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The St. Helena Parish School Board office, Wednesday, May 27, 2020 in Greensburg, La.

Students in St. Helena Parish will switch to taking classes remotely for a couple of days as schools around Baton Rouge react to the coronavirus's fast-spreading omicron variant.

The entire school district will take classes via Microsoft Teams starting Thursday, Jan. 6 and will stay remote through Monday, Jan. 10, the district's superintendent said.

The remote days will give the district time to set up a mass testing program for all students — which St. Helena schools are requiring as students return to campuses for the new year — through a secondary provider, Omega Diagnostics.

The Louisiana Department of Health was slated to run the district's mass-testing program but is grappling with a testing shortage, the district said.

"This will give parents time to register for testing through Omega Diagnostics, or to acquire their own COVID test through their private medical doctor," superintendent Kelli Joseph said in a statement.

Citing a mix of rising cases and staff shortages, several other schools in Baton Rouge said Wednesday that they would move pupils to remote learning through next week amid the omicron-driven surge, which has sent Louisiana's COVID-19 cases climbing to record highs.

They include Magnolia Woods Elementary, Collegiate Baton Rouge, Kenilworth Science and Technology Center and Democracy Prep. In New Roads, False River Academy said it would switch to remote learning Thursday and Friday.

Omicron is the latest strain of the virus to snarl Baton Rouge-area schools’ learning arrangements since COVID entered Louisiana nearly two years ago.

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The state’s low vaccination rates allowed the virus’s delta variant to run rampant over the summer, packing hospitals and killing hundreds of people. Cases dipped for several months before omicron ignited the new surge in December.

Louisiana Department of Health data show new coronavirus cases among people aged 5-17 rose sharply after Christmas, from 731 new cases in the week of Dec. 9 to just short of 2,000 during the next week. Almost 5,000 people in that age category tested positive for the virus in the week leading up to the New Year.

Doctors at Orion Laboratories, a company that runs testing for around 200 campuses in the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas, saw school tests’ positivity rate grow from about 0.1% before the winter holiday to 11% over the past four days, when many students returned to classrooms.

“It’s different now,” said David Slaughter, Orion Laboratories’ CEO. “The tough part is that we went out on break at the same time this (wave) was starting up. So if we were testing the entire period, we’d be in a much better place than we are now, because we’d be able to identify people, isolate them and keep them out of the community.”

In St. Helena Parish, the school district is asking all parents to register their students to get tested through Omega Diagnostics before the return to in-person classes.

Parents who do not wish to have their child tested on Tuesday, Jan. 11 or cannot show proof of a recent negative test result from no earlier than Jan. 4th, must wait until Friday, January 14th to return to school, Joseph said.


James Finn writes for The Advocate as a Report For America corps member. Email him at JFinn@theadvocate.com or follow him on Twitter @RJamesFinn.

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