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NOLA Public Schools Doubles Down On Decision Not To Offer Virtual Learning: 'We Are Ready For This'

Edna Karr High School students arrive at school and mask-up before entering the building on the first day of the 2021-22 school year. Aug. 2, 2021.
Chris Taylor
Edna Karr High School students arrive at school and mask-up before entering the building on the first day of the 2021-22 school year. Aug. 2, 2021.

New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. doubled down on his decision not to offer virtual learning for the coming school year at a press conference Thursday. Meanwhile, parents are starting to push back.

“I do realize that the delta variant has all of us very, very concerned. But we cannot compromise our students’ education,” Lewis said.

Louisiana continues to lead the country in new COVID-19 cases per capita and New Orleans is also dealing with its own surge locally. The city’s 7-day average for new cases is 319 and its positive test rate is 12.2 percent.

Lewis once again argued that in-person instruction is the best option for students and cited guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionmaking the same case.

He also referred to recently released state data that shows students who spent last school year learning in-person outperformed remote students on end of the year exams. Overall, the percentage of students scoring mastery or above on last year’s exams dropped by 5 percentage points.

According to the Louisiana Department of Education, the number of elementary and middle school students that fell into the state’s lowest grading category increased by 5 percentage points and disproportionately impacted economically disadvantaged students and students in younger grades.

“The test scores have made very clear that the best place for students is in school with their teachers and their peers with in-person learning,” Lewis said.

Both the AAP and the CDC support a full return to in-person learning as long as the proper safety measures, like masking and social distancing, are in place.

Masks were mandatory inside Louisiana K-12 schools last year and NOLA-PS always planned on requiring some level of masking for the 2021-22 school year. The district was the first in the state to require universal masking due to the rise of the delta variant, a position later adopted by the city and the state.

“We are ready for this,” Lewis said Thursday. “After a full school year in this, we know how to do it right.”

But some parents have questioned whether schools are equipped to prevent the spread of a variant that appears to be twice as transmissible, especially when the vast majority of students are not yet vaccinated.

Children under the age of 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated and just 12 percent of children between 12 and 17 years old were vaccinated as of last week.

At a school supply distribution event at Rosenwald Recreation Center in Central City this past weekend, several parents told New Orleans Public Radio if given the option they’d choose to have their children start the coming school year remotely.

“She said that she understands that we no longer have a choice, but she wishes that we did because this time the pandemic is getting worse and it is also affecting kids,” Josselin Sanchez said, translating from Spanish for her mom Norma.

More than a quarter of NOLA-PS students finished last school year online, including Sanchez and her younger brother Johnny Rojas. Sanchez attends Eleanor McMain Secondary School and her brother is a student at Esperanza Charter Academy. Both students spent the entire 2020-21 school year learning remotely.

Sanchez said the family’s experience with virtual learning was far from perfect, but her mom decided it was a necessary trade off to ensure their safety.

“She would rather us be learning at home and kind of getting some work done than be at school and get sick and have a chance of death and stuff like that,” Sanchez said.

While schools are no longer required to offer all families a virtual learning option, they must accommodate students with relevant medical concerns. Lewis encouraged parents and guardians to fill out an accommodation request for their child if necessary.

Data indicates pediatric COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Louisianaand across the country — though severe cases are still extremely rare.

Lewis said the district continues to rely on a team of medical advisors, from the city as well as from local health providers, when making decisions.

“Their presence really, really allows us to be very very intentional to protect the health and safety of all those individuals in our schools,” Lewis said. “That gives us confidence that we are making the right decision when it comes down to in-person learning.”

Their confidence has also been strengthened by widespread availability of vaccines and testing, said Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operating officer.

“We are in a very different position than we were at the start of the last school year,” Delcour said at Thursday’s press conference. “We know we can protect our students, our staff and our educators in ways that were not available to us last August.”

But there are limits to the actions the district can take. Because NOLA-PS operates a decentralized network of charter schools, it cannot mandate vaccines for students or teachers. The power to do so lies with the states or individual charter operators, some of which have begun requiring vaccines for students participating in after-school activities.

Leaders of 15 charter groups, representing 23 high schools, sent a letter to the district Wednesday stating they would require vaccinations for students participating in extracurricular “except in exceptional circumstances where regular COVID-19 testing will be allowed.”

“We know that extracurricular activities such as sports and band can be high risk activities, especially with the contagious delta variant, and we commend our school leaders for taking amazing action and taking it at the start of the school year,” Delcour said.

New Orleans public school students began returning to the classroom earlier this week and all students are expected to be back in school by Aug. 18. The district plans to resume posting its regular COVID-19 data updates to its tracker starting next week.

When asked whether he had considered delaying the start of the school year like he did last year, Lewis once again cited the current medical guidance and said when it comes to returning students to the classroom there is no time to waste.

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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