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COVID cases in New Orleans’ public schools down by 50%; see latest data

A student waits in line to get her vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.
Aubri Juhasz
A student waits in line to get her vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.

COVID cases in New Orleans’ public schools dropped by roughly 50% last week and quarantines were also down, according to data released Monday.

The district was tracking 268 active cases, among 32 staff and 236 students, and 821 quarantines as of last Friday, down from 525 active cases the week before and 910 quarantines.

But as cases and quarantines come down, questions have been raised regarding the data’s accuracy.

“We are working with our schools to ensure the data are as accurate as possible, although schools’ testing schedule and our reporting schedule may differ week-to-week, accounting for some degree of inconsistency,” the district said in a press release Tuesday.

“Quarantine numbers especially may fluctuate due to the increasing number of vaccinated students and differences in total close contacts established through contact tracing.”

Last week, the second page of the district’s tracker, displaying case totals over time, was unexpectedly removed.

District spokesperson Taslin Alfonzo said in an email that the page had been temporarily removed due to the “high volume of preliminary case counts schools submitted at the peak of the omicron variant.”

Omicron cases peaked in early January, when more than 2,200 students and staff tested positive for the virus. Since then cases and quarantines have diminished gradually.

Alfonzo directed New Orleans Public Radio to look at the first page of the tracker which displays a running case for the 2021-22 school year and said the second page would be restored after it had been updated.

“It’s important to note the total number of cases is accurate and has not changed,” she said.

In addition to the missing page, which had still not been restored as of Tuesday morning, New Orleans Public Radio also requested clarification regarding the district’s quarantine policy after multiple schools reported dozens of cases, but zero contacts quarantined.

Alfonzo said due to the “high volume of positive cases,” some schools “may not be able to report all data requested through our formal reporting process, such as the number of vaccinated and unvaccinated close contacts.”

“However, there has been a decline in our average number of quarantined individuals as compared to our case totals due to the increase in fully vaccinated students,” she said.

While quarantine policies may vary by school, the district does not recommend quarantine for fully vaccinated close contacts who are asymptomatic.

More than 19,400 tests were completed last week as part of the district’s surveillance testing program, with a positivity rate of 1.5%. The week before, nearly 21,600 tests were completed with a positivity rate of 2.15%.

Last week’s cases were spread across 54 of the district’s 76 schools. The highest number of cases, 23, was reported at Audubon Charter School: Uptown Upper School followed by 21 cases at Lusher Middle and High School: Freret Campus.

The highest number of quarantines, 263, were reported at Elan Academy, a PreK-8 school in Algiers that only serves 305 students and identified 12 positive COVID cases.

New Orleans is one of the few districts in the country with a vaccine mandate for students and possibly the only one that requires all students 5 years and older to be fully vaccinated, though state law allows parents to opt their children out of any vaccine requirement.

As of last week, many families still had not completed the process, well past the district’s Feb. 1 deadline. While schools have used the mandate to encourage parents to get their children vaccinated, so far it hasn’t been enforced.

Unvaccinated students can still attend class in-person even if their parents haven’t filed for an exemption, a practice that has resulted in limited compliance at some schools.

While the district has yet to provide system-wide vaccination data, multiple charters and schools have shared their own updates with New Orleans Public Radio upon request.

The following updates were received from schools last week:

KIPP New Orleans: 62% of students ages 12 and up and 36% of students between the ages of 5-11 across eight schools had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of last Friday. Less than 5% of students have opted out of the mandate at any given school.

Hynes Charter Schools: 41% of students are fully vaccinated and 18% have filed exemptions across three schools.

Lusher Charter School: Nearly 90% of students across two campuses are fully vaccinated and 11% have filed exemptions.

Benjamin Franklin High School: 93% of students are fully vaccinated and 6% have filed exemptions.

Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary: 43% of students at the K-8 school are fully vaccinated, 12% are partially vaccinated and 15% have filed exemptions.

Despite the mandate’s lack of teeth, the city’s youth vaccination rate has continued to rise.

When the district’s deadline was first announced in mid-December, roughly a quarter of the city’s 5-17 year olds were fully vaccinated.

That number, which includes children who attend public or private school or are homeschooled, is now closer to 44%, and roughly 6 out of 10 children are at least partially vaccinated.

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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