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East Baton Rouge School System Superintendent Sito Narcisse speaks at a press conference at the School Board office to announce latest COVID safety rules for schools, Tuesday, August 3, 2021.

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Sito Narcisse is urging the school board to require the district's 6,000 employees to either prove they are vaccinated or get weekly COVID tests.

Narcisse made his surprise announcement Thursday shortly after the start of the board's scheduled 5 p.m. meeting. He said he believes it's the right thing to do because educators "should act in the best interest of our children."

Narcisse also sent the board a short memo Thursday. He said he want the board to allow him to mandate that all employees "show proof of vaccination status or submit to weekly Covid-19 testing for those who cannot show proof of vaccination status regarding the Covid-19 virus."

"My priority is to return our students to in-person learning and effective instruction," Narcisse explained. "Students feeling safe and secure is a vital component of effective instruction. I believe this authorization will be a vital tool to assist in accomplishing that goal."

East Baton Rouge Parish is one of the first K-12 public school districts to seriously consider mandating vaccinations for its employees to any great degree, but several private colleges and universities in Louisiana have approved even broader employee vaccination mandates.

There was nothing initially on the board meeting agenda about employee vaccinations or any COVID issues. The board, however, agreed to add an agenda item in order to allow for public comment.

Several parents and activists had been pressing the board for a special agenda item without luck and expressed dismay Thursday that it was not an easier call to make.

"There is a deadly virus running around," said Caleb Holmes, an organizer with Step Up Louisiana. "Sweeping it under the rug is not what we should be doing."

Jennifer Harding, an active parent with Progressive Social Network of Baton Rouge, also objected to the difficulty of obtaining public comment. She said happiness at the prospect of in-person school has shifted to fear as the virus has surged anew. She suggested a temporary shift to virtual.

“We are absolutely terrified now," Harding said. "And it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when the outbreaks will happen.”

School officials indicated earlier this week they were researching the idea of some kind of employee vaccination mandate after several major state officials announced plans to require such mandates. The first chance for the board to consider voting on Narcisse's recommendation will be at the board's Aug. 19 meeting.

Employees returned from summer break on Monday and students return to classes next Wednesday.

The superintendent said he is recommending a religious exemption to the policy, but provided little detail what he has in mind there, saying those employees would have to submit to "periodic testing."

Soon after Narcisse's announcement, school system spokesman Alex Stubbs clarified that the proposed policy is not a hard-and-fast mandate for vaccinations, but more akin to the rules LSU recently announced.

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There is no current requirement, though, for school system employees to undergo COVID-19 testing unless they show symptoms of illness. And LSU's new rules require monthly, not weekly testing, for the unvaccinated, and it applies to students, not employees.

Narcisse on Tuesday released COVID safety rules for schools for the 2021-22 school year. Those rules require universal masking from kindergarten to 12th grade, in line with the mask mandate Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Monday.

Several school administrators gave a lengthy presentation to the board Thursday on the new rules as well as other steps the school district is taking to try to keep people safe.

Stacey Dupre, chief of support and special projects, said the district welcomes people to reach out to its COVID hotline at (225) 397-2210 or to email queries to covidhotline@ebrschools.org.

"All calls will be answered," Dupre said. "It's very important that our students feel safe and our parents feel safe."

Board member Mike Gaudet urged Dupre to have extended hours, until 7 p.m. each night, to service the hotline, at least during the opening weeks of school.

Jason Spencer, parent of four children in the school system, urged the board to allow the mask mandate to expire as soon as the governor's order ends. He said feels like his "freedoms are being eroded."

The prospect of a mask-less school year, which his children had been looking forward, have been dashed for now at least.

“They went through this all last year, and they were extremely excited that this wouldn’t happen this year then the mandate and it was changed,” he said.

Educators in Louisiana first became eligible to be vaccinated on Feb. 22, but it's unclear how many have. The state has not tracked vaccinations by school employees. East Baton Rouge Parish officials were able to track some vaccinations when educators were eligible in late February, but soon after gave up trying.

Also, on Thursday, the Narcisse administration agreed to offer magnet school parents worried about the virus a way to go virtual without losing their seat in their magnet program, at least for a semester. Previously, Narcisse had resisted such a move, but school officials reconsidered as the school year loomed and the coronavirus surged a fourth time.

Chief of Schools Sharon Williams said magnet schools now have a "hold" form that parents can sign and temporarily transfer to the EBR Virtual Academy.

Williams that more than 300 students have applied to attend the EBR Virtual Academy and there many families who've been coming in person to sign up. The newly expanded virtual school is now located at the former home of BR FLAIM at 802 Mayflower St. in Beauregard Town.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.