Public school classrooms will remain closed for at least another week as New Orleans distances itself from its latest COVID-19 surge.
District officials instructed schools to pivot most students to online-only instruction in early January after the city’s test positivity hit 9 percent. Since then both test positivity and daily new cases have trended downward.
On Thursday, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district is getting closer to bringing students back to the classroom, but needs to watch the data a while longer.
“We are seeing promising data, but in-person learning citywide at this time cannot resume,” Lewis said at a press conference.
They plan to watch city health metrics for another week and revisit their decision by Jan. 28. At that time, Lewis said he hopes he can provide some “good news.”
When the district decides to reopen classrooms, the process will be gradual, Lewis said. Buildings will likely follow a phased reopening, with younger students returning first and high school students receiving online-only instruction the longest.
This week New Orleans’ positivity rate dropped from 9.6 percent to 5.9 percent, according to state health data. On Thursday, data collected at the local level found test positivity to be even lower, at 3.6 percent.
Despite this improvement, the city’s daily case count remains high, with more than 140 people testing positive for COVID-19 every day. For students to return to the classroom, Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, said this number also needs to come down.
“We need to continue to monitor this metric with a goal of having a prolonged and deeper decline in new cases,” Delcour said. “These reductions are hopeful signs ... but they're not quite where we need them to be in order to resume in-person learning on a larger scale.”
The district has resisted setting hard cutoffs for in-person instruction and instead relies on a basket of values setting ideals for each: fewer than 50 new cases a day, test positivity beneath 5 percent, and robust access to testing.
Delcour reiterated the district’s holistic approach Thursday and said their decision making process is based more so on trends that persist for at least two weeks than on specific values.
“We're not looking at hard and fast data, basements or floors,” Delcour said. “We are looking at ranges and how these data metrics influence each other.”
Delcour said the district recently widened the range of values they consider safe based on new research pertaining to COVID-19 transmission in schools.
“We are more comfortable with the positive test rate of 5 to 9 percent as long as other metrics are trending in the right direction and are low,” Delcour said.
For new daily cases, Delcour didn’t provide an exact number, but said the district would be comfortable exceeding the previously set value if test positivity adheres to the original 5 percent threshold.
Delcour said moving forward the district may also factor the city’s hospitalization rate into its decision making process.
One of the district’s two medical advisors Dr. Ryan Pasternak was also present at Thursday’s press conference. Delcour said the district relies on Pasternak and its other advisor Dr. Benjamin Springgate when evaluating the city’s health trends.
“Our work is to take all these data points and aid the district in analyzing them into a full picture of our current community's health,” Pasternak said Thursday. “This way, the district can make the best decisions at the best time for its students and its staff.”
The district is currently partnered with Children’s Hospital of New Orleans to provide COVID-19 vaccines to eligible staff members — school nurses, individuals in other health care roles and staff 70 years and older. Delcour said approximately 330 staff members have scheduled vaccine appointments and some have already received their first dose.