Public schools in Louisiana won’t reopen this academic year, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced earlier in this week and made official in a Wednesday proclamation. But education will continue amid the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.
“I want to be very clear about something. This is not the end of learning for this academic year. It’s just the end of students physically going to school campuses,” he said at a Wednesday press conference. “I fully expect that learning will continue. I fully expect that schools will continue with nutrition programs. That is critically important.”
Acting State Superintendent of Education Beth Scioneuax appeared with Edwards at his Wednesday afternoon press conference.
Scioneaux said state is offering guidance to districts on evaluating students, including whether seniors are eligible to graduate. But many of those decisions, like issuing grades and whether to promote students to the next grade are up to local districts, she said. She did not say whether additional days, or other makeup measures would be added to the next school year.
“It’s just not going to be feasible to resume the operations of our schools this academic year,” Edwards said on Tuesday, explaining why he would be issuing the order.
Also on Wednesday, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell extended her emergency order through May 16. The order closes certain businesses and calls on residents to stay at home. Edwards said Cantrell had not personally spoken with him on the matter.
The move to keep schools closed comes nearly a week after acting Scioneaux and state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education officials asked Edwards to call off school for the academic year. They called remote learning plans “critical” and implored school districts to continue providing services to the best of their ability. Last month, just over half of districts were offering continued education, according to the state.
If schools had resumed in person, the majority of them would have had just weeks left in their school year. BESE president Sandy Holloway questioned whether the risk of reopening was worth it, especially in a state with a high rate of underlying conditions.
“The CDC factors for long-term facilities closure, based on available science, indicates that the citizens of our state are more at risk if children and staff are introduced into these facilities too soon,” she wrote in a letter to Edwards last week.
Louisiana is not alone. Several states have called off school for the academic year.
The Louisiana Department of Education is in the middle of surveying its districts for a second time to see how many will offer online and distance learning opportunities. Answers were due Tuesday, but Scioneaux said the results weren’t ready.
Asked if he was concerned about the shift to online learning, Edwards said yes, especially considering the disparity in rural and low-income populations access to internet.
“I’m worried about all of it,” he said. “Because while I happen to think online learning is the best alternative … I also happen to think students learn best when they are in a classroom with that teacher.”
The NOLA Public Schools district confirmed last week all of its schools were offering distance learning. Despite the district’s quick actions to secure emergency funding — the same day Edwards announced the closure — procuring, formatting and distributing laptops and hotspots has taken additional time. Schools are still distributing devices.
Regarding the extended closure, the district issued a statement attributed to Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr.
“As a district, we have been committed to supporting the whole child throughout this crisis and will remain committed through the last day of school, even if that last day of school this year will be at home,” he stated in an email sent by communication staff. “I am proud to say that in collaboration with schools, we are leading the way, locally and nationally, by providing students with the technology, meals, health services and distance learning they need to grow and succeed for the remainder of this school year.”
He said that work will continue.
“We are actively working with school leaders to ensure parents receive updates on report cards, graduations and potential summer school options as they are finalized,” he said.
For specific information about distance learning and the end of the school year, parents should check with their local districts, Edwards said. Many New Orleans charter schools function as their own districts.
Crescent City Schools Chief Operating Officer Chris Hines said the charter group is working with its schools and other charter leaders in addition to the district “to prepare for the end of the school year,” he wrote in an email.
“We understand the value of making a collective decision about the end of school so that we can best support our families across the city,” he wrote.
Kiril Johnson, the Executive Director of Finance & Operations at Arise Schools, said his two-school network is working with district leaders.
“We will continue distance learning and await guidance from NOLA PS about a potential coordinated last day of instruction,” he wrote in an email.
In neighboring St. Bernard Parish, Superintendent Doris Voitier issued a statement in response to questions about the district’s distance learning plan.
“While school buildings here in St. Bernard Parish are closed, learning is not,” she wrote. “With the anticipation of continued school closures, instructional activities and supports for all students have transitioned to our various online teaching platforms.”
A spokesman for the Jefferson Parish Public School System did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Archdiocese of New Orleans spokeswoman Sarah McDonald provided a statement from its Office of Catholic Schools.
“Superintendent of Catholic Schools Dr. RaeNell Houston is in conversations with Catholic school superintendents throughout the state to develop plans for the remainder of this school year for Catholic schools. After consultation with the superintendents and local principals she will provide a strategic plan as to how the school year will be brought to conclusion.“
Toward the end of the press conference, Edwards said state education officials we’re thinking about next school year.
“If you’re going to really stop the spread you know a part of this has to do with schools,” he said.
“It’s not too early to start thinking about what school looks like next school year because we’re not going to have the vaccine in place,” he said. “You’re liable to see school taking place without large assemblies. You may see students coming in and leaving at different times so they’re not congregating waiting for buses.”
He said the state was considering those strategies along with many others.
“None of this is easy, and none of this is ideal.”
Update: This story was updated with additional information from the press conference.