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Mandatory mask notice in light of the COVID-19 pandemic on pink paper on entrance doors of Woodlawn Elementary School in Baton Rouge.

If public schools in Ascension, Livingston, Tangipahoa, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes want to stop requiring masks in schools, they'll need to resume quarantining students who are exposed to COVID.

That’s the upshot of new COVID-10 safety rules announced Tuesday afternoon by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Public schools in East Baton Rouge, Iberville and St. Helena parishes, along with Catholic schools with the Diocese of Baton Rouge, are eligible to lift masking right away because they kept their old quarantining rules. The East Baton Rouge district announced Tuesday that it is keeping a mask mandate in place for now, but St. Helena schools and the diocesan Catholic schools plan to lift their mask mandate.

Leaders of Ascension, Tangipahoa, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes, as well as in Central, were quick to announce Tuesday that they will abide by the governor's new rules in order to lift their mask mandates. Ascension, Central and West Baton Rouge will drop mandatory masks Wednesday and West Feliciana is following suit Thursday.

At the same time, the districts will reinstate old quarantine rules consistent with recommendations of the Louisiana Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control.

Ascension Supt. David Alexander said masks will be optional except for students in the parish's Early College Option who go to school on the campus of River Parishes Community College. Also still required to wear masks are students on school buses — federal transportation rules mandate masking on school buses.

The new rules are a reaction to a Sept. 29 decision by State Schools Superintendent Cade Brumley to allow parents to decide whether to quarantine their kids who are exposed. That decision quickly drew criticism from Gov. Edwards as well as state health officials, who said it could worsen the spread of COVID.

After the Sept. 29 announcement, schools across Louisiana shifted to optional quarantines.

In the greater Baton Rouge area, these include the school district Ascension, Livingston, Tangipahoa, West Baton Rouge and West Feliciana parishes, as well as Central public schools.

East Baton Rouge, Iberville and St. Helena parishes, public schools and Catholic schools with the Diocese of Baton Rouge, as well as Zachary schools and some independent charter schools stuck with their pre-existing quarantine rules. They're able to lift their mask mandates right away without any changes to their quarantine rules.

But East Baton Rouge said it would keep its mask rules in place after consulting with its health advisory committee of doctors and public health experts. 

"As recently as this afternoon, the leading experts from this committee have continued to maintain that masks and face coverings are one of the most effective tools in protecting our unvaccinated children and school communities. We will continue to review our specific school-level data in partnership with that committee before any additional changes to our guidance are made."

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Other districts jumped at the opportunity.

In a letter Tuesday, Bishop Michael Duca said masking will become optional at the diocese's 31 schools in eight parishes; further guidance for school leaders will be released later this week. Masking will also be optional at "places of work and indoors in parochial facilities."

"While these changes will come as welcome news to many, I continue to encourage diligence throughout our community since the pandemic has not yet ended," Duca wrote.

St. Helena Parish Superintendent Kellie Joseph said she's comfortable making masks optional because St. Helena schools have not recorded a positive case in two months. She credits new weekly COVID testing of students and staff.

"Having that data to be able to make decisions really helps," Joseph said.

She also points to new classroom air purifiers installed in August.

Zachary Superintendent Scott Devillier said he plans to make a decision Wednesday on whether Zachary will shift to optional masking.

The CDC generally recommends that students who come into close contact with the deadly virus spend two weeks at home in isolation. Students who are fully vaccinated — that’s only about 15% of school-age children in Louisiana — don’t need to quarantine.

And, under Louisiana Department of Health guidance, students who wear masks faithfully don’t need to quarantine either. Districts that lift masking rules will have a harder time taking advantage of that quarantine exemption.

Cases of COVID in Louisiana schools and among school-age children peaked in late August, fueled by the infectious delta variant, and have been falling steadily since then.


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