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New EBR Supt. Sito Narcisse speaks during a town hall meeting, Wednesday, April 14, 2021, to discuss his plan to start schools two weeks early next school year, at the Woodlawn Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La.

Children in Baton Rouge public schools will have the choice of whether or not to wear masks or face coverings this coming school year to protect themselves against the coronavirus, the schools superintendent said Monday.

“Right now, where we’re standing on that, we’re looking at that as a choice,” Superintendent Sito Narcisse said, speaking to the Baton Rouge Press Club.

On May 25, Gov. John Bel Edwards lifted the statewide mandate to wear masks in schools, instead leaving that call up to individual school districts. Most districts are expected to lift the requirement.

One exception is Orleans Parish, which has already announced that it will keep its mask rules in place. Prior to Monday’s talk, Narcisse had not made a public announcement on which way East Baton Rouge Parish schools would go.

Mask-wearing has been a linchpin of the state’s effort to limit school-level spread of COVID-19 and it remains at the top of the list of prevention strategies promoted by the federal Centers for Disease Control. All adults and all children in third grade and above in Louisiana schools had to wear masks.

In making the call to relax its local mask mandate, Narcisse said he consulted with a small health advisory committee that has helped with the school system settle on safety measures since early on in the pandemic. The committee includes representatives from Our Lady of the Lake Medical Center and the Louisiana Department of Health.

More state-imposed minimum rules for COVID-19 safety in schools are expiring on Wednesday after summer school ends, and there are no plans to replace them. Last week, state officials instead released non-mandatory operational guidelines for schools for the 2021-22 school year.

Narcisse said Monday that Baton Rouge public schools will still require hand-washing, automated temperature checks when students arrive at school and social distancing. They will also supply plentiful personal protective equipment and upgrade air quality in many buildings.

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The superintendent said children will have to maintain only 3 feet of social distancing, as opposed the 6 feet that was required last school year. In March, the CDC shifted to a three-foot standard, except in certain instances such as when students are eating, exercising or in band practice.

The CDC, however, said such close proximity is advisable only where mask-wearing remains mandatory and in communities where COVID-19 cases are not too high. Adults are still urged to stay 6 feet apart from each other and from children.

Among school-age children in Louisiana and in the Baton Rouge region, case counts have declined as vaccinations became more common, bottoming out in early April. Counts have inched up since, but remain low.

Schools also saw steep declines in COVID cases during the same period, though school-level reporting was suspended in early June for the summer break.

Vaccinations, however, have slowed to a crawl and many Louisianans remain unvaccinated.

Asked how many of the district’s 6,000 employees have been vaccinated, Narcisse said it’s more than half, but he is not sure of the latest numbers. The school system’s figures miss employees who opted to get vaccinated on their own — it’s not clear how many. The state has not been tracking vaccination rates among Louisiana educators.

And very few children are vaccinated. As of Monday, just shy of 6% of the state’s nearly 800,000 children aged 5 to 17 had been vaccinated. Vaccines are currently available only for children 12 years old and up. Younger children are expected to be approved for vaccination sometime later this year.

Also Monday, Narcisse said that about 450 children have signed up for the recently expanded EBR Virtual Academy, which will be the sole route available this fall for families interested in remote learning. More than 12,000 schoolchildren, or about 30% of the students in the system, were learning remotely when the school year ended on May 20.


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