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NOLA Public Schools Will Be In-Person This Fall, Remote Option No Longer Required

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

On Thursday night New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. made an announcement he’s been hinting at for months.

District schools will not be required to offer families a virtual learning option for the coming school year, Lewis said at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board.

“I want to be very, very clear as we come out of this pandemic, that distance learning can no longer be the norm,” Lewis said. “Students are safe physically and emotionally when they receive their education face-to-face with their teachers and shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers.”

While classrooms in other parts of the country are still closed due to COVID-19, New Orleans’ schools have been open for months. Under state guidance, as well as the district’s Roadmap to Reopening, schools were required to offer families a remote learning option.

Families were given the option to resume in-person instruction or continue learning online each academic quarter. Roughly 40 percent of elementary and middle school students and 50 percent of high school students never returned to the classroom.

Students learning remotely this year were more likely to attend school sporadically, bringing the district’s attendance rate down overall. The average daily attendance rate in March was roughly 6 percentage points lower than it would be in a typical school year. More than 16,000 students missed at least two weeks of classes.

Lewis said Thursday night that he’s spent the spring semester talking to families, community members and educators about the need to return all students to the classroom.

“We all agree that in-person learning is a priority and we know this is the strongest, most effective way to serve the whole child, to help our young people stay focused and give them the love and support that they need, Lewis said.

“We will be pushing hard this summer to re-engage our students who may have lost their way in this chaotic time. It takes a village, and we will need all of your support to bring our students back in the classroom full time and fully engage.”

Lewis said he expects all parents to send their children back to school in August, though exemptions will be made for families with health issues. Schools are also expected to offer remote instruction when a student or staff member is required to quarantine.

As of last week more than 500 students, faculty and staff were ordered to stay home due to possible exposure to the coronavirus.

The district plans to keep COVID-19 safety measures in place, including masks, social distancing and hand sanitizer stations, and will partner with the Louisiana Department of Health and local health providers to offer rapid tests and vaccines to students and staff.

Lewis also discussed the district’s summer learning plans at Thursday’s board meeting. The district estimates that more than 13,000 students will participate in summer learning this year, up from 4,000 in a typical year.

Board Members Hear Update On District’s Racial Equity Audit

In addition to the superintendent’s remarks, board members were updated on the district’s racial equity audit, which is being conducted by an outside consultant, Beloved Community. The audit is based on a resolution passed by the school board last June.

Beloved Community’s founder and CEO, Rhonda Broussard, said her team is drafting a racial equity work plan that will include a toolkit for schools and next steps for the district. She expects the plan to be completed by the end of July, at which point it will be folded into the district’s larger strategic plan.

Broussard’s team completed a full assessment of district-level operations and asked individual school sites to undergo the audit process as well, though participation was voluntary.

She said her team spoke with students, parents and guardians, community members, retired educators, current teachers, school site leaders, charter management leaders, school board members and district leadership as part of the audit process. In these conversations, she said, several common themes emerged.

The first had to do with communication between the district and its charter schools. Broussard said site leaders reported varying levels of district support based on their personal relationships with central office employees.

Broussard said this lack of coordination was also identified as a reason students may receive varying degrees of support.

“If we’re trying to advance more equitable inputs and outcomes for our schools, then we need some stronger coordination so that school leaders are actually getting the best of what NOLA-PS has to offer regardless of individual relationships,” Broussard said.

Through conversations with the community, Broussard’s team identified additional priorities including improving communications between family resource centers and schools, ensuring central office staff receive professional development on bias, relationship and inclusion practices, and establishing accountability for district hiring managers.

Broussard also highlighted community members' desire to discuss the loss of neighborhood schools under the charter system. She said this fundamental shift in the public school system continues to be a “pain point” and that the district must “identify ways to stay in this conversation.”

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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