The NOLA Public Schools district updated Orleans Parish School Board members on expected financial losses due to COVID-19 and plans for finishing out the school year remotely, as well as discussing how to reopen that way should it be necessary, at a virtual committee meeting Tuesday afternoon. 

Schools rely on sales taxes to meet their budgets. A statewide stay-at-home order threatens to jeopardize that funding, though it is not yet clear how anticipated losses will impact schools.

The district’s Chief Financial Officer Diane Allison presented three different per-pupil funding models to the board, but board members asked for more specific information on anticipated funding changes, which Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said will be available at the next board meeting. 

“As you all can imagine the short answer is it’s unknown,” Allison said. “We do know the two major drivers of the New Orleans economy are tourism and the petrochemical industry. The price of oil per barrel was $25 when I made this slide … about $50 per barrel is break even, and in the news yesterday it went negative, which is partially due to COVID-19.”

“The short answer is that this decline [in sales tax], we do not know how long it will last. It will affect the current year and in all likelihood it will affect the next fiscal year as well,” she said. Allison also suggested the economic hit could last up to five years.

State per-pupil school funding in Louisiana enjoys broad protections, but those protections may not make up for the other part of their budget, from local tax collections.

Allison said the district has spent $4.2 million of the $5 million in emergency funding it approved the day Gov. John Bel Edwards announced a month-long statewide school closure. Most of that money went to 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hotspots that were sent out to schools last week. The hotspots each have a year of unlimited data. Edwards extended his order last week through the end of the school year. 

“There have been some other small purchases, primarily Zoom accounts as you can imagine,” she said.

Board member Sarah Usdin said the district would need to get creative, suggesting “loans or forgiveness to think about what we need to do to get everyone through this time.”

The district generally evaluates charter school’s fiscal health but will take the current crisis into those evaluations next year, Chief Portfolio Innovation and Accountability Officer Kelli Peterson said. 

“Our schools are going to have to reach into their fund balances to continue to operate,” Peterson said. “Moving into fiscal year 20, we will not deem any of our schools not in good standing, because again it’s times like this they create that fund balance for.”

Access to remote learning

Several board members asked staff about students’ access to wireless internet and computers and their ability to complete school work remotely. District Chief of Staff Dina Hasiotis fielded many of those questions, explaining most city schools are using both paper worksheets and online lessons. 

“We knew technology would be the number one barrier,” Hasiotis said. “Specifically we know that wi-fi continues to be a challenge for families across the city.”

The district is working with the city, she said, on a possible citywide wireless internet solution. 

After 10,000 laptops and 8,000 hotspots went out to the district’s charter schools, Hasiotis said the district is again asking its schools to survey their students’ technology needs. About 45,000 children attend district schools. 

“I think we’ve always estimated that 35 percent of our families or more need high-quality internet access,” she said. “I do not think our 8,000 hotspots met that need.”

The district is also asking schools to submit remote learning plans for next school year, should it not be safe for students to return to classrooms. The district is also working with schools on their promotion and graduation plans and their plans for summer school. About 60 percent of city schools said they plan to offer summer school in a state survey released earlier this week. 

“We need to be planning for every possible situation,” Hasiotis said. 

“What would social distancing look like in a school? How could we open schools? How do students interact in schools?”

All the while the district is still planning for the possibility of a regular start to the school year. The district will take over Mary D. Coghill Charter School starting July 1 and the board approved a calendar for the Gentilly Woods elementary with an Aug. 10 start date

“As we learn more about the virus, if there’s going to be an earlier start to the school year or something we can come back to make revisions,” Lewis said.

School start dates could move up or back depending on recommendations from the Louisiana Department of Health and state Department of Education, he said.

Hasiotis said schools have served 600,000 meals since the school closure started. There are 43 distribution sites across the city. 

“We are continuing to provide face masks to the food service workers,” Hasiotis said. 

The sites are still conducting health checks, including daily temperature checks on workers. Hasiotis said district staff are visiting sites to ensure they are complying.

City schools are also looking at extending their community feeding program into the summer, Hasiotis said. 

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...