desk stock file photo school

During a tour of the West Jefferson High School with coronavirus precautions it can be seen that each desk in the classroom has a grey or red sticker on the top corner in Harvey, La. Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. Each period, students will be asked to alternate their use of desks and to clean them off after each class. The school is scheduled to open on August 26. (Photo by Max Becherer, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Despite a new surge in coronavirus cases, school leaders in greater Baton Rouge are sticking with plans to reopen campuses with few restrictions and optional mask-wearing for children and adults — at least for now.

While some school districts, most notably Ascension Parish and the Diocese of Baton Rouge, have already announced their plans, others are waiting in case something changes between now and the coming semester.

“I was going to put this out last week, but then I thought, ‘Let’s hold tight and see what happens,” said West Watts, superintendent of schools in West Baton Rouge.

Livingston Parish schools also plan to make masks optional. But the Livingston school board won’t formalize the rules until Aug. 5, six days before students return from summer break, Superintendent Joe Murphy said.

East Baton Rouge Parish Superintendent Sito Narcisse has said that masks will be optional this fall, but he said he’s monitoring local health data closely and plans to hold off on a final decision until later this month.

Even leaders of districts like Zachary with finalized plans think they may have to revise them soon.

“To be honest it’s too early to tell,” Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier said.

So far, Gov. John Bel Edwards and other state leaders have not shifted course. While state guidance issued this summer recommends masks for schoolchildren, it does not require it.

Still, state leaders have been sounding the alarm as case counts and hospitalizations shoot back up.

CSAL Inc., the Baton Rouge-based charter school network, is one of the few schools taking another direction.

“We are going to require masks in the building,” said LaMont Cole, chief academic officer for CSAL. “They don’t necessarily have to wear them outside.”

Another option, endorsed earlier this month by the federal Centers for Disease Control, would allow the vaccinated to go maskless and require the unvaccinated to cover their faces. New Orleans public schools is the most prominent district in Louisiana adopting that approach.

Few are following their lead.

Echoing many other school leaders, Devillier said he never seriously considered going that route for logistical reasons.

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“To be able to police that and verify that, that’s almost impossible to do,” Devillier said.

“The practicality of implementing that would be extremely challenging,” agreed Hollis Milton, superintendent of schools in West Feliciana Parish.

No-masks-but-for-the-vaccinated also runs the risk of stigmatizing the unvaccinated, some officials said, making the move even more controversial given how politicized the issue has become.

Last week, the Diocese of Baton Rouge announced it would require masks for the unvaccinated only to reverse itself a day later after parent backlash.

As a new surge of coronavirus sweeps through parts of the country, including Louisiana, calls have grown for masking in schools. On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics rejected the CDC’s latest guidance and called instead for mandatory masking of all students in school, whether vaccinated or not.

In Louisiana, the problem is compounded by low vaccination rates among adults as well as eligible schoolchildren. Vaccines have not yet been approved for children under 12.

Masks were required in Louisiana last school year for all adults as well as students in grades three to 12. Though unpopular with many, masks — when widely used — are credited with slowing COVID's spread on school campuses.

After the vaccinations started in December, case counts in Louisiana declined dramatically. Starting on Feb. 22, educators began getting vaccinated in big numbers. On May 13, the Pfizer vaccine became available to 12-to-15-year-olds.

Finally, on May 26, Gov. John Bel Edwards lifted many of the final COVID restrictions in the state, including mask-wearing in schools. Many school leaders jumped on board and started planning for the new school year without mandatory masks.

The new COVID surge, while it has yet to alter those plans, has renewed caution.

Worried that events may overtake his pronouncements, Central schools superintendent Jason Fountain said he’s “just putting out bits and pieces” of guidance instead of releasing a full plan.

“The way these things have been going, things obviously could change,” Fountain explained.

West Feliciana’s Milton sent out a short note after the Fourth of July weekend, but has held off releasing too many details.

“If you send things out too early,” he said, “it gets outdated quickly.”


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