The guidelines were set and ready to be released when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced he was reimposing his statewide mask mandate in response to the state’s “most dangerous surge of COVID-19 yet.”
Effective Aug. 4, the indoor mask mandate would require face coverings for everyone 5 years and older, including all students and employees of K-12 schools and universities statewide.
With the bombshell announcement coming less than two weeks before 30,000 students and employees returned to campus, Livingston Parish Public Schools Superintendent Joe Murphy and his staff rushed to make one last edit.
“When the [governor’s] proclamation came out, we changed one sentence on our operational guidelines, and that was the masking requirement,” Murphy said.
Less than 90 minutes after Edwards made his announcement, Murphy made his own: In adherence to the governor’s proclamation, face masks — which until then were going to be optional — would now be required for all students and employees.
“The big question becomes: Were we going to require masks before the governor’s proclamation?” Murphy said. “And I can tell you that no we were not. It was going to be an optional process for our kids.
“But once the governor’s proclamation came out and the statewide indoor mask mandate went into effect, we felt like we had no choice but to follow the governor’s proclamation.”
Murphy spoke on face masks and several other topics pertaining to the start of the school year when he joined McHugh David, editor/publisher of The News, for a podcast interview earlier this week.
The talk with the superintendent, who is entering his third year in the position, came less than two days before the start of the 2021-22 school, which begins Wednesday, Aug. 11.
And unlike the start of last year when schools operated in a hybrid model of virtual and in-person instruction, campuses will open at full capacity this year, something Murphy said has brought excitement back to the start of the school year.
“One of the things that we learned from last year’s experience is how important it is for our kids to be in school and how important it is for them to have that person-to-person instruction, face-to-face, on a daily basis,” he said. “And this year we’ll be opening in that format where we have face-to-face daily instruction for all our grades.
“I can’t tell you how excited people are for that. They love the idea that they will be able to see their children on their campuses everyday.”
During the podcast, Murphy spoke about some of the district’s operational protocols for the upcoming school year and how they are different and similar from last year, the first full year under the COVID-19 pandemic.
Those similar to last year include daily (“and sometimes more than once a day”) campus cleaning and disinfecting, social distancing to the greatest extent possible, and having designated entry and exit points on campus.
Some of the differences from last year include the discontinuation of temperature checks when students arrive on campus and the change in quarantine rules for close contacts, which are more “relaxed” than they were last year.
This year, students and employees who test positive for COVID-19 will have to quarantine for 10 days, starting from the day after they first exhibit symptoms.
The change in policy comes for close contacts, who do not have to quarantine if they are fully vaccinated or if both the case and the contact “were engaged in consistent and correct” use of a face mask, per the district’s guidelines. The district has other “shorter-term” quarantine options listed on its website, broken down between employees and students.
Murphy noted that, unlike last year, there is no existing COVID-19 leave for district employees but added that, “We are looking to add some circumstances where we might be able to apply some covid leave for positive cases.”
In regards to face masks, Murphy said he has spoken with his attorney “just about every day” and they have come to the conclusion — as other districts have — that the governor is acting within his authority to issue a mask mandate under a public health emergency.
Murphy noted that he is unaware of any other districts “not following that particular mandate.”
“Now I don’t want anybody to misread that as to how I personally feel about this. It really doesn’t matter how I personally feel about this,” he said. “But I do have a responsibility to protect Livingston Parish Public Schools. So yes, we’re going to follow the governor’s mandate.”
Murphy said a mask mandate gives the district “the best opportunity” to conduct face-to-face instruction, which has only grown in importance after a trying hybrid model of learning last school year. He pointed to recently released data from the Department of Education that “clearly showed a statistical advantage to children who had been face-to-face.”
“Our job is to educate our children and to keep them safe,” Murphy said. “So we do feel like by following the governor’s proclamation, we give our children the best opportunity to remain face-to-face this year and be successful in our classrooms.”
Murphy said “it is not our intention” to dole out punishment for those who don’t wear face masks unless “that rises to the level of willful disobedience or disrespect to authority.” He stressed, however, that discipline is “a last resort” and that schools will work with the child to avoid any other such measures.
“We’re going to do everything we can,” Murphy said. “We’ll have masks available for those children. If the child forgets a mask, we’re going to give them a mask.”
He also took a moment to speak to the parents of younger students who may worry about if their child can wear a mask all day, something Murphy noted is “very, very difficult” for the youngest students.
“What I would ask parents is to give us the opportunity to use this as a teachable moment for those children,” he said. “We understand that that child is not going to wear a mask every minute of every day. But give our teachers an opportunity.”
Near the end of the podcast, Murphy brought up two issues that have troubled him regarding COVID-19 vaccinations and testing. Recently, rumors have circulated, mostly through social media, that the system would require a vaccine for children and employees or turn schools into testing sites.
Murphy denied both of those claims.
The district’s stance from the beginning, he said, has been that the vaccination of children is “best left to their parents and their medical providers. We’re not changing our stance on that.” He also said the district’s job “is to educate our children. Our job is not to create testing sites at our schools.”
During the podcast, Murphy also spoke on other subjects not pertaining to COVID-19 protocols. He noted that, this year, every sixth grader and 9th grader will receive a device that follows them through middle school and high school, respectively.
“It just gives us a few more tools to work with so that when that child needs that device, they have access to it,” he said.
The superintendent gave an update on the new Denham Springs Elementary site, which he said is “about 86 percent” finished. He said construction should wrap up in the fall and his hope is for move-in to commence over the winter break.
Murphy also lauded the district’s summer programs, which not only focused on academics but also on social and emotional skills, a point of emphasis during a life-changing pandemic.
“Let’s face it: These children have been traumatized by their experiences over the last year and a half,” he said. “So we felt like not only did we need to take care of them from an academic standpoint, but we also need to take care of them from a whole-child perspective to make sure they’re going to be okay socially and emotionally moving forward.
“This has been tough for everybody, and it’s especially tough on our children.”