Louisiana is shuttering K-12 schools across the state until April 13 and banning public gatherings of more than 250 people, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Friday, the most dramatic steps taken yet in the state to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.
The school closures are effective Monday. Edwards is slated to hold a press conference at 3 p.m. in New Orleans Friday with Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
Edwards issued a proclamation around 1 p.m. that orders public schools to close. All Catholic schools in the state will follow the order and close as well, said Sarah McDonald, the Archdiocese of New Orleans spokeswoman.
The proclamation made by the governor shutters only public schools, but Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens said the administration expected many private and parochial schools to follow.
“We are at an inflection point now and we are going to take bold action to minimize the further spread of this illness,” Edwards said in a statement. “That is why I am issuing this order today, ending all events of more than 250 people, closing our schools, and reducing the amount of face-to-face public interaction at state government buildings.”
The extraordinary move is part of an effort among federal, state and local leaders across the country to slow the rise of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19, and avoid overwhelming health systems.
The proclamation bans all gatherings of 250 people or more “in a single space at the same time where individuals will be in close proximity to one another.” It does not apply to normal operations at places like airports, medical facilities, shopping malls, offices, factories or grocery stores.
That means churches cannot gather more than 250 people, Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens confirmed.
Edwards will also direct state employees to work remotely “where it is possible and practical,” Stephens added.
While public schools must close, the order says schools “may offer complete distance learning” if possible. And if able to do so with “appropriate social distancing measures,” schools are directed to continue to provide meals or other essential services.
Schools across the state vary widely in their ability to deliver online learning, said Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.
“Some folks may have begun preparations,” Faulk said. “Others may not have. That’s what we are working on right now.”
Faulk said district superintendents will meet to sort out how high school seniors can be assured of meeting graduation requirements, among other pressing issues. For instance, schools have ACT exams and other standardized tests scheduled during the next month. Some think federal officials may waive annual testing requirements.
“This thing has really blown up and magnified quickly,” Faulk said.
The proclamation suspens the state law requiring students meet a minimum number of minutes per school year, preventing officials from needing to reschedule makeup days once classes resume.
“We want to make sure our state is in order,” said Sandy Holloway, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, adding she supports the governor’s decision.
The state has 33 presumptive positive cases of the new coronavirus, or COVID-19. Most of them are in New Orleans, which officials say has “community spread,” where the virus is being transmitted locally and not because of travel. Nationwide, government leaders have taken steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus, cancelling major sporting events and other public gatherings.
Edwards has said the steps being taken in Louisiana are aimed at preventing an explosion of cases that could overwhelm hospitals and other health systems.
The governor and Sec. of State Kyle Ardoin on Friday also said they would delay the presidential primary election until June. It was originally set for April.
“In a separate executive order, I will grant Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s request to move our upcoming elections for April and May to June and July,” Edwards said.
“The limits on gatherings of 250 people or more statewide is based on federal CDC guidance given the community spread which we are currently experiencing. These steps are necessary to protect the health and safety of the people of Louisiana from the risk of COVID-19.”