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The St. Helena Parish School Board office, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Greensburg, La.

St. Helena Parish public schools tested nearly 400 students for COVID-19 this week out of “an abundance of caution,” the superintendent said, after a few came down with the virus a couple of weeks into the fall semester.

It started with 10 students across grades who reported feeling sick over the first two weeks of school and later tested positive for the virus. That prompted the district this week to test 395 students at the superintendent's latest count who had come into contact with the first COVID-positive students — about a third of the 1,188 total students enrolled in the district.

The districtwide testing returned 14 more positive results: six students at the St. Helena Parish early learning center, seven at the arts and technology academy and one at the college and career academy. That yielded fewer positives than were required to meet the 5% positivity threshold to call off in-person learning.

“Thankfully, we can remain face-to-face based on the numbers,” said Dr. Kelli Joseph, the superintendent. “We wanted to go into the next week feeling confident about having school, and to mitigate the spread, we had to test everyone first.”

The sweeping testing effort in St. Helena — and low number of cases it detected — comes as students across Louisiana return to classrooms for the fall semester amid the state’s worst-ever surge of coronavirus, which is infecting students and school staff at a higher clip than ever before in the pandemic.

Schools statewide reported 2,444 COVID cases among K-12 students and staff between Aug. 9 and 15, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Friday. That’s a greater number than tested positive in any prior week of the pandemic — and more cases than appeared over the entire first two months of the 2020-21 school year.

And the crush of cases came as just one third of Louisiana schools reported cases to the state.

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In St. Helena, the school district is prepared to test large numbers of students again if this week’s situation repeats itself, Joseph said.

The schools are offering regular testing to students and staff through a partnership with Southeast Community Health Systems. Students have mostly followed an indoor mandate on masks, Joseph said, which the district implemented before Edwards announced a statewide masking order on Aug. 3.

Elsewhere, politics surrounding face coverings and the virus have colored the start of the new school year, with angry anti-mask parents shutting down two public meetings by state education boards earlier this week.

With children younger than 12 still unable to get vaccinated against the virus, and with the rate of spread among young people growing in the state, Edwards called for adults to put politics aside and shoulder the small responsibility of wearing masks. 

“We need to be very mindful of the fact that while 2.2 million Louisianans have received a shot, not a single Louisianan under 12 has received a vaccine,” the governor said. “It’s up to us, especially adults, to do what we can to protect all of our children.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article reported an incorrect figure for the total number of students enrolled in St. Helena Parish schools. 


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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