Louisiana school districts in ‘wait and see’ mode as COVID-19 cases spike and Louisiana returns to Phase 2

Olivia and Bridgett Deleon work on virtual classes on a laptop. (Photo courtesy Spencer Deleon)

Madison Parish School District announced in mid-November that it would only instruct its students virtually starting the Monday after Thanksgiving. “Now that we are about to approach the holiday season, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control are expecting a surge in the number of cases,” Madison Parish Superintendent Charlie Butler said in a Nov. 16 statement. “Therefore, in an effort to be proactive, Madison Parish Schools will go 100% virtual for the holiday season.”

Gov. John Bel Edwards who said at a Nov. 24 press conference that he expects the state’s worsening COVID-19 numbers to worsen even faster during the holiday season, announced that he was moving the state back from Phase 3 to what he called a “revised Phase 2.”  That means tighter restrictions on retail outlets, restaurants and bars.  The governor also said he’s asking public and private employers to let their employees work from home to the maximum extent possible.

But the governor left it to individual school systems to decide if they should take a step back from in-person learning. “We’re trying to do everything we can to keep schools open,” Edwards said. “Obviously that’s a local decision as to whether schools remain open for in person instruction virtual instruction or for a hybrid approach and I think that that’s that’s the way it should be.”

As of last week, about half of the state’s school systems require in-person learning, 20 percent allow hybrid — or a mix of in-person and virtual — learning and 30 percent allow virtual learning, according to Ted Beasley, the communications director for the Louisiana Department of Education.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Sandy Holloway followed the governor’s press conference with a statement last week that local school systems could choose to follow Phase 3 state guidelines — which would allow maximum indoor group sizes of 50 people, 75 percent capacity in school buses and indoor band and vocal classes — or enforce stricter guidelines. BESE’s school reopening guidelines don’t attach in-person, hybrid or virtual learning requirements to state reopening phases, so moving back to Phase 2 doesn’t necessarily require a move from in-person learning to virtual learning, for example.

“Please be mindful that the COVID-19 is present in our communities and we must all do our part to help mitigate its spread,” Holloway said in a letter to school districts across the state.

Arlana Lewis, director of academics for the Madison Parish School District, said parents and community members in the northeast Louisiana parish have been supportive of the move, in part because every student has access to a district-provided chromebook, free transportation to schools will be provided for students who can’t connect to the internet at home. The district is also providing lunch. “Students will receive services basically as if they were on campus,” she said.

Unlike Madison, some school districts are taking the time to figure out what they should do now that the health crisis is expected to become even scarier, and at least one district is making allowances that officials hope will be temporary.

Calcasieu Parish students are being allowed to choose an all-virtual or a hybrid instructional plan for this week, but, Calcasieu Parish Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus said in a statement, “The value of the time our students get with their teachers in a face-to-face setting is crucial to the education process. While there will certainly be challenges ahead with protecting that time in our school buildings because of COVID-19, we are committed to providing those opportunities for our students whenever possible.”

Taylor Gast, director of communications for the East Baton Rouge School System, said there are no plans to move backwards, but “we’re still monitoring everything with our health advisory committee and following all CDC and LDH guidelines.”

Students in New Orleans who’ve been receiving in-person instruction will be allowed to continue as they are “because of the academic, social, and emotional benefits it provides our children,” said Taslin Alfonso, director of media relations for NOLA Public Schools, in an email.

“While city data show a rise in the average daily new cases, other metrics are staying strong,” Alfonso said. “As a city we are below the 5-percent positivity rate and our community has robust access to COVID-19 testing. These factors and information delivered from our schools show there isn’t a need for a system-wide closure at this time.”