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City Council Hears Back-To-School Concerns In 6-Hour Meeting

Aubri Juhasz
A poster taped to the front door of Arise Academy on St. Claude Ave informs those entering the building that they must wear a mask.

Parents and teachers have long felt boxed out of the back-to-school conversation, but at Monday’s special City Council meeting almost everyone had a chance to speak.

That meant the meeting was long — more than six hours.

The council heard from school and health officials as well as parent and teacher representatives. After that, they heard from other community members in the form of 140 public comment cards.

While speakers weren’t in direct conversation with one another, council members helped bridge the presentations by asking questions and soliciting feedback from parent and teacher representatives on policies presented by New Orleans Public Schools, including their virtual start to the school year.

Health officials, including Dr. Joseph Kanter with the Louisiana Department of Health, said that even when schools do reopen, they’ll likely close periodically due to COVID-19 outbreaks. This means that connectivity — a student’s ability to connect their school laptop or another device to the internet — is more important than ever before.

City Council President Jason Roger Williams said the council has been working on a plan for city-wide wifi with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s support and recognizes that they need to speed things up.

“We've been talking about closing that digital divide and we've been talking about it in terms of the next few years,” Williams said. “Now we realize that it's an issue we have to deal with in the next few weeks and months to make sure that all our kids are connected and can learn remotely.”

The council will consider a motion on Thursday requiring the Council Utilities Regulatory Office to work with the Cantrell Administration to assess potential options to expand internet access across the city. If it passes, they’ll have 90 days to provide recommendations on next steps.

Despite acquiring and distributing 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hotspots last spring, the district estimates that as many as 1 in 5 students may still be without internet access.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. says that while the district can come up with temporary solutions and is working to make sure every student has internet access before the start of school, they need the city’s help to permanently close this gap.

Many speakers argued that inequalities for both students and teachers within the current school system — which is almost entirely composed of charter schools — have been further exacerbated by COVID-19.

Some schools have become well versed in remote learning and have robust safety plans in place including full-time onsite nurses. Others don’t.

Speakers argued that low-income Black and Brown students are more likely to attend schools where resources are limited. And teachers of color are more likely to be in harm's way.

Councilman Jay Banks argued that all schools should be required to have a full-time onsite nurse.

“I think that this is of the importance that a medical professional needs to be there. This virus is writing the script. Whatever we did last year, that’s not relevant anymore,” Banks said.

Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, explained that while many schools don’t have full-time nurses, and instead share one nurse between several sites, the district and its medical partners have been working hard to train school employees to perform basic medical functions such as taking students temperatures and monitoring them for other symptoms.

One tangible way the city hopes to address equity issues is by providing community learning hubs — spaces at libraries and community centers where low-income students can access wifi and engage in supervised learning while schools are closed.

Council members also wrestled with Act 91, which grants charters autonomy and limits the district's authority. They discussed whether the district needs more power to be able to ensure that safety standards are upheld and all members of the school community have the same resources and protections.

Right now, schools are required to provide their reopening plans to the district for review to make sure they adhere to state standards. The district also plans to conduct site inspections throughout the year and respond to any reported violations.

Adrienne Dixson, an education researcher, spoke at the council hearing on behalf of New Orleans teachers.

“There’s no evidence that teachers will be protected in the system if they want to report an infraction,” Dixson said. “Parents feel vulnerable as well, particularly our parents who are undocumented or don’t speak English. This is putting an incredible amount of trust in a system that has been contested since it was implemented.”

Maria Harmon, co-director of Step Up Louisiana, and Gina Womack, co-founder and executive director of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, also raised concerns that students may not feel safe depending on how the district’s new policies are implemented.

Students of color are already more likely to face disciplinary action at school than their white peers. Harmon and Womack cautioned that these students may also face increased surveillance and punitive measures as a result of new standards.

They also cautioned that an increase in policing will not improve student safety and instead said that officers should be removed from schools entirely.

Lewis has said that when it comes to enforcing policies like mandatory masks, schools should not punish students and instead work with counselors and families to understand the root of the problem.

Dixson also said that without a union, many teachers may be afraid to speak out if they witness safety violations. Under the current charter system, Dixson said a lot is left up to chance. With so much variability between schools, teachers and students can have wildly different experiences. Right now that can mean the difference between life and death.

“This is a byproduct of a decentralized system that essentially allows schools to compete for resources,” Dixson said. “It shouldn’t be ad hoc.”

Dixson said it isn’t a matter of giving the district more power, it’s making sure they exercise the power they already have.

“The process that Henderson Lewis laid out appeared to be very convoluted. That there could be an infraction, you have to report it, they’ll do an investigation. Is that a three-day process? Is that a five-day process? In the meantime, how many people are getting sick over that?”

Council members raised similar concerns that failure to quickly respond to safety violations and COVID-19 outbreaks would result in further community spread. But even when health and safety standards are closely followed, medical professionals have said they still expect students and faculty to get sick.

Kanter, one of several medical professionals who spoke at Monday’s meeting, said exposures will “slip through,” prompting disruptions, absenteeism, frequent quarantines and periodic school closures from “literally day one.”

Not only do schools need to invest in remote learning, Kanter said, they also need to make sure they have clear testing procedures in place.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to have an entrance test,” Kanter said. Rather, schools should use their limited resources to test those who are symptomatic, allowing them to determine whether other members of the student body need to quarantine, stopping the spread of the virus as quickly as possible.

NOLA-PS is currently working on determining their testing procedures and has discussed trying to test every student and faculty member before they return to the building, according to chief school support and improvement officer Dina Hasiotis.

At the end of the day, there were far more questions than there were answers, and one voice that was still missing was students.

Grace Ambrossi with the parent advocacy group Nuestra Voz, acknowledged that Rethink, a group of Black youth organizers, had not been invited to present.

“If this is a meeting for stakeholders, we’re missing a lot of stakeholders,” Ambrossi said. She also criticized the council for failing to translate Monday’s meeting into Spanish and Vietnamese so all parents could participate.

In an open letter to the council and to Cantrell, Rethink wrote: “We understand that with numbers comes power. I’m sure you understand that without us (young people) schools could not exist and couldn’t function. Without us the future will not exist. We refuse to be ignored and tokenized any longer.”

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s news coverage.

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