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NOLA-PS will be mask optional starting Monday; decision up to individual schools

Aubri Juhasz
PreK students wear masks at KIPP Central City Primary on Oct. 2, 2020.

New Orleans Public Schools will lift its mask mandate for students and teachers starting next week, the district announced Friday afternoon.

Monday marks the first time individuals will be allowed to enter New Orleans public school buildings unmasked since the start of the pandemic, after a short-lived plan to allow fully-vaccinated teenagers and staff to go maskless was abandoned in July 2021 due to the delta variant.

“I am excited for our students and staff to be able to interact with each other in a more natural way and return to a sense of normalcy,” district superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement.

Anyone who feels more comfortable wearing a mask is encouraged to continue, Lewis said.

Because of the district’s all-charter system, individual operators can decide to continue requiring masks in their schools.

The district first announced plans to lift its mandate in early March, but only if cases remained low post-Mardi Gras.

Since Carnival festivities wrapped, the city’s health trends have remained on track. New Orleans’ COVID-19 community level is low with an average of 28 new cases reported each day as of Friday.

Most Louisiana school districts have had optional mask policies in place for quite some time, since the state lifted its mandate for schools in October as long as districts promised to adhere to CDC quarantine guidelines.

Private schools in New Orleans lifted their mask requirements earlier this month when the city lifted its own mandate in the days immediately following Mardi Gras.

More than 77% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and nearly 63% of 5-17-year-olds have gotten the shot.

New Orleans Public Schools is the only district in the state and country that requires all students in grades K-12 to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. While the policy lacks teeth, it's encouraged some families to get their children vaccinated.

More than 45% of district students were fully vaccinated, and 60% were partially vaccinated at the beginning of March, according to the district, which has yet to share more recent information.

Onsite vaccinations and testing will continue even after the mask mandate ends, the district said. The district enrolls roughly 44,000 students and often completes more than 18,000 tests each week.

While health trends in New Orleans mirror the rest of the U.S., experts caution the emergence of a new variant could throw the country off track. In a situation like that, the district has said they could decide to bring the mask mandate back.

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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