Communities in Schools site supervisor Max Davidson awaits a video teleconference with a student.

Safety first. That was the focal point of a Wednesday night virtual town hall where more than 300 educators, parents and community members discussed concerns about reopening schools in New Orleans as the coronavirus — which closed schools for three months in the spring — is on the rise again in Louisiana. 

Hosted by a collective of advocacy organizations, the gathering focused on school safety and what that means for students, families and all school employees. The six organizations — Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, called “Rethink,” Friends and Families of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC), StepUp Louisiana, Familias Unidas En Acción, OPEN NOLA and United Teachers of New Orleans — were asked to provide answers to two questions.

“Is it really safe to reopen schools? What does safety in schools mean for your organization?” UTNO member Adrienne Dixson asked.

President Donald Trump this week made it clear that reopening schools in the fall is a priority for his administration, tweeting, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” 

The Louisiana Department of Education on June 25 released guidelines for reopening. And the NOLA Public Schools district followed with its own guidance on July 1. But what reopening will actually look like next month remains to be seen. What’s clear is that teachers in particular are concerned about safety. A June NOLA Public Schools survey found that only 49 percent felt that it would be safe to return to in-person school at the time. Since then, the rate of infections in the state has only gotten worse. 

Teachers participating in the virtual town hall wondered how safety measures, like social distancing and cleaning, would be enforced and who would be in charge.

“If kids are going to transition every class period. Where do they go and wait while the classrooms are being cleaned?” high school teacher Dave Cash asked. “And if they do it the other way and have teachers move- high school students don’t have the same schedule. I don’t know how you would do that.” 

Meanwhile, students in Rethink released a letter that said as COVID-19 took off in March they were given little information. 

“There was little to no communication about who was sick or exposed to COVID. If we return, it has to be better than what we left,” Dixson said, as she read their letter aloud. “Our experience before COVID was unsafe. We had limited access to bathrooms.”

Nahliah Webber, the Executive Director of OPEN NOLA, said she was especially concerned with “hyper-surveillance” of students.

“When the CDC guidelines were released in May, I immediately thought they would be problematic,” she said, noting she sent a letter to the district on May 20. 

She wrote that the guidelines, which call for lines to be taped in hallways, and keeping children spaced out and in small groups, are “developmentally inappropriate and potentially emotionally, psychologically and mentally harmful for children in schools.”

The country’s two biggest teachers unions, the National Association of Educators and the American Federation of Teachers, have signaled that they may call for strikes or other protest actions if local or state school officials push to reopen prematurely or without proper safety precautions, Politico reported in the spring. UTNO is affiliated with the AFT. 

This week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced the CDC would be reissuing guidelines. “We don’t want the guidance from CDC to be a reason why schools don’t open.” But CDC Director Robert Redfield on Thursday said that the agency does not plan to revise its guidelines.

Webber worries about how safety measures will be regulated and by whom. 

“In some school environments where already discipline disparities exist … I felt this could be exacerbated” by additional rules regarding COVID-19 safety procedures, she said Wednesday.

Speakers addressed additional concerns for students who don’t speak English as their first language and might not understand or be able to clarify rules and additionally the ability for schools to ensure they receive translators and a full education if classes are held online. 

All wondered whether the voices of other employees who make schools run — cafeteria workers, bus drivers and custodians — have been involved in creating the NOLA Public Schools district’s recently released Roadmap to Reopening plans. The district surveyed some 7,000 people and had a task force that met behind closed doors. 

Earlier in the day, Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced some increased restrictions on bar operations and limited indoor gatherings to 25 people. The latter immediately drew a question from reporters about how schools would be affected. 

“Well all of this affects schools,” Cantrell said. “Because right now, we are not at a place where if they wanted to implement the opening of schools tomorrow — we would not be there.”

Asked about Cantrell’s remarks, district spokeswoman Dominique Ellis Falcon pointed to a previously released quote from Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. “We will adjust our plans as needed. We will do everything in our power to help keep staff, students and their families safe.”

Regarding the new restriction limiting the size of indoor gatherings, Falcon said, “This new restriction may affect professional development and staff trainings however, and the District is working with schools now on those issues.”

The district has outlined three scenarios — at-home education, a hybrid of in-school and online learning and a full return to classes with safety measures. 

Schools meanwhile, are creating building- and program-specific plans. But members of the community groups gathered Wednesday said they’d hoped for greater participation in the planning process.

In the town hall, Rooted High School computer teacher Dave Cash criticized the district’s reopening process, which included a task force that he and others in the group thought did not include enough input from students, teachers and other school employees. 

In the upcoming year, he said, accountability measures for schools, teachers and students alike remains unclear. 

“All teachers are going to be required to basically do double work and will be teaching in an environment that basically no one has been trained to do,” Cash said, noting the district plan says that any student who wants to may choose to learn from home. 

“If we’re going to be evaluated this year — and I think it’s reasonable to evaluate teachers — what’s that going to look like? If we don’t know those expectations in advance it’s hard to do that.”

The same goes for schools and students, he said. Gov. John Bel Edwards waived standardized exams last spring which means it’s unclear what school accountability will look like this year without state letter grades being issued. For students, their academic responsibilities are a bit unclear, but what he’s particularly concerned about is discipline regarding safety measures, like the requirement to wear masks. 

“We’re concerned about over-policing of that and what that accountability looks like,” Cash said. 

Another teacher said she was concerned about how to approach a student who might be wearing a mask wrong. 

Cash thinks there has to be a strong whistleblower protection in place so everyone involved in the school community can report unsafe situations. 

“We think it’s really important that everyone has a voice and is allowed to speak up without consequences,” Cash said. “The safety of everyone depends on it.”

Erika Otero is a biology and physics teacher at Benjamin Franklin High School. She’s a member of the school’s union. While understanding best practices are ever-changing as we learn more about the virus, she said, she wants to hear more specifics about reopening so everyone involved can ask questions. 

“There are things that parents, teachers, other staff members like the custodial staff, bus drivers and cafeteria staff who have a certain vision or understanding of how things work that could contribute to a safer reporinging,” she said in an interview Thursday. 

In March, a few days before Edwards closed schools statewide, she said the school gave her a small container of wipes to wipe down desks in between classes. 

“I remember looking at this tiny container and thinking this is not going to be enough. Great intentions, I understand there are limited resources and limited time and I worry that’s what it could be like in the fall,” she said citing expected budget cuts. 

Otero was displeased by another school principal quoted in The Times-Picayune calling the town hall a move by union leaders to “sow fear and distrust” in charter school administrations. 

“It’s not at all fear-mongering,” Otero said. “We are literally just going to these community organizations and saying ‘how are your people feeling about this’ because if your people are concerned we need to know and we need to know why.”

As schools release their own plans, New Orleans school communities will be able to better understand if they do indeed read like the CDC guidelines released this spring. 

“Tape on floors, partitions around desks, no communal shared spaces or being in the same room for 8 hours a day are just some of the suggested actions that have no place in schools,” Webber wrote in her May letter. “If this is what schools have to look like to stop the spread of a virus then they shouldn’t reopen.”

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...