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Warren Easton Charter School students head home in New Orleans, Friday, March 13, 2020, after Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a proclamation that closed all public K-12 schools .(Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

Public school students in the third grade and older along with adults should wear face masks "to the maximum extent possible" when schools reopen, officials of the state Department of Education said Thursday.

"Face coverings should be worn in all areas of the school," according to a wide-range of guidelines that have been in the works for weeks.

"This includes classrooms. Most important, face coverings should be worn during arrival, dismissal and any other transition within the school building," the recommendations say.

The face mask recommendations may spark controversy, and some parents have already said their children will not return to classrooms if face coverings are required.

The issue has also become sort of a political flashpoint, with advocates of strict lockdowns arguing that face masks are essential while others question their value.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said Thursday school districts where lots of parents and students object to wearing face masks may opt for distance learning over traditional classrooms, especially for older students.

"A lot of that is going to depend on how parents feel about it," Faulk said.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley told reporters the face mask guidelines stem from talks with officials of the Louisiana Department of Health and other health groups.

Brumley, former superintendent of Jefferson Parish public schools, said he is encouraging all district leaders to offer distance learning for families who opt out of returning to classrooms and those leaders "are working through the processes."

The agency released the benchmarks less than two months before classes resume amid a rising number of cases of the coronavirus in Louisiana.

The suggestions include daily temperature tests of students before they enter school buildings, temporarily banning those with temperatures of more than 100.4 degrees, encouraging school staff and students to wash their hands every two hours and having  students eat their lunches at their desks if feasible.

Some school districts begin classes Aug. 6.

State officials noted some students are sure to contract the virus and that, when that happens, schools may need to close for up to five days.

"Prepare plans for school closures (3-5 days) if the school environment is determined to be a source of ongoing COVID-19 spread," according to the guidelines.

"The decision to close schools is an individual, case-by-case process," the recommendations say.

"That decision will ultimately be made by school leadership, with guidance and expertise from their regional medical director."

Aside from ill students being sent home until a doctor says the infection is gone those who were in close contact with the infected child – less than six feet away for more than 15 minutes – should also stay home and monitor symptoms for 14 days, the document says.

Guidelines for if a student or staff member tests positive:

  • Communication plan to faculty, students and parents
  • Plans for both routine and “deep” cleaning
  • Ensure continuity of education for students/staff who are quarantined or isolated
  • Prepare plans for school closures (3-5 days) if the school environment is determined to be a source of ongoing COVID-19 spread

In Phases 1, 2, and 3, school facilities may open to students for in-person instruction with certain restrictions in place.

Maximum group sizes:

  • PHASE 1: 10, including adults
  • PHASE 2: 25, including adults
  • PHASE 3: 50, including adults

You can see more guidelines by clicking the PDF below or on this link.

Public school classrooms closed in mid-March, nine weeks ahead of schedule, just as positive cases of the virus began to skyrocket in Louisiana.

That forced many schools to offer distance learning, with mixed results because of shortages of computers and tablets and the fact that nearly one third of households statewide lack adequate Internet access.

At least 10 charter schools in New Orleans plan to offer distance learning because of concerns about the virus, officials said Thursday.

The guidelines were released three days after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state would remain in Phase 2 of its economic re-start rather than moving to Phase 3 because of an increase in cases of the virus, especially in Acadiana.

Brumley said earlier that the guidelines are meant to be minimum health steps local schools need to take to safely resume classes.

He said local officials will have ample flexibility to set policies that meet the needs of their school districts.

"This is not a one-size-fits-all approach," Brumely said in a message included with the guidelines.

"We know there are vast differences between schools, systems and communities across the state."

Crystal Forte, who lives in Metairie and whose nine-year-old son attends J. C. Ellis Elementary in Jefferson Parish, said she has no problems with the face mask recommendations.

"I personally feel the state and federal governments should have been urging people to wear face masks from the very beginning," Forte said in an email.

She said she would prefer that students not be required to eat meals at their desks.

Forte said allowing students to eat outside when it is not raining makes sense "so they can get fresh air and connect with nature to help refresh them and give them a break."

The recommendations are linked to what phase the state is in for reopening the economy.

The state will remain in Phase 2 for at least the next month, which means school buses should be limited to 50% of capacity.

The recommendations say students should enter and exit schools buildings single file, preferably at only one or two points.

Hand hygiene stations are also needed at entrances, state officials said.

Click here to read the guidelines.

 


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.