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All summer, New Orleans mom Carrie Booher restricted her children to outdoor activities in public, still wary of a pandemic that has picked up speed again after her world upset last year.
With school starting on the French public immersion charter Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans in early August, Booher is on the fence about shooting up her 6-year-old Henry as cases of the new Delta variant of COVID-19. Her decision will be influenced by the school’s masking policy, which has not yet been announced.
“I don’t even think that’s a price,” said Booher of her wish that all children in school wear masks. “It’s all about doing the right thing.”
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Booher isn’t the only one who has to figure things out under tight deadlines. With conflicting advice coming from the federal government and national health groups, NOLA Public Schools are the only district in the 7-ward metropolis that is introducing stricter restrictions as the state takes a freer approach to deciding how public schools should operate.
Meanwhile, health officials have sounded the alarm that children are more prone to the new variant, which makes up the majority of cases in Louisiana. The Ochsner Health System reported that the number of children who tested positive for COVID-19 has increased ten-fold in the past six weeks.
Children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccinations. Louisiana, meanwhile, is lagging behind the rest of the country in convincing parents to vaccinate their eligible children. According to 2020 estimates by the Louisiana Department of Health and the US Census Bureau, fewer than a fifth of children ages 12-17 were vaccinated. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that’s about 35% nationwide.
Vaccination rates are higher in the Orleans and Jefferson parishes but are still well below the numbers that would be required to achieve any type of herd immunity.
On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that all students in the school be masked inside, a departure from the laid-back CDC policy that only advises unvaccinated students to wear them.
With that in mind, it appears that each Louisiana school district will be on the hook this year to decide how to deal with school openings and procedures.
NOLA Public Schools issued a mask mandate for students and teachers in schools on Wednesday. But other school districts say they won’t impose full masking requirements or other restrictions unless Governor John Bel Edwards or the CDC take a stronger stance.
These districts are based on the Louisiana Department of Education, which released updated guidance Monday indicating that school districts only require masks for unvaccinated children ages 5+ and that children must stay 3 feet apart in classrooms, based on the existing CDC- Instructions.
“We have no intention of changing our language,” based on the AAP proposal, said Cade Brumley, education superintendent of Louisiana.
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Brumley also said school districts have more autonomy than they did last fall when the vaccine was not available and Edwards issued a nationwide mask mandate that extended to public school buildings.
“Our faith, given [a statewide mask mandate] is not in place, it should be a local decision, “Brumley said.” What we are not going to do from the standpoint of the LDOE is to give some mandate.
He also didn’t stop promoting vaccines, despite the fact that the local school districts hold several vaccination events in the greater New Orleans area. It’s an issue that was pushed by Edwards, a Democrat, and other state officials, but has been challenged by some Republican lawmakers. Brumley called it “a deeply personal choice that must be made between the family and their pediatrician”.
At least one district has so far decided against a mask mandate.
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Officials for the school district in St. Tammany Township, one of the areas hardest hit by the rising case numbers, said Wednesday that “masks for those who are not vaccinated” are highly recommended but not required in school are. They are compulsory on buses, but only because it is a federal government mandate.
The Jefferson Parish public schools and the Archdiocese of New Orleans, as well as the St. Charles Parish school system, remained unbound. Spokespeople for these agencies said they would monitor cases, interview communities and stay in touch with health officials.
Crystal Forte, whose 10-year-old John visits JC Ellis in Metairie, said her son was having trouble wearing his mask to school. John has special needs and the mask limits his communication. She is not worried about the virus because her son already has it and she has been vaccinated.
“I don’t want a mask mandate,” said Forte.
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One thing the districts are apparently not considering is full closings this fall, for now at least. Dr. William Lennarz, chairman of the pediatric system at Ochsner Health, is one of the experts who pointed out that access to education is also a health concern.
“There is a tremendous amount of literature that shows us how detrimental school closings have been to the education, social development and mental health of children,” he said.
Staff authors Marie Fazio and Jeff Adelson contributed to this report.
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