Schools across Acadiana have lagged in reporting COVID-19 cases among students and on-campus adults to the Louisiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 database since the return to school in mid-August, making a generally opaque picture of COVID-19 in schools harder for the public to glean information from.
The Louisiana Department of Health mandated K-12 public, private and charter schools in Louisiana report COVID-19 cases among students and on-campus adults to the state health agency. The state resumed releasing their weekly data reports on those cases on Aug. 18.
Each report catalogues the number of cases reported to the state health agency. The reports are released on Wednesdays and detail the cases reported between the prior Monday through Sunday. Cases are grouped by parish, without specifying which school site or school type they came from.
In the first two weeks, no Acadiana parish had all schools — public, private and charter — in the parish listed as submitting reports.
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How much reporting has lagged is not entirely clear. This year, the health agency is reporting the number of schools that submitted a report, while last year they listed only the total number of schools enrolled in the program. It’s not clear if all enrolled schools reported each week.
Schools that report zero cases in their weekly report also are not included in the count of schools reporting, an LDH spokesperson said.
In Lafayette, only 29 schools were listed as submitting data to the state the first week. In the second report, released Aug. 25, 43 schools reported at least one COVID-19 case on campus.
Lafayette Parish School System spokesperson Allison Dickerson said principals are submitting data to the state as they’re onboarded into the system. A number of schools — at least nine — are under new leadership this year, many after principal retirements, and some school leaders didn’t receive database logins to submit the data, while others needed it reissued, she said.
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District staff is ensuring principals have what they need to turn in the data to the state, she said. Dickerson said school nurses and district nursing staff are working with the state health agency to help facilitate schools’ participation in the data portal.
“We absolutely want to make sure that we’re following all the procedures and that we’re reporting the appropriate information. We did that last year. We do plan, and we have been for the ones that have been able to, to report that information. It is our intent to share that information with LDH,” the district spokesperson said.
Dickerson said nursing staff and administrators have a separate internal process for reporting student and staff COVID data through the district’s chain of command. District leaders are making sure they have up-to-date numbers for decision making should classroom or school closures be needed to mitigate potential case spread, she said.
In St. Martin Parish, Superintendent Allen Blanchard theorized principals have been so swamped managing student quarantines, timelines for the return of COVID-19 positive students and other COVID-related management needs that the reports have been delayed.
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State data showed 33 cases reported by 13 schools in St. Martin Parish in its Aug. 25 report, bringing the parish’s total student cases to 46 for the school year. Blanchard said in the parish’s 15 public schools and three programs alone they’ve seen about 150 student COVID-19 cases and had nearly 1,000 students and roughly 40 to 50 faculty members quarantined, he said.
As many as 200 to 300 students have been quarantined in a single day, he said.
“We really had some big plans and high hopes to really have a strong academic year and within three days we had to start quarantining all kinds of people. Now we have almost 1,000. It’s discouraging when we’re less than two weeks into school and we have 1/7 of our population quarantined already,” Blanchard said.
Signs point to the spread primarily happening in communities and outside of school buildings, but it’s still made school “more hectic for everyone,” he said.
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The district believed they’d have more time to distribute Chromebooks and get digital plans set up, based on last year’s observations of spread among young people, but that wasn’t the case. As medical professionals have warned, the delta variant is more infectious and spreads more prominently among children, he said. Now they’re rushing to get students their devices and ramp up distance learning for absent students.
Blanchard said the district is planning to stick with in-person learning as long as possible, while monitoring classrooms and schools for potential closure. They’re reinforcing the importance of mitigation efforts and asking parents not to send children to school sick or if a household member is sick, he said.
“What we’re trying to do is get through this spike and hopefully it will run its course and we’ll be able to get back to a normal year. I’m not saying we won’t ever close a school or do anything different but we’re trying really hard not to. We’re trying to keep the schools open and stay on an every day, in-person schedule. It’s better for the students and a lot of parents depend on us being open so that they can go to work,” Blanchard said.
The St. Martin superintendent said they’ve hired a part-time administrative employee to focus solely on paperwork and administrative needs associated with documenting COVID-19 cases among students and on-campus adults, like helping principals submit weekly data to the state health agency.
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St. Landry Parish was the first Acadiana parish to shift a school to virtual-only learning to tamp down COVID-19 cases in the 2021-2022 school year.
Port Barre Middle and Port Barre High, which share a campus, went virtual on Thursday with a planned return to in-person learning on Sept. 7, per a letter from Principal Gary Blood to parents. Cankton Elementary also shifted to virtual on Friday, and will remain virtual until after Labor Day, Superintendent Patrick Jenkins said.
Jenkins said they’ve had some positive tests, but more quarantines while taking a cautious approach to stopping the virus’ spread. At one school, a football team was quarantined to ensure contact tracing didn’t miss anyone exposed. Jenkins on Friday couldn’t share the exact number of COVID-19 positive or quarantined students and staff since the beginning of school.
The St. Landry superintendent said it’s a balancing act. They’re trying to keep schools open to provide more stability for families, especially after the stops and starts of last school year, while also prioritizing caution.
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“We try to stay in school as long as we possibly can by closing classrooms and of course doing our mitigation measures, however we don’t want to stay open too long because I’d rather close and keep everyone safe, students and staff, than to fight through and get a number of people exposed to COVID,” Jenkins said.
On Aug. 25, eight St. Landry schools, of all types, were listed as reporting 28 student cases in the previous week. Jenkins said their schools began classes Aug. 18, so it’s possible with the short week that principals had little data to report. Like in Lafayette Parish, they’re also confirming the enrollment of new principals in the program, he said.
The St. Landry superintendent said he will ensure principals participate.
Jenkins said St. Landry is opting into the Louisiana Department of Health’s “Safer, Smarter Schools” program to conduct on-site COVID-19 testing for consenting teachers, students and other school staff. Through the program, the participants would be paid for participating as long as they complete at least three tests per month.
The plan is to have a team of testers visit zones in the parish once weekly to test students and faculty in that area. They’re still working out logistics, he said.
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“This gives us an opportunity to mitigate or reduce the risk of COVID in our schools because we could have adults as well as children who are asymptomatic, and we want to find those individuals who are asymptomatic,” Jenkins said.
In Vermilion Parish, the weekly LDH report for COVID-19 cases on Aug. 25 said only between one and four schools submitted reports, claiming between one and four COVID-19 cases on campus. In the chart, the state health agency suppresses the data for any reports greater than zero but less than five, listing it as 1-4.
Vermilion Parish School System Superintendent Tommy Byler said the district submitted its data to the state, but there was a mixup on the submission date and it was filed a day late, which resulted in the data being excluded. For Vermilion public schools, the data is submitted by a single administrator, rather than being handled individually by school principals, he said.
The first week in the new reporting cycle, after only a partial week of classes, they held off on their report to have more accurate and fleshed out data to submit, he said. Byler posted the district’s case count on Facebook in a letter to parents to make sure they had the info directly.
“I promise I’m not trying to pull the wool over anybody,” Byler said.
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The superintendent said since the beginning of school the district has seen about 130 students test positive for COVID-19 with about 550 students in quarantine.
Half of those quarantines began before school started, while the remaining numbers were driven up by the quarantining of a football team and two third grade classes, where two co-teachers tested positive, Byler said. In both cases, the whole group was quarantined to ensure no exposures slipped through contact tracing.
On Friday, the district announced North Vermilion High School would shift to virtual-only learning from Wednesday to Friday in response to cases and quarantines on the campus.
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Byler said he, the legal team and the administrator who submits data to the state review the schools’ rolling COVID-19 reports, comparing them to daily attendance logs, to make sure they have the most accurate numbers.
The Vermilion superintendent said he keeps spreadsheets charting the number of quarantines associated with each case to assess if numbers are following established averages based on classroom setups, or exceeding them. He uses the data to help make larger scale quarantine and closure decisions, he said.
“I am pretty confident that we have one of the most efficient systems of any district,” Byler said.