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New Orleans schools open with thousands already in quarantine

Despite thousands of students and staff already sent home for possible exposure to Covid-19, the New Orleans school system remains committed to in-person learning.

NEW ORLEANS (CN) — News that her first grader’s class was going into a two-week quarantine sent a newly single Louisiana mom with a new job into a tailspin Monday morning.

Her son is joining 4,600 other schoolchildren around metro New Orleans who have been in quarantine as of last week, according to a New Orleans public school tracker sent Monday night. The mother asked that she and her children not be named.

The tracker represents the Covid-19 caseload in public schools for the first full week of classes, the week ending last Friday, Aug. 20.

As the mother scrambled to get her two children dressed and out the door Monday morning, she learned through her estranged spouse, who is not in New Orleans, that her son’s class had switched to distance learning for two weeks due to a Covid-19 case in the classroom.

By a glitch in the school’s reporting process, only her spouse received the news. Still, the alerts only went out Monday morning, so even if she had received them there would have been little time to plan.

“He called me on our way to the car,” she recalled over the phone Monday evening, “and said, ‘Don’t rush. His class is in quarantine.’”

Her priorities changed very suddenly. Now she needed to find a place to get the required PCR Covid test for her child and to explain to her new employer that she would need to work from home for the next two weeks – a possibility that was not discussed during the hiring process over the summer.

This mother’s situation highlights the struggles of parents across the U.S. as the delta variant spreads like wildfire through communities.

The pandemic has hit Louisiana particularly hard since June, crippling a state with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Over the summer, just 38% percent of Louisianans had been fully vaccinated. That number has since raised to 40%, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health, compared to the national average of 51.5%.

But despite the rising number of infections statewide – there were 3,814 cases reported Tuesday, and 139 Covid-related deaths, the most in a single day so far during the pandemic – and for the thousands of schoolchildren in quarantine, the number of students testing positive is still relatively low – just 1.3% of those tested so far have been positive.

“Our high quarantine numbers reflect our mitigation efforts in action to help keep students and staff safe,” Dr. Benjamin F. Springgate, medical adviser to New Orleans Public Schools, said in a press release Monday night.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Louisiana Department of Health and the New Orleans Department of Health all agree that the best place for kids is in schools, according to data they’ve analyzed, the school district said in its press release.

The benefits of classroom learning include developing social and emotional skills, access to healthy meals and activities, and access to mental health support that cannot be offered through virtual learning.

“Our goal is to continue to preserve in-person learning,” the school district's press release said.

As part of that goal, the Orleans Parish school board announced Tuesday cash incentives to keep students and staff up on their weekly Covid tests. The board said it will pay students and staff $25 each for the first Covid test they take and $10 for each subsequent test, which will be given weekly. 

Still, Covid-19 remains a tough battle for working and single parents, whether schools are open but quarantining frequently or canceling altogether.

“If this is only the second week of school and this is already happening, I’m thinking that quarantine is something we are going to be doing a lot of this year,” the mother of the first grader said. "I’m imagining this isn’t going to be the only time. I’m realizing that I pretty much need to start looking for another job.”

When she explained the situation, her supervisor wasn’t open to working from home.

“She told me I need to take two weeks of special Covid leave, that I cannot work from home," she said.

Her supervisor suggested she might find someone other than herself to care for her son, and to do distance learning with him for the next two weeks.

“It’s a wacky thing to say,” the mother recounted. “Find him care – like, who? Who would want to be with a quarantined kid?”

She said she has no family in New Orleans, but even if she did, she wouldn’t be comfortable leaving her son with them knowing that he’s potentially been exposed to Covid. Grandparents, for instance, would be considered too high-risk simply because of advanced age or health issues, even if they have been fully vaccinated.

Another mom with kids who have been in quarantine – because the dad, who is fully vaccinated, tested positive for Covid at the start of school – and who also asked to remain anonymous, sent a text about her situation Tuesday morning. With all family members now testing negative for Covid, but with her older daughter’s third-grade class in quarantine until after Labor Day because of a separate Covid-related issue, she said she was trying to make the best of their situation.

“It’s a hard time. I feel like I was a lot more fun the first quarantine. I was overly optimistic that things were getting back to normal so this time around sorta threw me for a loop,” she said. “Now I’m just trying to process it all and letting things get all 'Lord of the Flies' around here.”

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