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Back To School? Bring Your Mask: New Orleans Public Schools Reinstates Mask Mandate Following City Advisory

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

Masks will once again be mandated inside New Orleans Public Schools in response to the city’s new indoor mask advisory, the district announced Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, the city publicly recommended that all individuals resume mask use indoors regardless of their vaccination status. For weeks, officials have used relaxed mask restrictions, put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as a way to incentivize vaccinations.

Since then COVID-19 cases have climbed precipitously due to the highly transmissible delta variant. Vaccination rates continue to lag in the U.S., especially in the Gulf States. Now, a growing number of health officials are calling for a change in tactics.

The American Academy of Pediatrics released updated guidance for schools Monday, recommending that staff and all students older than 2 years wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.

The announcement left Louisiana schools in a difficult place — defy CDC guidance, which recently extended its mask recommendations to K-12 schools under certain conditions, or follow the AAP’s lead. The Louisiana Department of Education currently endorses the CDC’s guidance, though individual school districts are free to set their own restrictions.

NOLA Public Schools announced in early July that they would follow CDC mask guidance this coming fall. In preparation, the district instructed schools to verify the vaccination status of those requesting to be indoors and maskless.

While the city’s heightened mask guidance comes in the form of an advisory, that isn’t enforceable, the district's guidance comes in the form of a mandate. Starting Friday, masks must be worn inside all public school buildings, according to Wednesday’s press release.

“This requirement is designed to protect our youngest students who are the most vulnerable and not yet able to get the vaccine,” the district said in the release. “The indoor mask requirement will stay in place until the city’s health data improves and after further consultation with our local health care leaders and NOLA-PS Medical Advisors.”

COVID-19 vaccines have not yet been approved for students younger than 12 years of age, but vaccine trials are underway.

The district’s release goes on to state that schools are still preparing to start the year in-person. All students, except those with qualifying medical conditions, are required to attend school in-person this year.

While some districts in Louisiana are offering families a virtual option for the coming school year, NOLA Public Schools is not. Officials have cited the superior quality of face-to-face instruction and a dire need to provide services to all students in-person.

“We trust the recommendations of our health officials, and this [mask] requirement will not affect the start of in-person learning for the 2021-2022 school year,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in the press release. “We are looking forward to a great school year where our children will, once again, be able to learn alongside their teachers and peers.”

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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