appealing to schools since it speeds up the process and subsequent contact tracing. School nurses are being trained this week in how to use rapid antigen tests and will be provided with the necessary personal protective equipment, Hasiotis said.

Schools do not have to participate in the testing program. Instead they can continue to send their students and staff members off-site for testing, Hasiotis said. Students will not be tested without parental consent and staff members can opt to be tested off-campus as well.

In addition to symptomatic individuals, Hasiotis said schools will also be allowed to administer rapid tests to students and staff members who have close contact with a positive case.

Hasiotis said the district is also working on a plan to regularly test students and staff. Many colleges and some K-12 systems already rely on surveillance testing to identify asymptomatic cases and control COVID-19 outbreaks.

Current school protocol requires that symptomatic students and staff be sent to the school nurse for evaluation and isolation. Nurses then work with the child’s family and Children’s Hospital to schedule a test. Symptomatic teachers receive testing at an Ochsner urgent care facility.

When will teachers get the vaccine?

PreK-12 teachers, along with school staff and child care workers will likely be eligible to receive the vaccine during the second phase of distribution, according to a draft of Louisiana’s vaccination playbook.

Phase 1 just kicked off and includes frontline healthcare workers followed by individuals living and working in nursing homes. Vaccinating both populations could take weeks or months depending on vaccine availability.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley has requested vaccine priority for teachers and support staff, according to a letter sent to Louisiana’s Department of Health on Dec. 11.

His request covers 166,000 early childcare workers, PreK-12 teachers, bus drivers, and custodians, as well as other school-based staff members.

NOLA Public Schools will not update its case tracker during winter break and will resume data reporting on Jan. 11, after the start of the spring semester. Cases have traditionally been reported on Thursdays, but will instead be shared on Mondays moving forward, according to a district press release.

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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