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New Orleans Area Schools Halted Due To Ida Power Outages. How Will They Make Up For Lost Time?

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

Widespread power outages from Hurricane Ida in the metro New Orleans area have put public schools in a bind, forcing indefinite closures and with most students not being able to safely return to the classroom until after the Labor Day holiday.

While some parents are hoping that virtual learning could be a solution to the prolonged school closures, a lack of power in the region and district officials’ unwillingness to budge from previous promises of no virtual learning this school year make that solution unlikely.

New Orleans Public Schools, East Baton Rouge Parish School System and Ascension Public Schools all announced they will remain closed through at least Sept. 7.

NOLA Public Schools, the second-largest school system in Louisiana after Jefferson Parish Schools, is in the process of assessing the condition of school buildings and their ability to reopen once essential services are restored, according to a press release the school issued Tuesday. So far, the school district has assessed about a third of its buildings and has found only minimal damage.

“As we all assess the impacts of the storm, at home and across our city, our goal is to reopen our schools as soon as it is safe to do so,” Dr. Henderson Lewis, Jr. said. “The situation remains very fluid, and it will take time to develop a practical plan.”

Lewis also said he understands how challenging it is for families, teachers and school leaders to cope with the aftermath of the storm, but “we will come together, as we always do.”

“We are strong and resilient, and we will get through this together,” Lewis said.

Other parish school systems that were in Ida’s path of destruction have closed until further notice, with no immediate reopening time frame, including Jefferson, Lafourche, Plaquemines, St. Bernard, St. Charles, St. Tammany and Terrebonne parishes.

In addition to assessing the status of campuses and facilities, Jefferson Parish Schools leaders plan to survey the status and well-being of students, employees, and families. They are also requesting that students and their families who evacuated prior to Ida’s landfall not return until further notice due to power outages, debris and other hazards. For the latest updates, visit JeffParish.net/storm.

“We will continue to remain in constant communications with employees, families and our stakeholders,” Jefferson Parish Schools Superintendent Dr. James Gray said. “Along with assessing our buildings, we want to understand where our people are, what supports they need and what are the best steps forward as we rebuild, recover and reopen. We will do everything we can to reopen our schools as quickly as we can.”

Some parents, like Pierre LaFrance, who lives in New Orleans’ 7th Ward and takes his kids to school at Harriet Tubman Charter School in Algiers, hope that school officials will implement virtual learning during this uncertain time.

“... all the kids have these iPads, so when virtual learning kicks in, they can be anywhere and still resume their schooling,” LaFrance said. “But they don’t have any internet connection here to even utilize them, so we have to go somewhere else to do it.”

That prospect seems unlikely, however. Aside from the lack of power in the region, many schools are determined to not allow virtual learning this year to avoid a repeat of the 2020 school year — which saw lower attendance rates and worse performance on standardized testing scores due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In their release about indefinite school closures, Jefferson Schools made it clear their hiatus is a “full closure that will not include remote learning.” In New Orleans, Lewis has been pushing against virtual learning since the start of the fall semester, urging for schools to begin serving all students in-person immediately or risk losing “a generation of students.”

Ethan Ashley, NOLA Public Schools school board president, also expressed concerns about virtual learning in a prepared statement. He also, however, conceded that the district needs to move fast to come up with a solution.

“I am worried for our students, educators and families, because prior to the impacts of Hurricane Ida, we had already been rocked by the impacts of COVID-19,” Ashley said. “I know that without power, we will not be able to adequately educate students virtually or otherwise. I also know that our students don’t have weeks for us to figure this problem out.”

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