The New Orleans Public Library's Mid-City branch.

As students in New Orleans get ready to start the school year remotely, the city is preparing to use public libraries and recreation facilities to host “community learning hubs” where school-aged children can access the internet in a quiet supervised environment for virtual learning. 

The idea was spurred by the NOLA Public Schools district’s decision to start school online and run that way through at least Labor Day, Emily Wolff, the director of the Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s Office of Youth and Families said in a Wednesday interview.  

“That was the initial impetus to think about how we could leverage the assets that we have at our libraries or recreation centers to help students,” Wolff said. She said New Orleans drew ideas from other cities that have similar programs.

The “learning hubs” will aim to serve students who lack home internet access, who don’t have adult supervision during the day or who have a home environment that could distract from schoolwork, Wolff said.

Around the country, small groups of parents have collectively hired teachers or nannies, forming what are being called “pandemic pods,” to supervise and teach school-aged children during the day. The learning hubs appear intended to make something similar available to families who may not be able to afford that. 

The city currently plans to open three to four “hubs” to children between the ages of 6 and 18 beginning Aug. 17. Locations have not yet been announced, and it’s unclear how long they will remain open. But the number of sites could increase if there is demand. 

Reopening schools amid the pandemic has become a hot button political issue across the country. On Wednesday as President Donald Trump once again demanded schools open to students, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced the city’s third-largest school district would start the year remotely. In Louisiana, only a handful of parishes are starting online. Locally, Orleans and St. Tammany public schools will start online, while the St. Bernard and Jefferson Parish school systems are pressing forward with in-person classes beginning next week.

Digital divide

The “digital divide,” the gap between those who do and don’t have access to technology and the internet, is still very much a concern among public officials in the city. 

At a special City Council meeting on Monday, school district officials told council members that about 20 percent of the city’s students, nearly 9,000, may still lack access to the internet. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Lewis said schools and the district have purchased 6,000 hotspots over the last few weeks. 

“I’m expecting that number to be way down, but working with the schools and district we will close that gap 100 percent,” Lewis said at a district press conference on Wednesday. 

At that press conference, KIPP New Orleans Schools Chief Strategy Officer Joey LaRoche said about 40 percent of the network’s families need help with internet access. The charter network is the city’s largest with 6,200 students across 13 schools. Additionally, Firstline Schools CEO Sabrina Pence said about 20 percent of her students needed an internet connection. 

The leaders encouraged school attendance and said their staff were actively distributing laptops and other school supplies to students this week. 

“This is not like the spring; this is not an emergency scenario,” Pence said. “This is a virtual learning scenario, and so we need everyone to be at school.”

LaRoche said all KIPP students will receive a laptop and that the network was prepared for in-person, hybrid and virtual learning. 

“We are prepared for the reality that we might float between those scenarios throughout this school year” LaRoche said. 

Even if schools return to in-person learning, local health experts have said families and staff should brace for “disruption” as any positive test in a school could cause closure or quarantines. This week a handful of Jefferson Parish teachers tested positive as did a staff member at Plessy Community School in New Orleans. Lewis said the district is working with city officials to make COVID-19 tests available to students and staff. 

Lewis said each student in the district will have a laptop, though families may share an internet hotspot. He said some schools may still be distributing computers.

The library-based learning hubs will be open for those who still might not have internet access, or students who need a quiet supervised place to work. Wolff said the city will be run in a way that minimizes risk of infection. 

“We are going to operate the program really under phase one guidelines, very small groups of nine students to one supervisor,” Wolff said. “Masks will be required, cleaning in between different sessions, obviously social distancing.”

“We’re starting small and looking at the community response we’ll scale up over time,” Wolff said. 

City officials have not yet announced which libraries will be participating. The city is asking interested families to complete a survey so they can decide which hubs to open first.

“We want them to be in places that are convenient for families, so ideally in neighborhoods with the most demand,” Wolff said. 

She said the staffing would be a “braiding of different resources” using current staff and some short-term hires in addition to AmeriCorps VISTA members, who perform civil service work.

At Monday’s hearing, Lewis asked the city for help with a long-term solution to internet access and requested they consider “internet a utility.”

That day Councilwoman Helena Moreno announced she has sponsored a motion directing the City Council Utilities Regulatory Office to work with Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s office to study how best to expand internet access through the creation of a public WiFi network. The motion will be considered at Thursday’s council meeting.

‘I have the full authority to shut a school down at any time’

Moreno and other council members had questioned Lewis about his ability to oversee emergency operations at the district’s independent charter schools and whether he had the authority to intervene if they weren’t following safety guidelines. 

On Wednesday, he made the answer abundantly clear.

“If there is any public risk of safety. At any time. I need everyone to know I have the full authority to shut a school down at any time,” Lewis said. “I don’t expect the need to exercise that authority, but if we have to we will.”

Lewis asked families for patience and encouraged the community to wear masks and practice social distancing to keep the virus from spreading. The district will evaluate health data at the end of August to determine whether to open after Labor Day.

“I can not say what November is going to look like. I can not say what December is going to look like. I can’t say what 2021 is going to look like,” Lewis said.

LaRoche noted the virtual start is beneficial for some courses, like choir and band, which are prohibited under phase 2 guidelines. He said schools were distributing instruments this week as well. 

“I would ask for some grace from neighbors throughout the city,” he said. “Especially when you may be hearing that at 10 a.m.”

Parents interested in signing up for the Community Learning Hubs can do so online

NOLA Public Schools’ parent concern hotline can be reached at 504-304-5782.

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...