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

In a special virtual meeting focused on reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic, the New Orleans City Council on Monday questioned NOLA Public Schools officials and others about safety measures and whether the district has the power to enforce standards at independent charter schools. 

The six-plus hour hearing came the same day a New Orleans charter school moved its professional development online after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. Last month, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said the district would begin the school year online, but buildings are still open to staff. 

Councilmembers questioned how virtual learning will work and what will happen if schools resume in-person classes, which will not happen in the city until after Labor Day at the earliest. They questioned whether teachers could work from home during virtual learning and how well students were equipped for it. They also asked if each school would have a nurse upon reopening and whether students would be disciplined for failing to follow safety protocols. 

Public health officials said while children appear to be less likely to transmit the virus, there is very limited data to draw from. Assistant State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter said the state was experiencing an “extreme outbreak.” While Orleans Parish has a lower rate of new infections than other parts of the state, he said, he wouldn’t “take any solace in that.”

The experts said if staff and students were able to adhere to social distancing and wore masks, transmission of the virus could be low. 

“That said, there is going to be a lot of exposure,” Kanter said, noting that would result in absenteeism and quarantines for students and staff. 

Regardless, the doctors who spoke at the meeting said, there is certain to be disruption and school closures throughout the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19 exposures or outbreaks.

Lewis told councilmembers on Monday that the district would examine case positivity rate, new cases and whether expanded testing was available for educators and students when deciding whether or not to open to in-person classes after Labor Day.

‘Who will shut down a school if there is an outbreak?’

Councilmembers also asked pointed questions such as whether and how the district would enforce the guidance outlined in its “Roadmap to reopening” and state-required minimum safety standards over independent charter schools. Both outline safety precautions, such as limiting classroom and school bus capacity and encouraging masks. Councilwoman Helena Moreno went so far as to suggest working with the New Orleans delegation to pass legislation to give the district more oversight over its charters. 

“That to me is a bit worrisome under this emergency — the consistency of oversight,” Moreno said.

“Who will shut down a school if there is an outbreak?” Council president Jason Williams asked.

Lewis explained that the district had established minimum standards. “We will be doing the oversight.”

NOLA Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Tiffany Delcour said the district was asking its charter schools to sign assurance letters regarding safety standards and that the district would have “boots on the ground” at school campuses. 

“These decisions were made with them, not for them,” she said regarding safety plans.

Councilman Jay Banks asked if the district could shut down a school “immediately” if needed.

“Just like any non-compliance, we will go ahead with a thorough investigation,” Lewis said, also mentioning that the district has taken over charter schools in the past. 

Banks said the decentralized district meant schools within the city would have differing resources. The district has provided safety materials to each of its schools, but staffing and student population vary between each charter.

“We may all be in the same storm but we’re not in the same boat,” Banks said. “The schools that are least equipped with having to deal with this will face adverse situations. Everybody is not going to be able to weather this at the same level.”

“I don’t think that putting kids back in the school is a good idea,” Banks said. 

He advocated for each school to have a nurse when buildings reopened to students. Delcour said sometimes nurses travel from school to school and he said that sounded like an additional problem. 

“If the students have to be there, if the staff have to be there, there needs to be more than a Youtube video on what to do,” Banks said. “There needs to be a healthcare professional.”

With students learning online during the first month of school, Lewis said each student would have a laptop and that charter schools were finalizing purchases. That leaves internet connectivity as the city’s primary challenge.

“The solutions we have in place right now are one year contracts,” Lewis said, asking for the council to consider working toward “wifi as a utility.”

Moreno announced she has sponsored a motion “designed to expand internet access across the City and find the best approach to creating public WiFi for New Orleans.” The motion will be considered at Thursday’s council meeting.

Over 140 people submitted public comments for the special meeting on Monday. Many called for the council to intervene and others asked for more specific guidance for school safety protocols. One pointed out the district’s plan to return after the Labor Day holiday might not be wise, as spikes have been associated with Memorial Day and the Fourth of July

“Is the irony of a virtual meeting to discuss returning our children and teachers to schools lost on the board?” one person asked. 

What can the city do?

It’s unclear how exactly the city might intervene in the schools. The district is a separate public agency  — overseen by the separately elected Orleans Parish School Board — and most of the city’s charter schools are independent non-profits.

Lona Hankins, a former Recovery School District employee, said during public comment that school occupancy certificates issued by the city were based on normal operating conditions.

“Will the city be requiring the school board to submit plans showing six feet of social distancing?” Hankins asked. “Will the city’s building inspectors be visiting schools in the same manner it is currently inspecting businesses?” 

Hankins also asked about air filters, as did Councilwoman Kristen Palmer. Delcour told Palmer that newer schools could alter their systems to circulate air more frequently. At older schools, she said, they would work to create “negative pressure” in classrooms. 

Many public commenters called for the council and city to intervene. 

“This council doesn’t have purview of our schools, but you can work with the mayor” to ensure schools have access to testing, Kenneth Francis said. “Second, to OPSB: Y’all are the landlords of every school building. Use that power and protect teachers and support staff the same way. Third, school leaders: Staff are already testing positive at schools with in-person professional development. That means you are contributing to community spread.”

“If the council and the mayor’s office can close bars, surely it can close schools,” one woman said. 

Council President Jason Williams asked about “the intersection of discipline with the adherence to safety protocols.”

“Our key goal is that this is never punitive,” Delcour said. But, other than limited state laws, charter schools write and enforce their own discipline policies.

Several more people expressed concern about discipline as well. 

The city is working to set up “learning hubs” at some library and recreation centers so students without internet access the Office of Youth and Families Director Emily Wolff told council members.

“It’s a safe quiet space for students to come set up with their computer,” Wolff said. 
Families can express interest on the city’s website at Wolff said the city is also working to set up a tech support hotline to offer help in Spanish and Vietnamese.

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...