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COVID In New Orleans Public Schools: 116 Active Cases, 638 Quarantined After 1st Week Of Classes

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Chris Taylor
Students adjust their face masks and pose for a first day of school picture outside Edna Karr High School. Aug. 2, 2021.

Before students set foot in the classroom last week, the delta variant had already caused significant disruptions at some New Orleans public schools, according to data released Monday.

New Orleans Public Schools is currently tracking 116 active COVID-19 cases among 39 teachers and 77 students. Another 638 people are in quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus.

Cases were reported at across 34 schools and quarantines were spread across 24 schools. The vast majority of quarantine cases were associated with four schools — Booker T. Washington High School, KIPP East, Phillis Wheatley Community School, and Warren Easton Charter High School.

The district’s new COVID tracker shows six cases reported for the week of July 19, followed by 93 additional cases the following week. Students began returning to the classroom on Aug. 2 and by the end of the week, 21 more cases had been reported.

Of the 116 active cases, more than half were reported by students and staff who had not yet returned to campus, the district said in a statement. Schools are instructed to report positive cases even if they were contracted prior to the start of the school year.

“It’s important to note 63 of the 116 positive cases had zero close contacts since they had not been present at their respective school,” the district said.

Last year, the district reported 774 COVID-19 cases over the course of 10 months. Its highest weekly case counts followed Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks when 95 and 103 individuals tested positive for COVID-19 respectively.

New weekly case counts reported by New Orleans Public Schools over the course of the 2020-21 school year.

Cases associated with the public school system have tended to be reflective of community spread, rather than the other way around. While there’s still no evidence to suggest schools serve as superspreader sites, the increased transmissibility of the delta variant and the recent rise in pediatric COVID-19 cases has many parents on edge.

Outside mandatory quarantine time, students are not allowed to learn remotely this year. New Orleans public schools are required to serve students in-person, except when a family obtains a medical accommodation, according to the district.

Dr. Amanda Jackson, a pediatrician and vice president of physician services at Children’s Hospital New Orleans, said in an interview Monday that she still believes schools are in a position to safely serve students in-person.

“I can tell you they're watching the numbers as closely as the health care professionals and we're having these conversations,” Jackson said. “At this point, we feel confident that with the vaccine and the precautions that we're taking where the vaccine cannot be given, so masking and testing and social distancing, that we are able to keep the kids safe.”

At the same time, Jackson said she “can’t predict the future,” and remains open to the fact that the conversation could change based on the state’s health trends or if new information becomes available regarding the delta variant.

“If it comes to a point where we need to change [the plan] because it's no longer safe, then we'll do that. But that's a big if and those conversations have not been had,” Jackson said. “Nobody is talking about that at this point. The plan is to proceed with having school in person.”

Jackson said she expects mask use to prevent the spread of delta in the classroom and is far more worried about children’s exposure to COVID-19 outside of school. She said transmission is far more likely during after-school activities or when children are at home with their parents.

“I feel very confident that the kids will be safe when they go to school,” Jackson said. “It's when they're at home and the same level of precautions are not in place [that COVID is likely to spread]. If parents are not getting immunized, they're at risk for both getting COVID and then spreading it to their kids.”

Even before the state’s recent surge in cases, Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operating officer, made it a point to remind reporters and community members that quarantines would likely still be common during the 2021-22 school year.

“Student and staff quarantines will happen,” Delcour said at a press conference last week. “There will be short periods of distance or virtual learning for students because they are identified as close contacts.”

Twenty-one students at Warren Easton Charter High School tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the start of the school year, according to a letter sent by Principal Mervin Jackson to families late Monday night.

“These students never entered our building at all this school year,” Jackson said in the letter. “Everyone who enters our building will have temperature checks and wear a mask at all times.”

WECHS also reported 57 quarantine cases last week, suggesting the students who tested positive were in close contact with classmates outside of the classroom. Jackson said the school offers weekly COVID tests to students and staff every Thursday. The results typically take 48 hours, though rapid tests can be accessed through the school’s clinic.

Jackson said WECHS consulted with NOLA-PS and the Louisiana Department of Health following identification of the positive cases and the parties concluded no additional actions were needed to protect students and staff.

Delcour said the best way to ensure students and teachers are able to learn in-person over the course of the school year is to achieve widespread vaccination rates, not just across the school community, but the city at large.

“Vaccination means students won't miss precious classroom time, not to mention being further protected from COVID-19,” Delcour said.

NOLA-PS shared weekly case counts broken down by staff and student totals last year. This year’s tracker does not include a similar breakdown. The district plans to update its tracker Monday afternoons at 4 pm with data from the previous week.

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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