Balloons and brass bands greeted mask-clad elementary students at a dozen New Orleans public schools this week as they returned to the classroom for the first time since March.
It’s the start of a slow return to in-person learning. Of the district's 45,000 students, about 11,000 are expected to return to the classroom by the end of next week, Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said Thursday.
More than 18,000 students in PreK through fourth-grade were eligible to return as early as Thursday, but 38 percent opted to continue with virtual learning through at least the first quarter of the school year, according to the district.
Lewis said he isn’t concerned by the number of families that decided to keep their children at home. Many are navigating a difficult decision-making process, especially if a family member has a preexisting condition that makes them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.
“This was going to be a decision for our families all year long,” Lewis said. “They have to assess their comfort level.”
Outside McDonogh 42 in the 7th Ward, staff members called out to approaching students, reminding them to put on their masks. They checked their temperatures, sanitized their hands and ushered them into the building.
Across the street, 51-year-old Elizabeth Riley gripped the hands of her two grandsons, five-year-old LC Riley and eight-year-old De-Quine Broussard.
“They got their sanitizer. They got their masks. If I could find some gloves to fit their hands I would,” she said.
Riley is terrified to send her grandkids back, but she doesn’t think virtual learning is working.
“They need to interact with their teachers,” Riley said. “Just being virtual, kids are doing all kinds of stuff. They’re being distracted at home by some of their little siblings.”
Riley is her grandsons’ primary caregiver. They live with her along with some of their siblings and cousins. She said she’s done her best to help them since virtual learning started last month, but she isn’t a teacher.
“I know some things, but I’ve been out of school a long time,” Riley said. “It’s a whole lot different than what I came up on.”
Her older grandson, DeShawn Riley, a 10th-grader at Eleanor McMain High School, said he doesn’t want to go back to school. Right now, like all students fifth-grade and up, he’s learning entirely online.
DeShawn said he’s quiet at school and prefers doing his work at home (though he did acknowledge it's easier to get help from his teacher when they’re in the same room). Riley said DeShawn is going back to school no matter what.
Next month, if coronavirus cases remain under control, the district hopes to give older students the option to return to school, though it would only be for a few days each week.
As some students choose to return to the classroom, it creates new challenges for teachers, who in some cases must prepare lessons for both in-person and virtual students. It also means that students may be in classrooms where most of their peers are physically absent.
It’s ideal if a teacher can focus on just one form of teaching, but that isn’t always possible. If there’s an even split, schools are likely to assign teachers a virtual or in-person classroom, Lewis said. If not, they’ll have to balance both.
At McDonogh 42, nearly half of the students are registered for in-person learning. Jamar McKneely, chief executive officer for the school’s charter operator InspireNOLA, said they’ve been able to assign PreK through third-grade teachers classes that are entirely in-person or entirely virtual.
“Those teachers are not doing two things at the same time,” McKneely said, though the school’s fourth-grade teachers will.
The other challenge schools are facing is whether families will follow through with their learning choices.
On Thursday morning, about 180 students in the kindergarten through fourth-grade were registered to attend McDonogh 42 in person. As the drop-off window came to a close, it didn’t look like all of them would show up.
McKneely said he wasn’t expecting perfect attendance. He knows some families aren’t comfortable sending their kids back until they have evidence that schools are safe.
“Some families said, ‘We won’t come day one, but we’ll come day two after we actually see all the protocols,’” McKneely said. “I think a lot of families are waiting to see how today goes so that they can feel more confident.
But parents aren’t allowed inside school buildings. Under the district’s reopening plan, schools are largely closed to non-employees. Parents have to rely on photos provided by the district and testimony from teachers.
McKneely said his staff has been calling parents regularly to reassure them that schools are safe.
“We’ve been doing it every day,” McKneely said. “Just to build confidence even more, we’re actually going to do it today as well, just to say school has opened, we look forward to seeing your family and face every day.”
But that won’t be enough for some parents. They don’t want their children to be among the first students back in the classroom when going back to school still feels like an experiment. They’re inclined to hang back and see how things go.