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How Louisiana's 5 largest districts are handling back-to-school amid omicron surge

KIDS VAX EVENT
Shalina Chatlani
/
Gulf States Newsroom
Hundreds of children and their parents lined up for a COVID-19 shot at a Louisiana Department of Health vaccine clinic in New Orleans on Dec. 21, 2021.

Louisiana’s public schools will reopen this week largely as planned, many without implementing guidance from the state’s health department meant to slow the omicron variant’s spread.

Gov. John Bel Edwards and top health officials said at a press briefing last Thursday that they were urging schools to require masks, provide return testing and temporarily suspend after-school activities.

“If schools implement these measures, then I do believe that there can be a real reduction in risk of transmission,” Theresa Sokol, the state’s epidemiologist, said during the briefing.

If they don’t, Sokol said the highly transmissible variant will likely spread in classrooms and during extracurriculars, resulting in a large number of student and teacher absences and periodic school closures.

Despite the strong warning, not all districts are following the state’s guidance. Just two of the state’s five largest districts have mask mandates in place, and none are requiring staff or students to get tested.

Students and staff are not required to get vaccinated against COVID-19 — except for in Orleans Parish — though the state hopes to implement its own requirement, with a generous opt-out policy, in time for next school year.

Districts and individual schools have also expressed reluctance to suspend after-school activities, especially since the Louisiana High School Athletic Association is moving forward with the sports season as planned.

Many districts and schools have adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's shorter isolation and quarantine standards. Louisiana's Department of Health supports the new guidance and school leaders hope the policy will prevent students and teachers from racking up unnecessary absences.

Here are the COVID protocols currently in place in the state’s five largest districts.

Jefferson Parish

Louisiana’s largest public school district resumed school in-person on Tuesday as planned and is “encouraging vaccines and strongly recommending face masks,” the district said.

Return testing is recommended, but not required and the district provides regular on-campus testing for staff and students through the state’s Safer, Smarter Schools initiative.

Just 10 of the state’s 64 parish-wide school districts agreed to participate in the initiative at the start of the school year. The program is free, and officials have said it has the capacity to test all Louisiana students weekly should districts and students choose to opt in.

Jefferson Parish Public Schools recently adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s shortened isolation and quarantine guidelines after Louisiana’s departments of health and education endorsed them.

Orleans Parish

New Orleans Public Schools continue to have some of the most robust COVID precautions in the state and the country.

Early last month, the district became the first in the country to successfully implement its own COVID-19 vaccine mandate. All students 5 years and older must be fully vaccinated by Feb. 1 unless their parents request an exemption.

Louisiana law allows families to opt their children out of mandatory vaccines by claiming a medical, religious or philosophical exemption. The process consists of one form, and supporting documentation is not required.

“As a school system, we know it is so important for our students to be vaccinated because that’s how we can continue to preserve in-person learning,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said at a press briefing Monday.

Lewis said another important part of the equation is testing and encouraged students and staff to get tested before returning from winter break, just like they did after Hurricane Ida.

The idea is to detect cases before students and teachers return to the classroom, cut down on quarantines due to possible exposure and prevent the virus’s spread.

The district is offering testing events over the course of this week, and the city has multiple opportunities as well.

While return testing is not required district-wide, a number of charter operators have implemented their own mandates. In those cases, multiple opportunities to get tested on-campus are typically being made available.

In addition to these one-off testing events, the district also provides regular surveillance testing for more than 15,000 students and teachers through the state’s Safer, Smarter Schools initiative.

The district is recommending that its schools adhere to all of the state’s updated guidelines, though extracurricular activities can continue if they’re moved outside with proper social distancing and mask-wearing.

At sporting events, spectators should be limited to team members’ families, and schools should restrict students from settings such as cafeterias and assembly spaces, district officials said.

Schools should maintain 6 feet of social distancing between students whenever possible, and students and staff are required to follow the latest quarantine guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention if they are exposed to or test positive for the virus.

Given the other precautions they are taking, some New Orleans schools said they believe they can continue to offer after-school activities safely.

FirstLine Schools, which operates five K-8 schools, required staff to get tested before returning and encouraged re-entry testing for students.

Extracurriculars will not be suspended or reduced, but will be moved outside whenever possible and masks will be required, a charter official said.

To better comply with guidelines, especially testing recommendations, many New Orleans charter operators have announced plans to delay in-person classes, in most cases, for just a few days, but in others, for a few weeks.

Community Academies of New Orleans said Sunday that students at its three schools, which covers grades PreK-8, will learn virtually for the next two weeks due to “widespread positive cases” and “delayed test results.”

New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School will be virtual through Jan. 17 and Warren Easton Charter School will be virtual for at least the remainder of this week.

Meanwhile, some charter operators are only moving certain schools online due to staffing issues.

East Baton Rouge Parish

East Baton Rouge Parish Public Schools has implemented most of the state’s health guidelines, and students returned to the classroom in-person Tuesday.

The district has maintained its own mask mandate since the state lifted its requirement in late October and recently voted to extend it through at least the end of January.

“We have continued to make all public health decisions based upon the most recently available data and based upon the advice of our health care professionals,” Superintendent Sito Narcisse said in a letter to families last week.

In addition to masking, the district will continue to follow social distancing and enhanced cleaning guidelines, district chief of communications Alexandra Deiro Stubbs said in an email.

Staff have been required to participate in weekly testing since the beginning of the school year, and students have the option to test weekly through the state’s Safer, Smarter Schools initiative.

After-school activities will be limited to 50% capacity, and spectators at sporting events will be required to wear masks, Stubbs said.

Caddo Parish

The district has been mask optional since early December, and students returned to the classroom on Monday as planned.

Charnae McDonald, the district’s director of communications, said in an email that the district will only return to mandatory masking in the event of a local, state or federal mandate.

Originally, the district had planned to reinstate its mask policy if the parish’s percent positivity rate exceeded 5% for two consecutive weeks, but the board voted to eliminate the policy at its December meeting, McDonald said.

Caddo’s current percent positivity rate is 14% according to the state’s health department. It’s positivity rate for the previous reporting period, which ran from Dec. 9 to Dec. 15, was 3.2%.

There are no testing mandates in the parish’s public schools, but regular on-campus testing is available. Mask use is encouraged, and extracurriculars will continue as scheduled.

St. Tammany Parish

Students and teachers returned to school in-person on Monday as planned and are “highly encouraged” to wear masks, according to the district’s latest guidance.

There is no mask mandate or testing requirement in place, according to the district’s director of communications Meredith Mendez.

St. Tammany Parish Public Schools dropped its mask requirement as soon as Edwards allowed districts to go mask-optional in late October.

Testing is not available on campus, and extracurriculars will not be altered due to the omicron variant, Mendez said in an email.

The district is temporarily limiting guests to only essential visitors and is adjusting meal services to provide additional space between students, a measure recommended by the state’s department of health.

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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