January 1, 2021
Dr. Lewis and members of the Orleans Parish School Board,
We can see the light at the end of the tunnel with the distribution of the vaccine, but we cannot act with reckless abandon in the face of a rapidly spreading virus.
As a union of educators we deeply understand the power of in-person learning. We have seen immeasurable learning loss from students over the course of this pandemic. We long to be with our students in our classrooms. As of December 17th, half of the schools in New Orleans had positive COVID-19 cases—a total of 66 cases, with 769 students and staff quarantining. Absences among teachers and students are on the rise, which is harming adequate staffing in schools and continuity in teaching and learning. NOLA Public Schools announced that schools must proceed with in-person learning starting on January 4th, and in the announcement it indicated that it would have several options to reduce the spread of COVID in schools before it considers returning schools to distance learning.
On December 3, 2020 the CDC released CDC indicators and thresholds for risk of introduction and transmission of COVID-19 in schools. Orleans Parish has had 2,092 new COVID-19 cases for the last 14 days through December 31. That is 537 cases per 100,000, 2.69 times the CDC threshold for the highest risk of transmission in schools of 200 or greater per 100,000. New Orleans reported 245 new cases of COVID-19 on December 31 and a positivity rate over 7 days of 7.7% (the test positivity rate on December 31 exceeded 11%). That is the highest 7-day average test positivity rate reported on the City of New Orleans’ COVID-19 Dashboard.
Today we ask you to take the following measures to mitigate risk of transmission of COVID-19 in New Orleans Schools:
- Set clear thresholds for action to reduce risk of transmission. While the decision making process for opening for in person learning was clear the decision making about keeping in person learning going has been opaque. New Orleans 7-day average of new cases per day has been above 100 for the entire month of December, but the previous requirement was that we would need to be under 50 new cases per day for 14 days. Our positivity rate as calculated by the state has been over 5% for two weeks, and the New Orleans test positivity rate is now sky rocketed to 7.7%.
- Give schools the option to start school virtually. Many families and staff have traveled to areas with higher infection rates, gathered with family and friends over this holiday season and the likelihood of someone with COVID-19 going into a school building on January 4th is very high. NOLA-PS should set minimum standards, and charter schools should not be discouraged from taking action to reduce risk.
- Give school staff members the option to work from home if they so choose. Just as families have been given the option to keep their children at home to protect not only their loved ones, but also their broader community, school staff members should also be given the choice to protect their loved ones and community until vaccine distribution is widespread.
If you decide that schools must remain open to in-person learning, we ask you to to:
- Require 6 feet of distance be maintained in schools. Remove all “greatest extent feasible” language from COVID-19 guidelines. Six feet of distance between students should be a minimum requirement in all New Orleans schools.
- Rearrange school schedules so students are not eating together. One of the highest risk activities in schools is eating together. During this time students and staff have their masks removed in order to eat. While our positivity rate and cases are above CDC thresholds on any measure students should not eat together.
- Require those who were in higher risk situations to stay home after the holidays. Staff and students who have been in higher risk situations should be required to quarantine before returning to schools. Our duty to protect each other should not be optional.
- Return to a 14 day quarantine period requirement. The CDC recommends 14 day quarantine and states that shortening the quarantine period increases the risk of spreading COVID-19. As we are faced with a new and faster spreading strain of COVID-19, now is not the time to ease restrictions.
- Require schools to provide paid leave to staff for quarantines and isolation periods due to COVID-19 without use of regular sick or PTO days. Our federal government let the provisions of the Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which required special sick days for quarantining and for those who contracted COVID-19, expire December 31, 2020. Teachers and staff in New Orleans should be paid for any time off that they need if they are exposed to or contract COVID-19. To not do so will encourage people to be in schools when they should be quarantining, ultimately exposing more people to the virus. School staff should not have to choose between paying their bills and keeping their school community safe.
- Provide information about COVID-19 cases contracted inside of school buildings. We have been informed of cases likely contracted inside of schools at more than one school, and NOLA Public Schools has not reported how many cases of COVID-19 are believed to have been contracted inside of school buildings, and which schools. It would be especially important to understand what measures were taken to learn from the exposures and adapt guidelines to ensure that mitigation measures are properly implemented across New Orleans Schools.
Until these steps and more are taken, parents should know that schools in New Orleans cannot guarantee the safety of their children, families, and communities. Do parents know that cases are three times higher on average than they were when you made the decision to return to in-person learning? COVID-19 is spreading in our community much like it was in March and April. Dr. Lewis and Orleans Parish School Board members, we implore you to take immediate action to reduce risk in New Orleans schools.
United Teachers of New Orleans