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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 from Monday until April 13th.That move prompted Catholic church officials to follow suit and shutter parochial schools statewide for 30 days. (Photo by David Grunfeld, NOLA.com, The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate) ORG XMIT: BAT2003131741050550

Backed by medical experts and education groups, Louisiana's top school board Tuesday approved minimum safety standards for the reopening of public schools that include face mask requirements for students and adults alike.

The vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, without dissent, endorsed the plan offered by new state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, including rules governing school bus limits, indoor gatherings, daily hygiene and social distancing policies.

The plan also says "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."

Brumley has said that means face coverings are a must while also giving local educators flexibility on the volatile issue.

Critics questioned whether the policy goes far enough.

The plan was backed by Dr. Joseph Kanter, assistant state medical director for the Louisiana Department of Health; Dr. Billy Lennarz, chair of pediatrics for Ochsner Health System and Dr. Leron Finger, chief quality officer for Children's Hospital.

"These recommendations are based on the best understanding to date of this virus, of how it spreads, and particularly how it might impact a school and classroom setting," Dr. Kanter told the board.

He said that, while some of the guidelines are onerous, they will put schools in the best position to avoid closures or absenteeism.

Dr. Lennarz said the policies cover four key pillars: environment/hand washing; screening; distancing and face masks.

Dr. Finger said he would put the guidelines up against any similar benchmarks in the nation.

All three assisted state education officials in putting the guidelines together.

"We at the department never claimed to be an expert on the virus," Brumley said at the outset of the 4 1/2 hour meeting.

Leaders of the Louisiana School Boards Association, the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Council for a Better Louisiana endorsed the rules.

"What the doctors have laid out are the things we know well," said Caroline Roemer, executive director of the charter schools group. "It is more likely we can be a healthy community if we do these things."

But Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, and others questioned whether public schools should reopen at all. "The decisions you are making today are literally life and death decisions," he said.

Carter said positive cases of the coronavirus need to drop for 14 days in a row before students return to classrooms.

"Are we ready to open schools?" he asked the board.

Carter also said BESE should mandate the use of face masks in public schools, without any caveats.

Belinda Davis, a board member who lives in Baton Rouge, questioned the wording of the face mask policy, including language that says they are to be worn in a way that is "practical within the local community context."

Davis noted that leaders of Livingston Parish have shown little enthusiasm for Gov. John Bel Edwards' statewide order that masks be worn in public to stem the spread of the virus.

"That to me creates a major level of danger for children and adults in those schools," she said of the BESE policy. "My concern is that is giving them an enormous loophole. Is that going to give them an out?"

Brumley said the state law that requires BESE to spell out minimum standards is aimed at protecting school districts from coronavirus-related lawsuits.

He said that, to keep that immunity, districts will have to show they were following the benchmarks backed by the state school board.

Brumley said the policy is "giving local systems some degree of flexibility in implementation."

Others questioned what happens when a teacher tests positive for the virus, whether students will face 14-day quarantines and noted that school systems in other states are delaying classes for months.

Joan Hunt, an attorney for the state Department of Education, said local school boards decide when the academic year begins.

However, public schools are required to provide a specific number of minutes of instruction per year.

Barry Erwin, president of Council For A Better Louisiana, said schools need to resume operations.

"Our schools are essential services," CABL's Erwin said. "Communities need it. Families need it. Certainly, our kids need it after the disruptions they had in the spring."

Classrooms were closed in March amid rising cases of the virus, nine weeks ahead of schedule.

That forced school districts to scramble to offer distance learning and other ways to continue instruction, with mixed results.

The rules approved Tuesday limit indoor school gatherings to 25 people, including adults, as long as the state remains in Phase 2 for the reopening of the state's economy.

School buses are limited to 50% of capacity, and students should spread out "to the greatest extent possible."

Students are supposed to maintain six feet of distance from each other while in classrooms.

The state has about 720,000 public school students attending roughly 1,700 schools led by 47,799 teachers.

Brumley said about 18% of teachers are over the age of 55, according to 2017-18 data, the latest available.

Local school districts will be required to submit their own plans to the state Department of Education to show they are adhering to the BESE guidelines.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.