A Lafayette High student walks to her school bus following the first day back to school Tuesday, September 8, 2020, in Lafayette, La.

Louisiana is loosening an array of coronavirus restrictions in advancing to the Phase 3 reopening of the state’s economy, but it’s unclear based on the limited data that’s publicly available how much success K-12 schools have had thus far in keeping children and adults safe.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley is assuring residents that schools, which reopened a little more than a month ago, have already shown they’re ready for more freedom to operate.

“We've been successful in Phase 2 in terms of mitigating the spread of the virus, and I think we will do well in Phase 3,” Brumley said in a statement issued Friday just after Gov. John Bel Edwards formally announced the change.

Brumley, however, cautioned that the shift to Phase 3 means it’s “more important than ever that our schools continue to implement the safety procedures they have in place."

Dr. Alexander Billioux, the state’s assistant secretary of health, offers a far less certain assessment.

Speaking at the governor’s press conference on Friday, Billioux noted that while cases in Louisiana overall have been on the decline for weeks, there’s been a recent uptick in cases among young people, especially those between 18 and 21 years old. Also, the effects of Hurricane Laura and the Labor Day weekend aren’t known yet, he said.

And, when it comes to schools, there are other complicating factors.

“We’re not quite sure what the impact of return of school was yet and that’s going to probably be complicated to disentangle because we know not everybody went back to full in-person (instruction),” Billioux said. “Most people are doing some hybrid of virtual and in-person whether you are in a K-12 or a university setting.”

That’s changing fast.

Several K-12 school districts have already announced timetables, some as quick as one week, to move to daily, in-person instruction in all grades. Others are likely to follow.

The impact will be especially notable at high schools, which have been the most likely thus far to stay virtual or operate on a hybrid basis. But they bring with them greater risk because older kids, based on research to date, are more likely to spread the virus than younger kids.

Many school leaders have lobbied for months to move to Phase 3. It allows schools to increase the number of children on buses from 50% to 75%; a typical large school bus can now seat 54 as opposed to just 36 children. The maximum number of people in a room increases from 25 to 50, and bands and choirs can start practicing indoors.

Ted Beasley, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Education, said Superintendent Brumley’s view that the school year so far has been successful in keeping the virus at bay derives from ongoing conversations he and his top staff have had with education and medical leaders.

“It’s based on feedback from school system leaders as well as medical experts from the Louisiana Department of Health, Ochsner (Health System) and Children’s Hospital New Orleans,” Beasley said.

When asked what metrics were used to judge the success of schools in Phase 2, Beasley said the state Department of Health, not his agency, keeps quantitative case data and can better answer those questions.

Aly Neel, an LDH spokeswoman, said it’s too soon to tell how schools have handled Phase 2.

“We don’t yet have full visibility on what is going on in terms of COVID in K-12,” Neel said. “We are still enrolling schools in the COVID early warning system that just went live a week ago.”

Pursuant to a Sept. 1 executive order, all schools in Louisiana are required to share information about new COVID-19 cases via a newly created electronic reporting system. The web portal asks for an array of case data as well as what actions the school is taking in response.

While early, Neel said, the state has already learned things from the reports.

“We have learned that there not only are students and teachers who have tested positive for COVID-19 but there also are other students, buses and classrooms quarantined due to exposure,” Neel said.

Just 59 COVID-19 cases were put into the system during its first week being active — 25 from faculty/staff, 34 from students. Those numbers come from only 389 schools, or less than a quarter of the public and private K-12 schools in the state.

Individual school districts have previously reported comparable numbers of cases just within their schools.

In early September, Ascension Parish, the state’s eighth largest traditional school district, reported 46 cases overall so far this school year. East Baton Rouge, which has been 100% virtual so far this school year, has reported 38 cases just from its employees.

Neel said the numbers in the new system will grow as more schools input information. And while LDH is reporting only statewide totals currently, it hopes to report numbers by region in the future, Neel said.

One bit of information LDH is no longer reporting publicly is the number of COVID outbreaks at schools. The last such report, issued Aug. 19, found there had been five school outbreaks associated with 26 positive cases. The health agency defines an outbreak as “two or more cases among unrelated individuals that have visited a site within a 14-day time period.”

Neel said LDH is reworking that definition as it applies to schools: “That is no longer a meaningful definition of outbreak.”

There are states sharing more information with the public about what’s happening in their schools.

For instance, Mississippi, as of Sept. 4, had counted almost 1,700 coronavirus cases overall — about two-third of them from students. The 861 participating schools reported 59 outbreaks and sending 4,515 close contacts into quarantine. Mississippi defines outbreaks at schools as ones involving three or more cases of the virus “in a classroom or group (sports team, group activity, band, or other) within 14 days.”

Mississippi is also reporting information down to the county level.

So far, 71 out of 80 Mississippi counties have reported positive cases, and 20 have had outbreaks. Jackson County has reported the most cases so far, 221, while Harrison County has reported the most outbreaks, 14.

In the absence of such information, Louisiana residents have relied on what schools are willing to share publicly. While some are sharing, many are not. LDH recommends, but doesn’t require, that schools notify parents and school employees of new COVID cases on their campuses.

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