About 250,000 Louisiana students remain out of school nine days after Hurricane Ida barrelled across the southeastern part of the state and left the entire city of New Orleans without power, State Superintendent Cade Brumley said in a joint outdoor press conference with NOLA Public Schools superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
The damage from the storm led to district-wide closures across southeast Louisiana that have now dragged on for more than a week.
The 250,000 affected students represent more than 35 percent of public school enrollment statewide, based on the most recent data from the Louisiana Department of Education showing about 700,000 K-12 students across the state. A large number of the students who are not currently in class are enrolled in schools in temporarily-closed New Orleans-area districts. As of this week, all NOLA Public Schools, St. Tammany Parish Public Schools, Jefferson Parish Public Schools and St. Bernard Parish Public Schools were closed.
Districts in the River Parishes that were directly in the path of the powerful Category storm, — including St. James Parish Public Schools, St. John The Baptist Parish Public Schools and St. Charles Parish Public Schools — were also closed.
Power restoration, along with a host of other factors, including assessing and repairing building damage and clearing and cleaning school kitchen freezers will all factor into reopening dates across the region. In New Orleans, that work has begun. And Lewis said the district hopes to begin welcoming students back to class as early as Sept. 15, though some of the district’s charter schools may reopen as late as Sept. 22.
However, Lewis stressed the reopening was contingent on power restoration and other essential services. As of Tuesday afternoon, 73 percent of New Orleans households had power restored, while 53 percent of regional customers who lost power were back on the grid.
Lewis said the district’s schools, largely rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina with $2 billion in federal aid, fared well and took relatively little damage from the storm. The post-Katrina aid, he said, was “money well spent.”
Lack of electricity and the need for repairs and cleaning aren’t the only challenges local schools face in advance of reopening. New Orleans charter operators will also need teachers, administrators and support staff — many of whom likely evacuated from the city before the storm or during the extended blackout that followed — to return. And they will need to quickly restock critical supplies.
“We need our school staff to come back to the city of New Orleans,” Lewis said Tuesday. “We also need to restock our food supplies and make repairs as needed. Also very, very importantly we need to connect our bus drivers with gasoline.”
As of Tuesday, roughly half of the city’s schools have had power restored, Chief Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour reported. And of the 88 district-owned buildings that currently house charter schools, 22 “received some level of damage,” she said.
Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude Avenue had “significant damage,” Delcour said, including blown out windows on the second and third floors that allowed water to intrude and seep to lower floors, where it also caused damage. KIPP New Orleans Schools operates in that building and she said the district is working with the charter group. It’s possible students on that campus may need to relocate to other KIPP campuses while repairs are made. Delcour said that was the most significantly damaged facility.
Delcour said the district had generators and dehumidifiers stationed there to keep the building cool and absorb water. Other schools also have similar equipment running to prevent mold.
“Before any student returns to a building, we will have an environmental health clearance,” Delcour said.
At L.B. Landry High School, where the press conference was held, the cafeteria floor had several sticky spots, which district officials said was a result of floor wax melting in the un-air conditioned space. Buildings sitting for nearly two weeks in blistering heat can see unwanted effects, such as mold growth or buckling tiles, but officials are aiming to mitigate those potential outcomes.
Brumley said Orleans schools fared well in comparison to neighboring districts, including Jefferson Parish, all of which was under a boil-water advisory for days. The advisory was lifted for most of the parish’s west bank on Monday and for the east bank on Tuesday. But more than 100,000 households and businesses are still without power throughout there.
Jefferson Parish Public Schools has not announced reopening dates, and it appears possible, if not likely, that students will not return this month.
“They were heavily impacted,” Brumley said when asked about Jefferson Parish. “I need to let Jefferson Parish speak for themselves. I think as far as the ambitious plan for New Orleans, they won’t be able to meet that.”
“Some people say, ‘Well the power is back, why can’t they return?’,” he said. “It’s not that simple. You have to have power, water, cafeterias and diesel for your buses.”
Brumley said he hopes by next week that the number of students not back in school throughout the state will dip below 200,000.
After a massive evacuation, in which city officials estimated half of the city’s residents fled, NOLA Public Schools officials also have concerns about COVID-19.
“We were in the fourth wave (of COVID) going into the Ida evacuation,” Lewis said.
“We cannot forget — because we are in the midst of a pandemic — to restart our COVID testing,” Lewis said. “In fact, I strongly encourage all students to get tested prior to school — that way we can minimize quarantines.”
Delcour said testing may be able to open next week and schools are getting ready to host testing partners again.
School officials at Benjamin Franklin Charter High School planned to ramp up testing and COVID mitigation measures, spokeswoman Eve Peyton said.
Peyton noted evacuation situations can bring people into close contact with others, especially if they are at a state-run shelter.
“It’s one more thing compounded to what we were already going through,” Lewis said. “Our students are today going through way more than any of us.”