Equipment sits outside of Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude Avenue, helping to dry out the school after Hurricane Ida broke windows and caused water damage that was followed by a citywide blackout. (Marta Jewson/The Lens)

The Orleans Parish School Board voted on Thursday to increase the value of a disaster recovery contract to a maximum of $15 million — 30 times the maximum value of the original contract approved earlier this year — in order to deal with post-Hurricane Ida repair work at damaged school buildings around the city. 

The initial contract, for $500,000 with Guarantee Restoration Services, was approved over the summer, with the understanding it would be increased if a “catastrophic loss” occurred. The powerful Category 4 storm damaged 29 district-owned buildings, 11 of which have not yet been reopened to students. New Orleans fared much better than lower and river parishes which bore the brunt of the hurricane.

NOLA Public Schools district Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. said he was excited to be on site to welcome some students back to in-person class this week, even as others started remotely due to damage from the storm or the prolonged power outage it caused.

“Hurricane Ida was the strongest hurricane to hit the New Orleans area in recent memory and yet here we are just a few weeks later welcoming students back to class,” Lewis said.
“Their beaming faces was proof we’re doing the right thing.”

“Overall our buildings fared very well. All but 11 school buildings have welcomed students back to in-person learning this week,” Lewis said. “We are working as quickly as possible to environmentally test our building to ensure it is safe to do so.”

The NOLA Public Schools, the School Board’s administrative arm, oversees 78 independent charter schools, most of which use buildings owned by the School Board. A handful of state-authorized charter schools rent its buildings as well. 

The district has vowed to ensure 20 of its most severely affected buildings will receive environmental clearance from a contractor before students return to in-person learning at those sites. The 11 schools that have not yet opened for in-person classes are waiting on official clearance, Lewis said. 

The district also restarted COVID-19 testing in advance of students returning from their two-to-three week break from school following the storm. Though the district’s first report of COVID-19 cases since the storm — 33 cases in the city schools — appeared low, it is unclear how many schools had finished their formal reporting to the Louisiana Department of Health by that date. District officials said there could be a lag in reporting data.

Only 26 schools in Orleans Parish reported to LDH last week. Before the storm, more than 80 were reporting on a weekly basis. The state’s latest report showed 67 total cases reported last week in New Orleans schools. The state does not publish the names of participating schools, which may include some private and state-run schools as well as those overseen by NOLA Public Schools. 

“I want to encourage everyone to keep getting tested — every week if possible,” Lewis said on Thursday. 

Youth Master Plan

Board members also heard from Rashida Govan, Executive Director of the New Orleans Youth Alliance, and Karen Evans, Executive Director of the New Orleans Children and Youth Planning Board about the city’s first Youth Master Plan

The plan aims to connect the city’s youth, from infancy to age 24, to available healthcare, early childhood education and career training resources, as well as providing a strategy to advocate for things like an increased minimum wage and affordable housing. 

“We worked with youth to ask them, in New Orleans, ‘What do people think of our young people?’ And the answers were not favorable,” Evans said. 

The two, along with other organizations have worked on the plan for over two years.

“Not a plan for the shelf, but a plan for the street, is how we like to describe it,” she said. “We bring it to you now to make sure you are aware of it and have commitment to it.” 

Board member John Brown Sr., a longtime New Orleans Public School teacher and principal, praised the two. 

“I’m particularly interested in helping those young men and women who have given up on graduating from school,” Brown said. “Is your group focusing any efforts on that? I think it holds the key to a lot in our city.”

“Yes, I’m super excited you asked,” Govan said. “We have just started the re-engagement center,” which works to connect young people with post-secondary education, including college and occupational skills training. 

Evans said the center is a prototype they’d like to eventually scale up. The center focuses on high school students up to age 24. InspireNOLA Schools charter network is their first school partner, Govan said.

“We look forward to hopefully passing something next month to shout that the board is with you all,” board president Ethan Ashley said.

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...