- The Washington Times - Monday, August 17, 2020

NEW ORLEANS — Schools scrambling to open across the Southeast have been plagued with delays and quarantines because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

In the South, where the first day of school in most states arrives in August, hundreds of students and teachers were thrust into quarantine within days of entering classrooms in Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi. School officials now are grappling with the question of whether to say open.

In Louisiana, the biggest public school systems have gone through a series of delays and remain closed.

It is the first taste of what promises to be a sour 2020-2021 school year. The coronavirus forced an early end to the previous academic year when an abrupt swath of closings hit roughly 62 million students, parents and teachers in K-12 systems.

Pediatricians urged schools to open wherever possible. In a conference call with Rhode Island educators last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said schools should even operate outdoors if necessary.

In a handful of cases, schools closed almost as soon as they reopened. Elkmont High School in Alabama closed Monday after four positive tests prompted quarantine orders for 40 people at the school.

That number is comparatively small. Several systems have stayed open while coping with many more positive tests for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

Cherokee County in Georgia, where schools opened Aug. 3, was forced to close two high schools and quarantine more than 1,100 students and nearly 40 staffers.

Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican, delayed school openings in the state in early August. When classrooms opened recently, he promised no widespread closures even if COVID-19 rears its ugly head.

“Here’s the bottom line: We have to balance the very real risk of the virus and the lifelong damage of school closures. And to do that, we have to safely provide education for the greatest possible number of children,” Mr. Reeves said. “This is the beginning of that effort, not the end.”

Across the South, parents usually get a notice from school administrators when a student or staffer tests positive. Those who test positive are instructed to self-quarantine for 14 days.

In New Orleans and the surrounding areas, public schools that normally would have welcomed back students more than a week ago remain closed. Starting dates have been pushed past Labor Day.

School officials in New Orleans and many other areas are grappling with teachers unions that oppose reopening.

Jefferson Parish, Louisiana’s biggest public school system with more than 50,000 students and 80 campuses, was supposed to open Aug. 3. The first day of school has been pushed back twice and now is slated for Aug. 26.

“If a student or employee tests positive for COVID-19, they should stay home and notify their school or immediate supervisor,” said Jefferson Parish Schools spokeswoman Vicki Bristol.

Teachers remain skeptical of all these steps.

“It kind of doesn’t matter what date you reopen if the numbers of coronavirus cases are as high as they have been,” said Jeff Barrois, a special education teacher in Kenner and a member of the Louisiana Educators United, the teachers union in Jefferson Parish.

Georgia and Louisiana each endured a late-summer COVID-19 surge, though the numbers have begun to decline noticeably.

COVID-19 has been blamed for at least 531 deaths in Jefferson Parish, the second-highest number behind New Orleans in Louisiana. It exceeds the 474 deaths recorded in Fulton County, Georgia’s most populous.

Teachers have held rallies, and meetings have become unruly as school officials look for a path toward reopening.

Mr. Barrois noted the absurdity of trying to teach classes in which some students are present and masked while others may be “learning remotely.” He said privacy issues would forbid teachers from broadcasting images of students.

The geometry also is working against schools.

Louisiana is in phase two of reopening, a more stringent level that Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, imposed when COVID-19 cases began spiking again in July. The social distancing requirements of phase two limit public gatherings to 25 people, but a classroom with 24 students and one teacher would need 1,044 square feet — a space much larger than virtually all public school classrooms — to meet social distancing rules, Mr. Barrois said.

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