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New Orleans Public Schools Will Reopen Once Power Is Restored, But COVID-19 Could Keep Some Students And Teachers At Home

Akili Academy fourth-graders sit in the school's courtyard. Nov. 13, 2020.
Aubri Juhasz
Akili Academy fourth-graders sit in the school's courtyard on Nov. 13, 2020.

Public school buildings in New Orleans suffered little to no damage from Hurricane Ida and should be able to reopen as soon as power is restored, according to officials.

But a surge in post-storm COVID cases is still a major concern and could prevent a large number of teachers and students from immediately returning to the classroom, New Orleans Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in an interview Thursday.

“We have to be honest in this moment,” Lewis said. “We had a very high peak [in cases before the storm] and we're not sure what will happen when we come back.”

Other school leaders across the state have raised similar concerns. Less than a month into the 2021-22 school year, which for most parishes started in early August, more than 6,100 students and 830 employees had tested positive for COVID-19.

That same week, NOLA-PS reported 453 active COVID cases among 399 students and 54 staff members. Another 4,657 people were in quarantine due to possible exposure to the virus.

Public health officials have cautioned that the mass movement of people before and after a hurricane can help COVID spread. Many Louisianans evacuated from their homes before the storm hit and others have been forced to move since. Some are coming back after staying in crowded hotels. Others have spent hours with extended family and friends in cars and other confined spaces.

“Even though we may be scattered right now, we all want to come back and we are a very resilient community,” Lewis said. He spoke to New Orleans Public Radio in between serving free meals at a district sponsored food distribution event at McDonogh 35 Senior High School. Meals will be available every evening at the school through at least next Friday.

“We're going to come back even as we continue to fight COVID-19,” he said. “We’re gonna continue to mask-up. We're gonna continue to encourage testing. We're gonna continue to say if you're eligible for a vaccine to get the shot.”

The Louisiana Department of Health reported 2,625 new COVID cases Friday. Louisianans between the ages of 5 and 17 represent the largest percentage of new cases. Nearly 150 people were admitted to the region's hospitals with COVID that same day, bringing its active hospitalization total to 2,254 people.

On Wednesday, state health officials reported that two more children had died of COVID-19, bringing the number of pediatric deaths in the fourth surge to five. A total of 13 children aged 0 to 17 have died of COVID-19 in Louisiana, with nearly 40 percent of those deaths reported over a single month.

Schools Rebuilt After Hurricane Katrina Suffer Little Damage From Ida

Public schools in New Orleans sustained “minimal or no damage” during Hurricane Ida, the district said late Thursday after completing facility assessments. Many buildings were rebuilt or reinforced using $2 billion in federal funding following Hurricane Katrina.

In neighborhoods like New Orleans East, where residential damage appears to have been more widespread, the public schools especially stand out as a safe place among homes with tarped roofs and some completely collapsed structures.

“If you ride around the city of New Orleans, you can see that our buildings fared really, really well,” Lewis said. “It was a great investment for our community and for our young people. And it’s also something that we know in my mind will stand the test of time because we just saw it happen most recently with this hurricane.”

Tiffany Delcour, the district’s chief operations officer, said that of the district’s 88 buildings, 20 sustained some level of damage.

“[It’s] mostly minor,” Delcour said. “A lot of broken windows, some minor roof damage, major mechanical equipment that maybe let water in the building.”

She said the district is already working with its disaster contractor vendor to make repairs and prevent additional damage from occurring in hot, wet buildings.

“We're really focused on making sure that as soon as power is back, we are back and that we don't have anything holding us back,” Delcour said, adding that three school buildings already had power as of Thursday.

Based on conversations with Entergy, the city’s main utility provider, Delcour said she expects the list to swiftly grow in the coming days. City-wide power restoration is expected to be completed by Sept. 8. Delcour said Entergy told NOLA-PS that it is prioritizing restoring power to schools whenever possible.

“Families can't work on their own needs at their own homes without having a place for children to go,” Delcour said. “We know that child care and schooling is so important to the resumption of city services.”

The district does not yet have a reopening date, but is expected to provide families with an updated timeline by Sept. 7. Delcour said the district will allow in-person instruction to resume once a “critical mass of schools” have power.

When asked whether some schools could open their doors to students from powerless buildings should outages last longer than expected Delcour said they had yet to rule out any solutions.

“Our number one goal is to make sure that we're providing what our families and students need and I really don't think anything's off the table,” she said.

Hurricane Ida closed schools for more than 250,000 students across Louisiana, according to a tally by National Public Radio. Parishes have said they plan to reopen schools as soon as power is restored, but are operating on different restoration timelines.

Louisiana’s hardest hit parishes could be without power through almost the end of the month, including the lower Jefferson Parish, Lafourche Parish, parts of Plaquemines Parish, St. Charles Parish and Terrebonne Parish. At a minimum, 45,000 students will be unable to return to school in-person until early October.

Even in districts where power is already or will soon be restored, resuming instruction swiftly — either in-person or online — is still difficult. Some families may still be out of town and those who stuck around could still be without cell service or internet. The same issues are true for teachers and make a pivot to virtual learning even more difficult. Students had been learning in-person prior to the storm and in most cases didn’t take laptops or hotspots home with them.

“Right now, it's really about caring for all the individuals because it's very, very complicated,” Lewis said. “We cannot just say, ‘Oh, we had a hurricane. So now everyone, just flip the switch and let's do virtual learning.’ You have to have power and we have to talk about equity because some people are here and some people are not.”

Douglas Harris, an education researcher at Tulane University, said that given these challenges, plus the potential for a high number of COVID quarantines, students could spend more time out of the classroom than they did following Hurricane Katrina.

"Possibly we have five or six weeks of essentially no learning happening, which is worse than Katrina," Harris said, adding that many students re-enrolled elsewhere a few weeks after evacuating from the 2005 storm.

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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