With seven weeks worth of data, New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said there’s “no indication” COVID-19 is spreading within the city’s K-12 schools.
“Where we are seeing the spread is outside,” Avegno said at a press conference Monday detailing the city’s next phase of reopening.
Last week, New Orleans public schools reported six new COVID-19 cases, bringing the district’s apparent total to 43. Cases include students and staff who have reported that they tested positive for COVID-19 regardless of where they contracted the virus.
Virus transmission can be traced to social activities that happened outside of the classroom, Avegno said, including birthday parties, shared meals and sports practices.
NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a statement Monday that the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH), which currently tracks COVID-19 cases in schools, has also seen no evidence to suggest the virus is spreading in New Orleans classrooms.
The district began sharing weekly data when its first wave of students returned to the classroom in late September. The 43 cases were reported over the course of seven weeks at more than two dozen schools. During that period, all students were given the option to start attending classes in-person at least several days a week.
Despite widespread fears that schools would serve as “super spreaders,” in many places that hasn’t been the case. Whether a school becomes the site of community spread often depends on how closely they adhere to disease control measures.
Avegno said New Orleans’ educators have been “heroic” in their adherence to guidelines and have done a “really good job” at contact tracing.
“The fact that we’re able to do this successfully, I hope is a lesson in how to do things right,” Avegno said.
Masks are mandatory for students and staff, social distancing is enforced and class sizes are smaller than usual — in part due to the large number of families who have opted not to return to the classroom.
To cut down on possible contacts, many teachers rotate through classrooms instead of students. Art and music classes are often delivered as pre-recorded Zoom lessons, or delivered to a select group of students in-person.
The district also offers rapid testing for symptomatic students and staff and free testing sites for those without symptoms.
Responding to Avegno’s comments, Lewis thanked the school community that came together to create the district’s reopening plan.
“This plan, along with LDH and our medical advisors, has informed our COVID-19 precautions districtwide, as well as our measured phased approach to reopening,” Lewis said in the statement. “I’m extremely proud of our school leaders, teachers, staff, and administrators for adhering to the plan and making sure the health and safety of our students, educators, and their families remains the top priority throughout this pandemic.”
More than 60 percent of U.S. K-12 public school students currently have the option to attend school in-person at least a few days a week, according to Burbio, a company that monitors public school websites.
Districts on the West and East coasts are far more likely to be learning virtually, with many offering no in-person instruction at all. Florida is an exception.
Beyond georgraphy, system size also plays a role. Larger systems, with a greater number of stakeholders and often a powerful teacher's union, have been more likely to stay closed.
New York City’s public school system is a notable outlier, while the tiny state of Rhode Island has been praised for its centralized reopening.
In New Orleans, public schools started the academic year virtually before beginning a phased return to the classroom in late September.
The decision to start virtually mostly quieted the fears of teachers, who are not unionized due to the city's unique all charter system. By the time classrooms reopened, daily percent positivity had dropped well below the city's 5 percent threshold, often hovering around 1 percent.
District leadership has been in lockstep with Avegno, following her recommendations and often inviting her to speak at their own press conferences. Charter leaders have been similarly aligned with the district despite the city's decentralized system.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell and Superintendent Henderson Lewis have spoken publicly about the burden virtual learning puts on working families and the ways in which the city’s equity issues have been further exacerbated by the pandemic.
Despite community learning hubs and district-provided technology, many students struggled to learn during virtual instruction.
Overall data trends in New Orleans continue to be stable, though Avegno said she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of another surge.
“We can’t be complacent and think that we are going to be fine forever,” Avegno said. “As long as the rest of the country is out of control, we are certainly going to see some spillover here.”
Avegno said closing schools again would be a last resort and that keeping them open is the “top priority.”
But while all schools are open and will be for the near future, many classrooms have remained half empty.
Parents have the option to stick with virtual learning through the end of the school year and can opt to send their students back to the classroom at the start of each quarter.
During the first wave of reopening in late September, 40 percent of students did not return. The same was true when older students were given the option in mid-October.
In the beginning, parents often kept their children home due to fear of the virus. As classroom spread becomes less of a threat, the reasons to stay at home are shifting.
Jerry Williams, a junior at Edna Karr High School in Algiers, said when his school reopened he tried it for a day before deciding to remain virtual.
At Karr, in-person students spend the whole day in one classroom and aren’t supposed to socialize with their peers. Ty'chelle Watts, an Edna Karr senior, said even a trip to the bathroom is carefully choreographed.
Even though the new restrictions left Watts feeling “stuck,” she decided learning at school was better than learning at home.
“At home, I have an option [of whether or not to learn]. I’m not supposed to, but I do,” Watts said.
Like a lot of teenagers, Watts said she has a hard time holding herself accountable when it comes to schoolwork. But when she’s in the classroom, she gets her work done.