FirstLine Live Oak School in Uptown. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

One day before a deadline set by a recently passed state law, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday approved a minimum set of safety standards for schools — including limits on classroom and school bus capacity — to allow them to reopen this fall. 

Under the new standards, masks are strongly encouraged for students eight years and older and during phase two of recovery, schools must keep class sizes to 25 people, including teachers, and buses can only run at 50 percent capacity.

The nearly five-hour meeting occurred in Baton Rouge about three miles from Tiger Stadium, where Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sat on a panel urging schools to reopen, even as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Louisiana and the country. 

Kira Orange Jones, the BESE member who represents New Orleans, asked the state to offer further guidance and require more information from school districts’ individual plans, echoing many public speakers who called for more information. 

“Teachers are afraid for their lives,” she said during public discussion.

Several major city districts across the country have announced in recent days that they will begin the school year online. And some Louisiana parishes have pushed the start date into September. School and city leaders in New Orleans announced Tuesday that school buildings may remain closed when school starts in early to mid-August if Louisiana or the city of New Orleans has not moved past the second phase of reopening.  

At the meeting, hours of comments from the public and board members, along with testimony from health experts, made clear that school staff and parents alike have many concerns about how safe it is to reopen schools in a few weeks. But experts said the standards — wearing masks, social distancing, cleaning and screening for temperatures — represent the best possible way to do so, and all four must be used in tandem. 

Now, Louisiana school districts must pass policies to align with the BESE’s standards, such as limiting classes to 25 students and running school buses at 50 percent capacity while the state is in phase two of reopening. Earlier Tuesday, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district would enforce those guidelines at New Orleans charter schools. 

Most speakers had a range of concerns about reopening schools, asking that the guidelines go further, while others advocated for reduced requirements to allow local school districts to make their own requirements. Local education agencies, LEAs, in Louisiana control most aspects of school operations in their schools. 

“Where is the district going to find a substitute teacher to work in a classroom full of possibly exposed children?” Maria Harmon, co-founder of Step Up Louisiana, a social justice advocacy organization, asked. 

“If a high school student tests positive, that child has eight teachers,” she said. “Are those eight teachers going to be quarantined? Will it be paid for? Those teachers each teach more students. So tell us again how is this going to work?”

Harmon said she was exposed to COVID-19 at an East Baton Rouge Parish School Board meeting — even though there were temperature checks at the door — and questioned whether temperature checks in schools would be effective. The day prior, state superintendent Cade Brumley said students would be given a second check if they failed the first one by surpassing 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, to ensure their temperature wasn’t simply from the Louisiana heat. 

A 20-year-veteran bus driver said  that as the sole adult on a bus, she would not be able to ensure kids stay spaced apart onboard. “They’re a different person when they walk through those doors. We can’t tell them to sit in a certain seat and they’re going to stay there.”

One educator criticized the standard on masks, calling for them to be used to the “greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context,” saying that using the term “to the greatest extent possible” when it came to the masking guidance was too vague. Another called out the latter part of the standard, questioning whether it was giving schools a free pass. 

Another educator was concerned that policing mask-wearing would become all-encompassing, saying, “I just realized I need to add Band-Aids to my teacher supply list because my junior high students’ ears will be raw by the end of the day.” 

Another teacher said despite having microphones, she could barely hear BESE members through their masks. She asked how she could possibly be expected to effectively teach behind one, she asked. 

The meeting happened hours after NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. and city of New Orleans Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno announced school buildings in the city may remain closed if the state is still in “phase two” of reopening when schools are scheduled to return from summer break in early to mid-August. 

“As we’ve said before, the virus sets the timeline,” Avegno said. “Not only for schools, but all other activities we care about.”

The direction that infection and hospitalization data have taken over the past several weeks indicates that it’s very possible the state could remain in phase two into August. 

Gov. John Bel Edwards ended a statewide stay-at-home order in May, moving the state into the first phase of reopening. As infections dropped throughout the state that month, Edwards moved into phase two in early June. After that, however, infections began increasing across Louisiana, and in late June, Edwards has extended phase two another 28 days. With the end of that extension order fast approaching, and infection rates not seeing a significant improvement, Edwards on Saturday announced a statewide face covering mandate and reshuttered bars, which had only been newly allowed to open — at reduced capacity — in phase two. 

Parents and educators had questions about how mask requirements would be enforced, wanting to ensure discipline didn’t result in missing class. 

Even if the state moves into phase three next month, it’s possible that the city of New Orleans — which has taken a more cautious approach to reopening than the rest of the state — could remain in phase two. 

“There were many questions raised today about the details of these plans,” Jones said. “My question is how do we get more transparency into the plans that are being constructed now.”

“I’d like to raise for the board that level of specificity for the board that we’re including today,” Jones said — it was unclear exactly what she meant and no amendment was included. 

The board also approved a motion proposed by BESE member James Garvey to provide statistics, by parish, that would show how many students were enrolled in distance learning and whether it was recorded lessons or live, planned instructional minutes in programs, devices and percentage of broadband access.

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...