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NOLA-PS is 1 of nation’s 1st school districts to require COVID vaccine for all students

Morgan, 7, put on a brave face for her covid-19 vaccination. She was nervous, but didn’t think it was too bad, Nov. 4, 2021.
Shalina Chatlani
Gulf States Newsroom
Children 5-11 in Louisiana and across the nation can receive COVID vaccines, as did Morgan, 7, on Nov. 4, 2021. Under a policy from LDH, the vaccine will be added to the K-12 school immunization schedule.

While many school districts, and in some cases entire states, are moving forward with plans to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students once it has received full federal approval, New Orleans isn’t waiting.

NOLA Public Schools formally requested that the vaccine be added to its own immunization list Thursday morning and received approval from the state later that same day.

New Orleans is potentially the first school district in the country to require the COVID-19 vaccine for students in all grades. California has a pending mandate that K-12 students be vaccinated once full FDA approval is given to their age group. New York City recently extended its vaccine mandate to children ages 5-11, but it doesn’t apply to schools.

In districts that already require students to be vaccinated against COVID-19, it often applies to children 12 years and older or 16 and older.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. announced the decision at a joint press conference with Mayor LaToya Cantrell and told board members about the plan in greater detail at its end-of-the-year meeting Thursday.

“We didn’t do this … to be the first school system to require vaccination for 5 year olds on up,” Lewis said. “It was always about the health and safety of our young people.”

All public school students 5 years and older must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by Feb. 1 unless their parent or guardian completes an exemption form.

Under state law, families are allowed to opt out mandatory vaccines by claiming a medical, religious or philosophical exemption. The form requires parents and guardians to acknowledge that in the event of an outbreak at their child’s school, they could be barred from attending in-person “until the incubation period has expired” or they “present evidence of immunization.”

Mayor LaToya Cantrell expanded the city’s vaccine mandate, which requires patrons of certain businesses to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test from the last 72 hours, on Thursday to include children as young as 5 years old as well and announced the decision in tandem with Lewis. The change goes into effect Jan. 3.

The state’s department of health is in the process of adding the vaccine to its own list but faced a legal setback Wednesday, when the State Attorney General Jeff Landry filed a lawsuit arguing that Gov. John Bel Edwards, who passed the rule Tuesday despite it being rejected by state legislators a few days before, does not have the authority to move forward unilaterally.

The rule applies only to vaccines with full federal approval, which right now only extends to vaccines for individuals 16 years and older. If approved, families could opt their children out of the requirement by filling out the same form that’s been provided to families in New Orleans.

The Food and Drug Administration has given the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine emergency authorization to use in children ages 5-11 and full approval to use in people 16 years and older.

While many officials across the country have argued they’ll wait to expand vaccine mandates to children until after full federal approval is given, New Orleans officials have argued that the vaccines have already been proven safe and effective and that there's no point in waiting — especially with Carnival fast approaching.

“We trust the recommendations of our health officials, and this requirement will help us all do our part this holiday season to come even closer to returning to the normal rhythms of life and so that we can truly enjoy the upcoming Mardi Gras season, safe and healthy,” Lewis said in a statement.

The district has argued a vaccine requirement for everyone is essential to maintaining in-person instruction and keeping quarantines to a minimum.

High school students in New Orleans are already required to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing in order to participate in after-school activities and events. The district’s central office, as well as most charter operators, require staff to be fully vaccinated.

Lewis also wrapped up the district’s annual charter renewal process and recommended that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School, a PK-12 school in the Lower Ninth Ward, received a 3-year contingent renewal.

King qualified for renewal review based on the C and D letter grades it received for the 2018-19 school year. The school was eligible for a contract renewal between 3 and 7 years.

Lewis delivered his charter renewal decisions at November’s board meeting, but did not include King because of multiple compliance issues, Litouri Smith, the district’s interim chief school accountability officer, said.

The school received two notices in a level one notice of non-compliance related to employee background checks and a level two notice related to special education in November. Since then, the school has completed proper background checks and is working with the district to resolve its level two notice which is still outstanding, Smith said. District officials also visited King Charter School on Dec. 10 for a site visit.

The district’s annual charter application process opened last Friday and will remain open until Jan. 14, 2022. Applicants can apply to start a new school or to take over a pre-existing program. Lewis has said that due to enrollment declines, the district is unlikely to award charters to brand new schools.

Two items on Thursday’s agenda also had to do with reconfiguring schools. Einstein Schools will be allowed to transition its two elementary schools from a pre-K and K-5 model to a pre-K and K-8 model and will eventually close its middle school. All three schools are located in New Orleans East.

Meanwhile, Delores Taylor Arthur School for Young Men will be allowed to expand its high school programming to include eighth graders for the 2022-23 school year. Both moves are in line with the district’s plan to eliminate seats in all grades, except in the seventh and eight grades, which the district said are in need of more capacity.

The board also approved nearly a dozen items that had previously advanced to a full vote following Tuesday’s meeting. Almost all of the items were contract awards, amendments and extensions, most of which related to project management and facility repairs and maintenance.

An amendment was added to the district’s existing contract with Guaranteed Restoration, LLC to specify permissible expenses and billing rates. The contract amount has not changed, and officials said the amendment was added to comply with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s reimbursement process.

The district’s original contract with Guaranteed Restoration was first amended in response to damage sustained by school buildings from Hurricane Ida, and the contract amount jumped from $500,000 to $15 million.

The direct financial impact of the hurricane on the district is not yet clear. Officials have said the district is hopeful they will be reimbursed for most repairs through insurance or FEMA, but that process can take years.

To help with that, the board approved contracts for two disaster management firms to help schools navigate the claims process. CSRS Disaster Recovery Management, LLC was awarded a $1.5 million contract and Deloitte & Touche, LLP a $2 million contract.

Both contracts are for three years with the option to extend.

The board also voted to support the district and individual charter schools’ applications for additional funding through the state’s Reimagine School Grant. Shayla Guidry Hilaire, the district’s chief student and school support officer, said if selected, the district will use its grant to support several system-wide initiatives, including developing systems to better support special education students.

The board also acknowledged the end of its first year, since most of its members were seated in January 2021. Members are elected to four-year terms and board leadership is elected each year.

Board president Ethan Ashley said Thursday that he does not plan to pursue the school board presidency for another year since he and his wife have a baby on the way.

Nolan Marshall, the board’s longest-serving member and current vice president, did not say whether he plans to run for his position again.

Board members will determine their new leadership after they return from the winter recess.

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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