Alternating days, smaller socially distant classes and bringing the city’s youngest students back to school first to help address childcare needs are all ideas being discussed as schools plan for potential reopening of their buildings in the fall, following COVID-19 restrictions that saw them closed in mid-March through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. 

How students return to school will be largely determined by what phase of recovery the city is in, Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok told The Lens in an interview. 

“We’re running all the scenarios and saying which ones are the least disruptive, which ones will result in the most learning and which ones will help families get back to work,” Mehok said. “We recognize our role in New Orleans is to provide safety and make sure children are fed and educated. We’re also institutions of care and love and making sure our students are safe.”

When Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered schools closed mid-March to curb the spread of the virus, New Orleans’ charter schools set to work providing in-home lessons. Some provided weekly paper-packet lessons, others went all online and some did a mix of the two. Even as schools think about opening their doors, they are also honing their remote learning plans

Reopening under recovery phase one, where the city currently is, would be very difficult, Mehok said. Right now, state guidance recommends classes be capped at 10 people, including the teacher. Phase two and three would be easier, she said. 

While the state has moved to phase two, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has kept the city in the first phase, though that could change soon.  

Guidance from the Louisiana Department of Health, state Department of Education and NOLA Public Schools district will largely shape the upcoming school year. 

In phase two, the state said classes could increase to 25 people. But each school will be faced with unique operational challenges, such as the sizes of classrooms. Schools with small classrooms may have trouble spacing students out even if they do keep class sizes below 25.

“I think busing is also a huge question,” Mehok said, noting the city’s open-enrollment system that does not limit students to schools in their neighborhood. “If the guidance is very strict that is going to make it much more difficult to reopen.”

If students have to be spread far apart on buses, that could mean schools need more buses. And transportation is often the second highest cost for schools, behind salaries. Additionally, if class sizes are limited, schools will be looking for guidance on how that affects busing if students are interacting with different students in their classroom versus on their bus.

Some charter schools, like Benjamin Franklin High School, are already announcing changes. The selective-admission high school will be moving to a semester model with three to four classes, versus their previous six to seven year long classes. One possibility is students will only be on campus every other day. On their off-site days, they’ll engage with teachers online. 

Franklin’s Chief Academic Officer David Ferris said the shift is partially in response to remote learning feedback and will also help limit class sizes and student interaction to help curb the spread of the virus. 

“We were constantly asking for feedback,” Ferris said. “One of the things we got back was it was really hard to keep track of seven different classes and seven different assignment deadlines and kind of juggle all of that in this online environment.”

And while Ferris said he’s not a public health expert, the shift in schedule could be beneficial.

“Assuming we have brick and mortar classes, this would immediately cut down your potential exposure to 50 percent,” Ferris said. “Instead of going to 8 classes you’re now going to 3 or 4 classes.”

Mehok said charter leaders have been in conversation, and she’s heard high school leaders discuss alternate day schedules. But her priorities and expectations at the elementary level are different. 

“If we can’t bring everybody back, maybe we bring the little ones back first so that if I’m a parent who has to go to work I don’t have to worry about what’s happening with my five-year-old. I know they’re in school,” she said. “And maybe we ask some of the older students to stay home at first.”

SUB: Charters trying to coordinate reopening 

That’s one of many ideas educators have discussed. Ferris and Mehok both said charter leaders — which are allowed to operate autonomously — are working together. 

“While we have this autonomy and independence, we all also operate within a city,” Mehok said. “So I think whatever we come up with should all align somewhat.”

Ferris said the same thing and noted that another idea being discussed is using students’ last names to determine which days they attend school. He thinks that idea may be “the most logical one and could transcend schools and classes.”

“So I think alphabetically. The things that would transcend schools most evenly and divide classes most equally,” Ferris said. “And you could even tell families, if you have multiple names in one family you could tell them to just pick one.”

It’s unclear who will make the ultimate decision for each charter school, most of which are considered their own school districts. Asked if each school district, called a local education agency (LEA), would make their own reopening decision, Department of Education spokeswoman Sydni Dunn said that “will likely be a decision by the Governor.”

Nothing is set in stone, but school leaders continue to discuss their options. 

“I think the message to the public that I would want to be heard is that there are people in schools and positions of leadership that know that this is a scary time and that we need to rebuild the community’s ability to trust things like school and we are working really hard,” Ferris said. “The interest of the students and staff is of highest importance.”

At Franklin, Ferris said a hybrid online and in-person class would still need state approval. 

“The state already allows for online courses and in person courses,” Ferris said. “So it’s not a stretch to say, ‘OK, we can do a hybrid.’ “ 

“If we really want to try to create social distancing … that might be the best way to do it.”

Parents eager to hear charters’ plans

The Lens spoke with a few parents of elementary school students who are hoping for more in-person or live class video conferences in the upcoming year. 

Allison Cruz has two children that attend Morris Jeff Community School. While her 10-year-old daughter is a more self-directed learner, her six-year-old son needed constant supervision to stay engaged with online lessons. 

She said the teachers were incredible and that their hard work was evident. Her kids really enjoyed daily kick-off video conferences with their teachers and classmates, she said. She hopes to see more of that, or better yet, see the kids in school. 

“I want the kids to be in a school building next year,” Cruz said. “My son especially needs to be in a school building.”

Parent Megan Wright said her six-year-old son at Bricolage Academy grew tired of worksheets, so they shifted to doing activities he was interested in, like cooking and science experiments, and gave up on the worksheets.

“Remote learning was very difficult,” Wright said in an interview last week. “I don’t think anyone was prepared for needing to work fulltime and transition into being a teacher. And with younger kids there’s no way to have them learn remotely without having the parents heavily involved.”

Wright works in public health and is skeptical of a return to school in August. 

“Even though we all want our kids to be back in school and back to normal I also think that that probably won’t happen,” she said. “So what I would most like to see is kids being supported with more live learning, if it’s going to be virtual. More live and organized virtual classroom activities.”

Wright said schools are in a very tough place right now, especially educators who are at home with their own children trying to teach. 

“I wonder how much longer folks can stay away from work and do childcare all the time,” Wright said. “I’m worried if we do A and B days, what is that going to mean for parents who don’t have alternate child care and who can’t spend another few months working from home or remain unemployed. It’s sort of hard to think about what a different type of learning environment is without thinking about the childcare needs when they are not in school.”

“I think there has been a big underestimate on the amount of time it takes to do childcare right now,” she said. “The kids are more anxious and that manifests in different ways for kids and that results in more in-person, hands-on time.”

Another item parents and teachers have discussed is professional development for virtual learning. 

Matthew Tuttle, a fifth grade teacher at Morris Jeff Community School and the head of the educators’ union there, thinks greater teacher education would serve students well. 

“So much thought and professional development goes into classroom instruction, both the design of curriculum and the implementation of that curriculum,” Tuttle said. “The same amount of professional development needs to go into what that looks like virtually. That’s in regards to platforms, resources, pedagogy.”

The district has said it plans to release recommendations from its COVID-19 Task Force in early July. The task force consists of 32 members, but its meetings are not open to the public. 

Meanwhile, parents are eager to hear reopening plans.

“We are trying to be slow and deliberate,” Mehok said. “My hope is that by early July, we’ve been able to come up with a plan to open in August.”

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...