With less than two weeks until the start of classes for Lafayette Parish public school students, parents and teachers are trying to balance concerns about the uncertainty of how COVID-19 protocols will shape the classroom experience with school year planning.

The Lafayette Parish School System hasn’t released its COVID-19 protocol plans for the school year, but has shared information about school start and end times, a planned A/B schedule to ease children into the year in small groups before resuming a full schedule and some information on meals.

Spokesperson Allison Dickerson said administrators are reviewing the latest recommendations from public health officials and plan to release a plan next week. The 2021-2022 Learn Lafayette Reopening Plan is listed on the agenda for the school board’s Wednesday meeting and will be up for a vote, with the option for board members to change elements of the plan.

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On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adjusted its guidance on masking in schools; previously the organization recommended unvaccinated individuals mask in schools, but expanded that to include all people, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, in K-12 schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends everyone in schools over age 2 wear masks, regardless of vaccination status.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said in a press conference he may issue a mask mandate for the state as soon as Monday, though it’s not clear what would be included.

Paul Breaux Middle teacher Julia Reed, leader of the Lafayette Parish Association of Educators, said the delay in guidance is a double-edged sword; she appreciates the district looking at all guidance and taking in professional opinions, which helps avoid shakeups at the last minute, but the uncertainty about what the year will look like is also nerve-wracking for many teachers.

“There’s always unknown factors and this is just adding one more,” she said.

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Reed and a regional liaison for the Louisiana Association of Educators met with LPSS Superintendent Irma Trosclair on Thursday afternoon to discuss teachers’ concerns for the year. Reed said members requested that wearing medical scrubs continues to be an option during the year, and that they’d like some kind of mask requirement over softer recommendations.

Teachers are people too, with varied opinions on masking and COVID-19, and there’s concern a masking honor system focused on unvaccinated people wouldn’t be successful, she said. It can also put unintentional decision-making pressure on the kids, the educator said.

“If you make it non-mandatory, even if their parents ask them to wear a mask when they go to school, there’s peer pressure. What if their friend’s parents are against masking and then the friend pushes and says, ‘Don’t wear a mask’? Kids like clear boundaries. Voluntary, ‘if you want,’ that’s not a clear boundary,” Reed said.

The LPAE president said masking and mitigation efforts were successful in schools last year and largely helped prevent widespread outbreaks and school closures related to the virus. The district should keep up with what works, Reed said, and she’s confident the board will follow the science to protect students and teachers.

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Lafayette internal medicine and geriatric care physician Dr. Britni Hebert said she’s empathetic to the pressure the school system is under, especially during what is already a busy time in an average year. But the lack of transparency and communication around how they’re making decisions is creating fear among parents, she said.

Currently, Louisiana has the highest growth rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the nation, according to data from the Louisiana Department of Health.

Proactive communication of the resources and opinions the school system is considering when making decisions about their COVID-19 protocols would go a long way in building confidence in the safety of school, especially as case numbers rise with the proliferation of the delta variant, Hebert said.

While the doctor knows there are behind-the-scenes discussions happening, when the public isn’t privy to those conversations, it feels like they aren’t happening at all, she said.

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“I feel like there is a crisis in our community and I’m hearing silence where there’s a desperate need for discussion,” the Lafayette doctor said. “I was watching the LPSS announcements pretty much daily…and there was just no acknowledgement of the crisis that’s beyond building in our community and that’s unsettling, and it feels very wrong.

“I think that many mothers and fathers in the community would really appreciate an acknowledgement that they see and are making plans. That would go a long way in calming fears and reassuring families that there will be some action to keep people safe,” Hebert said.

A mother to a 2-year-old son and 8-year-old twin boys, the doctor said LPSS’ silence has put their family’s school plans in limbo. Any and everything is on the table right now — public school, private school and virtual learning — as they wait to learn more about safety plans, she said. 

Hebert said she and her husband are proud public school graduates — they first met while at Paul Breaux Middle together — and pulling their sons from Spanish immersion at Alice Boucher Elementary last year to participate in the Lafayette Online Academy was upsetting, but their safety is paramount, she said.

The doctor is intimately familiar with the damage COVID-19 can do. Hebert has cared for patients with COVID-19 in outpatient and non-ICU hospital settings locally. In 2020, she volunteered in a New York City field hospital for about a month during the city’s first major COVID-19 wave, she said.

In July 2020, she, her husband, their then 1-year-old son and her parents contracted COVID-19 from a family caregiver. She suffered from COVID-induced pneumonia, despite being healthy and without pre-existing conditions, and has struggled with long haul COVID symptoms. Hebert said these experiences have made her passionate about education around COVID-19, mitigation measures and the available vaccines.

The Lafayette doctor acknowledged COVID-19, and related topics such as masks and vaccines, are still controversial topics in the community, with many denying or downplaying the reality of the disease. Hebert said she knows people are tired and she is empathetic to the burnout around the virus and the sacrifices needed to prevent its spread in the community. But burnout or community disbelief shouldn’t dictate policy, especially when it comes to people’s safety, she said.

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Hebert said it’s unfortunate that mask wearing in schools has been framed as a recommendation from the Louisiana Department of Education, rather than a mandate, with the ultimate decision of whether masks will be worn pushed down to local school districts. It creates the sense that someone has to be the “bad guy,” amid calls from neighbors and constituents pushing back on masking and other rules, she said.

Safety decisions should be insulated from public opinion, with the main driver science and the guidance of public health and safety professionals, the doctor said.

“If you are certain enough that your purpose is the safety of children, and that your actions improve that safety, it should never matter what people say or how angry they get. If your purpose is true, and your path is clear, none of that matters. I think people need to feel OK to look like the bad guy in doing the right thing here. It takes a lot of bravery and we need bravery right now,” Hebert said.

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Statewide, hospital leaders are reporting more children falling ill from COVID because of the highly aggressive delta variant and more are requiring hospitalization. Children are not as susceptible to severe disease or death from coronavirus as adults are, with only around .01% of cases resulting in death. Roughly 500 children in the U.S. have died of COVID-19, according to the CDC. But state medical leaders said they fear a shift as more of the delta variant circulates in the community.

Hebert had pointed words for anyone who suggests the relative lack of danger to children is a reason to forgo mask wearing and other safety measures in schools.

“I say go to a playground and pick the child you’re willing to sacrifice today. Go choose the child, point them out and tell them that one can die and I’m OK with that. That’s unacceptable. Any one child lost is an entire universe of possibility and hope, and they should be our number one priority,” the Lafayette mother said.

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