Booker T. Washington High School. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

Teachers and community members on Thursday asked the Orleans Parish School Board to require stronger protections for school staff and students at its nearly 80 independent charter schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s not clear what the board can do, given the decentralized nature of the NOLA Public Schools’ nearly all-charter district. 

The NOLA Public Schools district pushed back in-person classes until after Labor Day. But the district, and its charter schools, are slated to reopen online in the coming weeks, some teachers said they are being asked to report to in-person professional development training. And others said they will be required to teach online from their classrooms. Both, they say, unnecessarily risk their health and the health of others as case growth, while showing some signs of slowing down in recent days, is still well above where it was in May and early June, when the city and state were under tighter restrictions.  

Teachers and other members of the public asked the board, during its Thursday meeting, to require charters to allow staff to work from home. Some called on the school district to specifically outline how many students can be in each classroom safely while adhering to social distancing guidelines. 

The district has released a “Roadmap to Reopening” that provides guidance on safety protocols, such as requiring all students to wear masks and calling for frequent handwashing, but that plan and other district policies only legally apply to Mary D. Coghill Elementary, the single school NOLA-PS will operate directly. 

Most charters have followed the district’s lead, but charter organizations are able to craft their own reopening and distance learning plans. 

In response to the concerns, the board approved a last-minute resolution addresing “school personnel safety,” in addition to a public health emergency policy and a resolution outlining minimum safety standards required by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr.’s “school personnel safety” resolution appeared to be crafted in close consultation with concerned educators. It passed unanimously after more than 30 minutes of public comment. 

The resolution “urged” all schools under the district’s jurisdiction “to enact policies and plans that will thoughtfully evaluate every teacher, school employee, and student request for distance learning and teaching opportunities, allow such opportunities as required by the state of public health, and support and properly train to teach or learn from home until it is safe to return to school.

But that was not strong enough wording for many members of the public — in both the minimum safety standards and school personnel safety resolutions. 

That included former Recovery School District employee Lona Edwards Hankins. Hankins was an integral part of rebuilding the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina and has an intimate knowledge of the city’s school facilities. 

“In your language you say ‘urge’ — you hold the contract,” she said of the district’s charter schools. “Saying ‘urge’ allows them not to participate. I strongly suggest you change that word to ‘you shall.’ ”

Hankins said she was also worried about state rules that allow as many as 25 people in a classroom during phase two of reopening, the current phase for the state of Louisiana, because classroom sizes vary widely.

“I am also concerned that the plan for when the children return to the building is not enough,” Hankins continued. “Twenty-five children in a classroom — there is no way you can social distance. As the landlord of the building, you have the obligation to tell schools how many children can be in the building. You have the obligation to provide plans, sketches, that show how many children can fit in a classroom while safely social distancing.”

Hankins also criticized the district for still lacking connectivity for all students. This week, the district estimated that as many as 20 percent of the district’s 45,000 students lacked internet access at home. 

Hankins said some charter groups, in their applications to open schools, stated they would be “one-to-one,” meaning one computer for each student. But when Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered schools across the state to close in March, she said, some charter groups were “caught with their pants down.” 

“I don’t understand how this many years later we still have the gap in technology.”

The district has minimum standards in its distance learning policy, but they are applicable only to Coghill. A board resolution urged charters to create similar policies. 

The board also approved a public health emergency policy required by the state. Charters are required to adopt it. 

After calls for the board to have more oversight on the emergency policy, board member John Brown Sr. asked to table the policy until they could review it further. Board counsel said the policy had to be approved before the district’s one school — Coghill — opened in the coming weeks. As the board voted to adopt it, Brown asked that the policy be reexamined at the August meeting.

Throughout the meeting, members of the public continued to criticize charters’ ability to require staff to come in, pushing the board to keep schools closed for everyone, not just students. 

 “I think your responsibility as landlords is to close all schools,” Shannon Sipher said. She requested that district administrators be physically in schools every day children and staff are asked to be in attendance.

“You have the power to stand up, be our voice,” Elisha Williams said, noting charters had generally followed the lead of the district. 

Jessica Jackson told board members, “I think it’s insulting to demand that teachers sit in buildings just so they are monitored.”

Heather Harris said she was fired for raising concerns about her charter group’s plans. She argued there are plenty of ways school leaders can evaluate teachers without requiring their physical presence. “Instead of requiring teachers to teach in the building, leaders can jump into Zoom calls and review Zoom lessons.”

“Who’s auditing it and what are the consequences?” Hankins asked about the minimum safety standards for distance learning, noting the district was using what she called a “wiggle word” when it used the word ‘urge.’

High school teacher Dave Cash also questioned the minimum standards. 

“They aren’t being treated with dignity,” Cash said of teachers. “This is not an HR matter. This is a matter of decency. This is a matter of life and death.”

A budget for a pandemic

The board approved its annual $44.5 million administrative budget, a marked increase from the year prior. That, Chief Financial Officer Diane Allison said, was due mainly to two reasons.

“That really is due to two things — an increase in ‘child search’ and because we are operating Mary D. Coghill School,” she said. Child search is the process of identifying students who need special education services 

Allison also said there are additional costs associated with safety precautions for the virus and potential lost learning time. 

“In a time of many uncertainties and a lot of instability, we wanted to provide stability,” Allison said. 

“We’ve taken a lot of actions to try to mitigate the effects of COVID.”

The board approved the budget unanimously. 

At the end of the meeting, Marshall apologized for the late introduction of the “school personnel safety” resolution. It was added to the agenda at the beginning of the meeting and its language remained unavailable to the public through much of the meeting, until an administrator copied it into the virtual board meeting’s chat box.   

The Lens asked for a copy of the resolution when it was added to the agenda at 5:44 p.m. and received an electronic copy shortly before 8 p.m.

“I want to first apologize to the community that we could not give them advance notice of this resolution,” Marshall said, noting the issues were very much on his mind “Having a daughter that is a third generation teacher, and I being of the age that is particularly at risk.”

He said his daughter’s school allowed teachers to work from home but that wasn’t necessarily true of all schools, and hoped the district could do more. 

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...