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Some New Orleans Public Schools Make COVID Tests Mandatory Post-Ida To Prevent Potential Surge

Aubri Juhasz
Students get tested for COVID-19 at a Louisiana Department of Health sponsored event at Audubon Charter School's Gentilly campus. Sept. 16, 2021.

As New Orleans Public Schools reopen following Hurricane Ida, the city’s charter operators are recommending, and in some cases requiring, that students test negative for COVID-19 in an effort to prevent a surge in post-storm cases from further disrupting the school year.

Many schools remained closed this week, or temporarily pivoted to online, to deal with storm aftermath, but invited families to come to campus to get their children tested. The district sponsored three additional testing events this week in Lakeview, Algiers and New Orleans East that were open to all students.

It’s the first time NOLA Public Schools has attempted widespread surveillance testing since the pandemic began, though the program has been a long time coming. Many schools plan to continue testing students on a weekly basis moving forward, though participation will be voluntary.

“Testing is crucial now more than ever because we want to return our students, teachers and staff to school as safely as possible,” NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement earlier this week.

The district has identified testing as its latest — and in some cases greatest — tool to minimize quarantines, keep schools open and ensure students, staff and families stay safe.

Tests are provided through a partnership between schools, the district and the Louisiana Department of Health and will be available on a weekly basis moving forward. A small number of New Orleans public schools helped pilot the program in the weeks leading up to Ida, but this week marked the beginning of widespread testing in the district.

So far, just 10 of the state’s 64 parish-wide school districts have agreed to participate in Safer Smarter Schools, the state’s surveillance testing initiative. The participating districts are in Orleans, Jefferson, East Baton Rouge, Caddo, Winn, Evangeline, St. Landry, St. Bernard, Natchitoches and Catahoula parishes.

Samples are collected using a shallow nasal swab or are saliva based. Tests are free to families and come with a financial incentive paid for by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Families receive $25 the first time their child is tested and $10 for each additional test, though the money will be paid out in larger stipends rather than on a weekly basis.

Louisiana was in the midst of its fourth COVID-19 surge when the school year started in early August, and students brought the virus back to school with them. More than 14,100 students and 1,600 teachers tested positive within the first month of in-person classes.

LDH did not collect case data from schools in the days leading up to Ida’s landfall on Aug. 29, and reporting since then has likely been incomplete due to limited testing and school closures, a spokesperson said. Since the middle of last month, children ages 5-17 have represented the largest percentage of new daily cases in the state.

In New Orleans, more than 4,700 students and teachers, or nearly 10% of the school community, were in quarantine when Ida hit. Several schools pivoted temporarily to remote instruction due to operational challenges, while some parents demanded that all children be given the option to learn from home.

“We have to be honest in this moment,” Lewis said in the days immediately following the storm. “We had a very high peak, and we're not sure what will happen when we come back.”

In the past, K-12 schools, as well as colleges and universities, have seen cases climb following storms and holiday breaks, both of which tend to result in increased travel and close contact with people outside a students family or immediate social circle.

Despite the district’s testing push, it’s unclear what will happen when students come back from their hurricane hiatus. While educators are hopeful the new testing program will keep the virus at bay and provide schools with a fresh start, others are fearful the impacts of Ida could make the situation worse.

“I do think there’s validity to that concern,” Theresa Sokol, the state’s head epidemiologist, said in an interview late last week, adding that even under normal circumstances, some degree of classroom spread is inevitable.

But while high quarantine numbers can seem scary, Sokol said it is evidence that testing and contact tracing measures are working to prevent larger outbreaks from occurring.
But the problem with quarantining a student is that it prevents them from learning in-person and passes the burden of childcare back to the family. Even when teachers aren’t required to quarantine, moving a large number of students online can still pose operational challenges.

“We were getting to the place where we were just in this quarantine circle for our kids,” Kate Mehok, founder and CEO of Crescent City Schools, said. “Our staff wasn't quarantining because they are all vaccinated, but it just felt like we couldn't get momentum academically.”

Mehok said before Ida she considered closing Crescent City Schools’ three campuses, which serve mostly students too young to be vaccinated, for a long Labor Day break and requiring students to get tested before coming back. But she noted that Ida, while devastating to schools in many ways, has provided her schools with a much needed reset.

Students must provide proof of a negative test before returning to the classroom on Sept. 22, Mehok said, adding that staff are working to make sure testing is accessible to all families and doesn’t prevent students from returning to the classroom.

FirstLine Schools, which operates five schools serving pre-K through eighth grade students, also has a post-storm testing requirement. In addition to providing onsite testing this week, they also supplied transportation and utilized school buses to bring families to campus.

Other schools mandating return tests include Homer Plessy Community School, the International School of Louisiana and Audubon Charter Schools, all of which held their own events, but said they would accept results from PCR tests administered anywhere. The city’s largest charter operators are “encouraging” but not mandating testing.

Prior to the storm, test capacity was limited citywide due to the surge, but at least for now, the strain on the system appears to have lifted. While some parents reported hour-plus wait times to get their kids tested, other events went smoothly.

“It was so quick and I’m happy everyone is doing this so we can go back safer,” said Audubon Gentilly parent Sarah Dearie after she and her daughters got tested Thursday morning. “It’s just better to go in knowing.”

The testing process took Dearie and her two daughters less than 20 minutes from start to finish. Her older daughter Aiya said she expected the nasal swab to be uncomfortable, but the tests her school is using aren’t that invasive.

“It actually felt better than it did the first time [I got tested] because my eyes got teary,” she said.

Dearie said she’ll opt-in to the school’s weekly testing program moving forward, especially since her two elementary school age daughters are not yet eligible for the vaccine.

Steve Corbett, Audubon’s CEO, said the testing program has already helped prevent quarantines by identifying multiple positive asymptomatic cases.

“The most important thing is getting back and instilling a sense of confidence in our families and our teachers that when we return, we're going to be here for a sustained amount of time,” he said.

He expects testing to be even easier moving forward because students will be back in school, allowing LDH to move from classroom to classroom quickly.

“Do we want to do this forever? No, absolutely not,” he said. “We hope that we get to a point where this doesn't have to happen anymore, but they've created such a manageable process.”

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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