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Tracking COVID-19: Public Schools Report Record Number Of Cases Following Winter Break

Aubri Juhasz
Students play at Akili Academy in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.

New Orleans public schools reported a record number of COVID-19 cases Monday afternoon, one week after announcing a system-wide pivot to online learning. The district is currently tracking 93 active cases across 47 schools.

Forty-one students and 52 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 within the last two weeks, according to the district’s case tracker. An additional 198 people are in quarantine due to possible exposure.

The highest number of cases was reported at Robert Russa Moton Charter School, in New Orleans East, where seven students and one staff member have tested positive for COVID-19. There were no associated quarantine cases. Most schools reported one or two cases.

The last time the district shared data was in mid-December before schools closed for winter break. At the time, they were tracking 76 active cases, down from a post-Thanksgiving spike when more than 80 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

Students have spent little to no time in the classroom in recent weeks. On Jan. 4, the same day students returned from winter break, the district announced a shift to online-only learning, citing the city’s “concerning” spike in cases.

“We were and are prepared for this,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wrote in last week’s district newsletter. “NOLA-PS and our dedicated school staff took great strides to ensure distance learning remains as accessible and reliant as possible over last summer and that good work is continuing to pay off now.”

Since New Orleans schools first reopened in late-September, there’s been little evidence that the virus is spreading in classrooms. Instead, health officials believe students and staff are contracting the virus through social activities.

A growing body of research suggests schools don’t contribute to community spread as long as cases and hospitalizations throughout the city are already under control.

Read more: Study Finds In-person School Safe, As Long As Hospitalizations From COVID-19 Are Already Rare

Following that logic, New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno told reporters last week that classrooms would be forced to close “because the community is dangerous right now and the community would bring the danger into the schools.”

In November and December, the district reported more than 700 quarantine cases each week. With the number of students and staff members possibly exposed now less than 200, the data suggests less potential for exposure when schools are closed, though not necessarily a lower rate of infection.

The majority of public school students will be learning exclusively online through at least Jan. 21, when the district is scheduled to revisit its decision. Exceptions have been made to allow younger students and students with special needs to keep learning in-person.

“We will continue to monitor the data that measures the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and do everything we can to ensure our schools can return to in-person learning as soon as it’s safe to do so,” the district said in a statement Monday afternoon.

The district will continue to share cases associated with the school community and will update its tracker every Monday by 4 p.m.

District Launches Testing Program

Public schools will have access to regular testing starting this week through a partnership with the Louisiana Department of Health and grant funding, the district announced at a school board training late last week.

Previously, district-supported testing was only available when a student or staff presented symptoms or was identified as having close contact with a positive case. The district will use three mobile testing units to provide on-site asymptomatic testing to any staff, students and families on a recurring basis, which the district said will likely be every other week.

The testing units will employ PCR testing, a molecular test that detects genetic material of the coronavirus through a lab technique called polymerase chain reaction. As of last week, 41 school sites had confirmed participation. Registration is on-going.

Some school operators have also agreed to provide on-site testing for symptomatic students and staff starting this month. Rapid antigen tests will also be available to school members who have had close contact with a confirmed case.

Seventeen charter management operators representing 28 school sites have agreed to participate. During the month of December, more than 50 school-based staff members were trained to administer tests, according to the district.

School Nurses Eligible To Receive Their First Dose Of COVID-19 Vaccination

Public school nurses will begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine this week, under the state’s vaccine distribution plan, with some NOLA-PS nurses scheduled to receive their first dose of the vaccine Tuesday morning at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans.

“We are grateful to the state and Children’s Hospital of New Orleans for providing the opportunity for our school nurses to be included in the first tier of group 1B, of vaccine distribution, followed by teachers and other school staff in Tier 2,” the district said in a press release Monday afternoon.

A town hall will be held later this week for “educators and school support staff to learn more about the COVID-19 vaccine and the vaccination process,” according to the district’s chief operations officer Tiffany Delcour. The event will be co-hosted by the district, Children’s Hospital and the city’s health department.

The district is expected to help coordinate vaccinations for its employees and “work with individual [charter management organizations] to gather information for all those who would like to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.”

It’s unclear exactly when the state will move to its next stage of distribution, which includes teachers, though some officials estimate it won’t be until February.

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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