COVID doubles load for school preparation

Staff Report
Louisiana School Superintendent Dr. Cade Brumley

BATON ROUGE – School systems statewide should prepare for a traditional opening of the school year, along with alternate protocol if the coronavirus pandemic worsens, according to the state education superintendent.

Dr. Cade Brumley, the newly installed head of the Louisiana Department of Education, wants a normal procedure in place – or at least close as possible when teachers and students return after COVID-19 cut the school year short March 13.

“We’ve asked prior to the beginning of the school year for each school system to present polices that address each phase of opening,” he told the state House Committee on Education during a 4 ½-hour meeting Monday at the State Capitol.

All those components could vary in a state with 1,683 schools that serve 816,138 students, 47,799 teachers and 100,409 support employees.

As part of the plan, school systems must develop and submit models on learning, which would include how it will look in a fully online model. It would also address scheduling, staffing and student attendance – with particular emphasis on tracking if the pandemic forces classes to be held in virtual format.

It also leaves minimum standards at question – both for attendance and academic achievement – amid the lack of face-to-face education, Brumley said.

“We do not have enforcement abilities, but we’re setting forth minimum standards for schools to open up the school year,” he said. “It’s quite a monumental task, but I believe in us and the employees.”

The virtual format itself could pose a challenge, largely because of the students in rural areas who do not have online capability.

A USDA grant earlier this year allocated funds for areas online hookup in rural parishes – including Iberville, Pointe Coupee and Avoyelles – but it would not come soon enough for the next school year.

The Department of Education is also working with the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness to help school systems that may suffer financial shortfalls triggered by the additional requirements.

CARES funding has helped cover the costs of the disinfectants and sanitation supplies, said Dr. Courtney Phillips of the state Department of Health.

The effect that the changes will bring on the other aspects of a school system remains to be seen, said Brumley, a former Jefferson Parish teacher, principal and school superintendent.

“We’re going to see money that has been earmarked for other things going toward other things instead,” he said. “Do we have enough time? That will be a challenge – we’ve never done this before.

“We believe in the minimum standards we set forth and we will have to adjust as needed, as there could be a series of starts and stops in local systems.”

Concerns will vary system by system, but the Department of Education will work with Gov. John Bel Edwards on shortfalls.

“Every system has to work on this on their own,” Brumley said. “We’re just there as a backstop if they need that.”