Education is about more than textbooks, chalk boards and classrooms. Students, teachers and administrators all learned that lesson under the stay-athome order issued by Gov. John Bel Edwards to mitigate that COVID-19 pandemic. The order closed school buildings and shifted learning online to close out the 2019-20 school year.
With the 2020-21 school year on the horizon, administrators for local schools at all levels are planning for the best and preparing for the worst.
The Louisiana Department of Education released its guidance on how school systems across the state can reopen for the 2020- 2021 school year on June 25. Those guidelines used the latest medical information available and outlined precautions that must be in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19. They were created in conjunction with the Louisiana Department of Health and the Resilient Louisiana Commission.
Additionally, the standards were developed with input from public health officials, education leaders and other key stakeholders. That collaboration includes consultation with the Southern Regional Education Board, a superintendent's advisory group of 13 district leaders from across the state, and a 20-member public health response team of medical professionals, public health officials and education leaders.
The guidelines serve as minimum standards while giving school districts the flexibility to decide how local schools will operate. Districts are encouraged to prepare for three possible reopening scenarios: traditional, hybrid or virtual instruction, like the procedures that were introduced during the stay-at-home order.
Strong Start 2020: Guidelines and Resources for School Reopening is available now on the LDOE website, www. louisianabelieves.com, and includes a number of guidelines and best practices for districts including the following:
• Bus capacity and student group size
• Student symptom monitoring
• Face coverings
• Food prep and meal service
Caddo and Bossier schools both will follow the state guidelines.
Sonja Bailes, public relations liaison for Bossier Schools, said officials were moving forward with plans to open the school year under Phase 2 guidelines.
“We recognize child care is a real concern among many parents with younger students, and while it will be a challenge, Bossier Schools is working within state guidelines to provide daily face-to-face instruction for PreK-5th grades in Phase 2,” Bailes said. “Our principals have looked at every procedure, transition and scenario at their schools and we feel this can be achieved through static grouping, social distancing, altering breakfast/lunch schedules and staggering class rotations to the maximum extent possible.”
Keith Burton, chief academic officer for Caddo Schools, said the district faces a challenge in providing a safe environment and the best atmosphere for learning.
“As far as Caddo is concerned, we all are looking at the guidelines and ensuring that there is consistency,” Burton said. “Student and staff health is paramount. Beyond that, what can we do to ensure the best instructional model?” Burton said the latest guidelines on education show that a face-to-face model works better for elementary and middle school students than a virtual learning platform. He hopes to open the school year with a “semi-traditional” model that resembles a traditional learning environment as closely as possible.
“Virtual learning doesn’t necessarily work with very young children,” he said. “It creates a burden for daycare and juggling the safety factors. We are working as hard as we can to have it happen with as close to a traditional start as possible.”
Bossier schools will adopt a hybrid schedule for grades 6 through 12, Bailes said.
“An A/B schedule will be implemented for grades 6-12 if the state remains in Phase 2,” she said. “Students will be divided into groups that will receive face-to-face instruction one day and virtual learning at home the next. Once Louisiana enters Phase 3, all students will return to school for daily face-to-face instruction. For parents uncomfortable sending their children back to the classroom environment at this time, remote learning options will be offered at all grade levels.”
Burton said high school students cannot remain in static groups in the way that elementary and middle school students can. For that reason, the high schools plan to implement a hybrid model, with some students participating in the classroom and some participating virtually. Older students are “much more adaptive” to virtual learning, Burton said.
Burton said teachers, faculty and students all learned much in the past nine weeks of last school year. The district is putting those lessons to use in preparing for this school year.
“We made transition in just a few days,” he said. “It was a triage approach. We have adopted a new learning platform called Canvas. It will help with organization and engagement of instruction. With it, we can support teachers and have a pulse on what students are doing and who is and is not engaged.
“We also learned about flexible online learning. Some learn better live, in face-to-face settings. But we also can offer lots of on-demand learning. Because some students would love to be able to choose when they learn. That’s one of the other lessons that we learned.”
Bailes said Bossier Schools addressed issues about accessibility and teacher training during the summer to prepare for the possibility of more remote learning.
“Internet connectivity was a big problem, and we were able to identify those areas of the community with weak or non-existent connectivity and secure hotspots to strengthen the signal in those areas,” she said. “Hundreds of teachers have also received professional development on Google Classroom over the summer to be better prepared for future virtual instruction needs. Given the evolving nature of the coronavirus, Bossier Schools will be in a better position for remote delivery no matter what phase we may be in throughout the year.”
Caddo Schools will make an official announcement soon on how schools will reopen. Burton reminds parents that, regardless of how school opens, parents have a choice in educating their children.
“Parents always have an option,” he said. “They have to place their child’s health and safety as the most important decision. Regardless of model, parents have the chance to chose a virtual model. If I have a third-grader and am concerned about him coming to school, my school will offer a virtual model for my child. We can stay connected to the principal and teachers and students.
“It’s not a year-long choice, either. “After nine weeks, if the (coronavirus) rates are down and a possible vaccine is around the corner, they will have the opportunity to make the transition. Families do have a choice.”
As principal at Magnolia Charter School, Mary Nash Robinson is preparing for her 46th opening of a school year. This one will be unprecedented, she said.
“We’ve been talking about transformation of our school for forever and a day,” Robinson said. “The last nine weeks of last year and the opening of this year, this is truly transitional. Never have we done it like this.”
Robinson said that, like Caddo and Bossier schools, Magnolia is following the guidelines form the CDC and the state for reopening. Magnolia had an enrollment of 460 students last year and a capacity for about 1,200. Under Phase 2 or Phase 3 guidelines, Robinson plans to welcome all of Magnolia’s students back to campus at the start of the school year. She said officials from Charter Schools of America, which oversees the free, public charter school, came recently to measure the buildings on campus and confirm the school’s potential capacity.
Robinson is eager to see students return to campus. “I am hoping the situation allows me to invite our students back,” she said. “People have to go to work. What do you do with young people? They need to be in school. They need that contact and the physical interaction with their teachers.”
The faculty and staff at Magnolia learned a great deal while under the stay-at-home order, Robinson said. They learned about a variety of resources to reach students through different modalities, and they were able to find a platform, a program or an app to to guide them through any circumstance. That, Robinson said, was a benefit to the staff regardless of the circumstances moving forward.
“Our learning curves were reduced really quickly,” she said. “It wasn’t as hard as we thought it was. Even the more traditional teachers came on board. We can now do things much differently that we were accustomed to.”
Robinson said she is eager and optimistic to welcome students back on campus. But the safety of the students and the faculty is a top priority, and Magnolia will take all precautions to protect that should the guidelines change.
“We’re making plans to make more devices available, to make internet access available, to help parents become more familiar and comfortable,” she said. “We are looking into what’s called the mobile classroom, If we have to do that, we will be prepared to do that.”
Online learning is not a new concept for local universities. Louisiana State University Shreveport, for example, has long offered online learning and will continue to leverage those resources for student. LSUS also has been adapting its classrooms to prepare for the upcoming semester, regardless of what phase of recovery the state is in at that point.
“For our face-to-face classes we are preparing and adapting classroom and instructional spaces, and we expect to be able to offer those classes in person in the fall semester,” said Dr. Helen Clare Taylor, provost and vice chancellor of academic affairs. “We have a team measuring off appropriate distances and putting up signage in classrooms, hallways and staircases. We are also equipping classrooms with enhanced technology to make us as flexible as possible and to give our students and faculty optimum safety combined with optimum instructional quality.”
Taylor said that if the state moves back to Phase 1 and another stay-at-home order is issued, LSUS will be prepared to switch to all-online learning again.
“We are also prepared to offer these classes online should the virus numbers mandate another pivot to remote teaching,” she said. “We are offering additional training to our faculty so that they can provide the best instructional experience for our students.”
Taylor said the faculty at LSUS found “the silver lining” in the previous stay-at-home order. The faculty learned a variety of new teaching techniques and implemented new technologies into their practices.
“I think many of us found that we actually enhanced our teaching through these modes of delivery and that we will continue to adopt them,” she said. “Our students can look forward to a richer classroom experience because our incredible and hardworking faculty always put instructional quality and the benefit of students first.”
Taylor said LSU is eager to provide students the best educational experience available, regardless of the circumstances.
“We understand that things will return to some level of normality at some point, and we have to always keep our focus on making sure that our students are on even footing when that time comes,” Taylor said. “This still takes hard work, and we are all committed to that effort.”
Southern University of Shreveport is prepared to open the fall semester under its Phase 2 guidelines, which were created in partnership with Ochsner LSU Health Shreveport. Those guidelines include screenings for everyone entering the campus, increased sanitation in all common areas on campus, including restrooms, and physical distancing measures in classrooms and laboratories.
“When we partnered with Ochsner, they came and did a walkthrough and gave us a proposal for keeping the campus safe,” said Dr. Tony Pegues, vice chancellor for finance and administration. “We are providing a safe environment by limiting the number of people who can gather in any given place. There is a minimum number of people allowed for each room posted outside each door.
“For our labs and classrooms, we have physical distancing in place. We have removed chairs in classrooms to increase the physical distance between students. In our labs, we have the ability to turn off every other computer to create that physical space.”
Pegues said online learning would be available to students in the fall. And some hybrid classes, with in-class and online learning options, that began with the COVID-19 pandemic will continue in the fall as well.
The university is grateful for its community partners during the pandemic and looks forward to continuing its role in the community.
“We appreciate being a part of this community,” Pegues said. “During the pandemic, we appreciate the partnerships we have around the community. Southern University is a safe and healthy environment for student to continue their academic endeavors. We look forward to being a healthy part of the solution during this time.”
SUSLA has about 3,000 students, Pegues said, with approximately 2,000 on campus any given day during a regular semester. Pegues said all the measure that have been put in place serve to eliminate the worst-case scenario: a COVID-19 outbreak on campus.
“We have a plan in place for that,” he said. “We will usher students or anyone with symptoms to quarantine rooms, where they can virtually speak with staff from Oschner and get transported to Oschner for further observation.”
Taylor agreed that preparing for the worst is essential.
“We know that there is a risk of the virus affecting our campus in the fall,” Taylor said. “The worst-case scenario for us would be if we are not prepared to adapt and adjust, with the safety of our students, faculty and staff as our top priority. However, we have remained steadfast in our preparation for the unknown, as difficult as that can be. I am confident that LSUS will be ready to meet the future because of the hard work and planning of every member of our campus community.”