Four NOLA Public Schools nurses received their first of two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday morning, ten months into the pandemic that shuttered schools and upended education as we know it. 

Venus Parker, who will soon mark 20 years as a practicing registered nurse, told a small crowd of reporters gathered at a morning press conference that last year, she, her husband, son and mother all contracted the virus. Most concerning for her, she said, was her mother’s case.

“It was the sickest she has ever been,” Parker said. “We are all well now, but it was a really scary experience and I wish I could erase it from my memory. But instead I use the experience to remind myself and others of the importance of getting this virus under control. I never want to be in that situation again or watch anyone else go through it.”

Parker and three other school nurses, donning masks with school logos on them, then received their doses at Children’s Hospital.

The vaccination event came a week after New Orleans public schools began shifting back to virtual learning due to rising COVID-19 case numbers in the city. Following the closure, a NOLA Public Schools district told Orleans Parish School Board members that the district is now reevaluating the metrics it set last fall to consider when to allow schools to reopen or remain open.

Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools across the state last March — keeping them shuttered through the rest of the school year. New Orleans schools reopened to students in September and October, but a rise in the city’s new cases and test positivity after the holidays — well above the previously set metrics — forced them to return to online learning. 

At a Tuesday afternoon Orleans Parish School Board committee meeting, board members praised the work to protect school nurses. As well as the district’s newly expanded efforts to offer COVID-19 testing at schools. 

“We have about 80 school nurses in the district,” NOLA Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Tiffany Delcour said. “And at this time, we’ve had 48 sign up (for vaccinations) so far.”

The virus continues to affect the district in various ways. One of the biggest concerns is school funding. Though much of K-12 school funding is protected by law in Louisiana, portions of it come from local sales and property taxes. The city of New Orleans relies heavily on its tourism industry, which has suffered over the past year.

At the end of last year, the city approved a rather somber 2021 budget. The $634 million general fund budget represented a reduction of nearly $100 million from what was approved for 2020, due in large part to the tax fallout from pandemic. 

District Chief Financial Officer Stuart Gay said those loses — across the city and state — will affect the district for several years to come. The most serious effects are forecast to come in following school years. That’s in part because state per pupil funding is calculated based on previous years’ funding levels and tax collections.

Charter authorizing

In more traditional school-board business, the district’s Chief Accountability Officer Kevin George said, Crocker College Prep staff and families could know as soon as Friday which charter group will run the Uptown charter school next year. 

That will follow two Wednesday afternoon sessions, one for parents and one for staff, where Crescent City Schools and Young Audiences Charter School — the two charter groups that applied to take over Crocker — will make a presentation.

“They pretty much make their pitch to the families,” George said. “Then the families can ask questions of them.”

The decision, made by the district administration, could be announced Friday.

In December, NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. informed Orleans Parish School Board members he did not recommend a charter contract renewal for the school. That came after it received an F letter grade from the state in the 2018-19 school year. (The state didn’t calculate ratings this year after COVID-19 shuttered schools forcing the cancellation of yearly state exams.)

George also announced several charter groups have applied for additional charter contracts to operate new schools or takeover failing ones in coming years. He said the number was higher than usual, though the district also allows charter groups to defer using their charters at times.

Tuesday was the first committee meeting for four of the board’s seven members. New members Katie Baudouin, Olin Parker, J.C. Romero and Carlos Zervigon were sworn in over the last week. Everyone had thoughts on the district’s chartering process. 

“I want to make sure we are being very intentional about the kids of schools we have available for our families. I want to see a diverse array of schools and programming… for special needs, arts, STEM,” Romero said. “I think this is a great opportunity for this to be a turning point of what we offer to families.”

Zervigon, who has previously served as a teacher and on charter school boards, said the district should focus on its school offerings too. 

“I agree that we need to pay very careful attention to program diversity. That’s why we have a decentralized system,” he said, noting several large charter groups have continued to expand. “We need to be mindful of pushing up against that enrollment limit.”

Charter management groups have an enrollment cap of 15 percent of the district’s kindergarten through 12th grade students. With the addition of John F. Kennedy High School over the summer, KIPP New Orleans Schools was poised to enroll 14 percent of the district’s students this year. But official enrollment numbers for this fall haven’t yet been certified. 

“I think we would all like to see a diversity of operators,” Parker said. “I’d also like to encourage charter operators to be innovative with what they are already offering.”

Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. pondered the level of autonomy principals had within larger charter groups.

“We have these large [charter management organizations] now, and the whole point of this experiment was for educators to make decisions close to their students,” he said. “How much autonomy does a school leader have in serving the needs of their constituents?”

George said that’s different throughout the city’s 36 charter management organizations, but that he believes principals are empowered to make decisions. 

“There’s a KIPP way, Inspire way, Crescent City way,” George said, referencing three charter groups. “Each of those 36 CMO’s is unique.”

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...