Newly released data shows that K-12 schools in St. Tammany Parish are tops in the state in having the most cases of coronavirus of any parish in Louisiana. Small Jackson Parish in north Louisiana, though, is seeing the highest prevalence of the virus as a proportion of all of its students and employees.

Statewide, there are 2.1 COVID-19 cases for every 1,000 students and school employees. That’s nearly 2,000 cases out of a pool of more than 800,000 schoolchildren and 100,000-plus school employees.

In the Baton Rouge area, only schools in Livingston Parish are reporting more coronavirus cases on average than the rest of the state, with a prevalence rate of 3.2 out of every 1,000 child and adult at school.

These results are based on the latest weekly report on COVID-19 cases in schools from the Louisiana Department of Health. The public data remains patchy in spots or too limited to help answer key questions about how well Louisiana schools are curbing the spread of this deadly virus in school buildings.

A Sept. 1 executive order directed all schools in Louisiana, public and private, to share their coronavirus information via a newly created electronic reporting system. The web portal asks for an array of case data, going back to the start to the 2020-21 school year in August, as well as what actions the schools are taking in response.

So far, the health department has issued seven weekly reports based on the information it receives. Each report has been more detailed than the last. The first three covered just the state as a whole. The next three broke down numbers into nine regions of the state.

The latest report, which covers the week of Oct. 12-18, breaks cases down even further, down to the level of the state’s 64 parishes.

Unlike earlier reports, though, the health department has ceased releasing regional results. The agency is also now suppressing smaller parish-level numbers, arguing that failing to do so might allow the identification of individuals who have tested positive for the virus or the schools they frequent. The agency rejected a request from The Advocate to release this data.

“We are legally and ethically obligated to safeguard the identity and information of people we serve and for those whose data we obtain,” the health department said in a statement.

Using the latest parish-level data, The Advocate has calculated state- and parish-level prevalence rates. It has done so by dividing the case numbers by the number of students and school employees in those respective geographic areas.

Livingston’s prevalence rate of 3.2 per 1,000 was the highest for the parishes in the metro Baton Rouge area. Ninety-five people in the parish schools — 84 students and 11 school employees — have reported testing positive.

At the other end of the spectrum are Assumption and West Baton Rouge parishes, where less than 1 out of every 1,000 students and school staff have reported testing positive so far.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, the prevalence rate is 1.5 out of every 1,000 children and adults in schools testing positive — 95 students and 33 school employees. Schools in Ascension Parish showed a prevalence rate of 1.9 out of 1,000, according to the state.

The parish-level data goes back just one week — too short a time span to reveal anything about the spread of the virus.

The health department, though, has been releasing statewide case numbers from the beginning and those have grown steadily. On Sept. 27, 823 students and school employees reported testing positive. Three weeks later, that had more than doubled to 1,934 cases.

About two-thirds of those cases are students, while one-third are school employees. Adults, however, make up only about 12% of the people on school campuses, so their positive cases are a disproportionate share of the whole. Greater than average rates of infection among staff are driving up the prevalence rates in some smaller parishes like Jackson Parish.

The extent to which Louisiana schools are contributing to the spread of the disease or just reflecting the spread in their surrounding communities is not clear. State health officials indicate that they are still puzzling this question out.

“Knowing the exact source of infection is often difficult to determine due to community transmission,” according to a statement from the health department. “Implementation of prevention and control measures within the school setting continues to be an important priority in order to prevent transmission to the greatest extent possible.”

National and international research conducted since the start of school this year has yet to find that schools are major contributors to community spread of the virus, confirming earlier research that particularly young children transmit COVID-19 far less than adults. The research, however, is often limited in scope and many questions remain. COVID-19 is the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

One big shortcoming of Louisiana’s school COVID-19 data is that more than 20% of the more than 1,700 public and private schools in the state are still not supplying information.

Participation is particularly lowest in southwest Louisiana, hard hit by hurricanes Laura and Delta. Only about a third of the schools there have enrolled in the COVID-19 reporting system.

Twenty-six parishes have at least 90% of their schools participating. Assumption, Ascension, East Feliciana, Iberville and Livingston parishes are among them.

In East Baton Rouge Parish, about 85% of all K-12 schools have enrolled. While the parish public school system was an early adopter, they only operate about half the 160-plus schools within the boundaries of the parish. The rest are run by school districts in Baker, Central and Zachary, as well as an array of charter and state-overseen public schools, not to mention 45 state-approved private schools. East Baton Rouge Parish schools reported 70 COVID-19 cases as of Oct. 18, representing 55% of the 128 school cases reported so far for the entire parish.

If you exclude hurricane-plagued southwest Louisiana, six parishes have enrolled less than half of their schools in the state system. Three of those parishes are in the Baton Rouge area: Pointe Coupee, St. Helena and West Baton Rouge. St. Helena was the only parish in Louisiana with no schools enrolled at all.

Superintendent Kelli Joseph said that changed Tuesday when she enrolled all three of her schools in St. Helena. She said she finally enrolled when two high school students tested positive, the first cases her district has seen.

“We immediately quarantined kids who were in close contact,” Joseph said. “They all were tested and were negative.”

Virtual-only schools also are not reporting to the state system; the health department says they need not enroll until they offer in-person instruction. Many brick-and-mortar schools started the school year virtual only, bur almost all have shifted back. A few, though, are still virtual only, including Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts in Natchitoches.

Finally, it’s not clear that the state system is capturing all the data for the schools that are reporting.

For instance, the state system shows 54 COVID-19 cases in Ascension Parish so far this school year. A spokesperson for the Ascension school district, however, said Ascension has had a total of 87 cases. That would up its prevalence to 3.1 out of a thousand, just shy of Livingston Parish’s level.


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