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Faced With Severe Hurricane Damage, Calcasieu And Cameron Parish Schools Go All Online

Bill Feig
South Cameron High School in Grand Chenier, Louisiana on Thursday August 27, 2020.

Like many districts across the country, Calcasieu Parish and Cameron Parish will start the school year entirely online. Unlike other districts, their decision has nothing to do with COVID-19.

In the days after Hurricane Laura’s landfall, School Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus announced that the district’s buildings hadn’t fared any better than most Calcasieu resident’s homes and businesses.

Of the district’s 70 buildings, 97 percent were significantly damaged. Hurricane Laura pried off gymnasium roofs and toppled auditorium walls. The storm’s later rainbands drenched the exposed buildings, in some cases causing significant water damage.

“As many of you know firsthand, a damaged roof quickly creates other issues,” the district wrote in a statement. “That’s what we’re facing across the parish, and we know that many of you are experiencing the same.”

While officials in Cameron Parish haven’t disclosed the exact conditions of the district’s four schools, the damage is likely just as bad. The coastal town was nearly obliterated by Laura’s winds and saw significant flooding.

Normally, when school buildings are damaged to this extent, students experience a gap in education while they wait for their school to be repaired or for their classes to be relocated. Some students choose to enroll in different districts either temporarily or permanently. Now, thanks to COVID-19, there’s another option: pivot to online learning.

The state department of education required all Louisiana public schools to provide virtual learning options for the 2020-21 school year as part of its reopening plan. Hurricane Laura is providing an example of how schools can turn to these resources for reasons other than the pandemic.

Calcasieu, which typically enrolls more than 31,000 students, plans to start classes virtually on Sept. 28. Cameron’s 1,300 students will start virtual classes sometime between Sept. 28 and Oct. 5, “depending on training of staff and the securing of necessary devices for internet use.”

But even though both schools already had online learning systems in place, there are a few outstanding problems.

First, most of Calcasieu Parish is still without electricity. As of Wednesday, 90 percent of the parish was without power, according to Gov. John Bel Edwards. The situation in Cameron is even worse, where residents may not have power for another six to eight weeks.

Second, because both districts were planning on starting the school with some students in-person, they don’t have enough devices for 100 percent online learning. Calcasieu Parish has made a request for more laptops through FEMA, according to Bruchhaus.

The other question is whether families and teachers will go along with the plan. Right now both districts are surveying families to find out whether they plan to keep their children enrolled or transfer them elsewhere.

“While we are not aware of any penalty associated with CPSB students enrolling elsewhere, we look forward to all of our students coming home as soon as possible,” Calcasieu Parish schools wrote in a statement.

Lemons informed Cameron families: “There is no need to enroll your students in other schools/districts at this time.”

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act, children displaced by natural disasters have the right to enroll in a new district or remain at their original school even if they are no longer living within the district’s boundaries. Under virtual learning, it appears that children could remain enrolled in their home district and learn from anywhere.

While this may help provide educational stability for students, the district has its own incentive to make sure students stay put. Enrollment and attendance counts directly influence district finances. State per-pupil funding is based in part on student counts conducted in October and February. Recently, the state confirmed that students who are enrolled virtually will still be counted.

Lemons wrote in an update Thursday morning that Cameron Parish students will learn virtually for the remainder of the fall semester. Bruchhaus said there’s less of a concrete timeline for Calcasieu students, since some schools sustained more damage than others.

“As individual schools are repaired and ready for students, they will be reopened,” the district wrote. “This may lead to some schools in a community being open before others, but it’s important for us to open our physical classrooms as soon as possible.”

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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