NOLA Public Schools Announce Abrupt Pivot To Online-Only Learning

Jan 5, 2021

New Orleans public school students will spend most of January learning online.

Citing the city’s “concerning” spike in cases, the district announced Monday that schools have until Thursday to move from in-person to remote instruction.

“Citywide data over the past few days has shown a dramatic uptick in positivity rates, and so, based upon the advice of our health advisors, we felt we had to make the very unfortunate but necessary decision to return to distance learning to keep our students, staff, teachers and community safe,” Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said in a press release.

The decision extends to all PreK through 12th-grade classes. The district plans to revisit its decision no earlier than Jan. 21, at which point they could choose to continue remote learning or begin returning students to the classroom.

Schools have until Thursday to move operations online, “to give parents, guardians, and families some time to adjust their schedules.”

“We recognize this will be extremely difficult for our families and hope that everyone takes the necessary precautions to reverse the spread of this terrible virus,” Lewis said.

The city’s weekly positive test rate is currently 5.5 percent, with an average of 215 new COVID-19 cases reported daily. Nearly 69 percent of hospital beds are in use, 4 percent of which are occupied by COVID-19 patients. All three health metrics provide evidence of community spread.

While many school systems failed to reopen this fall or flip-flopped between face-to-face and remote instruction, New Orleans public schools have held classes largely in-person. About 60 percent of the district’s 45,000 students have been back in the classroom, at least part-time, since mid-October.

For months, the district managed to ride out smaller spikes without reinstating restrictions. But the number of cases reported among public school teachers and students jumped after the Thanksgiving holiday and has been elevated ever since.

School and medical officials believe school-based transmission is rare, though data supporting these claims hasn’t been shared publicly. Even if schools aren’t leading drivers of community spread, researchers believe the higher the rate of transmission, the more difficult it is for schools to insulate themselves from outside volatility.

“There is simply a point at which it just won’t be safe because of what will be coming into the schools,” New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said in early December. 

As of Dec. 30, the district was still planing for an in-person spring semester without new restrictions. But individual teachers and the local union, United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), pushed back.

UTNO President Wanda Richard published an open letter asking the district and school board to allow schools to decide whether or not to welcome students back from winter break in-person or virtually.

Richard also requested that all school employees be allowed to work from home. While some schools have offered accommodations for teachers who are uncomfortable teaching in-person, many require teachers to work onsite.

Following Monday’s announcement, UTNO published a statement supporting the district’s decision to move to virtual instruction.

“Online schooling is not the ideal option for students or teachers, and we all long for the day when in-person education can resume safely, but unfortunately the latest COVID-19 surge makes this impossible,” Richard said in the statement.

Prior to the district’s announcement, several schools had already made the decision to begin the semester online, citing the threat of another post-holiday spike.

Bricolage Academy CEO Troave’ Profice told The Lens students and teachers would not be returning to the classroom this week due to staff and student exposures to COVID-19 and potential staffing shortages. Sophie B. Wright High School was also planning for a virtual start prior to the district’s decision.

For months, school officials assured families that if deemed necessary, a return to virtual operations would likely be targeted and gradual.

COO Tiffany Delcour told school board members last month that the district would institute heightened restrictions before closing schools entirely. Delcour listed several steps, including eliminating spectators at sporting events, restricting extracurriculars, and reducing the number of students attending classes in-person.

While the district ultimately decided on a sharp pivot, in stark contrast to the plan outlined by Delcour, there are a few caveats.

Schools are permitted to “accommodate instruction for special populations,” according to the district. That means specific groups of students may continue learning in-person under reduced class sizes.

In-person instruction is also still allowed for students in PreK through the fifth grade, as long as they learn in static groups with no more than 15 individuals. It’s up to individual schools whether they’ll keep some students on campus or teach all classes virtually. School buildings will also remain open to provide support services and distribute meals.