In the midst of uncertainty due to COVID-19, it is clear that school in 2020-2021 will look different than ever before. State guidelines for reopening came out on Thursday, and follow the three phases of reopening statewide. As of June 25, Louisiana is in Phase 2 of reopening. Individual districts will develop their respective plans within the parameters of these guidelines, which include keeping students in small groups, socially distancing, requiring temperature checks and wearing masks as much as possible. Close contacts of any infected person will be asked to stay home and monitor symptoms for fourteen days.
NOLA Public Schools (NOLA-PS) is tentatively scheduled to put out their corresponding guidelines during the week of June 29. We will provide an update on this when we learn more. But as we approach that moment, we can ground ourselves in reflections from our leaders and in the opinions of our community itself.
In May, some New Orleans education leaders came together for a conversation on responding to this crisis, hosted by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS). Superintendent Henderson Lewis, Jr., Jamar McKneely, CEO of Inspire NOLA Charter Schools, Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise, CEO of KIPP New Orleans Schools, and NSNO’s CEO, Patrick Dobard, were joined by Senator Mary Landrieu and the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools’ President Caroline Roemer.
In mid-June, NOLA-PS released the results of a survey of more than 7,000 parents, educators, students, and other members of our community on what the 2020-2021 school year should look like.
Certain themes were clear in both the webinar and the survey results. They give us a sense of what is ahead.
After closing in March, schools quickly began serving meals and solving for distance learning needs. NOLA-PS purchased 10,000 laptops and 8,000 WiFi hotspots that schools could distribute to students citywide. This quick action, coupled with schools’ hard work to meet students’ academic and social-emotional needs, was critical.
Proactive schools: National research by the Center on Reinventing Public Education (CRPE) suggests that efforts went well. They tracked the responses of 75 districts nationally, and New Orleans stood out. According to a Louisiana Department of Education survey, 100% of our schools had teachers contacting students weekly, for instance, compared to only 40% of the districts CRPE examined. This mattered to parents; 77% strongly agreed or agreed they were supported by teachers and schools in implementing remote learning.
Supported educators: According to the NOLA-PS survey, 79% of educators felt supported by their schools in transitioning to distance learning.
Connected to technology: 86% of families that participated in NOLA-PS’ survey felt they had access to a reliable device and internet connection through which their child could connect with teachers and 86% felt they had a reliable internet connection as well.
Superintendent Lewis on powerful relationships: “[It’s] about relationships […] because we have 38 different organizations that as a school system we have strong relationships with, they were able to make quick changes that really, in my opinion, made us not only leaders in Louisiana but also probably in the nation.”
Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise on engagement and care: “It’s just been about connecting to everyone and making sure we’re supporting people to stay engaged, curious, interested, committed to learning, stable and healthy.
Jamar McKneely on swift action: “I remember getting that notification on Friday around 3pm that we will be closing from the governor, and we already had a game plan, but we just actually went into action to make sure all schools were set up by Monday to serve meals. By the following Thursday, we were talking about technology distribution and we were talking to each other about how we were going to communicate to our parents.”
Our education leaders and families said the same thing: the top priorities for next year are health, safety, and minimizing risk. Families also want to make sure they stay in the loop about what their children are learning. Educators and education leaders also emphasized the importance of mental health of students and teachers alike.
87% of parents expressed it would be helpful to have guidance on what work their children should prioritize each day.
63% of educators want resources on mental health before the school year starts.
Patrick Dobard on health and safety: “We need to […] make certain that teachers, who are now another type of front-line worker, and students, have the Personal Protective Equipment that they need. And then [we must] provide professional development [to teachers] around how to use it and how to dispose of it.”
Jamar McKneely on support and a sense of normalcy: “I can think about numerous students for whom school is their safe haven for them. It’s where they can get a guaranteed meal, it’s where they can actually get technology working every single day. […] Safety is our number one variable […] and once that’s figured out, I’m ready to go.”
Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise on supporting educators, too: “The adults will have also have experienced trauma […] so you have to really care for and look out for, as a leader, how you are going to help the adults be there for the students, because the adults are also experiencing trauma.”
Staggered schedules: If schools reopen in-person, the majority of parents surveyed are open to a “staggered schedule” of children being at school every other day.
Option of distance learning: More than half of parents surveyed would like the option of distance learning next year.
Less support for in-person learning: Slightly less than half of parents surveyed are open to sending their children back to school if they reopen.
Superintendent Lewis on new metrics: “We will work through a process that will allow us to be able to address renewals, but that process allows us to step back and say that, ‘okay, our academic metrics have really been around state tests, and […] the new thing is now how we become proficient at delivering on distance learning.’”
Patrick Dobard on nuanced accountability: “In an accountability framework now, we are going to have to take in a lot of factors. And it might be safety, healthcare […] it’s got to be nuanced enough to factor in societal challenges yet still hold the bar high for high quality.”
Jamar McKneely on compassion and expectations for excellence: “I have numerous teachers and staff members who have lost family members at home. I have students that lost family members at home. And frankly, the notion of accountability to those students and families is not their focus right now […] we will still have very high expectations for students, they are still doing distance learning work, still turning in assignments and understanding our expectations for excellence—but at the forefront, I’m more concerned about their mental, social, and emotional health.”
The success we had when schools were closed was due not just to our schools’ fierce determination, but to their collaboration. That same collaboration—and the experience borne from prior disasters like Hurricane Katrina—leave New Orleans’ schools poised to come out of this stronger than they were before. In the conversation with NAPCS, our leaders reflected on this.
Rhonda Kalifey-Aluise on confidence: “Fifteen years ago, all of us had a moment where we thought we weren’t going to get out of this […] and the world was very bleak. And I think hopefully what you’re hearing today is that you can rebuild and collaborate and things can be good again. And so, in lots of ways, I think going through those experiences have given me confidence that it can be done.”
As we go forward, our collective priority will be safety. This is about our children and educators, but also their families and neighbors, grandparents and friends. As our district considers reopening, and as our schools decide what their schedules and systems will look like, they will have the precautions the state laid out as a guide. Together, we will make sure our children can continue to learn, our teachers can continue to teach, and our communities stay safe.
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