Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards issued a sweeping proclamation Thursday, waiving state standardized testing, state A through F letter grades and attendance requirements for the remainder of the school year as the state continues to see a rise in cases of the novel coronavirus. 

Edwards announced the waivers at a press conference where he also said the healthcare system in New Orleans could be overwhelmed in seven to 10 days under a worst-case scenario.

The move comes three days after state education leaders requested the waivers. Something they said was needed to “allow educators to move forward and focus their attention on keeping students and teachers healthy and safe.”

Local school leaders said the changes would promote student mental health and well-being by easing the burden of grades, attendance and schoolwork and also allow schools to adapt their online learning as things change rapidly. Some of the waivers require approval from the U.S. Department of Education.

“While I’m going to suspend state law, those suspensions are really only effective when we get the waiver,” Edwards said. He added that he doesn’t anticipate that getting the waiver will be a problem, and noted that Louisiana is not the only state that is seeking to suspend assessment requirements.

InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely said the unprecedented school closure has forced everyone into a balancing act. 

“I think it’s needed,” he said, regarding the waivers. “Anything we can do to alleviate their concerns.”

Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok said her three-school network would also continue providing online schooling even without a requirement to do so, noting they are just days into their initial plans and things continue to change in the city.

“A few days ago we were trying to figure out how to get food to kids,” she said. 

“We’re still trying to figure out what it looks like today,” she said of their distance learning plan, two days after a massive distribution of meals, schoolwork and computers to students. “I just think everyone is trying to figure out the right thing to do.”

Coronavirus cases in the state rose overnight, increasing from 257 to 380, according to the Edwards. Of those cases, at least 231 were in New Orleans. According to Edwards, ten people have died from the virus, six of whom were from New Orleans. At least four of those people lived in the same residential retirement home in the Riverbend area. 

Across the nation, more than 10,600 cases have been reported and more than 140 people have died from the virus, according to the Washington Post

“The bottom line is this, based on all the information we have, we have two weeks to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and we can only influence that if we are doing what we are being asked to do,” Edwards said at a Wednesday press conference.

“Please understand, this fight against coronavirus is going to last longer than two weeks,” he said. “We don’t want to look like Italy two weeks from now.”

Last week, facing rising cases of the coronavirus, Edwards announced a month-long school closure in an attempt to slow its spread. 

Edwards’ proclamation grants waivers for state laws that require LEAP testing, school assessment and student attendance through the end of this school year. That’s something that state education leaders requested with the prolonged school closure. 

In a letter Tuesday, he told state education leaders he intended to grant their request, noting  some waivers would be subject to federal approval.

On Wednesday, the NOLA Public Schools district bought 5,000 wireless hotspots for students to use at home.

‘It allows students to not worry’

Schools all across the country are rapidly adapting to statewide closures and setting up online and remote learning options. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom said “few, if any” schools would reopen this spring. 

Even with the removal of mandated instructional time in Louisiana, McKneely said InspireNOLA would continue to offer online and take-home learning to students at its three high schools and four elementary schools. 

“It allows the families to at least focus on health and their well-being,” he said of the waivers. “It allows students to not worry about seat time or promotion.”

McKneely also noted some students may be taking on additional responsibilities at home during school closures. 

“I think every organization and every district right now is taking into consideration our students’ mental health and making sure we prepare them academically the best we can,” he said.

Across the city, in his dining room, fifth-grade teacher Matthew Tuttle starts class each morning with his students in a live video conference. Tuttle teaches at Morris Jeff Community School where he is also president of Morris Jeff United Educators, the school’s union. 

“There’s something to be said with continuing instruction in the face of complete changes of routine, lifestyle and everything,” he said in a Wednesday interview. “There is something to knowing that your teacher is still going to be there, if by phone, or computer screen. That is something kids can hold on to in an unpredictable time.”

The waivers will allow teachers to focus on what they do best, he said.  

“As it relates to state tests, we know that the best instruction is not test prep and it is not centered around the test, so I understand there’s a degree of relief for teachers not having the stress of the results of the tests’ outcomes being affected by the circumstances,” he said.

“But I think to a degree this is an opportunity for teachers to do what they do best and that is educating students.”

‘I think we anticipate this could last longer’

Mehok said Crescent City Schools’ distance-learning plan is evolving every day. Right now the district is focusing on ensuring students who need access to computers have it, and whether phone or internet is a more reliable way to reach each student. 

“Even though we’ve not officially closed schools for more than just four weeks I think we anticipate this could last longer,” she said. 

With the waiver of instructional minutes, The Lens asked if school might end earlier than initially planned. Most schools end in mid-May for the year.

“Any decision we would make to end school, my guess is we would make that decision together,” she said. “Potentially as the state, but definitely as a district. As a district we’ve been making these decisions together.”

“I am open to hearing from others and working with the district and Orleans to make sure we’re doing the right thing for kids. So whatever that is, I imagine we’ll do it together.”

We asked the district whether the school would continue with the governor’s waivers. A statement issued Wednesday by NOLA Public Schools read, the district “is working with our partners to assess how this decision will impact the 2019-2020 school year as the situation develops over the coming months.”

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...