Louisiana Key Academy welcomes students back to in-person instruction

The charter school in Baton Rouge is believed to be Louisiana’s first to reopen

Louisiana Key Academy, a charter school in Baton Rouge for students with dyslexia, is planning to begin in-person instruction for students Thursday, July 9. The school is believed to be the first public school to reopen its doors to students since Gov. John Bel Edwards required schools to close in late March. (Photo by Julie O'Donoghue / Louisiana Illuminator)

While many Louisiana schools and school districts are still figuring out if they’ll have in-person instruction, online instruction or a mix of the two in August, Louisiana Key Academy, a Baton Rouge charter school, is scheduled to start in-person instruction for its students today, July 9.  Created as a campus to focus on the needs of students with dyslexia, the school on Government Street is believed to be the first Louisiana public school to fully re-open since Gov. John Bel Edwards’ March order ended in-person instruction for students across the state.

Louisiana Key Academy’s reopening comes a week after a sharp increase in Baton Rouge-area COVID-19 cases prompted Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome to require face masks for everybody entering a business. The area saw a 190 percent increase in cases over a 2-week period, which caused the federal government to make Baton Rouge one of three cities nationwide where the federal government is looking to conduct 5,000 COVID-19 tests a day.

Louisiana Key Academy, which teaches students K-8, typically operates on a different calendar than students at other schools in the state. According to that regular schedule, students get a week off from school every six weeks and then take off most of the month of July.  But this year, students have been out of the classroom since late March and have been done with online instruction since May 22.

The Louisiana Department of Education isn’t aware of any other school in the state starting the school year so soon, a spokesman for the department said.

“We know that schools across the state are doing their part in uncharted territory to responsibly reopen,” Louisiana State Superintendent Cade Brumley said in an email. “The Department is working to support Louisiana Key Academy and all schools and systems in our state as they make the best decisions to serve their families and community.”

Heather Bourgeois, the principal at Louisiana Key Academy, did not return messages seeking comment about the school’s plan to re-open today. Attempts to reach Laura Cassidy, board president and a founder of the school, were unsuccessful.

In separate conversations, two employees of the school expressed concern that welcoming students back today is too dangerous.  Both employees asked that their names not be used because they feared talking could cost them their jobs.

The first employee described a “tense environment” as the school moved toward today’s reopening. Because they’re returning to school in the middle of a pandemic, that employee said, some of the teachers have likened themselves to “guinea pigs.”

From the Louisiana Key Academy Facebook page

When asked if the school’s staff had been consulted about how and when the school should reopen, the second employee answered, “Has your boss ever made a decision and asked you how you feel about it, and you know it’s not going to change?”

Louisiana Key Academy does plan to provide a virtual learning option for students starting next week, but the employees who spoke to the Illuminator say the school’s teachers haven’t been adequately trained to do that.

The school is expecting students to stay at least 6 feet from one another, wear masks and increase the number of times they wash their hands, but there’s not enough room for students to spread out to the extent recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the first employee said. There’s also a concern that there isn’t enough time in the day to have almost 400 students wash their hands as often and as thoroughly as the CDC says.

Students will have to remain in the same classroom all day, which means that teachers accustomed to teaching one subject will now be expected to teach multiple subjects outside of their expertise.

The second employee stressed that members of the staff “want to be with our kids” and that they recognize that many of their students “aren’t getting what they need at home.”  Those students could benefit from the instruction, that second employee said, “but what are the costs of that? Are we endangering them to make that happen?” That employee said “of course” some parents are as worried about reopening as members of the staff are.

Parents won’t have any legal recourse if they or their children get sick because the school didn’t do enough to keep the school community safe. On Wednesday evening, the governor  signed House Bill 59, which was introduced  by Rep. Buddy Mincey, a Republican from Denham Springs. The law, which applies retroactively to March 11, says schools and school officials “shall not be held liable for any civil damages for injury or death resulting from or related to actual or alleged exposure to COVID-19. … There shall be no cause of action related to a person contracting COVID-19 at a public or nonpublic school, other public or nonpublic school facility, on a public or nonpublic school bus, or at a public or nonpublic school sponsored event, which is based on the actions or failure to act by school officers, employees, or agents in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency.”

Students and teachers had their saliva tested for COVID-19 earlier this week, and those who test positive won’t be allowed to enter the school. The school plans to continue testing everybody in the school building twice weekly.

Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.