NOLA Public Schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. wants to see all students on campus in the fall and won’t require charters to offer distance learning except in extenuating health-related circumstances, he told Orleans Parish School Board members at their monthly meeting Thursday night. 

“This evening, I want to be very, very clear, as we come out of this pandemic, that distance learning can no longer be the norm,” Lewis said. “Students are the safest physically and emotionally when they receive their education face-to-face with their teachers and shoulder-to-shoulder with their peers.”

Over the last 14 months, the district and city schools have navigated a difficult road since schools were first ordered closed statewide by Gov. John Bel Edwards in March 2020. The New Orleans school district mobilized millions of dollars of electronic equipment to connect students to online classrooms in the initial weeks of the pandemic. Then, after summer break, the district navigated a staggered return to campuses, beginning with the youngest students in the September. 

The school year wasn’t without its challenges. A nationwide and local spike in cases following the winter holiday break shuttered schools for an additional month in January.

With vaccination rates increasing in the city and low case rates in schools, Lewis said students must return to the classroom in the fall for their well-being.

Speaking with families and community members over the last few months, Lewis said he’d heard one consistent message: “We need to get our kids back to school.”

“We all agree that in-person learning is a priority. We know this is the strongest, most effective way to serve the whole child,” he said.

Lewis said the district will work to find any students who slipped through the cracks during the tumultuous pandemic school year — which saw heightened absenteeism, according to initial data. 

Lewis said many charter schools are opening summer school to any interested students, rather than only students who need to make up coursework. The district is working with the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families to connect students to summer education. 

According to a Thursday evening press release, the district expects more than 13,000 students will attend some form of summer school. Officials also said many schools have received grants for summer learning. 

“When our schools reopen for the 2021-22 school year, our schools will not be required to offer distance learning, except in very specific situations, such as quarantines,” Lewis told board members.

Throughout the school year, the percentage of students learning at home decreased. Most schools reported more students returning as the year progressed and high school students operated on a hybrid model for a majority of the year. 

Lewis said remote learning would be allowed in limited circumstances this fall, but stressed the value of in-person attendance. 

“Our schools, as they always do, will accommodate students and families based upon health related issues,” Lewis said. “But overall, our expectiona is that schools serve students at school and that families who have not returned come back in August.”

“I cannot say it enough — we need our students back in school.”

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...