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NOLA-PS Superintendent Reflects On A Year Of Pandemic Learning And What Comes Next

Aubri Juhasz
Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. discusses Ruby Bridges' legacy with Akili Academy fourth-graders. Nov. 13, 2020.

One year ago this week, Gov. John Bel Edwards closed Louisiana’s public school buildings in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. In response, districts scrambled to move students online.

What no one knew then was that remote learning wouldn’t last weeks — it would last months.

New Orleans Public School immediately propped up a community feeding program to distribute school meals, while its board approved a spending measure to purchase laptops and hotspots.

“I want to say that we as a school system, we were prepared for that shutdown even before the governor announced it,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a recent interview.

Lately, there’s been a sense of optimism among educators that the worst is over. In New Orleans, all students have the option to learn in-person at least part-time.

Seventy percent of Louisiana’s public school students are currently learning in-person five days a week and another 10 percent are learning in-person part-time. The remaining 20 percent are learning entirely online.

School employees are getting vaccinated, giving them a greater sense of security and hope.

But there are still plenty of challenges ahead. In cities like New Orleans, a significant number of students were already behind academically before the pandemic began. Now leaders like Lewis are tasked with figuring out how to get those students back on track.

Education reporter Aubri Juhasz spoke with New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. about the district’s response to the pandemic so far and what needs to happen next.

Aubri Juhasz: Can you speak to your decision to open schools as early as you did?

Henderson Lewis Jr.: There are schools across this country where kids were able to go into a school building for the first time this school year, a few weeks ago. Our students were able to access their school buildings in September.

But why were they able to access those buildings in September? Over the summer, we brought a large group of stakeholders together from all over the education sector to make sure we were able to develop a roadmap to reopening that would guide us throughout the entire year and not have a decision-making process that was based on feelings. We laid out very clearly what those metrics were going to be and what would determine if we're able to open schools or close schools.

We all know as educators there is nothing that can replace in-person learning, for our students to be in the school and their classrooms with their teachers and their peers. Before COVID-19 happened, we've been working to close the achievement gap. We knew as we went into COVID-19 that we had to continue to do everything that we possibly could do as educators to make sure that our kids were not being left behind.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
A teacher connects with her students virtually at KIPP Central City Primary in New Orleans. Oct. 2, 2020.

School is very different than it was a year ago. Do we think some of these changes are going to stay? Are families going to continue to have the option to do virtual learning part-time, if not full-time?

In Louisiana, there’s a virtual school that's been around for several years. However, we are looking forward to the day — and I believe it's going to be next school year — where our students are able to go back to in-person learning, not like we did this year, but in-person learning every single day with their teachers.

Vaccinations are here. But I want to also be clear: Our schools were never a place where COVID-19 spread. If people were testing positive, those things were happening in the community and not in our schools.

Now, we do know that we may have some families — because of illnesses and various other reasons — that may have concern about in-person learning, and so as a school system we're going to determine how to respond to that because we are here for all of our students and all of our families.

So is it fair to say that the public school district here in New Orleans, the focus will continue to be on in-person?

Yes, that is correct.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
NOLA Public Schools nurse Venus Parker receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Children’s Hospital of New Orleans. Jan. 12, 2021.

There’s concern that we're only just now beginning to determine exactly what has happened during the pandemic in terms of student learning loss. Attendance rates have been lower than usual, there are concerns around student engagement and mental health.

Are there any targeted plans, any kind of big changes we can expect that say this is how we're going to tackle this moving forward? Is it a summer school program? Is it new technology? Is it changing the school calendar, as a handful of districts have already proposed doing?

We’ve actually been working with our school leaders on this over the last week. We know even outside of this particular year, our schools always held summer schools. So now schools are working to determine how the summer program is going to be to help our students to become complete.

The [state] assessment is coming up and we're going to go through that really, really soon, which will be another opportunity to be able to receive information on where our students are and how to build programming for them over the summer and for next school year so that our teachers can be well-prepared to support our young people.

I've had the opportunity through various national organizations to network with urban superintendents across this country and look at and understand how we all have been looking at our attendance and health.

Attendance is down. But even though our rate is not where it has been in years past, it’s nowhere near what some of the other districts are struggling with.

As Mayor Cantrell has said on numerous occasions, having our students in school is the number one priority.

The community has heard that loud and clear. We as a school system want to just make sure that as we end this school year and go into the summer and then also into the fall semester, that education continues to be the priority. 

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
Students follow Ruby Bridges' footsteps at Akili Academy, formerly William Frantz Elementary, in the Upper 9th Ward. Nov. 13, 2020.

On the topic of testing, there have been some concerns in terms of how that information will be used. What you said about getting a sense of where students are, that's really important, but there are concerns about whether results will be used to determine teacher accountability and school accountability.

The assessment at this point is for schools to receive information for each and every student and make sure that we understand that that's a baseline. It gives us information of where the gaps are, so that we can put a plan in place for individual kids, maybe groups of students that may have those same deficiencies, and then overall, how to plan for a whole class instruction.

This is an opportunity not to look at accountability of educators. We cannot look at this year as a normal year, right? We have to thank our educators who remained on the frontline the entire time. That's what accountability is, right?

I will say many kids know they will not progress as they have done in previous years, but to make it through this year, to actually still be alive and be able to think about how we prepare kids for even next year, those are the real priorities.  

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
On the first day of in-person classes at McDonogh 42, in the 7th Ward, a parent drops their child at the front entrance. Sept. 18, 2020.

Are there any concerns about teacher retention this year, knowing how hard it was? There are so many people saying, ‘This year was a struggle, I'm exhausted.’

Yes. So that has always been top of mind for me. We just have to continue to thank our educators for everything that they have done and recognize that this was not normal.

You'll have some educators, just honestly speaking, that may have the years to retire and realize that this year, because of the toll it may have taken on them, that they may go ahead and retire. You may have some individuals who are not at the retirement age and may decide this was too much. But what I would encourage anyone who is feeling that way [to remember is] that we've been here before.

Those of us who were educators in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit, I'll tell you, that's how I felt going through the first year, trying to rebuild my home, trying to rebuild life, and trying to figure things out. It was a year that I didn't want to repeat, but I will say the following year, even though things were not exactly where I wanted them to be, the next year after Katrina was better.

What I will say to our educators is that next year is definitely going to be better than the year that we are making it through. I believe the next phase of COVID-19 is definitely going to be a little easier than what we had to go through over the last 12 months.

Credit Aubri Juhasz / WWNO
PreK students at KIPP Central City Primary. Oct. 2, 2020.

I wanted to ask you about another anniversary that's coming up and it's marking that you've been superintendent for six years now. That makes you one of the district's longest-serving superintendents.

During that time a lot has happened. Schools that were overseen by the state, they returned to local control. The district established a unified enrollment system.

Moving forward, as maybe less attention has to be paid to pandemic response and things become a little bit more stable, what are the priorities? What are your focuses and what do you want to do in the next year or two years, however long you stay in this position for?

Yes, this is my six-year anniversary and this has been an ever-changing school district over the last six years, but I'm so proud that we actually have a unified system where there is one voice and all schools are able to get together and it's a singular direction, like how we responded to COVID-19.

The priority right now is to make sure that we understand what those learning gaps are for our students and, as we prepare for the incoming school year, to be able to have solid plans in place to address those gaps.

We have to use more technology in educating our students than we probably have done in previous years. We're in the 21st Century and so how do we continue to make our schools more of a 21st Century learning center for our young people?

Homework can now be completed on computers because all students will have them in the future, just like they have them today. [We need] to really maximize our laptops as an instructional tool and not just a tool that we used to get through COVID-19. I believe with the innovation and the work of our school leaders … will continue to happen and we'll see that there will be a lot of lessons that have been learned over the last 12 months that will actually help us to take education to the next level over the next year and thereafter.

Thank you, Superintendent.

Thank you.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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

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