When Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools last March, educators were wholly unprepared to transition to online learning. Many students lacked computer and internet access, forcing schools to rely on printed packets focused on core subjects such as math and reading.
New Orleans Public Schools were in “emergency mode,” and instructional quality suffered, said Joey LaRoche, chief strategy officer for KIPP New Orleans. But he said that isn’t the case anymore.
After months of preparation, KIPP is prepared to offer remote learning that is on par with in-person education, LaRoche said at Wednesday’s district press conference.
Leaders from Audubon Charter School and FirstLine Schools echoed LaRoche’s comments and said that charters across the district are prepared to teach virtually for however long is necessary.
“We want to make sure that everyone knows that school is starting,” Chief Executive Officer of FirstLine Schools Sabrina Pence said. “It’s not like the spring. It’s not an emergency scenario. This is a virtual learning scenario and we need everybody to be at school.”
The first step to quality online education is making sure that everyone can participate. Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said that the district is rapidly closing its connectivity gap and expects all students to have their own internet-enabled device and a stable wifi connection for the coming school year.
He announced that in addition to the 8,000 hotspots the district purchased last spring, more than 6,000 additional units have been purchased in the last month.
Lewis clarified that while all students may not yet have their device or hotspot in hand, all of the purchases have been made and that schools are working to distribute items as quickly as possible.
LaRoche said that when KIPP surveyed their families, they found that 40 percent needed help accessing the internet. Since then they’ve acquired more than 3,000 hotspots and expect to have a surplus since children in the same household can share one unit.
Both Lewis and charter leaders stressed that providing hotspots to families is a temporary solution since contracts with internet providers are often for one year. They hope the city will work to establish a public wifi network so that children can always have access to the internet at home.
With the connectivity barrier hopefully resolved, schools are focused on ensuring that their expectations for an in-person year translate to online learning.
“We are very much still in line with our core purpose,” LaRoche said. “Our core purpose is academically excellent outcomes for students.”
Right now, KIPP’s 800 employees are in professional development and are preparing lessons for virtual learning. Next week, students will participate in online orientations. They’ll pick up technology and other materials from their schools and learn how to use online lesson platforms.
Audubon Charter Schools Chief Executive Officer Latoye Brown said her schools are also focused on quality and making sure that they are able to deliver their Montessori and dual-language curriculums remotely.
“It’s critically important that we don’t lose those pieces of the curriculum that are most impressive and also most engaging for our students,” Brown said.
Montessori teachers are preparing specialized supply kits so students can perform activities at home and dual-language teachers are preparing videos that allow students to practice their conversation skills.
Pence said FirstLine Schools is focused on ensuring that students receive regular feedback on their work and has deployed new software to make that possible.
“That’s the beauty of a digital platform that we can capitalize on,” Pence said. “We want to make sure that children have access to the same high-quality curriculum that they would always have.”
And in some instances, online learning may be more accessible than in-person instruction, given current health and safety standards. While band and chorus aren’t allowed in-person until the city enters Phase 3, schools can teach them remotely in any phase. Some schools are currently in the process of distributing instruments.
School leaders acknowledged that the most important — and potentially the most challenging — part of a virtual start to the school year will be building interpersonal relationships.
“We all know that a kid isn’t going to learn anything from a teacher that they don’t believe cares about them and has their wellbeing at heart,” LaRoche said. “[Orientation] is going to be a key time where students and families and teachers get to connect with one another to establish the trust they need to execute a virtual learning situation.”
LaRoche said every KIPP student will participate in virtual orientation and will be assigned a teacher advisor to help them navigate any issues with remote learning.
Pence said FirstLine schools are actively working with teachers and families to figure out what an active yet distanced relationship looks like.
Their biggest priority is making sure that students feel safe. Pence said that means building trust with families by responding to their concerns and being flexible when possible. That’s why they won’t require their students to wear uniforms during virtual learning.
“We know that there’s a lot of financial hardship out there for families,” Pence said. “What we are communicating to families is: make sure children are appropriately dressed for school.”
Pence said it’s OK if some expectations slip.