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Education

Why Louisiana Schools Are Sticking With Plans For In-Person Classes Despite Recent COVID Spike

Red_River_Elementary_2.JPG
Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
Students at Red River Elementary in Coushatta, Louisiana work on a reading comprehension exercise. June 8, 2021.

With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on the rise in Louisiana, some parents have begun to question whether their children will be able to start the school year in-person. But ask any school or health official and the answer — at least for now — is still the same: Schools will reopen.

While the fourth wave of the pandemic may feel frighteningly similar to the second, which derailed the start of the 2020-21 school year, a lot has changed since then, prompting school districts to stick with plans for in-person learning this fall.

“What's different is that the guidance is resounding and clear,” Tiffany Delcour, chief operating officer for New Orleans Public Schools said in an interview late last week regarding the district's decision to bring students back to the classroom. “In-person learning is a necessary priority and it's the best way to provide a quality education to students.”

Every single school district in Louisiana is planning for an in-person start to the coming school year and most are not giving families another option, the Louisiana Association of Superintendents said.

Included in those plans for some school districts is the decision to make mask wearing voluntary, despite recent recommendations from The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encouraging all K-12 staff and students to wear masks inside school buildings regardless of vaccination status. In the greater New Orleans area, the only district enforcing a universal mask requirement at this time is New Orleans Public Schools.

Despite being one of the first states to return students to the classroom, more than 150,000 students across Louisiana finished last school year online. At the time, the state required every district to provide families with a virtual learning option. With the focus now on getting students back into the classroom, that is no longer the case.

“Although not many chose the [virtual] option, it was important to offer, Charnae McDonald, director of communications for Caddo Parish Public Schools, said in an email.

Out of the district's nearly 37,000 students, McDonald said less than 200 have selected online learning for the coming school year. In Calcasieu Parish, which was devastated by Hurricane Laura last year, the percentage of virtual learners is higher but still accounts for less than 2 percent of students.

Even if a district is not offering virtual learning to all families, schools are required to accommodate students who cannot attend in-person school due to serious medical concerns.

NOLA Public Schools is not offering families a virtual option this year and some families have expressed frustration that they no longer have a choice.

Delcour pushed back on this narrative and argued that families still have a choice since they can still choose to enroll their children in Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, a tuition-free online public school program that is open to students across the state.

Even so, Delcour said she hopes families decide to keep their children enrolled in NOLA Public Schools.

“I am confident that schools will continue to be the safest place to be for students next school year,” Delcour said. “I ask [parents] to trust the system, to trust us and to let their students come back to school.”

Without A State Mandate Some Districts Pass On Mandatory Masking

Last summer, there was considerable fear that schools would serve as super spreader sites and drive up the number of infections in the surrounding community. Instead, researchers found that when safety precautions like masking and social distancing were in place, transmission within schools was limited.

When asked whether the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant could have an impact on plans for the upcoming academic year, representatives for several school districts said they were confident existing mitigation measures would allow them to safely resume full-time in-person instruction for all students.

“We already planned to approach this year with extreme caution and with lots of precautionary measures in place,” said Holly Holland, public information officer for the Calcasieu Parish School Board, in an email last week.

Holland went on to write that many of the COVID policies CPSB implemented last year, including social distancing, health screenings and increased cleaning, remain in place. But there’s one key mitigation measure they no longer plan to enforce — mandatory masking.

Students and staff will still be required to wear a face mask on school busses in order to comply with federal policy, Holland said, but not inside school facilities. CPSB is one of several districts that decided to make masks voluntary after Governor John Bel Edwards' mandate expired in late May. Since then the decision has been up to local school districts.

“School system leaders should continue to work with the local medical community to determine what works best based on local context,” Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said in a statement when the Louisiana Department of Education released its own back-to-school guidance in mid-July.

Soon after, local medical communities began sounding alarms regarding the swift spread of the delta variant. The state is now solidly in its fourth surge and COVID-19 cases are rising quickly. Experts say the highly transmissive delta variant and the state’s lagging vaccination rate — about 36 percent of adults were fully vaccinated as of Tuesday — are to blame.

The Louisiana Department of Health announced Friday that they were once again recommending masking indoors for all individuals regardless of vaccination status. LDOE amended its guidance to align with LDH, but widespread implementation at the district level is unlikely without a mandate in place.

NOLA Public Schools led the pack last week when it announced new mask guidance ahead of the LDH and the CDC. District officials had previously announced plans to allow fully vaccinated students and staff to go maskless inside school buildings, but rescinded the policy last week citing the city's new "indoor mask advisory."

Holland said CPSB is aware of the CDC’s new guidance and that they continue to “encourage and strongly recommend mask wearing.” But they do not have plans to mandate it on their own.

“We will monitor all mandates implemented by the Louisiana Department of Education and the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education,” Holland wrote in an email Wednesday. “As we’ve all seen since the beginning of the pandemic, changes are happening at a rapid rate which greatly impacts planning and decision-making at a local level. We will continue to notify our families and stakeholders of any and all developments.”

St. Tammany Parish Public Schools said Wednesday in an update to its COVID page that, "face masks are highly recommended but not mandated on school campuses and in offices indoors if six feet of social distancing is not possible." Jefferson Parish Public Schools and the Archdiocese of New Orleans have not yet made a decision.

In the state's capitol, the East Baton Rouge Parish School System expects to announce its mask policy sometime next week.

'The Biggest Thing Is Vaccination'

Louisiana is reporting the highest COVID-19 case growth per capita of any U.S. state and is also leading the country when it comes to the percentage growth of new pediatric cases. School-age children are now the state’s third-highest age group in terms of overall coronavirus infections, according to LDH.

“Currently, the pediatric cases are about 16% and that’s up from just 7% just two weeks ago, which is up from about 1% to 2% a month or two ago,” Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, system medical director of hospital quality with Ochsner Health, said at a press conference late last week.

More than 4 million children have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began but severe cases have been rare, according to data gathered by the AAP. Children accounted for less than than 4% of total COVID related hospitalizations at the state level and less than .26% of deaths as of late last week.

But it is too early to tell whether the delta variant poses a greater threat to children than earlier strains, Dr. Amanda Jackson, a pediatrician and vice president of physician services at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said late last week. She said the growth in pediatric cases is likely due to the highly infectious nature of the delta variant.

The COVID-19 vaccine is not yet available for children under 12 years of age, though vaccine trials for children as young as 6 months are currently underway. If trial results are positive, companies expect to apply to the Federal Drug Administration for emergency authorization as early as September.

“Anyone who is not vaccinated is at risk for getting any variant of COVID,” Jackson said. “Children are at higher risk right now, primarily because they cannot get the vaccine.”

Even if a child does not exhibit symptoms, contracting COVID-19 can have serious consequences, Jackson said. Not only does each new case fuel the virus’ spread and place greater potential strain on the healthcare system, there is also the chance they will infect someone who is more vulnerable. Additionally, mandatory quarantines prevent children from attending school and after school activities in-person.

Jackson, who leads Thrive Kids, her hospital’s partnership with local schools, said she is still advising districts to provide in-person instruction, as long as the proper mitigation measures are in place. Her advice: Require masks, especially for the unvaccinated, practice social distancing and conduct robust contact tracing.

“But the biggest thing is vaccination,” Jackson said, adding that schools should do everything in their power to encourage students and staff to get the vaccine.

Delcour, with NOLA Public Schools, said they are also relying on the vaccine to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

“We have vaccinations that are happening throughout our city for our staff and our students 12 years of age and up,” she said. “We'll also be participating in a routine weekly testing program.”

Delcour said at Tuesday’s board meeting that the district will soon offer vaccine incentives — likely cash — to eligible students and teachers. Board members applauded the initiative, but said a vaccine mandate may be needed in the near future.

How Likely Is A Return To Virtual Learning?

At what point, if any, would school districts consider closing schools and returning to virtual learning? Jackson believes it would "take a lot" to get to that point.

“I wouldn’t say, ‘No, that would never happen again,’” she said. “But I also think it would be unlikely to get to that scenario, and hopefully with a focus on vaccines, we can avoid that.”

When asked at what point NOLA Public Schools might consider a return to virtual learning, Delcour said the district is “100 percent focused on prioritizing and preserving in-person learning for next school year.”

Unlike last year, Delcour said there are no clear cut offs or a combination of health factors to suggest an in-person shutdown could be coming.

“What we will continue to do is evaluate the mitigation measures we're putting in place and their effectiveness so that we can understand what additional mitigation measures may be needed to continue the preservation of in-person learning,” she said.

Delcour said the district had already displayed its responsiveness through its new mask policy. If the delta variant continues to impact the region, she said the district’s medical advisors could suggest additional restrictions mostly around capacity and group sizes.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge, said even though the delta variant is more contagious in kids and will likely lead to “more illness, more missed days from school and more quarantine time for the unvaccinated,” the priority needs to remain on keeping schools open.

O’Neal has urged everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated to do so in an effort to prevent spread and lessen the load on Louisiana’s medical system, which in some parts of the state is already overwhelmed.

“I do think there’s a point at which we would have to shut down the schools, but I hope we don’t reach that,” O’Neal told New Orleans Public Radio. “We saw what happened last year in New York. If ambulances of adults and children start lining up outside of hospitals and there are no beds then everything is going to have to shut down again.”

“At that point, the community comes to a halt,” she said. “It’s impossible for me to think about that happening because we know exactly what to do to prevent it.”

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