Update: Twenty-seven of Louisiana's 69 school districts have started the academic year as of Aug. 13.
The calculations districts are making on how and when to reopen schools are incredibly complicated. There’s health data to consider, like the number of positive coronavirus cases and the rate of community transmission, but school leaders are thinking about many other factors as well.
Schools do more than just teach students, they provide parents with reliable childcare, and many supply additional wrap-around services that families may struggle to access when school buildings are physically closed. These elements, coupled with added political pressure, have put schools in an increasingly difficult position, as many try to prioritize in-person learning while preventing the spread of the virus.
Nineteen of Louisiana’s 69 school districts have started the 2020-21 school year, State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said Tuesday. Many districts have opted to start the year late as they wait for a July surge in coronavirus cases to settle.
Louisiana schools typically begin the academic year in early August and finish up before the end of May. This year is obviously different. Across the state, start and end dates for the current school year vary widely depending on a district’s approach to the pandemic.
In Southeast Louisiana, many schools have delayed in-person learning, either by pushing back the start of the school year or pivoting to online learning.
An analysis of 17 districts shows that most have pushed their first day of classes back at least a week and in many cases longer. Three districts, St. John the Baptist Parish, St. Tammany Parish and Terrebonne Parish have pushed their start days back until after Labor Day.
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Louisiana’s largest school district, Jefferson Parish Public Schools, decided Monday to push back the start of their school year until Aug. 26, when they’ll have access to rapid coronavirus testing for symptomatic teachers.
Several teachers tested positive for the virus after returning to their classrooms last week. Classes were originally scheduled to start on Aug. 12.
Even when a school opens for in-person instruction, students are likely to learn at home part of the time due to capacity limits under Louisiana’s Phase 2 reopening guidelines, Brumley said.
Many schools have decided to bring younger students back to the building full-time, while older students will split their time between online and in-person learning. Under state guidelines, even if a school reopens, all students are allowed to learn remotely 100 percent of the time.
Districts have been far more inclined to delay the school year entirely rather than start remotely. They’ve stressed the importance of in-person learning and parents’ need for childcare, while also acknowledging that in many cases the schools themselves lack the resources to operate entirely online.
Back in April, a state survey found that more than 1 in 4 public school students lacked access to a computer or tablet at home. That number is far higher in districts with a large number of economically disadvantaged students. While the state, districts and individual schools have worked to close this gap and ensure that students also have access to wifi, the problem still persists.
Despite these challenges, four districts have opted for a fully virtual start. St. Helena Parish and Orleans Parish were the first two school districts in the region to start the year when they launched remote learning on Aug. 3 and Aug. 4 respectively.
A week later, public schools in East Baton Rouge Parish and Lafourche Parish also started school remotely. School leaders for each of the four schools have said they’ll consider bringing students back to the building in September, depending on health data.
Three of the four school districts to start the school year remotely have the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students in the region. That means they’ve had to go to considerable lengths to bridge the connectivity gap.
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For New Orleans Public Schools, a virtual start to the school year was made possible due to large purchases of devices by the district. In March, the district purchased 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hotspots for students. Since then, Superintendent Henderson Lewis said they’ve purchased additional resources to ensure that every student has access to a device and reliable wifi.
There are many reasons that a school may decide to open on time. While mandatory attendance and minimum instructional minutes were waived in March when Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools statewide, these requirements are back in place for the current school year. Some schools may choose to reopen in-person because they fear they’ll be unable to fulfill these requirements remotely.
Medical professionals have stressed the importance of looking at the data when making decisions about when and how to reopen schools. But based on an analysis of schools in Southeast Louisiana, some districts have been far more conscientious than others.
The six school districts that resumed in-person learning during the beginning of August had percent positivity rates between 11 percent and 24 percent during the last week in July. State health officials have set 10 percent as the state’s goal and say bringing students and faculty back to school buildings will likely increase community spread.
There’s no national guidance on how and when schools should reopen. While Louisiana has adopted minimum safety standards for school operations, any district can attempt to reopen under the state’s Phase 2 reopening restrictions regardless of the number of positive coronavirus cases in a given community.
St. Charles Parish was the first district to resume in-person instruction in the New Orleans area on Aug. 6. About 7,500 students — 80 percent of the children enrolled in the district — were expected to return to campus, according to Superintendent Ken Oertling. The other 20 percent had signed up for remote instruction through the district’s eLearning program.
During the last week in July, St. Charles Parish had a percent positivity rate of about 17 percent, a lower rate than the prior week, but still well above the 10 percent benchmark set by the state. The district has had at least two positive cases of COVID-19 since schools reopened but has not closed any facilities in response.
In nearby states like Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, some schools have been open for almost two weeks and have reported cases of the virus as well. A school district north of Atlanta ordered 925 students, teaches and staff to self-quarantine, and temporarily closed a high school this week after dozens tested positive for the coronavirus.
New Orleans has made clear that they won’t reopen schools unless health data suggests the spread of the virus is under control. School officials have been working closely with regional health directors and hired their own medical advisor to aid in the decision-making process.
Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said Wednesday that the city is in a position to reopen schools after Labor Day if current health data holds steady and that New Orleans is currently in a leading position compared to its neighbors and the state overall.
For New Orleans schools to safely reopen, officials are looking at community spread, the city’s testing rate, and the percentage of positive tests. Health officials say the percent positivity rate needs to be below 5 percent. On average the city has done this since the beginning of August. On Wednesday, the city’s rate was even lower, at 3.92 percent.
City leaders have said their No. 1 priority is returning kids to school. For that to happen, Avegno said, current coronavirus restrictions will need to remain in place for the foreseeable future and extend at least several weeks past the return to in-person learning.
“I’m cautiously optimistic today because we are seeing improvement in all the trends,” Avegno said. “The challenge is sustainability.”