Rickai Shire, Yohan Shire and Eugene Shire cross Orleans Avenue on their way to the first day of class at Phillis Wheatley Community School on Aug. 1, 2019. The school zone lights behind them have not been turned on by the city yet. Credit: Marta Jewson / The Lens

Three boys walked across Orleans Avenue Thursday morning, on their way to the first day of classes at Phillis Wheatley Community School — but the city school zone lights a couple hundred feet away were not flashing.

And nearby school zone speed enforcement cameras — which, like the lights, are run by the city, not the NOLA Public Schools district — won’t activate until August 12, according to a city spokeswoman. The lights will turn on that day, too.

In some cases that is days or weeks after some students have been back in the classroom. For now, students at Wheatley have a street light and crossing guard.

The city sets its school zone enforcement equipment to a single calendar, even though New Orleans schools use dozens of different calendars. In the city’s newly all-charter district, schools can set their own calendars.

The city used to follow NOLA Public Schools’ calendar for the schools the district ran directly. But as of this year, the district no longer has any traditional, direct-run schools.

“Schools start anywhere between the first and 13th of August in the city,” FirstLine Schools’ Executive Director of Operations Rebekah Cain said, asking drivers to “be aware and be cautious that students are returning to school throughout the month of August.”

Most Firstline students ride the bus, she said, emphasizing it’s not just walkers the public should be on the lookout for, but also students heading to and waiting at bus stops.

“I think it’s just about neighborhoods. If you live near a school, know that buses are coming back,” she said.

The Living School and Landry-Walker High School freshmen begin class Wednesday. Firstline elementary schools — including Wheatley — started Thursday. The Orleans Parish school district posted a list of citywide school start dates this week.

Since Mayor LaToya Cantrell took office last year, the city has focused much of its traffic camera enforcement program on school zones. Cantrell — who as a City Council member and mayoral candidate was highly critical of the traffic-camera program as it existed under former Mayor Mitch Landrieu — deactivated 20 out of 31 traffic cameras that were located outside of school zones early this year, leaving about 80 school zone cameras in place.

Drivers passing through school zones are required to slow to 20 miles per hour from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 2:45 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. on days the corresponding school is in session.

The city allows a buffer of a few miles per hour to account for possible calibration issues with the cameras. Before this year, city traffic cameras would not trigger unless a driver was going at least 26 miles per hour. But in February, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration lowered the threshold to 24 miles per hour. NOLA.com revealed the decision in early April, and Cantrell was widely criticized for opting not to announce the change before it was implemented. Tickets, and revenues to the city, immediately skyrocketed after the change.

Dozens of school calendars

Though the cameras are all on one calendar, Norton said that it follows individual school calendars when it comes to issuing speeding tickets.

The city has to deal with nearly three dozen unique calendars because charter school organizations are allowed to set their own. That now includes a four-day school week as Friends of King Schools implements a new calendar at its three campuses this school year.

“Once the City learns school start dates, it notifies the vendor to cancel any tickets issued prior to that date in that school zone,” city spokeswoman LaTonya Norton wrote. “This procedure will also be utilized for any cameras positioned near the charter network offering a four-day school day. However, if a ticket is issued in error, the ticketholder should contact the City to have it dismissed.”

Bus drivers were out practicing routes this week and some were picking up students Thursday. Cain cautioned drivers to especially watch out for younger students.

“If your morning commute is driving through school zone, plan for a little extra time,” Cain said. “I think we get used to the summer and that’s all going back to normal this week and next week.”

This story was updated after publication with additional information from a city spokeswoman. 

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...