The NOLA Public Schools district has created a 32-member task force — including Mayor LaToya Cantrell and city Health Department Director Jennifer Avegno — to plan for a safe reopening of schools this fall, the district announced in a Tuesday evening press release. 

Whether schools will reopen online or in-person has yet to be determined, but officials are planning for multiple scenarios and hope to release a plan the first week of July. The Louisiana Department of Education has already issued guidance for summer school and summer camps, broken down by each phase of reopening. The district hasn’t yet released a detailed reopening plan and says it is now in its “re-entry planning” phase. Earlier this month it announced that all summer school would be virtual

The new task force is composed of city and school leaders, teachers, social workers, parents and other experts, the district statement said. They met virtually for the first time last week. The public will not be able to attend or view the meetings. That’s contrary to the state, which has made its reopening commission meetings accessible to the public online. 

The city’s public schools have been shuttered since mid-March, when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered public schools to close statewide to slow the spread of the virus. His order was later extended through the end of the school year, although New Orleans’ charter schools ramped up efforts to teach students virtually or through mailed-home paper packets. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. used district funds to purchase laptops and hotspots that charter schools could send home with students. 

As the district contemplates what a fall reopening could look like, it acknowledged that the school year could start online and that in-person education could be a lot different than what students are accustomed to, following recent CDC guidance for schools considering reopening. That possibly includes smaller class sizes accomplished by staggering school schedules, desks spaced far apart and students and teachers wearing masks. Task force members will also discuss school budgets, as funding is likely to take a hit due in part to declining sales tax revenue. 

Asked whether charter schools will make their own plans, the district provided the following statement.

“The district is working through identifying what operational requirements will be need to be in place to comply with state and local public health orders and is continuing to discuss with schools and through the Task Force what systems need to be in place to best serve students and families citywide.”

The task force is also helping evaluate what worked and what didn’t during the two months of remote learning and how to plan for the fall. 

“Now more than ever we need to hear from our community,” Lewis said in the prepared release. “The virus has presented us all with unique and trying challenges. As we plan for what lies ahead for the next school year, we want to be sure we are involving everyone in developing plans to best keep our children and education professionals healthy and supported, while also taking into consideration the needs of families and the community at large.” 

Lewis also encouraged families, educators and community members to participate in a survey the district is launching. The release describes it as “an open survey for parents, students, teachers, school staff and the community to share their insights and experiences on how COVID-19 has affected public education, as well as share their thoughts on how to best return to school in the fall.”

The survey is available online in English, Spanish and Vietnamese until June 5.

One step the district knows its taking, according to the release, is hiring a medical and public health advisor to oversee the reentry planning process and help advise schools on keeping students safe.

In addition to Cantrell and Avegno, Emily Wolffe and Camille Alexander from the city’s Office of Youth and Families are on the task force. The CEOs of Firstline Schools, InspireNOLA, KIPP New Orleans Schools and leaders of eight smaller charter groups are participating, too. Six school-based staff, including educators and social workers, four charter board chairs, three parents and six individuals which the district described as “key experts and experienced educators” round out the group. A full list of members can be found here.

Update: This story was updated after publication with additional information from the district on the task force’s timeline and the fact that its meetings will not be open to the public.

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...