NOLA Public Schools' West Bank headquarters.

One week after the NOLA Public Schools district announced the delay of in-person schooling and an online start to the school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, district staff on Tuesday told Orleans Parish School Board members that nearly 20 percent of city students may still lack access to the internet. 

“Potentially up to 9,000 students may still need connectivity. Our schools are working to close that gap daily,” Chief School Support and Improvement Officer Dina Hasiotis said in a virtual committee meeting. “It is an area of continued need and one we will watch closely in coming weeks.”

District schools serve approximately 45,000 students. The decision to delay in-person classes was announced last week as COVID-19 cases were increasing in the city, after they had been drastically reduced earlier in the spring. The district plans to evaluate case data at the end of August to determine whether in-person classes can resume after Labor Day.

Meanwhile, other school districts have also announced similar delays. Last week, the East Baton Rouge school system announced that it won’t open for in-person classes until after Labor Day. And on Tuesday, St. Tammany Parish public schools also delayed an in-person start until Sept. 8. 

The once all-charter NOLA Public Schools district is again directly running a school, which means the district also finds itself navigating the day-to-day operations of a school during the pandemic. And on Tuesday, the OPSB committee advanced a distance learning policy for its only school — Mary D. Coghill Elementary School — which it took over from a charter group on July 1. The full board will consider the policy Thursday. 

“We know this is not normal times … but under the circumstances with school starting soon we wanted to make sure we had the policies in place to support our schools and young people at this time,” OPSB President Ethan Ashley said, explaining the emergency rules rushing the policy for approval in one week. Normally policies are considered over at least three monthly board meetings.

The policy calls for the district to provide every child with their own computer. Each of Coghill’s 402 students will receive a Chromebook, Chief Safety, Discipline, and Direct Run Schools Officer Ulyses Collins III told board members. Asked by a board member about replacements should a student’s computer break, Collins said, “We have ordered reserves to ensure student learning won’t be impeded or delayed.”

Coghill has been holding professional development for its staff in person. 

Hasiotis said the district is reviewing distance learning plans submitted by each charter group to help the schools “navigate a never-before-seen start to the school year.”

The committee also approved a resolution encouraging all charter schools to follow suit and create distance learning plans that mirrored the district’s. The plan allows for a paper-packet lessons if using a laptop is not an option. Many districts relied on this system as schools scrambled to set up distance learning in the spring.

Additional COVID-19 purchases

The committee approved several items related to technology, including multiple small purchases of laptops for different schools. Chief Financial Officer Diane Allison said devices had been purchased over the last month so they could arrive in time for the start of school. 

“There is a high demand for student devices across the country at this time,” Allison said. 

Asked about long-term solutions to ensuring students have internet access at home, Hasiotis said the district is working with New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration because “our efforts right now are not sustainable.”

Board member John Brown Sr. said he was still concerned about transportation. 

“Will there only be one individual — a driver — on the bus?” he asked.

Chief Operating Officer Tiffany Delcour said the district’s guidance to schools didn’t specify the number of adults that should be on a bus. If the district reopens schools during phase two — the current statewide reopening phase — buses will be limited to 50 percent capacity.

“It will be extremely difficult for a bus driver alone to monitor whether students are safely seated and distanced,” Brown said, recalling his days as a teacher and principal. 

Lewis said the district would poll charter schools and find out which plan to have a bus monitor on board too. 

The committee also forwarded a busing and janitorial contract for approval on Thursday. The district had to update its cleaning contract to include COVID-19 related cleaning at Coghill and other district facilities. 

“Intensified cleaning measures, including after spaces are used by groups, transportation cleaning and any use of isolation rooms,” Delcour said. 

The committee also forwarded a $600,000 bus contract to the full board. 

“NOLA Public Schools is ‘piggy-backing’ off of FirstLine Schools’ bus contract,” Delcour said.

Delcour said the process allowed the district to purchase transportation at the same rate as the FirstLine charter school network. This will save the district money, Delcour said, because they could essentially get the group rate the larger charter network enjoys for direct-run students at Coghill. 

Allison announced Coghill is projecting a nearly $445,000 budget deficit under district leadership. The committee approved a resolution to pull funding from one of its reserves funds, the “system-wide needs fund,” to fill that hole. The full board will consider it Thursday. 

The board also recommended approving a fully insured health insurance plan, which will reduce monthly health insurance premiums for current employees as well as retirees, Allison said. Lewis and Allison said the district had been working toward this before the criss, but that the potential for high claims resulting from COVID-19 related illnesses and recovery could increase future costs. The district had been operating under a “self-insurance” model, Allison said. 

Board member Sarah Usdin asked how much the year-over-year increase would be in total. Allison said the cost would increase either way, but didn’t offer a specific number. 

“If every employee chooses the most expensive plan, we’re still under budget from the prior year,” Allison said. 

Allison said retirees can expect their premiums to drop by 56 to 78 percent.

“This is something we’ve been working on for quite some time,” Lewis said. “Many of our retirees were paying nearly $1,000 a month, so their payments will be cut in half.” 

Several board members praised the decision, which will be considered by the full board Thursday.

“Thank you for getting this done and allowing this not to be a burden on our retirees,” member Leslie Ellison said. 

‘Innovation Zone’

Over the next year and a half, NOLA Public Schools plans to roll out a support system it’s calling the “Innovation Zone” to help struggling charter schools. The system would increase district oversight in charter schools. 

“The overall purpose is to create more stability,” Director of Portfolio Innovation Kristine Barker said. 

Schools could be required to participate based on their academic, financial and/or organizational performance and tap district resources to intervene in those areas. The district is still developing specific criteria that would require a school to enter the system. 

Under the proposed system, schools that wanted extra help could enter voluntarily. New single-site charters would be required to start “in” the zone, which provides a “balance of supports and interventions.”

Board member Grisela Jackson praised the idea. “The work is much needed,” she said, noting the district’s approach to accountability and annual shuttering of schools has been criticized in the past. 

In fact, nonprofit board members at Coghill charter school pleaded for intervention last fall when it became apparent Lewis would not renew the group’s charter. They questioned why the district had not intervened sooner. 

“Our schools really do need help. Our lower performing schools for sure,” Jackson said. “I’m just concerned a bit about our schools that are struggling now and might not have 18 months.”

Lewis said to help schools in the interim the district has created a “school support office” to help “prevent schools from failing.” 

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...