BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Vice President Mike Pence insisted Tuesday 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 isn’t throwing open the doors to all students this fall, but is taking a measured approach to restarting schools. 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.
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, which is the operational hub of Louisiana’s response to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We’re with you, and we’re going to stay with you until we put this coronavirus in the past,” Pence pledged to Edwards and Louisiana officials.
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.
Louisiana’s confirmed caseload is growing fast, 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.
“Louisiana has been on the radar, literally front and center, of the White House Coronavirus Task Force since the very beginning. We’ve never come off of that radar,” Edwards said. “I think that’s a big reason why the vice president chose to come to Baton Rouge and to Louisiana.”
With infections surging again, the Democratic Edwards enacted a statewide mask mandate for people 8 and older that took effect Monday. He also returned bars to takeout and delivery only. Restaurants, casinos, gyms, salons and other businesses remain open, with occupancy restrictions.
The Baton Rouge region is one of three metropolitan areas where federal officials recently set up new drive-thru testing sites. The federally supported sites will run through Saturday.
Edwards said federal support has helped Louisiana reach more than 304,000 virus tests so far in July — surpassing the monthly goal of 200,000. Still, the Baton Rouge test sites haven’t drawn thousands of people daily, as officials hoped.
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, reaching 1,362 people Tuesday.
Louisiana has had more than 82,000 confirmed cases since its first positive test in March. Experts say the actual infection rate is likely much higher. 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.