As New Orleans public schools continue its slow return to in-person learning, bringing middle and high school students back to the classroom starting Monday, about 40 percent of students have opted to keep learning at home, according to the district.
At Foundation Preparatory Charter School in Gentilly, the split between in-person and online learners is closer to fifty percent, according to Community Academies CEO Myrialis King who also serves as head of school.
“We’re hearing [from families]: ‘We’re waiting for a vaccination,’ or ‘We’re gonna wait until the end of the 2020 year,’” King said. “People are ready for 2020 to be over.”
King said the split has been similar at the charter's other two schools: Esperanza Charter School and Lafayette Academy, though Esperanza has an in-person population closer to 60 percent.
The higher number of in-person students is likely due to the school’s number of English learners (ELs). Esperanza has a larger EL population than Collegiate Academies' other schools and King says virtual learning has been especially challenging for students who are also learning English.
Many parents have been hesitant to send their children back to school buildings and are instead waiting to judge the effectiveness of the district’s reopening plans. Things have gone relatively smooth, though the district has reported a growing number of COVID-19 cases among students and staff members in recent weeks.
Superintendent of Schools Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district is prepared for positive cases.
They’ve partnered with LCMC Health Children’s Hospital and Ochsner Hospital for Children to provide rapid testing for symptomatic students and staff.
“We felt it was crucial for us as a school system to make sure that our students and school employees have access to testing that way we can keep everyone safe,” Lewis said.
He said schools aren’t pressuring families to return until they are absolutely comfortable.
“We made it very, very clear to our families if you want to opt into virtual learning for the entire school year you can do so,” Lewis said. “If you decide at a point that you want to opt into in-person learning the only thing is that we ask that it happen at the beginning of a new quarter.”
This lead time allows schools to determine whether they can welcome students back part or full-time. With capacity requirements still in place in classrooms and on busses, schools have planned for PreK through fourth-graders to continue with in-person instruction five days a week and for older students to return at least two days a week.
But with fewer families opting for in-person learning than expected, in some cases schools now have the ability to bring older students back full-time rather than on a rotational basis.
At Foundation Preparatory, which serves students in kindergarten through sixth-grade, all of their students are returning full-time. The same is true at Lafayette Academy and Esperanza Charter School
King says this has taken a lot of pressure off of families trying to juggle work and childcare.
“We thought how can we ask parents to take Monday, Wednesday, Friday off and work Tuesday, Thursday?” King said. “That just wouldn’t work for any of us. How would it work for any of our families?”
Even with fewer students opting to come back, accommodating students full-time has still posed capacity challenges.
“We wanted to try whatever we could to ensure that we could welcome back everyone. That meant giving up spaces like our art room and music room,” King said, adding that students still receive music and art programming in their home classroom.
With students both online and in-person, many teachers are being asked to teach two modes at the same time, since splitting children into separate classes isn’t always possible. King said to assist teachers, Collegiate Academies has arranged to have a second teacher in each hybrid classroom, one specifically focused on monitoring virtual students and the other on leading the day’s lesson.
King says she’s also seen families that originally opted to virtual learning slowly changing their mind. Originally 40 percent of their fifth- and sixth-grade students opted for in-person before inching up to 50 percent.
Their younger students are slowly coming back as well. Every week a couple of kids in each class have decided to switch to in-person learning for the coming quarter, according to King.