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Two Weeks After Closing Classrooms, Officials Will Decide Whether To Resume In-Person Instruction

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

After transitioning most students to online-only instruction two weeks ago, New Orleans public school officials are expected to revisit their decision Thursday.

Officials decided to close classrooms in early January when the city’s positivity rate hit 9 percent.

“Our recent shift here in our school system, it's not a step backwards, but rather, I have to remind everyone it was a necessary decision to help keep our students and our staff safe, to beat this pandemic, and to finally return to the classroom, not part-time, but full-time and permanently,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a school board meeting last week.

Since schools reopened in the fall, the district has relied on several city-wide metrics when making operational decisions.

The district considers a basket of values, setting ideals for each: fewer than 50 new cases a day, test positivity beneath 5 percent, and robust access to testing. Officials have stressed the flexibility of these values, citing the need for clear trends over hard cutoffs.

While a recent survey found parents felt more favorable toward the district based on its response to the pandemic, some teachers have grown more skeptical.

School employees described the most recent pivot as abrupt and poorly timed, prompted by backlash from educators and the local teacher’s union rather than by the city’s health data.

Many teachers said they won’t feel truly safe returning to the classroom until they receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Read more: NOLA Public Schools Will Work With Children’s Hospital To Get School Staff Vaccinated

As the city comes down from its post-Christmas surge, school officials are set to decide whether to return more students to the classroom or extend virtual learning district-wide. Officials are expected to share their decision and the rationale behind it at a Thursday afternoon press conference.

Schools currently have the option to teach very young students and students with special needs in-person as long as group size does not exceed 10 individuals. In-person instruction is not required at this time.

District Reassessing COVID-19 Metrics

On Wednesday, test positivity in Orleans Parish dropped from 9.6 percent to 5.9 percent, according to state health data. The Louisiana Department of Health shares parish-specific data on a weekly basis.

The number of school related COVID-19 cases also dropped this week for the first time since Thanksgiving break.

The city is reporting more than 140 new COVID-19 cases daily, according to the city’s seven-day average. The state currently considers every parish in Louisiana at high risk of community spread.

But even with two of the district’s three key metrics clearly in the red, an extension of online learning isn’t guaranteed. Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour told new school board members earlier this month that the district is reevaluating its current metrics.

Whether or not the district decides to take a different approach, board member Olin Parker said transparency is key. Even if officials decide against strict cut-offs, Parker said the district needs to give educators and families more of a window into the decision making process.

“What I would like to see is a comprehensive plan that is communicated effectively to teachers, to parents, to charter management organizations about what will be required to return to in-person learning,” Parker said.

Parker said metrics should be clear enough that parents and educators can also track the data on their own. It should be obvious when the district is approaching a lockdown or is in a position to further reopen, allowing families and educators to plan ahead.

At the same time, Parker acknowledged that the research guiding school operations is still evolving and that the district’s approach will have to evolve as well.

“The reason why [guidance may change] is because district leadership is in constant communication with city health officials and also state health officials,” Parker siad. “Frankly, we're all learning about the disease together and science may have changed since that plan was developed in the summer.”

Watching The Hospitalization Rate

A recent study considered the impact of reopening schools on COVID-19 hospitalizations found no evidence that opening schools increased COVID-19 hospitalizations in places where hospitalizations from the virus were already low.

“In our data, it looks like 36 to 44 hospitalizations per 100,000 in the population per week,” study co-author Douglas Harris told New Orleans Public Radio.

Since Harris and his colleagues released their study, they’ve begun maintaining a tracker allowing parishes and counties across the country to see whether their hospitalization rate is considered safe.

“It's a rough guideline, so we don't want to make it sound like a magic number,” Harris said. “But in the data it does seem to be a difference maker.”

In early January, the tracker listed Orleans Parish as bumping up against this boundary, with 39.55 hospitalizations per 100,000 people.

While Harris and his colleagues are confident in the relative safety of opening schools when hospitalizations are low, he said the impact of opening schools when hospitalizations are high is still unclear.

“Sometimes it looks like it increases the virus. Sometimes it actually looks like it decreases the amount of the virus and hospitalization,” Harris said. “That's why we say in the paper that we have inconclusive results when we look at those high hospitalization counties.”

Harris said he considered measuring other values, such as test positivity, but found them to be unrepresentative and unreliable in the context of school reopening. The first problem, he said, is that few students and teachers are being tested.

“The idea of looking at the positivity rate and thinking that we're really learning about spread in schools when almost nobody is being tested — it just didn’t seem like a very useful approach,” Harris said.

One potential workaround is to make sure students and teachers are regularly tested and to rely on this specific rate instead. Some universities and colleges have instituted their own surveillance testing programs and a few public K-12 systems have done so as well.

In New Orleans, public schools have the option to offer regular testing through the district starting this month. School officials said it won't rise to the level of surveillance testing, but will still help track and prevent COVID-19 spread. 

“The more we test, the better we will understand the spread of COVID-19,” Lewis said at last week’s school board meeting. “Knowing where it's coming from helps us to stop it from going elsewhere, especially into our classrooms.”

Union Encourages Teachers To Push Back

United Teachers of New Olreans (UTNO) opposes a system-wide return to the classroom at this time and is organizing a letter writing campaign directed at the school board that asks the district to adhere to thresholds set by the Centers for Disease Control.

UTNO affiliate Morris Jeff United Educators also called on the district to follow CDC thresholds in a letter addressed to Lewis and members of the Orleans Parish School Board.

“We support the decision that NOLA-PS made to pivot to distance learning the week of January 4th. However, even in the short time of in-person learning (Jan. 4-5), Morris Jeff Community School experienced our first case of in-class, student-to-student COVID-19 transmission,” the letter said.

Based on the number of new COVID-19 cases reported in New Orleans over the last two weeks, both groups said that CDC thresholds have not been met and returning to the classroom is too dangerous.

“We fear that had we not returned to distance learning when we did, the community outbreak would have caused many more student-to-student, student-to-staff, or staff-to-student transmissions. It is for this reason that we ask NOLA-PS to maintain distance learning until CDC-supported thresholds show it is truly safe to return to our school buildings,” Morris Jeff United Educators said.

The letter also calls on the district to maintain transparency in the decision making process and continue adhering to the thresholds it originally put in place, especially as the new COVID-19 variant spreads in the greater New Orleans area.

Number Of School Related COVID-19 Cases Drop

The number of active COVID-19 cases associated with the public school community dropped this week from an all time high of 93 cases down to 62. More than half of the cases were newly confirmed in the last week.

Cases were spread across 31 schools, with many reporting one or two cases. Mary D. Coghill Elementary School had the highest number of COVID-19 cases. Six students tested positive for the virus.

The highest number of quarantine cases was reported at Hynes Elementary Lakeview where three students tested positive for the virus. Another 68 people are isolating due to possible exposure.

The district includes positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff regardless of where they contracted the virus. The tracker does not specify whether cases were the result of close contact in the school setting.

The tracker is updated every Monday at 4 p.m.

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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