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Pence urges school reopening in Louisiana amid virus surge

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence insisted Tuesday the country’s schools should reopen to in-person instruction for students, making the point in Louisiana as the state has reemerged as one of the nation’s hot spots for the coronavirus only months after signs pointed to a successful outbreak response.

Appearing at Louisiana State University, the Republican vice president described the nation as “in a much better position today to deal with the pandemic” even as virus cases surge across much of the country. He and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called for students at every level from elementary school through college to return to classrooms, with Pence calling that critical to reopening the country.

“It’s the right thing to do for our children. It’s also the right thing to do for families,” Pence said at Tiger Stadium, where he met with Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, members of the congressional delegation and state higher education officials.

Louisiana’s confirmed coronavirus caseload is among the fastest growing per capita across the country, and its infection and hospitalization rates are surging, worrying public health experts in a state that previously seemed to be successfully flattening the curve of infections.

Edwards has been the rare Democratic leader who has refused to criticize President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, instead repeatedly thanking federal officials for their “partnership” in supplying the state with medical equipment and testing supplies.

In return, Pence complimented Edwards’ response, said he backed the governor’s decision to pause further reopening of businesses and suggested residents should comply with the statewide mask mandate Edwards enacted Monday.

“We support Gov. John Bel Edwards and his health officials’ decisions, and we encourage people to heed the guidance of state and local authorities,” the vice president said. “And with regard to wearing a mask, it’s just always a good idea.”

While in Louisiana, the Trump administration announced plans to provide point of care testing in nursing homes across the country, to help ease the burden on overwhelmed testing sites and avoid backlogged results. Officials said the tests will start rolling out next week at 2,000 nursing homes, including 17 in Baton Rouge.

The Baton Rouge region is one of three metropolitan areas where federal officials also recently set up free drive-thru testing sites, which will run through Saturday.

Though Pence’s visit to the state’s capital city aimed to promote the resumption of in-classroom teaching, Louisiana isn’t throwing open the doors to all students this fall.

Local school systems are determining whether to resume classes on sight, with some planning in-person instruction, others preferring online distance learning and some districts announcing a hybrid approach. At LSU, some students will be able to attend classes on campus, though many other courses will be held online.

“Our plan is to open as many schools — K-12, higher education — for in-person instruction on campus as we can safely do,” Edwards said.

LSU’s Tigers won the college football national championship title in January, and football coach Ed Orgeron sat prominently to the left of Pence amid the talk of reopening. Though the future of the fall season remains unclear, Orgeron did not hedge on his thoughts: “We have our team back, ready to go. We need football.”

Several LSU players have contracted the coronavirus and had to be quarantined, but Orgeron blamed that on college partying and said such activity won’t happen again.

Before heading to LSU, Pence visited the state’s emergency operations center. He pledged: “We’re with you, and we’re going to stay with you until we put this coronavirus in the past.”

One official Pence did not see during his trip was Republican state Attorney General Jeff Landry, who announced Tuesday that he’s tested positive for the coronavirus and is in quarantine. Landry’s spokesman says the attorney general is showing no symptoms of COVID-19.

More than 3,300 Louisiana residents have died from COVID-19, according to the state health department. Louisiana again has moved into the top five states for new virus cases per capita in recent days, adding anywhere from 1,300 to 2,600 new confirmed cases daily.

The sizable boost in cases can’t be explained solely by increased testing, because the percentage of tests coming back positive is growing — and the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized is increasing as well.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.