With Louisiana schools closed for at least one month in hopes of slowing the local spread of the global coronavirus pandemic, the NOLA Public Schools district and its charter groups are working to keep kids fed and help connect them to the internet.

On Friday morning, staff from FirstLine Schools passed out meals from a table in front of a school bus parked on Caton Street just off Gentilly Boulevard. Practicing social distancing — the limiting of direct contact with others — families could drive through the parking lot and avoid getting out of their cars.

Of chief concern from local and federal officials is the ability to transmit the virus unknowingly, as not everyone who has it shows symptoms. This drove school closures and the transition of as much business as possible online across the nation and the globe.

With New Orleans at or near the top of per-capita infections and students and families coming in person to pick up meals, as well as staffers continuing to work in kitchens and on buses, officials said they are taking precautions. 

NOLA Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Tiffany Delcour said the district shared guidance with schools on Monday. 

“That includes taking temperatures of all meal service workers, kitchen workers, and logging that daily and then asking them if they have any symptoms as well,” she said. Any worker with a temperature above 100 is being asked to go home. 

FirstLine CEO Sabrina Pence said the charter school network, which runs the Caton Street site, has hired nurses to complete that daily screening and trained all staff that are working both in kitchens and on the sites.

Pence said the network worked with the district to see what neighborhoods had lots of students but no close school pick-up option. 

“How can FirstLine fill a gap using our existing buses?” Pence said. That led to the 10 sites run out of school buses, something Pence said is covered under the network’s current transportation contract.

Coronavirus cases in the state rose overnight to 479, according to the Louisiana Department of Health. Of those cases, 299 were in New Orleans. According to a state release, ten people have died from the virus, eight 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 16,000 cases have been reported and more than 190 people have died from the virus, according to the Washington Post. Dozens of states have shuttered schools statewide. 

Delcour said schools are working to ensure people aren’t getting too close to each other at the campuses. 

“Many schools are putting little x’s on sidewalks so when people come up to pick up their meals if there is a line that they stand on these x’s that are six feet apart,” Delcour said. “So we want to make sure that we are part of the solution and not part of the problem.”

Pence said the FirstLine network can serve up to 2,000 meals a day and that on Thursday, sites across the city, including other charter groups, provided 20,000 meals. At 43 sites across the city students can pick up food on weekdays. At most sites, breakfast and lunch can be picked up from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The New Orleans Recreation Development Commission is also serving meals at some locations from 4 to 6 p.m.

Should restrictions in the city tighten at all, Delcour said the district is working with the state in hopes they could be part of the emergency response. Delcour said the district may also submit waivers that would allow them to give out multiple days of meals at a time to families, which could reduce distribution days.

Internet access

The meal sites could soon become distribution sites for wireless hotspots.

Earlier this week, the district purchased 5,000 hotspots for $1.2 million. That money came from emergency funding approved by the Orleans Parish School Board at an emergency meeting held last week. 

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis and other city officials hope it will help address the digital divide for a significant number of the district’s 44,000 students. With business and education shifting online, educators have had to quickly adapt and build distance-learning plans. 

But a significant number of FirstLine students don’t have access to a computer and/or internet, Pence said.

“We did an assessment of families’ needs for devices and families’ needs for wireless,” she said. “What we are finding is about between 30 to 50 percent of our families need devices in order to get access. So our distance learning plan is actually grounded in paper.”

Pence said students can also access teachers on the phone. There are online-based lessons, she said, but they aren’t required. 

“We’re making sure the focus is paper based so that everyone has access,” she said. The network will begin mailing school work packets home to limit interaction.

Delcour said the district is reviewing data the charter schools collected about their students’ internet access. 

“Of our student population, kind of our raw data, that we haven’t really cleaned up yet, says about 25 percent of our families do not have access to reliable internet,” she said. “Now what we do hope is that some of those students are one family or one cohort, so they would only really need one [hotspot].”

The devices are from T-Mobile and Delcour said they will have unlimited data. 

“That was a shift that we made once we realized they were going to use them a lot. And we bought 12-months worth of them.”

Pence said schools welcome the district’s support. 

Now, Delcour and her team must compare notes across the city’s charter schools and see in which cases siblings from different schools can share one hotspot. 

“That’s why the data review is so important. You know, not all children go to the same school. So families may go to two different schools.”

Delcour said the district hopes to begin getting the hotspots to families next week. 

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...