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How many New Orleans public school students are vaccinated? Officials still don't know.

A student gets the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in Gentilly on Jan. 27, 2022.
Aubri Juhasz
A student gets the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School in Gentilly on Jan. 27, 2022.

No one knows how many New Orleans public school students are vaccinated, officials said Tuesday, citing reporting delays and the burden placed on schools to collect information from families.

When the district announced its COVID-19 vaccine mandate late last year, the deadline of Feb. 1 was deliberate: roughly two weeks before the height of Mardi Gras.

That meant in theory, all students would have full immunity by the time schools closed for break, protecting them from the virus whether they were marching in parades or catching throws from the sidelines. But it’s highly unlikely that all students will be vaccinated by Carnival season’s biggest weekend, which runs from Feb. 25 through Fat Tuesday.

When board member Ethan Ashley questioned the reporting delay during Tuesday’s board meeting, Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, said moving faster would compromise the quality of information shared.

“We want to make sure we are able to present the most clear picture of what’s actually happening,” she said.

Since the state’s vaccine reporting system, which nurses rely on to confirm a student’s status, reportedly lags several weeks, Delcour said the district decided to give schools until Feb. 25 to submit data.

Based on that timeline, she said the district expects to share vaccination rates with the board and the public after students return from the Mardi Gras break, likely the week of Feb. 7.

New Orleans Public Radio reached out to multiple charter operators ahead of and after the deadline and received full vaccination rates ranging from 11% to 93%.

Charter leaders said they aren’t enforcing the mandate in any consequential way, something Delcour also confirmed at Tuesday’s meeting.

Acknowledging that most schools won’t have 100% vaccination rates, Delcour said the district plans to use data from schools to inform its next steps.

Despite repeatedly stressing the importance of complying with the deadline, district superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the school system would still be ahead of the curve if families complied with the mandate by the end of the spring semester.

“Just imagine where NOLA-PS will be in the month of August when our children are returning to school,” Lewis said. “By next school year we should have a nearly vaccinated school system, and our families who make that choice not to get vaccinated will have [an exemption] form on file.”

Delcour also said Tuesday that the district is now providing schools with rapid antigen tests supplied by the federal government. The district has received more than 40,000 tests so far and expects to receive additional shipments in coming weeks.

Schools can use the tests for a variety of scenarios, including testing vaccinated students who are close contacts so they can forgo quarantine, and screening students and staff who tested positive after they’re done isolating.

Delcour said the district has completed more than 300,000 tests since the start of the school year and three quarters of New Orleans schools have already scheduled on-site testing for students and staff before they return from Mardi Gras break.

The board covered a variety of other topics at Tuesday’s meeting, including its facility review and superintendent search processes.

Delcour said district-owned school buildings that will be vacated at the end of the year are up for grabs and qualifying schools have been invited to apply for them.

To qualify, a school must be in a building that’s considered low-quality or inconsistent with its needs. Delcour said the district’s goal is to make use of higher quality facilities and eventually get rid of buildings in need of significant repairs.

The superintendent search is still in the candidate recruitment phase and held its latest round of community feedback sessions this week, including several for high school students.

Betty Asher, with the board’s search firm Greenwood/Asher & Associates, said the search is still on schedule, and that a new superintendent should be hired by early April.

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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