On a call with school leaders across the state Wednesday morning, Louisiana Department of Education leaders clarified a range of options high schools can offer to seniors as they approach graduation next month. 

Among them, high school seniors do not have to complete certain typically required exams, minimum required seat time, can take classes pass/fail and schools can allow students to finish school work at home if they haven’t yet shown proficiency in required classes. 

“This special time for seniors across the state has been disrupted by the COVID-19 event, and we are sensitive to the uncertainty this has caused to the students and their families,” acting State Superintendent Beth Scioneaux said in a release. “We want to support and reassure them that the path forward and the ability to follow their dreams remains.”

The guidance comes days after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced his intent to extend a “stay-at-home order” through the end of the month. The original order is set to expire April 13 but officials around the country have followed the lead of President Donald Trump, closing schools and asking people to stay home through April 30 or longer. Edwards acknowledged that would leave less than a month in the academic year for most schools. 

Edwards and state education officials had already waived several school requirements, such as instructional minute minimums and certain state testing, with other specific waivers for seniors.

School districts will decide how to award course credits, including an option to switch to classes to a pass/fail grade. They will also calculate GPAs, determine class rank and schedule graduations, which could be done virtually. 

“School systems should determine if students have demonstrated proficiency in the grade-level content and/or courses to award credit,” the seven-page FAQ read

If they have not, the guidance suggests schools provide online coursework, written work packets or other ways the student can demonstrate knowledge of the material. 

Jamar McKneely, CEO of InspireNOLA charter network, said he appreciated and agreed with the state’s changes. InspireNOLA operates three high schools in the city.

“Our students are experiencing a lot of anxiety, emotions and trauma at this time and need assurance that their educational status will not be in jeopardy due to the virus,” he said. “InspireNOLA will follow the state guidelines and encourage our students to fulfill all academic requirements through distance learning.”

The NOLA Public Schools district issued a statement Thursday morning saying its staff was reviewing the guidelines and would work with local school leaders. “As always, we remain dedicated to doing all that we can to assist our students in graduating on time and we hope to be celebrating with them soon.”

Options for high school seniors

The state issued a seven-page FAQ that includes a broad range of flexibility for certain high school programs and requirements. However, with each option that could allow students to qualify for a diploma easier, such as through a pass/fail class, the state reminded schools that could affect Taylor Opportunity Program for Seniors (TOPS) scholarship eligibility. The state office of financial aid that administers TOPS also has coronavirus guidance for students.

“Students opting for a Pass/Fail grade option should consult their counselor on any impact this may have on the TOPS GPA requirement,” the state’s release said. 

There are additional waivers for 5th and 6th year seniors, students seeking a community service endorsement seal, and students in dual enrollment programs, who can complete their courses or choose to withdraw without penalty. The state said diplomas are scheduled to be delivered to schools on time.

New Orleans’ high school seniors are spread out across the city right now, working from laptops, tablets and desktops at their homes. With their spring musicals, sports seasons and proms cancelled or on the line, the class of 2020 has had anything but a typical senior spring during the state’s month-long statewide schools closure.

Several states have eased graduation requirements, some are allowing seniors to meet requirements through alternative means. In Kansas, where schools have closed for the remainder of the school year, school districts have scaled back district-specific graduation requirements and seniors must only complete state requirements. Officials say most seniors have already met those requirements.

Schools have closed for the academic year in Alabama, Arizona, Kansas, New Mexico, Virginia and Vermont, according to the Washington Post. Georgia’s governor also recently extended school closures to the end of the academic year. Other states have closed schools without naming a reopening date.

It was unclear until now what these students would need to do to graduate from high school — it’s still unclear if schools will reopen this academic year — as the global pandemic has disrupted life across the nation and globe. 

Edwards and state education officials had already waived several school requirements, such as instructional minute minimums and certain state testing. Those measures included specific carve-outs for seniors, such as end-of-course exams, and other non-academic requirements, like filling out financial aid applications. The state still recommends seniors consider filling out financial aid as it may help with scholarships and other post-secondary options.

The NOLA Public Schools district dramatically increased its monitoring of high school graduation eligibility and tracking in the city’s charter schools this school year. That effort came after about half the graduating class of 2019 at John F. Kennedy High School learned after their ceremony last spring that they hadn’t been eligible to graduate.

Students were set to take the ACT, which the state requires all high school juniors to take, two days after the closure was announced. Those scores are factored into the state’s annual A-F letter grades for high schools. But those annual ratings have been suspended for this academic year as well. The state-administered test has been rescheduled for June 2, according to the state. The national one is rescheduled for June 13.

Students who are scheduled to take Advanced Placement exams, which can count for college credit, will not take them in-person. The AP exam dates will be announced Friday.

Update: This story was updated to include comments from InspireNOLA CEO Jamar McKneely.

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...