Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he's lifting Louisiana's indoor mask mandate but keeping in place face covering requirements for certain K-12 schools that have bucked public health guidance by allowing students exposed to the coronavirus remain in the classroom.

With COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations at some of their lowest levels since the pandemic began, the executive order, which goes into effect Wednesday, gives school districts a choice to loosen up on either masking or quarantining, but not both.

“I wanted to give school districts some flexibility on the matter, some additional autonomy, to reflect the improving numbers,” Edwards said.

The governor's announcement strikes at the heart of a controversial new policy, announced by State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley at the end of September, that allowed parents in participating school districts to decide for themselves whether their asymptomatic children would have to quarantine following exposure to COVID-19.

Brumley argued the change in policy was necessary to keep students in the classroom and stem learning loss, but the move was blasted by both Edwards and state public health officials, who pointed out that some 50% of people infected with COVID and contagious show no symptoms.

In order to go maskless, schools must now follow quarantine recommendations issued by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In general, that requires students who come in close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 to spend two weeks at home before returning to the classroom, though there are options to shorten that quarantine to as little as seven to ten days.

Those who are fully vaccinated at the time of exposure or had COVID-19 in the last 90 days and remain asymptomatic can forgo quarantining. And those who tested positive in settings where masks are worn, don’t exhibit symptoms and were at least three feet away from the contact who infected them can also return immediately.

Brumley, for his part, said the governor’s announcement is a “step in the right direction of getting students back to normalcy” but added that local school systems should be “fully entrusted” to implement quarantine procedures that meet the needs of their communities. Edwards said he didn’t consult with Brumley directly before making his decision.

Despite the new option, Dr. Joe Kanter, the state’s top public health official, said the Department of Health’s “clear recommendation is for schools to continue enforcing masking within their environment” alongside the more stringent quarantining requirements. The CDC, likewise, recommends universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.

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Local governments and private businesses are allowed to impose stricter guidelines than the state’s. Louisiana State University said Tuesday it would require masks on campus for the rest of the semester. New Orleans officials said the city wouldn’t immediately change its masking requirement. Masks are still required at airports, on planes, on public transportation and in medical facilities because of federal rules.

Edwards reinstated the mask mandate in August as the state faced its fourth and worst surge of the virus and held the unwanted position of having the highest per capita COVID-19 infection growth in the nation. Hospitals at the time were buckling under an unprecedented tsunami of patients, forcing them to cancel thousands of critical surgeries as they redirected nurses and doctors to manage the influx.

Shortly after the mask mandate went back into place, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Louisiana peaked at more than 3,000 — a pandemic record largely made up of the unvaccinated. On Tuesday, after weeks of precipitous declines, hospitals counted 323 patients with COVID-19.

The numbers reflect a decrease in community transmission, Kanter said, noting that Louisiana’s rate of infections and hospitalizations are now well below the national average.

Mask-wearing requirements in schools sparked heated opposition among a vocal group of parents back in August, when angry crowds flooded public meetings to counter Edwards’ mandate. Some referred to the face coverings as “child abuse.”

Kanter noted Tuesday that the best way to protect Louisiana’s children is to get vaccinated. He cited a National Institutes of Health study that estimated that one in four COVID deaths results in a child losing a caregiver, causing irreparable harm to that child’s life.

“If your concern is for the safety and well-being of our families and our children, the best thing you can do for them right now to protect their future is to get everyone around you vaccinated,” Kanter said. “It’s just as simple as that.”

Edwards didn’t rule out reinstating the mask mandate again if COVID infections surge back in the future.

“The pandemic is not over," Edwards said. "We do not know what the future will bring."


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater