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NOLA Public Schools Will Resume In-Person Learning For Younger Students Starting Next Week

Aubri Juhasz
At Foundation Preparatory Charter School in Gentilly student and teacher start the day with an elbow bump. Oct. 12, 2020.

Citing the city’s improving health trends, New Orleans public school officials announced Wednesday that many students will be allowed to resume in-person instruction as early as next week.

The news came an hour after city officials announced restriction rollbacks, allowing many businesses to increase indoor capacity.

Under the district’s guidelines, public schools can resume in-person instruction for PreK through eighth-grade students as early as Monday. High schools are instructed to remain largely online through Mardi Gras, but are encouraged to begin serving high-risk students in-person as early as next week.

“We know that in-person learning is the best educational experience for students because it develops the whole child academically, socially and emotionally,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Wednesday. “While I know this decision ... presents operational and staffing challenges for some schools, I strongly encourage each of our schools to prioritize in-person learning for students.”

In recent weeks, the district has taken new steps to prioritize in-person learning for high-risk students by allowing some classrooms to remain open.

For the last three weeks, schools have been allowed to serve PreK through fifth-grade students face-to-face, as well as students with special needs and other learning accommodations including English language learners.

School leaders who chose to keep classrooms open had to adhere to Phase 1 guidelines, including no more than 15 students per a class and 25 percent school bus capacity.

At a press conference last week, Lewis told reporters that “a few schools” had opted to keep teaching eligible students in-person. The district later identified Crescent City Schools and Edward Hynes Charter School as serving students in-person.

After surveying parents, Kate Mehok, chief executive officer at Crescent City Schools, said her team decided to keep their schools open.

“We really feel like our families know what is best for them and their children and we believe very much in in-person school,” Mehok said during a phone interview Tuesday. “We think our buildings are relatively safe places for children.”

Earlier this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report analyzing data collected from reopened classrooms and found "the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools."

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said the CDC guidance further substantiated local findings.

“Our own medical experts that we work with here in Louisiana had said our schools are some of the absolute safest places that kids can be,” Brumley said during a call with reporters Wednesday morning. “I think one of the keys is, as we can, moving our kids back to face-to-face instruction.”

Brumley said right now about 60 percent of Louisiana’s K-12 students are attending school in-person five days a week.

Over the last three weeks, Mehok said the number of eligible families who wanted to send their children in-person ultimately exceeded available spots.

“We have given every student a laptop and a hot spot … but [sometimes] that's not enough,” Mehok said. “If you're 6 years old, it's not enough to hand over a computer and say, ‘I hope it goes well for you.’”

Under the district’s reopening plan, elementary and middle schools, like Mehok’s, will be allowed to serve twice as many students starting next week.

But immediately returning students to the classroom is not a requirement and some schools have opted for a more gradual approach.

“There are K-8 schools across the city that will be returning for on-site instruction next week, however ENCORE Academy Leadership Team has decided it is in the best interest of our students, their families, and staff members to delay our return until sometime after Mardi Gras Break,” Encore Academy CEO Terri Smith said in a letter to parents.

Rather than “flip back” to on-site instruction for two weeks before the school break, Smith said continuing with virtual learning through Feb. 12 would provide families with greater stability and give school leaders more time to plan. She said the two weeks will also be used to conduct mandatory on-site testing.

“We want our families who have chosen to have their students learn virtually and are required to test at this time to feel as secure about the on-site testing as possible,” Smith said.

When asked whether charter management organizations are required to follow district directives when it comes to reopening classrooms, Director of Media Relations Taslin Alfonzo said it's up to individual schools to set their own timelines as long as they’re following district guidelines.

“We encourage all our schools to work toward returning as many students to in-person learning as it is safe to do so within their facilities,” Alfonzo said in an email. “We applaud our school leadership in quickly pivoting to meet the needs of our students and families, as well as continuing their commitment of providing a high-quality education for our students.”

Rapid transitions are fraught with logistical challenges and have been hard on school leaders, teachers and families.

Public school parent Leonis Rousseve said she’s grown tired of the uncertainty associated with school closures and reopenings.

Her 13-year-old son has autism and was attending class in-person a few days a week before his school went all-virtual.

“I'm glad they're making the health and safety of the kids a priority when they're making the decision, but I don't like the inconsistency of the back and forth,” Rousseve said during a phone interview last week. “I feel like it's creating even more havoc than the virtual learning itself.”

Rousseve said her son benefits from in-person instruction, but needs to maintain a consistent schedule.

The pandemic has already forced him out of his comfort zone and she doesn’t want to push him too hard. For the sake of stability, she’s on the fence about whether to send him back.

“He’s done pretty well,” she said. “God willing, I just hope it stays that way and I worry if we keep going back and forth every couple of weeks, I worry that's not going to be the case.”

Teacher’s Union Pushes Back

Many educators are still fearful of in-person instruction and some praised Encore’s decision to keep students at home and away from their teachers for at least a while longer.

The local teacher’s union, United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) is also opposed to in-person instruction at this time. In a statement released Wednesday, UTNO described the district’s plan to resume in-person instruction as “rushed and ill-advised.”

“While we cannot expect to completely eliminate all risk, we must make health and safety a priority,” UTNO said. “New COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations are on the rise in Orleans Parish.”

While the city’s positivity rate has dropped substantially, the number of new infections continues to be high. As of Wednesday, the seven-day average for new cases was 139.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said that while she’d like to see the number of new cases drop further, other health data suggests the city has come to the end of its most recent surge.

“These improvements are really promising, but I need to stress we are nowhere near out of the woods,” Avegno said.

While the city set 50 new cases a day as a health standard over the summer, Avegno said she now considers that number to be outdated. Due to an explosion in testing, asymptomatic individuals are far more likely to be identified, driving the number up.

“I know everybody kind of wants a cutoff … but what we’ve learned is being flexible and looking at those numbers in the context of testing, percent positivity, hospitalizations, the rate of transmission and not just sort of fixating on one number seems to be the reasonable approach,” Avegno said.

In their statement, UTNO also questioned the district’s mitigation measures, specifically access to testing. Due to concerns in test kit accuracy, the district recently suspended the rollout of mobile testing.

“The levels of [COVID-19] in our community will create disruption to education as schools quarantine groups after exposure in schools,” UTNO wrote. “We must ensure that students and educators have some consistency in order to optimize their learning opportunities.

This story has been updated. 

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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