Morris Jeff Community School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Louisiana Department of Education on Thursday released reopening guidelines for schools as the beginning of the new school year approaches and the state is seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases.

Among the scores of recommendations to attempt to mitigate the virus’ spread — limiting class sizes and school bus capacity, requiring masks for everyone in third grade and older and daily temperature checks — it appears only one thing is certain, as noted in step one of the guidelines: Going back to school will be risky. 

“Given the levels of COVID-19 currently in our communities, schools should plan for and expect some students will get COVID-19 during the school year.”

Beyond that, a lot will depend on where the state is in its reopening process. 

On a call Thursday, newly seated state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley emphasized the department’s expertise is not in health, but in school operations. 

“We certainly had to lean to the Louisiana Department of Health in providing guidelines and best practice to make sure we are able to open up our schools and have school as safely as we can during this environment.”

The guidelines come one day after the Washington Post reported record high cases in multiple states. Earlier this week, Mayor LaToya Cantrell warned New Orleanians to abide by state and city orders or face more restrictions and the Louisiana house advanced a measure to shield schools from coronavirus lawsuits. 

Every instance of a student or staff diagnosis won’t necessarily require a school to close, the guidelines state, but schools should plan for infection-related closures. Students and teachers who were in close contact — under six feet for more than fifteen minutes — may be directed to quarantine for 14 days. 

Brumley said the state was in “uncharted territory” when Governor John Bel Edwards closed schools in March to limit the spread of the virus. His order was extended through the end of the school year. Schools in New Orleans quickly took steps to facilitate remote learning. 

Now, they’re planning to return to the classroom.

The state guidelines provide operating recommendations based on the three different phases of reopening that Edwards has outlined. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards announced earlier this week that rather than opening further, the state will remain in “phase two” for another month, due to rising case numbers. He was expected to sign an order extending phase two guidelines on Thursday. If Louisiana remains in phase two when schools reopen in August, many schools may have to limit classroom sizes, and buses would only be allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity. 

Moving on to phase three would loosen those requirements somewhat. But if the state were to move backwards, into phase one, schools would be severely limited. 

“We also must prepare for phase changes that could occur during the school year,” Brumley wrote.

“School systems should prepare for at least three possible scenarios: traditional, hybrid and virtual,” the guidelines state. “All scenarios should include daily attendance for staff and students.”

In Louisiana’s current state of phase two, schools can have classes with up to 25 people in them, that includes students and teachers. In younger grades, classes or groups should consist of the same people, which the state is calling a “static group,” to help minimize contact between students and staff. In older grades, where students switch many change classes, the department asks that students and teachers adhere to social distancing guidelines as best they can. Phase one suggests class sizes of 10, and phase three allows up to 50 individuals in a group. 

The state also provided eagerly awaited guidance on school bus capacity, an especially big question for New Orleans’ open-enrollment charter-based district where students criss-cross the city on a daily basis. In phase two, that will be 50 percent of the bus manufacturer’s capacity. In phase three that goes to 75 percent. 

Kate Mehok, the CEO of Crescent City Schools said busing will be the biggest challenge for her network which runs three elementary schools. 

“There’s a really big difference between 50 and 75 percent, particularly for networks like us,” she said in an interview Thursday. “It may limit our ability to bring as many kids back to school as we’d like.”

The state is also encouraging families to drive students to school if possible to both limit contact and offset bus capacity. 

Upon arrival, all staff and students will have their temperatures taken. The state recommends anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher not be allowed into the building. Adults and students in third grade and up must wear a mask, except for individuals who have difficulty breathing.

The state suggests encouraging families to send water with students and closing shared water fountains. When possible, students should eat lunch in classrooms. Thorough cleaning of classrooms and high-touch surfaces is recommended, along with designating doors in one-way directions and taping off hallways to create lanes.

Until the state reaches phase three, band and vocal music classes should not be held. 

Schools must plan to deliver lessons — even if interrupted by a closure — and should develop an adaptive staffing plan for closures or greater limitations to class sizes. 

Mehok said Crescent City Schools will have a virtual option for students if parents don’t feel comfortable sending their children to school. But, she noted, the charter group will ask parents to commit to that option for a set amount of time to limit students from switching back and forth frequently. 

“We’re thinking something on a quarter basis,” she said. “If you choose to do it, you take it for the quarter.”

Schools also need to prepare to serve students who are English Learners and students with special education needs. 

“The school system will ensure that English Learners have access to curriculum, intervention and assessment and service delivery, including language support services during periods of modified operations,” the guidelines state. 

The state recommends schools should have a one-to-one device to student ratio. That is something New Orleans schools have worked to achieve, but a May estimate from NOLA Public Schools district thought about 20 percent of students may still need internet or device access. Obtaining hotspots and laptops could be a challenge with increased demand across the country.

A district survey released this week found that parents wanted a remote learning option for the upcoming school year. It also reported that nearly half of teachers surveyed said they were uncomfortable returning to work. Educators and parents also said “minimizing health risks” was a top priority. 

School workers are considered at “medium risk” of exposure to COVID-19, the guidelines state. The state encourages schools to work with vulnerable staff but notes that the definition of a reasonable accommodation, which an employer must offer, has not yet been defined by the courts.

The full state guidelines are available on the Department of Education website.

“This school year will be a challenging year for the Department, local school systems and for families. It will be a dynamic year of potential stops and starts,” Brumley said Thursday. “We know our students need to be in some form of school and our parents need that for their kids and our parents need that for our economy.”

The NOLA Public Schools district is expected to release its plans, which could include greater coordination from the city’s independent charter schools, by the end of next week.

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...