K-12 schools — not the state — are deciding what parents know about COVID-19 outbreaks

Health department isn’t publishing numbers from individual schools

By: - August 19, 2020 7:00 am

In this file photo from July 22, teachers in East Baton Rouge protest their system’s planned reopening of schools. (Photo by JC Canicosa / Louisiana Illuminator)

Azadeh Yazdi, a Lafayette parent of a fifth-grade student, is frustrated with the protocols that the Lafayette Parish School System has put in place to report positive COVID-19 case. Yazdi said, as a whole, school officials have unfairly left parents out of the conversation about how schools should reopen.

According to a re-opening plan that was updated Monday by the Lafayette system, “Parents will be notified by the school if someone in their student’s class has been identified as a positive case of COVID-19.” According to that guidance, “A single positive case of COVID-19 does not necessarily warrant a school or classroom closure.”  When the school is notified of a positive COVID-19 case, the school system’s document says, “Parents will be contacted if their student was in close contact with a student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19. The student will be required to quarantine.”

Also, “Parents are expected to notify the school if their child tests positive for COVID-19, (and) if someone in the student’s home has tested positive for COVID-19, the student must quarantine and contact the school nurse for further instructions.”

That guidance suggests that parents won’t be informed if someone — or even multiple people — in a classroom adjacent to their children test positive for the virus.

“There is a lack of transparency, communication and trust,” Yazdi said. “And I think that is what’s triggering all the anxiety and frustration. Both for parents and staff. Lafayette Parish should be doing a better job.”

But there’s nobody requiring the school system to do what Yazdi wants done.

There are no state reporting requirements when students, teachers or staff at a Louisiana public school test positive for COVID-19.  The state is leaving it up to the individual school districts to decide if they will release information about positive tests and, if they do, who will receive those notifications.

The Louisiana Department of Education has issued guidelines for schools during the pandemic, but those guidelines are only recommendations. The state isn’t requiring schools to follow them. Those guidelines encourage school districts to consider “what stakeholders will be informed” and how they will handle questions from families, the community and local media.

For example, Hollis Milton, superintendent of West Feliciana Parish Schools, said all the schools in his district are to follow to the same reporting strategy, “which is to notify students and employees if they have been in direct contact with a positive individual.”

According to a blueprint released by the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, once a positive case is confirmed, “personnel will employ confidential contact tracing; determine which areas need to be sanitized; notify close contacts in a confidential and timely manner and provide self-quarantine guidance.”

The blueprint then says The Office of Health and Intervention Services will then inform the Louisiana Office of Public Health and provide return-to-school guidance for students, but a positive case does not necessarily mean a school-wide shut down, a spokeswoman for East Baton Rouge Parish Schools said.

When positive cases are reported to the Louisiana Department of Health, that information will be reported in the aggregate, meaning the department will post it on its page tracking outbreaks throughout Louisiana without identifying individual locations or facilities, Kevin Litten,  a communications strategist for the LDH said Friday. Litten said  schools will take the lead on positive COVID-19 case disclosures and notifications.

However, at his Tuesday press conference, Gov. John Bel Edwards, without revealing any details, said the health department would develop a system for schools to report cases.

Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and School Employees, doesn’t think the state is taking sufficient responsibility. He said the education department should do more than tell school districts to develop plans, but should take responsibility in making sure individual school districts have proper protocols in place.

“It’s unfortunate that the state punted to the local school districts,” Carter said, “and then it looks like the school districts have been putting a lot of the real planning on individual school sites and principals.”

Carter said there are some school districts that do not have the funds or planning to include contact tracing, which he says is a must for schools’ reopening plans.

“Districts by and large aren’t prepared to do that funding wise,” said Carter. “I think it’s going to be incumbent on the state to push for better testing and contact tracing.”


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JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is an award-winning journalist at The Louisiana Illuminator. Canicosa has previous experience at Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.