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Louisiana’s Largest School District Pushes School Year Back Two Weeks, Cites Need For Rapid Testing

Aubri Juhasz
Laptop distribution at Landry-Walker High School in New Orleans on Aug. 6, 2020. Many Louisiana schools have already delayed in-person learning, either by pushing back the start of the school year or pivoting to online learning.

Jefferson Parish public schools will postpone the start of the school year until rapid coronavirus testing is available for all symptomatic employees, the district announced Monday. Several teachers tested positive for the virus after returning to their classrooms last week.

The school year will now begin two weeks later on Aug. 26, when the district has access to rapid 15-minute testing through Ochsner, Superintendent James Gray said. Students were originally scheduled to begin in-person classes this Wednesday.

Gray said that the new testing capabilities will allow the district to “quickly determine if an employee has COVID-19 and take the appropriate precautions.”

“The decision was not made lightly, and, ultimately, we felt this delay was the best way to ensure a safe and successful return to school. We apologize for the short notice and the burden this may cause,” Gray said in a letter.

A “handful” of teachers tested positive for the virus after returning to their classrooms ahead of the start of the school year. The district did not disclose the exact number of teachers.

Teachers, parents and students have been pressuring the district to postpone the start of the school year, citing the growing number of coronavirus cases in Jefferson Parish and what they see as safety deficiencies in schools.

The number of daily positive coronavirus cases in Jefferson Parish had been climbing, but has since leveled off. Jefferson’s seven-day average on Friday dropped to 135 new cases per day, after holding steady in the 140-150 range in recent weeks. The parish has the highest number of cases in the state and the second-highest number of deaths.

Until Monday, the district’s administration and a majority of their school board had remained firm on their plan to reopen schools on schedule. Gray acknowledged in his letter the role teachers played in changing their mind.

“During visits to schools, Jefferson Parish School Board members and district officials have spoken with educators, inquired about their concerns, and determined if there were other opportunities to leverage Ochsner’s resources,” Gray wrote. “After these visits and various conversations with our families and employees, we worked with Ochsner to add an additional layer of safety for our students and employees.”

Jefferson Federation of Teachers and School Employees President Kesler Camese Jones said the union deserved credit for the district’s decision.

“This delay is necessary to ensure that our schools are ready to host students safely and provide high quality instruction,” Camese Jones said in a statement. "We will continue to work with the district to ensure that Jefferson Parish employees have everything they need to safely provide the best instructional outcomes for their students.”

Teachers have also raised concerns that they need more time and resources to prepare for online learning. Of the district’s more than 50,000 students, nearly 40 percent plan not to return to the building for at least the first nine weeks of school and will instead learn entirely online.

“We will use these two weeks to continue to strengthen our plans and offer additional professional development for our teachers, particularly around teaching virtually,” Gray wrote. “The better we can support our teachers, the better off our students will be.”

The district is still in the process of acquiring and distributing technology and other supplies to students on a rolling basis.

When Jefferson Parish schools do reopen, students in grades PreK-5 are expected to return to the building full-time, while older students will split their time between in-person and remote instruction.

Many Louisiana schools have already delayed in-person learning, either by pushing back the start of the school year or pivoting to online learning.

In the New Orleans area, St. Charles Parish Public Schools is the only district to have resumed in-person learning so far. They’ll be joined by St. Bernard Parish, when public school students return to the classroom Tuesday.

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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