Langston Hughes Academy Counselor Felice Gaddis speaks at Mayor LaToya Cantrell's press conference encouraging community members to help increase student attendance in schools amid the pandemic. NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. look on. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell joined NOLA Public Schools district officials in a public plea Tuesday to encourage parents and community members to ensure students are attending school daily as attendance rates continue to trend below normal.

The Tuesday press conference comes as city schools this week started a phased reopening following a multi-week suspension of in-person classes due to a post-holiday spike in COVID-19 infection rates. That was the first mass closure since last school year, when Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools throughout the state for months to curb the spread of the disease. 

“The impacts of COVID-19 have just been unprecedented,” Cantrell said at the Tuesday morning press conference, alongside district and school officials.

“We have been able to face the challenges … and are always focusing on the well being of our children, families and community as a whole,” Cantrell said. “But at the end of the day, as it relates to these challenges there seems to be one that perseveres. And that is attendance.”

Officials said attendance rates hovered around 84 percent in the city’s public schools, several percentage points lower than average years.

“We know our kids have been off task and also … not being in school,” she said. “We want to address that head on but we need the help of the community.”  

Cantrell said she’d been informed by the school district of several businesses allowing their school-age employees to work while school is in session. 

“They are allowing them to work during school hours. That is illegal,” Cantrell said, noting the city would investigate any complaints and hold businesses accountable. 

“(Businesses) are pillars in our community, they are part of the village — we are asking them to step up and ensure our children have employment but ensuring they are showing up after school hours.”

The call for community help came one day after elementary and middle school students returned to campus after a three-week suspension of in-person classes due to climbing COVID-19 cases in early January. Cases have continued to drop in the school district and citywide since then. 

It was yet another bump in a rocky year of education as school officials must continually reevaluate whether to teach students in-person or virtually depending on community public health data. Yesterday was also the state’s official student count day — those enrollment totals will determine school funding — based on the number of students — for next fall. 

Asked whether she was worried about low attendance rates affecting official state student counts — which determine the amount of state funding that schools receive — Cantrell said that wasn’t the chief concern.

“I think the primary issue here is not about [state funding], about the dollar, it’s about the impact that it will have on the children, which at the end of the day will have an impact on all of us,” Cantrell said.

As of last month, at least 9,000 public school students in the city are considered chronically absent — having missed at least ten days of school. That’s roughly 20 percent of district enrollment, which is down on the year.

“We know that before the pandemic, nearly 8 million students — 16 percent of the nation’s public school population students — were chronically absent nationwide,” Cantrell said. 

“No longer will we stand by; it’s time to stand up,” she said.

NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said absenteeism is not unique to the pandemic, but the crisis has exacerbated the problems. 

“The root causes habitual absenteeism is no secret. We know it’s poverty, we know it’s unemployment, violence, homelessness and even literacy. All of these things were here before the pandemic, but I know they are certainly compounded by COVID-19,” Lewis said. 

Lewis said many of the families the district is working with are ones they worked with in previous years surrounding absentee issues. The district has made 680 student home visits for that reason, he said.

“These new layers and challenges of virtual learning, going through COVID-19 and the requirements around technology, it just has compounded everything,” Lewis said. 

The city’s charter schools — not the school district — are responsible for initial attendance and student tracking work. If they are not successful in locating students they can refer the case to the district for additional support. The New Orleans Police Department is not conducting truancy work currently because school schedules vary, especially at the high school level, due to virtual learning. The department does assist on some home visits.

Felice Gaddis, a counselor at Langston Hughes Academy, said her team follows up any multiple absences with phone calls, certified letters and a home visit if necessary. She also encouraged parents to take an “active role” in their students’ education and for students to take charge of their education. 

“It’s not just ‘wake up and learn’ in the larger sense — but literally. If you wake up at 9 o’clock, saying you missed homeroom is not an excuse to not log in at that point,” she said. “That is something that I hear constantly, daily, every single day that ‘I woke up too late.’ Don’t let that be the excuse.”

Justin Ross, the principal of the NET Charter School: Central City, asked the community to look out for young people as the pandemic rages on.

“We haven’t taken enough time to really look at our kids and realize that they are experiencing distress. Many of them have been unsuccessful in earning credits during this time. Not because they’re not smart to learn, or because they don’t have enough tenacity or the will to get through it. But because this is a difficult time for all of us,” he said. 

“Our kids are suffering and the reality is a lot of our kids are not getting up and going to school because they are suffering from depression,” Ross said. “They are weakened by not knowing whether or not we’re going to be able to be in school this month or they’ll have to stay on the computer. They are struggling.”

“We, as the community around our kids, must say to them, ‘Wake up and learn.’ We’re not saying it to them because we feel like we have to place demands. We say it to them because we understand that education is the gateway to every level of the future.”

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...