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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Despite climbing numbers of COVID-19 cases around Louisiana, state education leaders are leaving decisions on mask mandates, physical distancing and other measures aimed at lessening coronavirus spread to local public school districts for the upcoming year.

The Department of Education sent updated guidance to K-12 school systems for the 2021-22 school year that recommends — but doesn't mandate — face coverings for all unvaccinated adults and students in grades 3 through 12 while inside school facilities. It also offers suggestions for distancing of students, school cleaning and isolation for students and staff who contract the COVID-19 illness or were in close contact with others who get sick.

But the only mandate for Louisiana schools involves a federal requirement that passengers and drivers on school buses must wear a mask.

“School system leaders should continue to work with the local medical community to determine what works best based on local context. It’s also important to understand that our guidance is a blueprint based on the best information available now,” Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said in a statement.

The school guidelines come amid a worsening uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as Louisiana struggles to persuade people to get vaccinated and the highly contagious delta variant takes hold.

The president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, Sandy Holloway, said COVID-19 prevention practices are “best made by those closest to our students," the local school system leaders.

Private and parochial schools are taking different approaches, with some Catholic school dioceses already announcing they intend to require unvaccinated adults and students in grades 3 through 12 to wear face coverings inside classrooms.

Louisiana no longer has a statewide mask mandate after Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards lifted that requirement and most other coronavirus restrictions earlier this year when vaccinations became widely available.

But as the delta variant spreads, the Louisiana Department of Health warned this week of a new surge of COVID-19 cases, especially among the unvaccinated. The agency said 94% of the more than 19,000 new cases of the illness reported since early May occurred among people who weren't fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and it urged people who aren't vaccinated to wear masks.

The number of new coronavirus cases diagnosed each day in Louisiana has increased for the last four weeks, and the percentage of tests coming back positive for COVID-19 is growing and now tops 6% statewide, according to the health department.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations, percent positivity and COVID-19 outbreaks are all on the rise," Dr. Joseph Kanter, Louisiana’s state health officer, said in a statement. "All people in Louisiana, especially those who are not yet vaccinated, should know they are now at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to the more transmissible delta variant.”

Edwards plans a Friday news conference announcing the first winners of a state lottery offering cash prizes and scholarships to people who have gotten vaccinated and trying to draw awareness to the delta variant's spread.

Louisiana lags nearly every other state in vaccine distribution. Its vaccination rate per capita exceeds only that of Mississippi and Alabama, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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