BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday he’s likely to keep Louisiana’s K-12 public schools shuttered for the rest of the school year because of the coronavirus, in response to calls from state education leaders not to reopen them because of public health risks.
Edwards’ school closure order remains in place through the end of April. Louisiana’s top education board, school superintendents and school boards sent requests to the Democratic governor, asking him to extend those closures through the end of the school year, which runs until the final weeks of May.
“I just want to make sure that I’m clear on what they’re requesting,” Edwards said, adding that he expects to make an announcement soon. “Obviously there’s a really good chance that I’m going to quickly do what they’re asking me to do.”
The coronavirus Thursday claimed a state lawmaker among its victims, Lafourche Parish Republican Rep. Reggie Bagala, a freshman in office since January. Board of Regents Chairman Marty Chabert, a family friend, announced the news on Twitter with a statement from Bagala’s son describing the lawmaker as “a profoundly honest and decent man, who loved unceasingly.”
Meanwhile, state officials — including Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office — are investigating whether Louisiana’s three abortion clinics are violating a health department order against non-emergency medical procedures during the pandemic.
Several conservative states have ordered abortion clinics to close, saying they offer nonessential procedures using protective equipment needed by medical workers on the outbreak’s front lines. But Edwards, who opposes abortion, stopped short of saying Louisiana’s clinics shouldn’t be operating. Asked if abortions are an elective procedure, the governor replied: “I think it would depend on the conditions under which one was performed.”
Louisiana has seen encouraging signs this week in its fight against the virus outbreak. The rate of new hospitalizations has slowed, and the number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators has decreased.
The governor credits people physically distancing from others and avoiding trips away from their homes as much as possible with helping to slow the rate of new infections — and he’s cautioned Louisianans to keep it up. He’s also warned that until the country finds a virus treatment and vaccine, “I don’t know that you’re going to see life as we knew it before COVID-19.”
More than 18,000 people in Louisiana have confirmed infections of the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, about 11% of whom are hospitalized, according to health department data.
While the modeling is starting to look less grim, the number of virus deaths continued to climb Thursday, reaching 702.
New Orleans is setting up a temporary morgue to deal with the number of people killed by the outbreak. Mayor LaToya Cantrell said the city is working with the owner of a property adjacent to the coroner’s office to put refrigeration units there. They are setting up privacy tents “so we can be as respectful as possible when it comes to caring for the dead,” the mayor said.
Collin Arnold, director of the city’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said a total of 14 trailers have been brought in to handle bodies that need to be stored.
For most people, the coronavirus causes symptoms such as high fever and a dry cough that resolve in several weeks. But some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, can suffer severe symptoms and require respirators to survive.
Last month, Edwards ordered schools closed, limited restaurants to takeout and delivery and shuttered businesses deemed nonessential, such as gyms, hair salons and bars. Those restrictions remain in place through April.
Local school districts have been using distance learning — and at least half are using some form of online teaching — to keep lessons going since schools closed in mid-March, according to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. But decision-making on whether to extend the school year, how to determine if a student reaches graduation and how to teach classes has largely been left to individual districts to decide.
The conservative Pelican Institute for Public Policy suggested the state needs to take a greater leadership role. It urged state education leaders to set distance learning requirements for schools and to release specifics for how students will make up for lost classroom time.
“While we understand Louisiana’s leaders continue the fight to contain COVID-19, our state’s parents need assurance that their child’s education will not be another casualty of this virus,” said Ethan Melancon, education policy director for the organization, in a statement.