On the same day that Louisiana students returned to school from winter break, NOLA Public Schools announced that, beginning Thursday, all its students will be required to do distance learning because of the rising number COVID-19 cases in New Orleans. A press release from the school system sets Jan. 21 as a date that students may be allowed to return to campus, but an executive member of the local teachers union said the school system should commit to virtual learning for the rest of the year.
“The City’s data tracking the pandemic showed a significant jump in the rate of positive cases over the past few days, indicating a worsening trend — one of several metrics NOLA-PS considered in order to make this grave but necessary decision,” the school system said in a press release.
“As with every decision NOLA-PS has made since the start of the pandemic, this latest decision was driven by data and the advice of our public health experts.”
“Cases (in New Orleans) are much higher than they’ve been,” Ethan Ashley, president of the Orleans Parish School Board, said Monday. “As a result, people were rightfully alarmed.”
Orleans Parish reported a 8.9 percent positivity rate as of Jan. 4, according to the New Orleans COVID-19 dashboard. Ashley said those numbers indicate that there would be an imminent or active outbreak possible in a potential return to in-person learning.
Adrienne Dixson, a member of the executive council of the United Teachers of New Orleans and an education professor at the University of Illinois, said the school system’s decision to start the spring semester virtually came because of the objections of teachers who felt unsafe in physical classrooms, “not the wisdom or benevolence of the school board.”
In addition to our very concerning spike in #COVID19 cases it is likely that the #CovidUK variant is already in the United States, meaning a much higher rate of spread. @NOLAPSchools it is time to #Reducetherisk Take action today!
— UTNO, AFT Local 527 (@UTNO_Teachers) January 4, 2021
On Monday, before the school system announced the switch to distance learning, UTNO, through its Twitter account, called attention to a new variant of COVID-19 that was first recognized in England and urged the school system to act: “In addition to our very concerning spike in #COVID19 cases it is likely that the #CovidUK variant is already in the United States, meaning a much higher rate of spread. @NOLAPSchools it is time to #Reducetherisk Take action today!”
Dixson said what she’s heard from teachers is that they are concerned for their health, the health of their families, the health of their students and communities.
“It was impossible to keep the spread from happening,” Dixson said. “The kids were eating together, social distancing wasn’t always possible. It wasn’t as easy to mitigate spread as district officials would lead you to believe.”
By the time students were finishing up their fall semester, 189 faculty, staff and volunteers and 370 students had tested positive for COVID-19 in New Orleans, which doesn’t even tell half the story of how unsafe teachers felt during the school year, Dixson said.
The school system says that in-person classes may be able to resume Jan. 21 if “the local trend in positivity rates and case counts improves.”
Ashley said the school board will remain flexible as the COVID-19 numbers continue to come in throughout the school year while putting health and safety first.
“While we’re pivoting because of the data, it’s important for us to prioritize the learning of our young people so that they can get back into school in-person for those that need in-person instruction,” Ashley said. He said his son is one of those students who learns better physically in the classroom as opposed to learning over Zoom.
NOLA Public Schools began fully online last semester as well. Students returned to in-person learning in phases beginning on Sept. 14, 2020. Over 46,000 total students were enrolled in NOLA Public Schools, as of February 2020.
Dixson said she believes school officials should take longer than late January to decide whether or not to return to in-person learning.
“I think it’s the right decision for schools to go back to virtual,” Dixson said. “I think it should be what schools do for the remainder of the school year.”