While Louisiana's top school board meets Tuesday to approve emergency health safety rules for the reopening of public schools, the panel is expected to stop just short of mandating that students and adults wear face masks.
However, Gov. John Bel Edwards' statewide order that takes effect Monday requiring those eight years and older to wear face masks in public would do the same for schools, if the order remains in effect when classes resume next month.
Edwards made the announcement Saturday amid rising cases of the coronavirus, which have put Louisiana third nationally in the numbers of infections per capita and behind only New York and New Jersey.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is expected to approve guidelines that mostly mirror minimum safety standards issued by the state Department of Education on June 25 to combat the coronavirus pandemic.
That report recommended, but did not mandate, that students in the third grade and adults wear face masks "to the maximum extent possible" in schools.
State education leaders are finalizing guidelines for the reopening of public schools amid thorny questions on whether students will be expect…
The department is now recommending that BESE approve rules that say, while in school, adults and students in grades three and above "must wear a face mask covering to the greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context."
That is slightly tougher than last month's department guidelines that said those students and adults "should wear a face covering, as able, to the maximum extent possible."
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said that, if adopted by BESE, the rule would "basically" require face masks in schools while giving local educators some flexibility for implementation.
The latest recommendations also address how to handle sick children at school, meals, bus capacity, hand hygiene and maximum group sizes, which like other recommendations are linked to what phase the state is in for reopening the state's economy.
Brumley said last week the guidelines issued in June included input from the Louisiana Department of Health, Children's Hospital in New Orleans, local superintendents and others.
"It would not make sense to start over when we have already gone through that entire process," Brumley said.
The president of one of Louisiana's two teacher unions said Thursday morning his group wants someone to mandate, not recommend, that face mask…
But Larry Carter, president of one of Louisiana's two teacher unions, said someone needs to do just that to allay concerns among teachers and others about returning to the classroom.
"Absolutely, absolutely," Carter said of mandating face masks. "That has been our push since day one."
Brumley and BESE President Sandy Holloway said local school districts need flexibility to set policies that fit their schools.
State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Thursday night the state Department of Education can only "strongly recommend" that public…
Holloway said "it is the district's responsibility to touch base with parents, survey parents, be in contact with parents" in setting policies for the return to classrooms.
"We don't mandate," she said.
Holloway and other BESE leaders also said they do not have the authority to shutdown fall sports, which was requested by Senate Education Committee Chairman Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge.
The state board is scheduled meet Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.
The gathering stems from a bill approved moments before the special session ended on June 30 – House Bill 59 – that ordered BESE to act by July 15 to enact rules aimed at protecting students, teachers and other staff from contracting the coronavirus.
The rules requirement was added to the bill by Fields.
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The CDC rules are undergoing tweaks this week amid calls by President Donald Trump and others to make it easier for students to return to schools without classes being crippled by onerous policies.
Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said local superintendents are most interested in guidelines that say "to the maximum extent possible" – just short of a mandate.
"A lot of the districts are surveying parents and asking parents what would you like to see," said Faulk, former superintendent of the Central school system.
"Some of them are putting their plans out there and getting feedback," he said. "So, I think everybody has some type of blended scenario in there."
One approach gaining favor among school districts is requiring young students, like those from kindergarten through sixth grade, to return to classrooms while older ones start the school year using distance learning.
Carter said that, while LFT members know in-person classes are the preferred route, a survey that got at least 13,500 responses revealed major worries about returning to classrooms and whether educators can rely on adequate anti-virus steps.
He said "everyone is waiting on someone else" to make face masks in public schools a requirement, not a recommendation. "We really hope that the rules BESE puts together are comprehensive enough to reassure people," Carter said.
Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, made the same point in testimony to Fields' committee last month.
Mills said while schools need to reopen "decisions about how and when must be grounded in health experts' recommendations, with input from educators and access to protective equipment for students and educators."
The fact the pandemic is playing out differently in 64 parishes mean school rules will vary from district to district.
"You could have one school where your child is attending and everyone is wearing a hazmat suit and the other school your child goes to there are no masks," said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.
Roemer said the department's health guidelines, which the BESE rules are expected to mirror, strike the right balance on issues that often turn political.
"And there are a lot of different philosophies around safety measures, and I think it makes sense for us again to have some basic, minimum standards that will give teachers and parents and students some comfort in knowing that everybody is doing the same thing related to the reopening of schools," she said.
Carrie Monica, executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children, said the department benchmarks recognize that those closest to the children know best what policies make sense, a reference to local school district officials.
"I think they came out of the gate with a really strong guide," Monica said of department leaders.