Ashley Collins is a bit worried about her six-year-old son, Austin, going back to school in the fall. Austin is about to start 1st grade at J.C. Ellis Elementary School in Metairie, but with the recent upsurge in COVID-19 cases in Louisiana and especially Jefferson Parish, Collins just hopes her son’s school operates with an abundance of caution.
“I almost feel like you have to have a set of staff that just focuses on cleaning and keeping the social distance in place, especially in the younger, elementary crowd,” Collins said.
The Jefferson Parish School System is preparing for three scenarios: a traditional return to classrooms this fall and with virtual or hybrid options. And Collins said officials from J.C. Ellis have told parents to prepare for in-person instruction and those two fallback options.
As schools across the state also plan on reopening in-person, the Louisiana Department of Education released guidelines on the reopening of K-12 schools with the help of the Louisiana Health Department and local medical professionals. The education department has used recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to guide its reopening plan.
The department’s guidelines say that adults and students who are in the third grade or higher “should wear face coverings, as able, to the maximum extent possible.” But that doesn’t mean that students in even lower grades cannot. “Any child over age two may wear a face covering,” according to the department’s reopening plan.
“We decided on 3rd grade as the recommended requirement,” said Ted Beasley, the director of communications for the Louisiana Department of Education. “We feel our educators would struggle to have younger students keep their face coverings on during the school day and that wearing a face covering would cause these younger students to touch their face more during the school day.”
Beasley also said that wearing face coverings could be problematic for language development in younger students, as teachers would not be able to see how students are forming words and letters.
When schools reopen, according to the state’s guidelines, students in the third grade and above will be expected to maintain a physical distance of six feet in classroom and indoor settings and younger students will stay in the same class or group the whole day.The state’s guidelines acknowledge that younger students coming into close contact with one another may happen.
Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators and a special education teacher in Baton Rouge, told the Louisiana Senate Education CommitteeJune 25 that reopening decisions in reopening must include input from “frontline educators.”
“We know we will need to provide protective equipment for students and educators; modify classrooms, cafeterias, gyms, auditoriums, playgrounds, and school buses for social distancing; provide disinfecting materials and sanitizing stations; intensify instruction and support for students traumatized by the impact of COVID-19 on their families and communities; and much more,” Mills told the committee.
However, there’s plenty skepticism that the CDC guidelines can actually be followed. “Anyone that’s worked with children — especially young children — is looking at some of what’s going to be required, and really wondering ‘How is this even going to be possible?’” said Adrinda King, executive director of Black Education for New Orleans.
King says she understands that planning through this unprecedented pandemic has been extremely difficult but said she would like to see schools set more realistic expectations.
Nahliah Webber, executive director of the Orleans Public Education Network, said she’s afraid the guidelines could give schools another reason to excessively punish students. “All it’s gonna take is little Tyrone taking off his mask and pretending to cough on someone. Now he’s getting suspended,” she said.
Beasley said the education department started working with school districts on establishing safe protocols before the guidelines were released.
“Student safety is our top responsibility, and we feel that our districts share this same belief,” said Beasley.
After the education department published its reopening guidelines, the Louisiana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement expressing the belief “that schools should make every effort to open in the fall with appropriate steps to lessen risks for children, teachers and support staff.”
The pediatricians group said children have made up less than 5 percent of confirmed cases in Louisiana. Those that do test positive, the group said, are less likely to be hospitalized or die. The pediatricians group added that children have experienced social isolation and depression because of the rules put in place to prevent their exposure to the coronavirus.
“It is crucial to recognize that the epidemiology for COVID-19 is not the same for children as it is for adults and may require different guidance,” the group’s statement says.t. “Children not only rely on schools for education but also for socialization, nutrition, physical activity and many small daily challenges and successes that help them develop and mature.”