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New Orleans Public Schools On Track To Reopen Next Month If 'Promising' Data Trends Continue

Parents gather in the parking lot of L.B. Landry High School to pick up laptops and hotspots on Aug. 6, 2020.
Parents gather in the parking lot of L.B. Landry High School to pick up laptops and hotspots on Aug. 6, 2020.

New Orleans students could return to the classroom after Labor Day if current data trends continue, Superintendent Henderson Lewis said at a press conference Wednesday.

Lewis described recent health data as “very, very promising,” but cautioned that before they decide to resume in-person learning, they need to make sure the trends are consistent.

“Before we make any final decision about returning our students to school we want to make sure that this recent information is part of a sustained trend,” Lewis said.

Many students have already started the school year virtually, and all NOLA-PS schools will be operating remotely by the end of this week, according to the district.

Over the next week, the district will remain in close contact with city health officials and medical experts to determine whether it is safe to reopen schools, Lewis said. They plan to make their decision no later than Aug. 28.

For schools to safely reopen, officials are looking at community spread, the city’s testing rate, and the percentage of positive tests. Health officials say the percent positivity rate needs to be below 5 percent. On average the city has done this since the beginning of August. On Wednesday, the city reported 1,179 new tests with a positive rate of 2.2 percent.

Lewis said the district has also been considering testing availability as part of its school reopening plans and is working with local medical institutions to identify testing resources.

Their first goal is to have ready access to rapid tests for teachers and students who are symptomatic.

“It's also important that if we do have any positive confirmed cases in our schools, that we're able to do testing of those who may have been in close contact to really kind of stop those outbreaks from ever really happening,” Lewis said.

Once that goal is achieved, Lewis said, the district would also like to establish ongoing screening of the whole school community. They plan to announce more testing specifics next week.

Many school districts in Southeast Louisiana opted to delay the start of in-person learning after the state experienced a surge of COVID-19 cases in July. Some pushed back the start of the school year entirely, while others decided to start the year virtually.

“The goal then and the goal now still remains the same: to bring our students back to the classroom for in-person learning this fall,” Lewis said.

While the district has substantially closed the connectivity gap since last spring, making remote learning accessible for far more families, many students remain disconnected.

At least 20 percent of InspireNOLA’s 5,800 students have not attended a single class since the school year resumed a week and a half ago, CEO Jamar McKneely said Wednesday during a panel hosted by the Education Research Alliance.

There’s significant pressure from both education experts and politicians to get students back in the classroom. Some fear that younger and high-risk students can’t receive the support they need virtually, while others argue that the only way to reopen the economy is to get children back to school and parents back to work.

Teachers have largely been opposed to reopening schools. Even with New Orleans’ promising health data, some have said the district should wait until there are no new cases for at least 14 days before they consider resuming in-person instruction.

While New Orleans has consistently relied on health data in the reopening process, many neighboring districts have decided to forge ahead.

“We are learning from those school districts about what has happened as they reopen their schools,” Lewis said.

Dr. Benjamin Springgate, the district’s medical advisor, said they’re also watching college campuses across the state. All of New Orleans colleges and universities are at least partially open and began welcoming students from across the country back to campus earlier this month.

In Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University said they’ve had 22 positive cases of COVID-19 on campus since Aug. 15. LSU plans to publicly share the number of positive cases and will also notify specific faculty members if there are positive cases among the students attending their in-person classes.

Universities and colleges are not required to publicly report their case counts, though they are required to inform regional health officials. The same is true for K-12.

There are no state reporting requirements when a student, teacher or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. Instead, it’s up to individual districts to decide what information to share and who to share it with.

In New Orleans, the district requires that individual schools contact them as well as the regional health director to report positive cases. Schools are expected to inform those who were in close contact with the positive individual so that they can get tested as well.

So far, New Orleans Public Schools has not released any information regarding positive cases. While students are learning from home, many teachers are working from inside school buildings and families have visited schools to receive specific services and attend orientations.

At least two New Orleans schools have reported positive cases among their staff. A staff member at Homer A. Plessy Community School tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this month and an employee at Hynes-UNO tested positive Wednesday, according to school spokesperson Cheron Brylski.

When asked during the question and answer portion of a panel hosted by the Education Research Alliance on Wednesday whether individual schools should be required to publicly report positive cases, both Orleans Parish School Board member Grisela Jackson and InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said they’d prefer for schools to have some degree of privacy.

“As educators, our No. 1 priority is to make sure that not only the safety of our students and our families but the rights of our students and our families are always protected,” McKneely said.

McKneely said InspireNOLA will follow reporting procedures and will rely on the district to serve as the communicator.

According to aggregate data released by the Louisiana Department of Health, there have been 26 positive cases in primary and secondary schools, 158 positive cases at colleges and universities and 85 at child care centers.

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