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NOLA-PS could lift its mask mandate if COVID cases remain low post-Mardi Gras

Aubri Juhasz
Students wait to get the COVID-19 vaccine at Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary School on Jan. 27, 2022.

Mask use inside New Orleans’ public schools may shift from mandatory to optional in just a few weeks if community spread remains low, the district said in a statement Thursday.

New Orleans Public Schools said it's considering lifting its mask mandate as early as March 21, two weeks after the height of the Carnival season, as long as there's no evidence of a post-Mardi Gras spike in cases.

The news follows the city’s decision to drop its own mask mandate effective Thursday. New Orleans officials have also hinted that the city's vaccine and test requirement could soon be lifted if current health trends continue.

The district said the mandate will only be lifted if levels of local community spread remain medium to low, as defined by the CDC.

That means if the city records more than 20 new COVID cases per 100,000 people in the 7 days prior to March 21 or more than 10% of hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients, the mandate will remain in place.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also released Friday a change in public health guidance, which said schools should only mandate masks when COVID cases and hospitalizations are high.

The district’s mask mandate has been in place since classes first resumed in person other than a short-lived plan to make masks optional for fully vaccinated staff and students at the start of the current school year.

District superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said schools will continue to keep students safe by keeping other COVID safety measures in place, including social distancing, weekly testing and enforcing the district’s vaccine mandate.

The statement said more than 45% of district students are fully vaccinated and 60% have received at least one dose, according to data collected from a majority of schools. Officials are expected to provide a more complete update on vaccination efforts sometime next week.

The district said additional restrictions implemented during the omicron surge, including restricted use of assembly spaces and increased social distancing, will be lifted Monday.

Starting next week, the isolation period for staff and students who test positive for COVID will also be reduced from 10 to 5 days to align with federal and state guidance.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, which operates more than 70 schools across eight parishes, said in a statement that it would not require students or staff to wear masks when the city’s mandate expired early Thursday morning.

“As we have done throughout the pandemic, the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of New Orleans will follow the guidance and requirements of civic officials,'' Archdiocese spokeswoman Sarah McDonald said in a statement, adding that individual schools may still choose to require masks “based on the needs and desires of their communities."

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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