Parents with Our Voice Nuestra Voz pictured in July 2020 at a protest against NOLA Public Schools' COVID reopening plans. The group is now pushing the school district to enhance protections meant to stop charter school administrators retaliating against parents for advocating for their kids. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

At a press conference Monday, parents with advocacy group Our Voice Nuestra Voz called for the NOLA Public Schools district to delay the start of the 2020-2021 school year as cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in the state. Most schools in New Orleans are scheduled to start classes in early to mid-August. 

“The health of our children as well as our teachers is being put at risk by our schools,” Danielle Guerrero said in front of a Mid-City elementary school. “We don’t want to know about the options once they’ve been made — we want to be part of those conversations.”

Guerrero said she is Honduran and has two children who attend Andrew Wilson Charter School in Broadmoor. Wilson’s charter operator, InspireNOLA Charter Schools, is planning a staggered reopening, with some students starting in-person classes on August 3, according to a letter posted on InspireNOLA’s website

In addition to health concerns, Guerrero said her family faces racial bias on a daily basis and that parents must speak up now to be included in schools’ reopening plans. “We face racism as a family and continually are not being taken into account.” 

Gov. John Bel Edwards’ current emergency proclamation — which he has renewed monthly since March — is set to expire at the end of this week, though he is almost certain to issue another renewal. 

The state moved into the second phase of reopening in June. But as cases rose in the state, Edwards announced additional restrictions on July 11, including closing bars and limiting group sizes. What might be entailed in a new order could be announced early this week, as parents and educators eagerly await word on whether the state will formally intervene in the start of school. 

Last week, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education approved minimum safety standards for schools to reopen. Those standards, such as reduced class sizes and school bus capacity, will greatly affect school operations. The standards were designed to be general and provide local school districts some flexibility. The state, for example, does not address at what point schools should consider closure should students or staff become infected. 

Some parents called for more detail from the state’s highest education body while others encouraged setting bare bones standards so districts could tailor their plans. Locally, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. has said all students will be able to learn from home if they want to. He also acknowledged the possibility of school buildings not reopening on time. 

Another parent Monday asked the district to delay reopening schools to ensure the safety of adults, too. A recent study out of South Korea found children between the ages of 10 and 19 can spread the virus just as much as adults

“We’re not only thinking about our children. We’re thinking about our teachers, the director and those who clean the school,” the Spanish-speaking parent said through a translator. “We’re thinking about everyone who makes our children’s education possible.”

Several other parents requested additional time as well. Some advocated for health and safety while others said they wanted to be more included in school plans. 

The parents join two teachers unions — at Benjamin Franklin High School and Morris Jeff Community School — who are calling for in-person school to be pushed back. 

On Monday, Franklin’s Head of School Patrick Wildhalm said he anticipated more information from the district soon.

“Working within the state and district guidelines, and with strategic input from faculty, Franklin has developed plans that provide for all virtual learning and hybrid virtual and on-campus learning,” he wrote in an email. “Especially seeing the recent and rapid increase of positive cases, we know that this will be a fluid situation all semester.”

“As for the model in which we start school, we anticipate guidance from NOLA Public Schools today, based on information from the city’s Department of Health and the mayor, that will factor into our decision,” he wrote. “We still anticipate school beginning on Aug. 12.”

Last week, newly appointed Orleans Parish School Board member Grisela Jackson called for the school year to start virtually. Other board members expressed similar concern, The Times-Picayune reported Sunday. 

Over the weekend, New Orleans City Council member Helena Moreno said she planned to request a special City Council meeting to discuss school reopening.

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...