Unlike last year, Louisiana public school leaders are deferring to local school officials on face masks and other safety measures amid the rising number of cases of the coronavirus.

Sandy Holloway, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the board is standing by guidelines by the state Department of Education released on July 8, well before the latest surge. BESE sets policy for the state's public school systems.

"BESE has issued no mandates and approved no policies related to masking or distancing in schools for the coming year," Holloway said in a statement.

"Decisions regarding masking and other prevention measures are best made by those closest to our students, and Louisiana's local school systems have the authority to develop COVID-19 policies appropriate for their communities," she said.

The guidelines are based on recommendations of the Louisiana Department of Health and the federal Centers For Diseases Control and Prevention.

Some school districts start classes the first week of August.

Holloway stressed that the benchmarks "are not state-issued requirements but recommendations for local K-12 leadership to consider in adopting their own opening plans for 2021-22."

The BESE president made her comments on the same day Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state has experienced the largest surge of coronavirus cases per capita of any state in the nation.

Edwards said Louisiana is in its fourth surge of the deadly disease and he recommended, but did not mandate, that citizens wear face masks indoors to help curb the spread.

The state has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the nation, and the unvaccinated are credited with fueling the surge that is now mostly the delta variant.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Friday he has no plans to revisit the face mask or other issues.

"Ultimately, at this point, the exact set of mitigation efforts employed remains a local decision," Brumley said in a text message.

The state approach this time represents a sharp contrast with 2020, when the pandemic was about four months old.

On July 14, 2020, BESE approved minimum safety standards for the reopening of public schools that included face mask requirements for students and adults alike.

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The vote, without dissent, endorsed the plan offered by Brumley, including rules governing school bus limits, indoor gatherings, daily hygiene and social distancing policies.

The plan also said "all adults and students in grades 3 through 12 must wear a face mask covering to the greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context."

The guidelines this time say unvaccinated individuals five years and older should wear face masks while indoors.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said Monday many superintendents are taking a wait and see approach on face masks and other issues.

"I think they will wait another week and a half and see how it develops," Faulk said.

He said most superintendents appreciate state school leaders deferring to local educators on what to mandate.

Leaders of the East Baton Rouge and other area school systems said earlier this month they plan to open the school year with a masks-optional policy.

The St. Bernard Parish School District, one of the top-ranked in the state, is "strongly recommending and strongly encouraging" both students and staff to wear face masks, according to Lexi Pritchard, a spokesperson for the district.

The St. Bernard district is led by Doris Voitier, who is also a member of BESE.

The Jefferson Parish School District, the largest in the state, plans to issue coronavirus rules soon, Ted Beasley, a spokesperson for the system, said Monday.

Wes Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school system, said Monday his district plans to finalize face masks and other rules Tuesday.

The 2020-21 school year began with a combination of in-person and distance learning or some of each, called hybrid. By the end of the year more than 70% of students were back in classrooms as coronavirus numbers dropped and vaccines became widely available.  

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.