New Orleans is battling another surge of the coronavirus and while health officials insist school buildings remain safe, they’re concerned outside cases may start making their way inside.
New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno described the reasoning behind the district’s decision to shift to online learning this week at a press conference announcing the city’s new coronavirus restrictions.
“They did not do it because what happens in the school is dangerous, they did it because the community is dangerous right now and the community would bring the danger into the schools,” Avegno said Wednesday.
New Orleans public school students will spend most of January learning remotely. The district-wide order will last for at least two weeks and allows very young students and students with special needs to keep learning in-person at the discretion of their school.
For the time being, public schools in neighboring parishes remain open, despite experiencing even worse health trends than New Orleans.
NOLA-PS was still planning for an in-person semester as of Dec. 30 and didn’t change course until after students had returned from winter break the following Monday.
Officials say the decision to pivot was based on a recent rise in the city’s test positivity rate, which emerged early in the new year. On Jan. 3, the city’s rate jumped from 7.65 percent to 8.9 percent. Since then, the city’s daily test positivity rate has hovered around 9 percent.
“It's not just been the last couple of days, it's been the last couple of weeks,” Encore Academy music teacher Nathaniel Money said, describing the city’s negative health trends. “It’s been pretty easy to see this coming for a while.”
At the end of December, the city’s positive test rate exceeded 5 percent for the second week in a row. For the week of Dec. 24 to Dec. 30, that number jumped to 10.4 percent, an 89 percent increase from the week before, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. The seven-day average number of new cases in New Orleans now exceeds 200.
(The Louisiana Department of Health releases New Orleans-specific data on a weekly basis, preventing the district from having access to these metrics in real time.)
But some teachers said they saw the decision as abrupt and poorly timed, prompted by backlash from school employees and the local union rather than by the city’s health data.
“I feel like the reason so many teachers were upset when they first announced we would be going back is because we thought that the numbers looked like we weren't going back,” Money said.
The district doesn’t have a strict cutoff for in-person classes, but has identified several city-wide values that when exceeded may trigger alarm bells. These include new cases per a day above 50 and a positive test rate above 5 percent. Values are considered in terms of a seven-day average and need to be part of a larger trend.
To transition back to online learning, schools spent the early part of this week distributing laptops and other learning supplies to families ahead of Thursday’s deadline.
At KIPP Leadership, in the Marigny, teachers lined up in front of the building, folding tables and laptop carts stretching the length of the block. Loud music made the drive-up event feel more like a block party.
Families have had the option to learn exclusively online since the beginning of the school year. About 40 percent of students were already learning at home before the recent pivot, according to the district. That means there are far fewer laptops to hand out this time around.
Andrew Lawrence, director of school operations at KIPP Leadership, said between 30 and 40 percent of the school’s student body opted for online-only learning during the fall semester.
“I think there’s a high level of confidence around making this work this time around,” Lawrence said about the transition back to online-only instruction.
KIPP Leadership PreK teacher Duval Hilbert said he isn’t stressed about teaching online. He’s gotten used to working with in-person and virtual students simultaneously.
“Ultimately it does fall on the parent unfortunately to have to lift a little bit and be able to work with their children,” Hilbert said. “But I’m confident they’ve already been doing that and they’ll continue to have to keep doing that.”
Treniece Shaw has been helping her daughters learn online since schools closed last March. She decided to have them keep learning at home when classrooms reopened in the fall and said while it took some time to adjust, they’ve grown comfortable with the setup.
“They’re doing good and they’re keeping up,” Shaw said. “Their grades are up.”
Parent confidence in the school system actually improved during the pandemic, according to a poll conducted by the Cowen Institute, and a majority of public school respondents felt more favorable toward NOLA-PS as a result of its handling of the pandemic.
The poll also found that families may be more prepared for virtual learning than they were last spring or even this past fall. More than 90 percent of respondents reported having access to internet and a laptop in their home.
Public schools have committed to providing their students with internet enabled devices during virtual learning and the district continues to provide internet for some families through prepaid hotspots.
For some families, the district’s all-virtual start to the school year was devastating. Some chronically absent students received in-person support through the district’s rapid response program. That program came to an end when classrooms reopened to older students in mid-October.
But even as the quality and the accessibility of virtual learning continues to improve, parents argue it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face instruction.
“They stay home and they get lazy on the computer,” Angelina Foster said, describing her children’s experience with virtual learning. “If they’re in school they’re learning the material, the actual material.”
Foster’s kids have been learning in-person for the last few months. While she understands the district’s decision to close classrooms, she hopes they reopen soon.
“I can’t teach them everything the school can teach them,” Foster said.
Many teachers are looking at the state’s vaccination effort as a way to ensure classroom safety and shore up teacher confidence.
Lauren Ulf, a third grade teacher at KIPP Leadership, said she was disappointed when she learned she’d no longer be teaching in-person. She sees widespread vaccination as a way to ensure classrooms can safely reopen.
“I think we would all feel a lot more comfortable coming back to the classroom once the vaccine is much more widely given out,” Ulf said. “I know teachers are kinda coming up soon, so we keep looking for that.”
There’s been a push to prioritize vaccinations for teachers and other school based staff. They aren’t included in the current wave, but could be up next.