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Education

New Orleans Parents Demand Virtual Learning Option: ‘Stop Playing With Our Children’s Lives’

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Aubri Juhasz
/
WWNO
Parents and advocates attend a meeting of the Orleans Parish School Board to demand that the district's previous distance learning policy be reinstated. Aug. 19, 2021.

New Orleans parents are calling on the city’s public school system to provide a virtual learning option as the delta variant continues to spread, infecting children and overwhelming the region’s hospital system.

In the last week alone, parents have signed petitions, staged press conferences and packed a school board meeting to make their demands known.

“Virtual school is what we want. Virtual school is what we need,” Shera Phillips told members of the Orleans Parish School Board at their monthly meeting held late last week. “It is in the best interest of our children, our families and our workers.”

But so far New Orleans Public Schools has disagreed.

Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the city stands to lose a “generation of students” if a full return to in-person learning is further delayed.

Experts argue achievement gaps have worsened as a result of the pandemic and older students have become more likely to drop out of the system before obtaining a high school diploma.

Research also suggests low-income students of color, which comprise the majority of the district’s students, are more likely to struggle with online learning due to poor internet access, language barriers or lack of adult supervision.

As a result, many education and public health officials, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control, have decided that the known risks of keeping schools closed outweigh the potential benefits, as long as the proper coronavirus protocols are in place.
New Orleans schools appear to be doing everything they can to keep students and teachers safe.

The district always planned on requiring masks this school year for the unvaccinated and extended the requirement to everyone ahead of the city and state’s reinstated mask mandates. Last week, the district mandated that its 250 central office employees be fully vaccinated by the beginning of October.

Whether the city’s roughly 8,000 charter school employees get vaccinated is up to the individual operators that employ them. More than half have already mandated the vaccine.

School-based testing is widely available, and the district is preparing to launch a comprehensive program with the Louisiana Department of Health, which will pay students and teachers to get tested.

District officials argue this level of precaution makes in-person instruction not just safe, but sustainable, even if unvaccinated children are required to quarantine periodically due to possible COVID exposure in the classroom.

But many parents remain unconvinced. Some don’t trust that the policies in place are actually being enforced, while others argue there is no level of precaution schools can take to ensure all students — especially those who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated — remain safe.

Parents 'Surprised’ District Hasn’t Changed Course 

When the school year started on Aug. 2, Louisiana was leading the country in new coronavirus cases per capita, a title it held onto for weeks until Mississippi surged ahead last week.

The state’s fourth wave of cases has undoubtedly been its strongest, fueled in part by a growing number of pediatric cases. Children made up 29 percent of all new COVID-19 cases reported in Louisiana on Monday, though hospitalizations for the age group are still rare.

“We were honestly surprised when the school district stuck to the plan [for in-person learning]. I think delta should have been an indicator that they needed to change course,” Matthew Turland told New Orleans Public Radio. His four children, between the ages of 9 and 17, used to attend the city’s public schools but are now homeschooled due to coronavirus concerns.

Nearly 2,100 students and 350 employees from more than 520 schools tested positive for the coronavirus the week of Aug. 9, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. Of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, 43 parishes received reports of at least one school with a confirmed COVID-19 case.

That same week, nearly 300 New Orleans public school students and teachers tested positive for the virus and 3,000 people were instructed to quarantine, leading to widespread disruptions. One school was forced to delay the start of in-person classes due to staffing shortages and another pivoted to virtual learning soon after reopening.

COVID-19 cases and quarantines reported by schools have steadily increased since then. More than 360 new cases were reported last week. As a result, more than 4,657 students and teachers are in quarantine.

While many parents have pointed to the district’s data as evidence protocols aren’t working, Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, has argued the opposite. She has stressed the fact that quarantines are an important preventative measure to ensure COVID doesn’t spread.

With charter operators no longer required to offer virtual learning, it’s unclear how schools will serve students with distance learning accommodations as well as those in quarantine.

In addition to teaching quarantined students, New Orleans charters are also supposed to provide accommodations for students with relevant medical concerns. The district has left the specifics up to individual schools. Some are offering real-time virtual instruction, others, printed packets.

What’s even less clear is whether schools will choose to honor accommodation requests for students who are not medically vulnerable themselves, but live with family members who are. Nearly a dozen families told New Orleans Public Radio they’ve submitted requests but have yet to hear back from their schools.

Turland said his family requested virtual learning accommodations because his wife, Bee Turland, is immunocompromised and therefore more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.

One school told them their family didn’t qualify for virtual learning, but later agreed to provide pre-recorded lessons and access to a teacher once a week. The Turlands said they’ve yet to hear back from their older children's school.

“Our kids can't wait indefinitely for them to make a decision or to give us an option that is frankly subpar,” Turland said. “We had to get them started on some kind of an educational arrangement.”

After encountering long waitlists for several online academies, the Turlands filed homeschool applications instead.

Homeschool applications are up statewide and had already surpassed 15,500 by the end of July, up nearly 2,000 applications in a year, according to the Louisiana Department of Education.

The state’s public virtual charter academy, which caps out at 1,900 students, is full, though families can still complete an application.

Debate Over In-Person Learning Gets Heated

Tension between distrusting parents and the school board mounted during last Thursday’s meeting, when more than two dozen parents and advocates took shots at the district’s coronavirus safety measures and accountability.

“Stop playing with our children's lives,” Philips said. “When you were campaigning, I'm sure that you stood on a platform and said that you would put children first ... but what you're doing right now is actually harming our children.”

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Aubri Juhasz
Parents and advocates wait to speak in support of virtual learning during an Orleans Parish School Board meeting. Aug. 19, 2021.

Ashana Bigard, a public school parent and member of Erase The Board, told school board members she’s been fielding calls from outraged parents who fear they’ll face financial repercussions if they have to miss work due to widespread quarantines.

“Parents in this city cannot afford to miss work because of poverty,” Bigard said. “It's the difference between feeding their children and having a roof over their head.”
Kevin Griffin-Clark, who is currently running for city council, took aim at the board members individually, asking District 4 Representative J.C. Wagner Romero, “Do you give a damn about these children?”

Unlike other board members, Romero broke the third wall when he responded to Griffin-Clark directly. “Yes,” he said. “I have … been the only board member to come out in support of a virtual option in the city.”
Romero went on to say that he’s been “working very hard behind the scenes” to try and bring legislators and the state board of education together to discuss the need for distance learning. He declined to speak with New Orleans Public Radio following Thursday’s school board meeting and has not responded to a follow-up request for an interview.

After the final parent spoke, the 30-person audience chanted “Shut it down,” drowning out board members as they attempted to proceed with the remaining agenda items.

In response, the board voted to pause the public meeting and enter an executive session.

When the meeting resumed, the board approved two COVID-related items, the vaccine mandate for its central office staff and a resolution recommending additional mitigation strategies to charter operators. The resolution also asks the Louisiana Department of Health to require all students entering schools to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 once the vaccine has full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Pfizer vaccine was granted full FDA approval Monday, but only for individuals 16 years and older.

Despite quarrels from parents who claim the district isn’t doing enough, NOLA-PS has instituted the strictest precautions in a state where many schools are still dealing with pushback — and even protests — from parents over the mask mandate.

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