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New Orleans Teachers Don’t Think Their Schools Are Prepared To Safely Reopen

NOLA Public Schools
NOLA Public Schools has acquired personal protective equipment for all Orleans Parish public schools in anticipation of reopening schools next month.

When the coronavirus first hit New Orleans in early March, schools abruptly closed and the district transitioned to full-time online learning.

In the months since, the city has gradually rolled back restrictions and many hoped that the city would be in its final stage of reopening by the start of the school year.

But with schools set to reopen next month, Louisiana — which is still in Phase 2 of reopening — appears to be moving in the opposite direction. The state currently has one of the highest per capita infection rates in the country.

Kelli Gann teaches third grade at Morris Jeff Community School, a New Orleans charter school in the Treme neighborhood. She says she hoped to be back in the classroom this fall, but now thinks it’s too risky.

“I don’t want to put my students or their families lives in danger even if as a teacher I know that it will be good for them to be in the classroom,” Gann said. “As a person I don’t want to endanger them and I don’t want to endanger my coworkers.”

With Louisiana currently in Phase 2, New Orleans Public Schools plans to have students in pre-K through fourth grade back in the building full-time. Older students will split their time between online and in-person learning.

Parents are not required to send their children to school and teachers are expected to provide both in-person and online instruction.

While the state and the district have outlined extensive safety standards Gann is worried they won’t be enough to keep students safe.

“Things may look great on paper, but a lot of times I'll see guidelines, for example, and think, OK, that sounds great, but how am I gonna actually implement that?” Gann said.

Her biggest worry is what could happen if teachers — despite their best efforts — fail to enforce policies like social distancing and face coverings. The virus could spread throughout the school, infecting students and teachers, who might then infect their families. She’s afraid people might die.

This week, a survey conducted by the Louisiana Federation of Teachers & School Employees further took the temperature of the state’s parents and teachers when it comes to reopening schools.

Of the nearly 15,000 respondents, 60 percent of parents said they are not comfortable with their children returning to school. Forty-five percent of school employees said they would prefer to work from home and 35 percent said they’re at increased risk for severe illness if they contract COVID-19.

Dave Cash has his own concerns. He’s the executive vice president of the local teacher’s union — United Teachers of New Orleans — and teaches technology at Rooted School.

His students are in high school. That means when they’re in the building, they’ll likely switch classes several times to accommodate their unique scheduling needs.

That exposes them to far more people than younger students who typically stay in the same classroom all day. It also exposes their teachers to far more students.

Guidelines say that high schoolers need to stay at least 6 feet away from one another and that their classrooms should be cleaned between each period. But Cash has serious doubts as to whether these guidelines can be followed.

“Where are the kids supposed to go when the schools are being cleaned? And then also who is doing the cleaning of the rooms, right? Is there an army of custodians that come in every hour and do that? It just seems, like, not practical,” Cash said.

Cash and Gann are hardly the only teachers worried about reopening New Orleans’ public schools.

Last week, more than 300 people — half of them teachers — gathered for a virtual town hall hosted by the United Teachers of New Orleans. More than 70 percent of attendees said they don’t think their school is prepared to safely reopen.

Nearly everyone — parents, teachers, students, other community members — criticized NOLA-PS’ plans for the fall as not well-thought out. They also said they’ve felt shut out of the planning process.

Some said that the energy spent creating reopening guidelines should have instead been used to improve remote learning, to ensure that if children are learning at home they have access to internet enabled devices and that children who are English language learners or have learning disabilities receive extra support.

Cash said the main problem with the district’s reopening task force was it lacked diversity and left out essential voices.

“You should have social workers, nurses, coaches, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, custodians, all these people have really significant and very different experiences in schools and really significant roles to play, especially if we think about, you know, what's coming ahead,” Cash said.

NOLA-PS says they included these perspectives by creating advisory groups and by conducting a community survey, but Cash says there’s a big difference between having an opportunity to voice your concerns and being included in the actual decision making process.

At a press conference on Tuesday, NOLA-PS Superintendent of Schools Henderson Lewis responded to teacher’s concerns about reopening and stressed that the district’s plan is deliberately “fluid” in an effort to respond to health trends and community concerns.

“The release of the roadmap [included] critical feedback not only from the survey, but we had teachers on the task force as well as teachers on my advisory council,” Lewis said.

Lewis said their concerns and suggestions were instrumental in the district’s decision to require face coverings for all students and employees.

“That's another sign here in the city of New Orleans that the safety of all of our students, families and employees is a top priority,” Henderson said.

He also said the district will take teacher’s concerns into account when they meet with city health officials next week to decide whether to postpone reopening schools.

Despite the recent surge in cases, many officials, including President Donald Trump, have continued to push for schools to reopen. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to argue the same point.

“We believe it is absolutely in the best interest of students academically and in terms of every aspect of their personal well being to get kids back in the classroom in K-12 and get students back on campuses like LSU,” Pence said.

Local officials, like Louisiana’s Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, are also arguing that the benefits of having students back in the classroom far outweigh the risks.

“There’s just a lot of evidence that they’re not spreading the infection that much. So if we are science-based, then I think we can draw a lot of comfort as we attempt to reopen,” Cassidy said in an interview with WWNO last week.

But the science behind reopening schools is anything but settled and medical professionals worry that the decision making process has become politicized.

While Gann hopes that schools don’t rush to reopen, she knows that when they do teachers will be in the best position to figure out how to make things work.

“One of the things that teachers are really great at is problem-solving,” Gann said. “That's what we do all day, is we solve problems and we think on our feet and we facilitate movement and transitions and crowd control. I really think if you put teachers in charge of lots of different situations, we could figure out a way.”

She said officials just have to be willing to listen.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.

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