The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will consider “minimum health and safety standards” for reopening Louisiana schools — triggered by a new law — during a special meeting Tuesday. 

The public got a glimpse of what those standards will look like — and which could be up for debate — when Louisiana Department of Education State Superintendent Cade Brumley and BESE President Sandy Holloway spoke before the House Committee on Education Monday. The standards, drafted as emergency replacement bulletins for traditional schools and charter schools, include limits on class size, bus capacity, social distancing and cleaning requirements and largely reflect guidelines previously released by the LDOE.

“We have asked every school system to prepare for not only a fully congregate setting but a hybrid model and fully online platform,” Brumley said. “We also intend to release modified calendars that school systems may want to consider should they have to stop and restart.”

State Rep. Raymond Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, asked how monitoring students for masks, cleaning buildings and other proactive safety measures would affect time spent on educating. “Do you see any issues with that where it will start impacting on the education mission?”

“It will be a challenge and we don’t know,” Brumley said. “We have never done this before. We believe in the minimum standards that we set forth.”

The standards are meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 but severely limit how many students can be in a classroom or on a school bus at one time, making operations a challenge as schools work on their reopening plans. Brumley said class size, transportation and access to technology continue to be the biggest hurdles for schools in planning how to reopen. 

Face coverings — which are, for now, required in businesses and public buildings for anyone over the age of eight as part of an executive order effective Monday — are a point of major political contention in the state and around the country. BESE’s draft language stops short of a mask mandate. It appears to offer schools some flexibility, saying children older than eight and adults inside a school building “must wear a face covering to the greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context.” 

The minimum health standards were required by House Bill 59, which Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law last Wednesday. The law also shields schools and their governing bodies from civil lawsuits if someone contracts the virus at a school. The Department of Education and NOLA Public Schools district have each published guidelines this summer. Though generally the same, the district plan was stricter than the states, requiring all students to wear masks.

Until this point, local and state guidelines have been largely based on federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and have been packaged as suggestions, not mandates. Local Education Agencies, or LEAs, are in charge of their own plans. In New Orleans, most charter schools are considered their own LEAs and it’s been unclear what role the district might play in reviewing or authorizing any reopening plans. 

The district did not respond to inquiries regarding whether it would be approving individual charter group plans. 

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Louisiana and across the nation, schools — and how to reopen them — have become highly politicized across the country. President Donald Trump demanded schools reopen, tweeting, “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!” 

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

Over the weekend, Edwards called a Saturday afternoon press conference to announce a statewide mask mandate for everyone eight years old and older. 

Meanwhile on Monday, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced students will not return to in-person classes as scheduled in mid-August, according to the L.A. Times. Locally, Webster Parish has pushed back the start of its school year to Sept. 1. 

“Local school systems have to adopt policies in line with those adopted by BESE tomorrow,” Brumley said, noting the state will publish the plans. 

Brumley said the state will also host an online complaint system to gather feedback on each district’s plan and operations as the state’s schools prepare to reopen. At a town hall meeting last week, teachers asked that whistleblower protection be in place before returning to schools. Brumley said it would be operational by the end of the month. 

It’s unclear exactly who can enforce the minimum standards BESE adopts, but Brumley said it’s not the department. 

“The enforcement ability would come at the local level. Local school boards would approve reopening plans,” department spokesman Ted Beasley wrote by email Monday afternoon. “We are not the enforcement agency, but we are implementing a checklist for systems to follow and set up a communications channel (likely an email) where concerned citizens can share their concerns. We will route those to school system leaders and the board chair.”

It’s unclear if the state believes that parish districts, like the NOLA Public Schools district can enforce the standards for charters. Most of New Orleans’ charters are treated as their own districts for the purposes of policy-setting and day-to-day operations.

In the weeks leading up to scheduled August start dates, many have questioned whether it is safe to reopen school buildings while others have argued it would be detrimental to children to keep them out of the classroom for additional time. 

Many representatives explicitly stated concerns about the health and safety of staff, in addition to students. 

“Roughly 18 percent of our teachers are 55 and older,” Brumley said, citing statistics provided by the National Center for Education Statistics for the 2017-18 school year. That’s about 9,000 teachers, he said. 

Later in the meeting, State Rep. Ken Brass asked Brumley if the state had information on the number of staff with underlying health conditions, who are also considered to be at greater risk for COVID-19 complications. 

“I don’t know of any mechanism that we have that would be able to track those underlying conditions nor do I think individuals necessarily want us to track those conditions,” Brumley said.

“Are we providing any opt-out options for teachers who may be fearful to come to school if they have underlying conditions?” Brass asked. 

Brumley offered a reply that was heard often at the hearing. “I’m honestly not trying to sidestep this, but those are decisions made at the local level.”

State Rep. Stephanie Hilferty asked what the state was able to glean from childcare and early childhood centers, which reopened over the summer. Brumley said about 67 percent were currently operating. 

Louisiana Department of Health Director Courtney Phillips reported, “Nine centers that have had outbreaks. Twenty-five cases and one hospitalization.” She also noted the LDH started publishing outbreak data recently.

Brumley said one of his greatest concerns for hybrid models was students who would be home alone during the day. “The problem and my concern is children who do not have that family unit to reinforce that online learning.”

He suggested schools consider prioritizing those students when deciding which students will come back to school first. Additionally, he said schools may want to consider students without the internet, children of educators and students who are behind or at risk of falling behind. 

The NOLA Public Schools district, for example, has prioritized pre-kindergarten through fourth grade students for in-person schooling five days a week. 

Other representatives asked about students who don’t speak English as their first language and students with disabilities. 

Brumley said the new policy had specific language regarding students with disabilities.

“Students with disabilities must continue to receive services in their least restrictive environment,” he said. “Schools must account for any additional adults who need to enter the room.”

That should benefit any students who receive additional help from teachers or aides during the day, by ensuring they can receive those services. 

BESE President Sandy Holloway spoke for a few minutes after Brumley. Asked about whether there could be changes in the proposed language, she said she didn’t have any specific information but that it could arise at the meeting tomorrow. 

“Should it be ‘should’ ‘shall’ ‘must’ or ‘mandated?” Holloway speculated the conversation around mask rules may go.

The proposed language regarding masking states: “While inside the school facility, all adults and students in grades 3 through 12 must wear a face covering to the greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context.”

“Our recommendation here, it states, masks must be worn to the greatest extent,” Holloway said. “And I expect there will be discussion around the discipline policy.”

Discipline regarding mask wearing was another concern discussed in a virtual town hall hosted by six New Orleans organizations last 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...