Senior administrators from the NOLA Public Schools district met with charter school leaders Tuesday to discuss implications of the coronavirus, ranging from potentially arranging online classes to whether the sales taxes that help fund schools could take a hit if tourism declines.
Ahead of what Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards described as the inevitable emergence of the virus in Louisiana, the district is making a number of adjustments. The district’s measures, according to one school leader, include updating its online enrollment system to ask new students if they’ve traveled to affected areas, encouraging schools to update emergency plans and ensure school nurse contact information is accurate.
“This afternoon’s meeting was the first step of many to ensure all schools are aligned on how to confront the Coronavirus if and when it reaches New Orleans,” a statement from the district said.
The virus has resulted in at least seven deaths in the United States, all in Washington State, according to the Seattle Times. It has been identified in more than a dozen states, but not yet in Louisiana. In the south, cases have been confirmed in Florida, Georgia and Texas, according to the New York Times.
Some schools in Washington have closed for cleaning or where students have tested positive for the virus, according to the Seattle Times. School closures in some foreign countries have been more expansive, though worldwide, children appear to have been affected by the virus at much lower rates.
In a weekly newsletter to Louisiana schools sent Tuesday afternoon, State Superintendent John White said the virus had yet to reach the state.
“There have yet to be any reported cases of the Coronavirus in Louisiana,” White wrote. “At the same time, school system leaders are right to have concerns and to be proactive about resolving them.”
One school leader who asked not to be identified by name said the district’s call was helpful but would also like to see specific response plans outlined.
“I think that it would be helpful if a plan of action were published based on different guidelines or circumstances,” the school leader told The Lens. “Like, ‘If x happens we would likely do y,’ so we can get an idea of what we’re preparing ourselves for, especially if we’re talking about potential school closures.”
In the city’s all-charter, decentralized school district, dozens of independent charter schools control their own school calendars and many administrative decisions, such as whether to cancel school.
But a state law allows New Orleans’ schools superintendent to order schools “to temporarily close, dismiss students, or evacuate in the event that there are credible threats of terror, or an official state of emergency is declared for the area” including any schools under the district’s jurisdiction.
It’s unclear how often the superintendent has exercised that power. In the fall of 2018, the district emailed schools in advance of Tropical Storm Gordon and mandated that they close.
A statement issued by the district Tuesday said: “Any possible school closure announcements due to any potential Coronavirus threat would follow recommendations from local and federal health agencies.”
Another concern for schools is a potential decline in revenue from city sales tax should tourism decline due to the virus or fears of it. For example, New Orleans is preparing to host the NCAA Women’s Final Four. An event where the National College Players Association has asked the NCAA to consider holding the events with no fans to limit the potential spread of the virus.
The district has not answered questions from The Lens about what should happen if prolonged absences cause students to miss state state standardized testing, which begins at the end of March. But the school leader said it was discussed at Tuesday’s meeting and that district administrators said the state has protocol in place for such situations.
District leaders did discuss the possibility of offering online classes, often called “distance learning,” should schools have to close or some students have to stay home.
“My understanding is that the schools would provide it, but OPSB was gathering resources and information to support us through that process,” the school leader said, which raised a question. “How many of our families don’t have access to the internet?”
The district is also asking schools to limit unnecessary travel to international locations and “to be mindful of any students and faculty who have traveled internationally and follow protocols from the CDC.”
The latter warning was particularly relevant after a weeklong Mardi Gras break when many families and staff chose to vacation outside of the state.
In neighboring Jefferson Parish, three teachers returned to teaching Monday after visiting countries on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s risk-assessed list. Beginning Tuesday, the Jefferson Parish school district asked them to stay home, according to a report from FOX 8.
Should online classes, often called distance learning be necessary, the New Orleans school leader said a planning team of charter leaders was in the works.
“They said they were going to form a task force to work on plans for potential impacts. They specifically said the task force will work on the distance learning project.”
The school leader on the call said prolonged student absenteeism, and how it could affect promoting students from one grade to another was discussed on Tuesday.
“The district said they would email guidance in the near future.”