Outside of Landry-Walker High School in Algiers, a line of cars starts to form in the parking lot. From a distance, it looks like a typical back-to-school scene: parents in a drop-off loop, children buckled up in the back seat. Except no one is getting out of their cars.
These mask-clad parents aren’t here to drop off their kids. Instead, they’re picking up essential school supplies — laptops and hotspots. That’s because Landry-Walker, like all New Orleans public schools, is starting the year virtually.
Landry-Walker held its final day of device pickup on Aug. 6, a few days before the start of classes. Assistant Principal Joshua Washington said he had been pleased with the turnout. Six-hundred and eighty students had picked up their devices.
But Landry-Walker, which is operated by the Algiers Charter, has more than 800 students spread throughout the city. Washington said staff members would personally deliver the rest.
“We have people on the West Bank, East Bank, Uptown, Downtown,” Washington said. “But our goal is to make sure that our kids get everything that they need. As Algiers Charter says, ‘Students first.’”
Last spring, schools across the country were thrown into remote learning. One day they were in-person. The next day they were remote.
While schools scrambled to get their classes online, many students struggled to complete their coursework, often because they didn’t have access to a computer or the internet. Back in April, a state survey found that more than 25 percent of public school students lacked access to a computer or tablet at home. An even higher percentage of students lacked access to a device with a reliable internet connection.
This time around, things are different. Schools have had months to prepare. Since then, state and local education leaders have prioritized device purchases and expanding internet access for students. But not everyone is ready. Many students still do not have the resources they need to participate in online learning. A quarter of public school students still don’t have internet access, according to a report given by Louisiana’s Department of Education earlier this month.
"We are in a much better position than we were four months ago, both devices and connectivity," state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said. "But we have a long way to go.”
Eighty-six percent of Louisiana schools are starting the school year with at least some virtual classes. While many requirements were waived last spring due to the abrupt transition to remote learning, the state is no longer making exceptions. Schools are required to take attendance every day and complete the minimum number of instructional minutes.
Local leaders say New Orleans is in a better position than other parishes, despite having a large number of students who fall beneath the poverty line. More than 80 percent of the district’s 45,000 students are considered economically disadvantaged. In order to meet their needs, the district and individual schools have purchased thousands of Chromebooks and hotspots. They’ve promised that all students will have a school-provided device and access to the internet before the start of classes.
Even with careful planning and new support, problems are still likely to arise, said Annette Hoersting, Landry-Walker’s educational technology specialist.
“With technology, it’s not infallible. We can’t say 100 percent of the devices are going to work 100 percent of the time every single day for the rest of the school year. Some things are out of our control,” Hoersting said.
Washington said there was a lot of trial and error last spring. It was easy to lose contact with students. They’ve upped their communication efforts — sending announcements by phone, social media, and email — and have hired new staff, two new social workers and two new counselors.
He understands that if they aren’t careful, students and teachers could get burned out fast.
As at many schools, students at Landry-Walker will use online platforms to complete their assignments, but there will still be elements of face-to-face instruction. There will be live classes with student participation and live office hours where teachers can provide one-on-one support.
“This is not to circumvent real teaching,” Hoersting said. “This is absolutely real teaching through the lens of technology.”
Many New Orleans public schools started classes the first week in August, but some have needed more time to prepare. It takes time to distribute not only the technology but also more traditional school supplies like textbooks, novels and whiteboards.
Most schools have also held virtual or one-on-one in-person orientations to explain to parents and students how to navigate online learning platforms and what the expectations are while school is entirely online.
By the end of this week, the district said, all schools will be back in session.
Grace Rose has five children that attend Morris Jeff Community School. Her oldest is a senior and her youngest is in the first grade.
Her kids have been back at school for two weeks. In the spring four out of her five kids learned what educators call “asynchronously.” They didn’t have any live classes and instead completed assignments on their own time.
Now there’s a lot of synchronous learning. Real-time live classes that her children often need her help to attend.
“It's all scheduled out, which is great, but especially the little ones, like I need someone to tell them, ‘Hey, hey, did you log on to your next class?’ and to run interference when they accidentally close their Chromebook,” Rose said.
Rose is a single parent and has been working full-time from her home since the pandemic began. She said she spent much of the first week of school running from room to room in her house making sure her kids were following their schedules.
Despite the extra effort, she said she’s pleased with how virtual learning is going so far.
“I've been in the same room while one of the kids will be watching a class, whether it's live or recorded. And I feel like I'm in that first-grade class,” Rose said.
But not everyone is a fan of schools having more live classes. Taylor Pittman, a senior at McDonogh 35 High School, said her classes were off to a rough start.
For Pittman, getting ready for school means logging onto a video platform from her bedroom. She sits in live classes from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. and spends the rest of the day completing independent assignments or working in small groups.
“You can't leave the call, your camera has to be on, you have to wear your uniform,” Pittman said. “So it's like I'm sitting as if I was in a classroom, but I'm not in a classroom.”
With technology issues and general confusion, Pittman said her live lessons have been moving slower than they would in person. She often finds herself frustrated or bored. She misses the pre-recorded lessons and other assignments that she completed on her own time in the spring.
“It made me feel like I was taking a college course. I was free to do what I wanted to do and I made sure all my work was done,” Pittman said.
Erika Otero, a biology and physics teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School, said her school has given their students some of the flexibility Pittman is looking for by relying on a combination of real-time and pre-recorded lessons.
Otero’s students have live classes three days a week but work independently on Wednesdays and Fridays.
But just because they’ve struck a more balanced approach between asynchronous and synchronous learning doesn’t mean they aren’t encountering their own problems.
Ben Franklin started classes on Aug. 12. Otero said her first two days went pretty smoothly and student attendance was high. She was feeling pretty optimistic.
But on Friday, a thunderstorm knocked out Otero’s internet in the middle of a live lesson.
“It just really makes you realize that if the connection isn't good it can be really frustrating to try to learn and to try to teach,” Otero said.
Otero typically has strong internet, but she knows some of her students do not. Poor connectivity can silence students and make them less likely to participate in the future, she said.
Many charter leaders have spoken publicly, claiming that their academic expectations are just as high for the coming year as they would be in a typical school year.
“That seems like a false sense of reality to me,” Ortero said. “The reality is we're not going to cover as much as we normally would. That's just not possible.”
She said Ben Franklin’s faculty members are trying to be reasonable about the expectations they set for themselves and students. They’ve streamlined their curriculum for the year and plan to cover as much as they can.