At least two New Orleans public schools are preparing to reopen next week, following post-Hurricane Ida closures, The Lens has learned. And at least one metro area public school district is also planning for a return to classes next week.
More than one-quarter of New Orleans remained without power Monday, following a citywide blackout caused by the powerful Category 4 Hurricane. But that is a significant improvement over late last week, when barely a quarter of the city had power. The city’s power company, Entergy New Orleans, hopes to have more than 90 percent of New Orleans back on by Wednesday. The situation is also beginning to improve throughout the region. As of Monday, 51 percent of electric customers who lost power in the storm were back on the grid, up from 39 percent only one day earlier.
Though more school buildings are now getting lights and air conditioning back on, there’s still a lot of work to be done — damage assessments, repairs, cleaning kitchen freezers and restocking food for student meals — before they can welcome students back. And administrators have to consider whether families and staff have power in their homes, or have returned from evacuating.
While the St. Bernard Parish school district has announced a firm reopening date — Monday, Sept. 13 — several other districts have only said they will remain closed until further notice, including Jefferson Parish Public Schools and St. Tammany Parish Public Schools. NOLA Public Schools district officials have not yet announced anything. They are hosting a call with charter school leaders on Tuesday and will announce a decision after that, according to one charter CEO.
But officials at two New Orleans charter schools say they’re hoping to start up early to mid-next week. Ben Franklin Charter High School is “tentatively planning” to reopen to students and staff on Sept. 13, school Communications Director Eve Peyton said in an interview Monday.
“We based our decision on the date of Entergy’s estimated power restoration of Sept. 8, because even if we have power, our students might not and that’s problematic,” she said.
“We have to clear out our freezers and get them restocked, and make sure our WiFi is up and running,” Peyton said, also noting students and staff had evacuated. “We had some students go as far as Maine. So we wanted to give them a healthy lead time to get back.”
Morris Jeff Community School is planning a Sept. 13 return for teachers with students returning two days later. In a letter on the school’s website, Morris Jeff Head of School Patricia Perkins said all three of its campuses sustained minor damage.
”The timeline for that work is also dependent on the restoration of power and normalization of other factors in the city including access to fuel,” Perkins wrote in the Sept. 4 letter. “In addition to general clean-up and repair, we need to ensure that any environmental issues that may develop from the water and lack of power have also been addressed.”
Years ago, the school developed a mold issue in its cafeteria over the summer due to “inconsistent building temperature which could not be regulated properly.” The issue was remediated — but heat and ventilation could be a concern for schools after the prolonged blackout.
A Friday afternoon email to Bricolage Academy parents said school officials couldn’t yet evaluate interior systems. “We have not yet been able to assess our campus for nonstructural damage, like our HVAC system, because the building does not have power.”
Also, city officials have stressed a need for citizens to conserve water use as power outages have compromised the city’s sewage pumps as well as the East Bank Wastewater Treatment Plant, which began pumping raw sewage into the Mississippi River after losing generator power on Wednesday. The plant has since been connected to the grid but is not yet fully operational, city officials said at a Monday press conference.
At Morris Jeff, Perkins also appears to have based her decision off of what she called Entergy’s “best-case scenario” of the Sept. 8 goal for power restoration.
“We are planning for all faculty and staff to be prepared to return to work on September 13 and for students to return to school on September 15,” she wrote. “If that date changes, we will communicate that to you ASAP.”
Entergy New Orleans has made quite a bit of progress over the weekend, but pockets of the city still remain without electricity. On Sunday, Entergy New Orleans officials said 61 percent of households were still without power. On Monday, that figure flipped, and officials said 71 percent of households had had power restored.
Neighboring St. Tammany Parish Public Schools has also not announced a reopening date. Forty-five of its 55 campuses have power restored and district officials said families will receive a three day advance notice of reopening. Jefferson Parish public schools will not reopen this week, according to its website. St. Bernard Parish Public Schools are set to reopen Sept. 13.
No announcements from city’s largest charter networks
NOLA Public Schools’ three large networks — KIPP New Orleans Schools, Firstline Schools and InspireNOLA Schools — don’t have return dates listed on their websites.
KIPP New Orleans Schools CEO Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise said via text that though the eight-school charter network did not have a firm date, she expected staff would return early next week and students a few days after that. She wrote that the schools must confirm power restoration and also have to clean up their buildings.
InspireNOLA Schools CEO Jamar McKneely said via text Monday that a decision on reopening would be made after the district’s call with school leaders on Tuesday.
At Ben Franklin, Peyton said staff and volunteers* will help with clean-up at the school’s UNO campus this week. The building was mostly undamaged but did have some water intrusion in a few areas, she said, in addition to needing to clean out the cafeterias.
Peyton also said that the school would be cautious of COVID-19 amid the return to school.
“We are going to be taking some extra COVID precatations,” she said. “I think we’ll step up our testing.”
She said school leaders are working with the school nurse to plan these precautions. Peyton noted it’s not always possible to socially distance from people or control who you are with during an evacuation, especially if evacuated to a state-run facility. She also noted students and staff were spread across many different states with varying degrees of infection rates. But she said the staff is ready to have kids back in school.
“We’re excited to have our kids back — it feels like we barely had our students back for two weeks.”
*Clarification: This story initially reported the school would use contractors to clean, but staff will do that work.