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NOLA-PS reports fewer COVID cases, more quarantines amid omicron surge; see data

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

COVID cases in New Orleans’ public schools were down last week, but quarantines were up, according to data released Tuesday.

More than 3,670 students and staff were in quarantine as of Friday after 1,603 people — 201 staff and 1,402 students — tested positive for COVID between Jan. 10-14. Cases were spread across 71 of the district's 76 schools.

While the number of new cases is still high and has forced some schools to pivot online, the district’s chief operations officer Tiffany Delcour told school board members there’s evidence the surge is slowing.

“We have hopefully peaked and are slowly coming down from that peak,” Delcour said.

Last week, the district’s positive test rate dropped by roughly half from 13% to 7%. Active infections topped 2,200 when schools reopened in early January, more than quadruple the highest number ever reported in the system.

Many of the cases were identified before students returned from winter break as part of on-site surveillance testing, Delcour said.

More than 19,000 tests were administered between Dec. 29 and Jan. 7, and the district enrolls nearly 44,000 students. While return testing was highly encouraged by the district at most schools, participation was optional.

Delcour said based on the district’s data, schools with more robust testing programs are more likely to report a higher number of cases, but a lower number of quarantines.

In a press release, the district said there is still no data suggesting that COVID is spreading widely in schools and that maintaining in-person learning continues to be its top priority.

But the high number of cases has put a strain on schools, and due to the high number of cases, some have been unable to complete contact tracing, the district said.

About a third of schools were in some form of distance learning last week due to high cases, testing delays or staffing issues, though most had resumed classes in-person as of Tuesday, Delcour said.

While most schools in the Gulf South have remained open throughout the omicron surge, some districts in other parts of the country decided to move operations online temporarily, including systems in Newark, Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland.

Like New Orleans, the country’s two largest public school systems, New York and Los Angeles, opted to keep students learning in-person and dedicated more resources toward testing.

Meanwhile, Chicago, the nation’s third-largest district, was forced to cancel classes for five days after teachers’ union members refused to work in-person.

Board member Olin Parker said he sees the district’s recent data and tapering trends as further evidence that in-person learning continues to be the right thing to do.

“It’s the right thing for families. It’s the right thing for kids and frankly it’s safer for kids,” Parker said. “Every time we’ve seen a bump in our numbers, it’s been when there hasn’t been school.”

In addition to testing, the district provided schools with new COVID guidance and health training to school operations and nursing staff in early January. More than 25,000 KN95 and N95 masks have also been distributed.

Most schools require teachers to be vaccinated against COVID-19, and the district has a mandate for central office staff.

The vaccine was also added to the district’s list of mandatory student vaccines in December. Families have until Feb. 1 to ensure their children, as young as 5 years old, are fully vaccinated unless they file an exemption form.

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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