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Louisiana schools excluded from lifted mask mandate unless they follow CDC quarantine rules

jbe masks.jpg
Paul Braun/WRKF
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Gov. John Bel Edwards dons a mask after addressing the media. July 8, 2020.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has lifted the statewide mask mandate for most indoor settings, including schools that wish to opt out of the face covering requirement as long as they comply with other CDC requirements.

The new policy will allow school districts to eliminate their mask requirement if they return to quarantining students and staff who have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“After sustained improvement across the state in new cases, test positivity and hospitalizations, I will lift Louisiana’s statewide mask mandate in all settings except for K-12 schools, which may opt out as long as they continue implementing existing CDC quarantine guidance,” Edwards said.

Earlier this year, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education made headlines when it announced that Louisiana’s K-12 public schools would not be required to quarantine students who had been exposed to classmates or staff who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Edwards opposed that move at the time and is now offering an incentive of sorts to districts that continue to follow or choose to reimplement the CDC quarantine requirements.

“I wanted to give school boards flexibility on the matter — some additional autonomy — to reflect the improving (COVID-19 case and hospitalization) numbers and low baseline numbers,” Edwards said.

The governor said he did not consult Louisiana State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley before making Tuesday’s announcement, but he and Brumley discussed a similar arrangement — eliminating the mask mandate in schools that followed CDC quarantine guidance — this summer before the delta variant and fourth coronavirus surge derailed those plans.

“You need to let Superintendent Brumley speak for himself,” Edwards said. “But I have every reason to believe that he supports making the mask mandate optional for each school district or each non-public school entity.”

Dr. Joseph Kanter, the state health officer and Edwards’ top public health advisor, said the CDC quarantine guidelines, which were required by the state during the 2020-2021 school year, kept students safe and minimized school disruptions.

“We were a national leader in bringing children back into the classroom setting early and doing it in a manner that’s safe, and it’s simply following the best evidence-based guidance that public health has to offer,” Kanter said.

Those guidelines require that anyone who has spent a total of 15 minutes within six feet of someone who tested positive for COVID-19 to quarantine if the COVID-positive individual or the exposed person were unmasked. The standard quarantine is 14 days, but that can be shortened to 10 days if the two parties are relatives. It can be further shortened to seven days if the exposed individual tests negative for COVID after at least four full days of their quarantine. No quarantine is required if the exposed individual is fully vaccinated and asymptomatic.

“We know after 18, 19 months of the pandemic that it’s not enough just to say, ‘If you’re feeling sick, stay home,’” Kaner said. “‘You do need to stay home if you’re sick, but 50% of people who are COVID-positive and able to spread the virus to other people have absolutely no symptoms.”

The move to relax the mask mandate parallels Edwards’ similar loosening of restrictions last spring.

Edwards first imposed a statewide mask mandate in July 2020 during the second surge of the coronavirus in Louisiana. On April 27, Edwards lifted that mandate for most public settings, but masks were still required in K-12 schools, colleges and universities, early childhood education centers, healthcare facilities, state government buildings and on public transit until May 25, when Edwards lifted virtually all of the state’s remaining restrictions.

Local governments and individual school districts were allowed to impose mask mandates and other coronavirus mitigation measures at their own discretion, and federal mandates required face coverings on public transportation, health facilities, prisons and jails.

There were 297 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the state when Edwards removed the mask requirement, but those figures began to rise again in early July as the delta variant emerged in the state.

Edwards reinstated the statewide mask mandate Aug. 4, in the midst of a fourth surge of the coronavirus in Louisiana. At the time, 2,350 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 and the state’s top healthcare professionals warned that they were on the verge of losing the capacity to provide lifesaving care. Hospitalizations during the fourth surge would eventually peak at 3,022 on Aug. 17.

The decision to reimpose the statewide mask mandate in all indoor settings — including in Louisiana classrooms — came just days before most Louisiana students returned to school for the fall semester.

Parents protested the mandate at a meeting of the St. Tammany Parish School Board and the state Board Elementary and Secondary Education. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a non-binding legal opinion arguing that Edwards lacked the authority to require masks in schools and advised state Department of Justice staff on how to claim religious exemption from the state mask mandate.

Louisiana’s vaccine rate ranks 42nd in the nation with 47.3% of the state’s population fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The current vaccination rate is a marked improvement from the state’s status at the start of the fourth surge. When Edwards reimposed the statewide mask mandate in early August, only 37% of Louisianans were fully vaccinated.

Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the vaccine. While severe COVID-19 cases and deaths remain rare among children, this summer’s surge of the delta variant brought on record highs of both. Nine of Louisiana’s 18 pediatric COVID-19 deaths were reported during the fourth surge.

Dr. Kanter said that the roughly 412,000 Louisiana children between the ages of 5 and 11 could receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in a matter of weeks, once federal regulators approve the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for use in that age group. Emergency use authorization of the mRNA vaccines for children as young as five would effectively guarantee the availability of a safe, effective vaccine for every K-12 student in the state.

The state reported 460 new cases and 323 hospitalizations on Tuesday. To see more LDH data on COVID-19 and vaccines, click here.

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