The lesson in Kaci Ernest’s family and consumer science class on Friday was to bake chocolate chip cookies. But thanks to the coronavirus, she was the only person in her classroom at Zachary High.

“I did a demo on Zoom, but (the students) were not there to eat them,” Ernest said.

So, she grabbed her metal tray of cookies and headed down the empty hallways until she found adults who could help her polish them off.

The suburban Baton Rouge high school had made an abrupt shift to virtual-only instruction on Wednesday after several cases of the virus had appeared over the previous week — school officials won’t say how many. Students will learn from home through Friday, Nov. 20, the last day before Thanksgiving break. They return in person until Monday, Nov. 30.

While many local schools have been forced to send students home during the 2020-21 school year, Zachary High was one of the few schools in the Baton Rouge area to go back entirely online to arrest the spread of this deadly virus.

A wave of similar announcements, however, have followed since. These include Park Elementary and Mentorship Academy, in Baton Rouge, along with the three schools in the St. Helena Parish school district. Mentorship, a high school with more than 500 students, made its announcement Saturday afternoon.

In the Acadiana area, Erath, Loreauville and St. Thomas More Catholic high schools made the same call this past week.

Zachary High Principal Tim Jordan said he’s expecting more.

“I got a call from a principal yesterday who said, ‘Hey, what are you all doing because I think we have to do it,’” Jordan said.

“The numbers are going up all over,” added Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier.

Louisiana schools had reported a total of 3,887 cases of coronavirus, according to the most recent statewide report released Thursday. Of those, 729 were reported during the previous week, which ended Nov. 8. It was the most cases in a week since the state began reporting on COVID cases in a school in early September.

Bossier Parish led the state with 306 cases overall among students and staff, but Ascension Parish had the most new cases, 65.

Winn Parish is where the virus has been most prevalent, with about 22.5 positive cases for every 1,000 students and staff. Statewide, the prevalence rate is 4.1 out of every 1,000 students and staff, roughly double what it was three weeks earlier.

St. Helena Parish has reported only a handful of cases so, far fewer than other districts.

“We’re doing a good job keeping the spread down in our schools,” said Superintendent Kelli Joseph.

Nevertheless, the small school district joined the crowd on Friday and announced that it too is shifting to remote learning next week. That announcement supplanted a much different plan the district put out two days earlier. That plan involved using Southeast Community Health System to test for free all 1,200 students as well 150 staff members for the virus.

That testing started on Thursday. One teacher ended up testing positive. Joseph said this teacher showed no symptoms, but “got around to a lot of people.”

After that news, Joseph decided to go ahead and move strictly only through Thanksgiving.

Student coronavirus testing in St. Helena has been postponed until Nov. 30, the day students return from break.

About 1,000 of Zachary High’s 1,600 students went home on Wednesday. The rest were already learning virtually. The adults continued to work from empty classrooms, interacting with their students online.

The Zachary school district has seen 45 of its 5,500-plus students test positive for COVID so far this year.

Principal Jordan said new COVID cases began popping up at the high school about a week prior to the move to virtual-only, with a case or two showing up each day.

“We went from zero to 100% pretty quick,” Jordan said. “It moved very fast.”

Devillier said the problem was not so much the number of positive cases but the number of kids who had to be quarantined as a result.

Devillier said offering daily in-person instruction for 1,000 teenagers makes social distancing very difficult. Seats are spaced a few feet apart, but not the six feet that is recommended by health authorities.

Standing in one classroom, Devillier tried to illustrate how quarantines can add up quickly. He did so by pointing one by one to a cluster of five empty desks.

“If you got a kid sitting in that seat,” Devillier said, pointing at one desk, “and they come up positive, then that kid, that kid, that kid, and possibly this kid have to come and quarantine. That (positive) kid might go to seven different classes, so you might quarantine 30 different kids because of one.”

He said a few cases can mean that 150 or more students have to quarantine. And that’s not counting quarantines that occur because students are exposed by positive family members and consequently can’t return to school for 14 days.

With so many children quarantined, it became hard to have in-person instruction. That persuaded Devillier that it was time to make the high school virtual-only. The decision does not affect Zachary’s six other schools.

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Devillier said he wonders how other schools are avoiding doing the same.

“We’re following the guidelines from the Department of Health to the tee,” he said. “And we look at what we’re doing compared to some other folks, it’s like there’s no way they are doing what we’re doing.”

Unlike weather days, when students traditionally cheer going home, Zachary High students were not happy with the move to virtual, Jordan said. The announcement prompted a collective groan.

But he said his teachers are in much better shape now to offer virtual instruction than they were in August when the school year began.

“They’ve gotten much more comfortable with it,” he said.

The decision on whether to have school in person or virtual is a consequential one. Joseph said it weighs on her heavily.

“I think I speak for every superintendent in the state when I say, we feel like we’re carrying the world on our shoulders. It’s a lot,” she said. “When you think about the health and safety of children and every decision you make is literally a life-or-death situation, you become very humble and deliberate in what you do every day, every single day.”


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