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How New Orleans Public Schools Are Responding After Record High COVID Cases Quarantine 3,000

Chris Taylor
Students put on their face masks as they approach Edna Karr High School on the first day of the 2021-22 school year. Aug. 2, 2021.

New Orleans’ high rate of COVID-19 transmission is wreaking havoc in the city’s public school system, resulting in a record number of new cases and quarantines, according to data released Monday.

Nearly 300 students and teachers tested positive for the virus last week, and 3,000 people were instructed to quarantine. The previous record for new weekly cases, which was 103, was reported in early January. At the time, the district responded by abruptly pivoting to online-only classes.

Ninety-three new cases and 638 quarantines were reported during the first week of classes.

While the high numbers have frightened many parents and prevented thousands of students from attending classes in-person, New Orleans Public Schools said there is still no evidence that the virus is spreading inside schools. About two-third of the city's public schools are back in session.

“This week’s data is reflective of community spread and reflective of the increases in cases in the greater New Orleans area,” Dr. Benjamin Springgate, the district’s medical advisor, said in a statement.

A third of new cases were reported by students and staff who have not yet returned to school, Springgate said. The 3,004 quarantine cases stemmed from less than 200 active cases.

“While these numbers are high, quarantine reflects our mitigation efforts in action that help to keep students and staff safe,” Springgate said. “As a result of these mitigation efforts, COVID-19 transmission in our schools remains very uncommon.”

View the district’s COVID tracker here.

Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, said Tuesday that the district is “not scared of identifying cases.” She suggested the number of reported cases and quarantines can be seen as a sign of strength, not weakness, because there is evidence that the district’s surveillance testing and contact tracing programs are working.

But a growing number of parents disagree. Some have pointed critiques about specific guidelines, while others argue no level of precaution can justify a mandate on in-person learning now that pediatric COVID-19 cases are surging.

“When children were not getting [COVID], we had virtual school. Now that children are getting it we’re sending them to school. It is like the opposite of common sense,” said public school parent and activist Ashana Bigard.

Bigard is a member of Erase The Board, a coalition of public school parents and allies who are critical of the city’s all-charter system. Over the last few weeks, the coalition has grown increasingly critical of the district’s decision to not offer virtual learning.

About a dozen people, mostly members of Erase The Board, gathered on the steps of KIPP New Orleans’ central office Monday afternoon to address the press and publicly call on the district to change its stance.

Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
Public school parents, mostly members of Erase The Board, stand on the steps of KIPP New Orleans’ central office to address the press and publicly call on the district to provide families with a virtual learning option. Aug. 16, 2021.

CORE Response New Orleans will provide free testing to students, teachers, staff and their families on Tuesdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the district’s central office in Algiers and on Fridays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Living School in New Orleans East. Tests are non-invasive saliva PCR tests and results will be available within two to three days.

KIPP is one of the city’s largest school operators and is seen by some as the mascot for the charter movement. The organization does not have any official power over central office decisions.

“Where are we as a community if we’re not protecting our babies,” Bigard said. “I’m so frustrated, because we know better.”

Medical experts agree that age constraints around vaccinations have put younger children at increased risk of contracting the delta variant. But they also agree that in-person learning is the best option for most children as long as safety measures, like masking and social distancing, are in place.

District officials said they are in regular contact with the Louisiana Department of Health and have been advised to continue serving students in-person.

Starting this week, NOLA-PS will provide weekly walk-up testing at two district facilities, citing the need for increased testing city-wide and the strain on the city’s hospitals which previously handled testing for the school community.

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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