For months, families, educators, policymakers, and students have been focused on whether and when to begin in-person learning. States and districts are doing their best to strike a balance between ensuring safety from COVID-19 with meeting students’ need for in-person instruction and interpersonal interaction. In New Orleans, NOLA Public Schools’ (NOLA-PS) decisions around reopening have been deliberate, nuanced, and considerate of the ever-changing public health landscape.
Reopening with Virtual Learning
In New Orleans, we began our school year from a strong foundation. Since the start of the pandemic, our schools have done great work. By the second week of school closure, for instance, 97% of schools had rolled out educational resources to their students. Schools launched into distance learning with immense energy and focus.
The 2020-2021 school year began again at a distance. Beginning the week of August 3rd, all NOLA-PS students engaged in full-time virtual learning. This has been critical to keeping our students, educators, and families safe from COVID-19. Schools and educators have been creative when it comes to virtual academic support. They are innovating around interactive engagement, creative lesson design, and more.
But virtual learning, of course, comes with obstacles. Its success depends on factors like whether students have access to appropriate technology and internet and if adults can be at home to help them if they need it. Due to systemic inequities, students from low-income backgrounds, like many New Orleans Public School students, are less likely to have access to these resources. This means they lose learning time and access to educational opportunity.
The team behind the online math curriculum Zearn gathered data, presented on TrackTheRecovery.org, that made this clear. They found that students from high- and low-income backgrounds had starkly different rates of progress in their coursework while schools were closed this spring. This was not, of course, because students from low-income backgrounds did not want to participate. Rather, they were contending with those systemic factors, like a lack of technology or the ability of parents to work from home and help out. After an initial drop in participation for all students when schools closed, students in high-income zip codes were eventually making more progress with Zearn’s curriculum than even before the closures began—their progress was 18% higher than it had been in January. In contrast, the barriers faced by students living in low-income zip codes meant their progress in the curriculum had decreased by 68% by the end of the school year.
Resources and Mental Health Supports
Schools, of course, fulfill more than academic needs alone. They provide meals, physical health and mental health services, special education services, and strong relationships with caring adults. This is particularly important in cities like New Orleans, where, due to systemic racism and inequity, so many of our public-school students are from low-income backgrounds and have experienced trauma in their childhoods. New Orleans’ schools did an excellent job supporting students during the spring closures in certain key ways in this respect, like providing meals from the first day of closure, or offering mental health supports from afar.
According to an article in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, school closures “have the potential to threaten the mental health of children and adolescents significantly.” Disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic can result in long-term mental health impacts. According to the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), “close to 15 years post-Katrina, psychosocial screenings show an extremely high prevalence of traumatic stress and mental health disorder symptoms among youth aged 11-19 in New Orleans.” Of those surveyed, 21% report symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), compared with the national adolescent rate of PTSD of 4%.
As IWES notes, given this existing trauma in our city, our students’ mental health needs will likely be greater than the national average. School closures, and the interruption of students’ routines, relationships, and safe spaces that come with that, will add to our children’s stress. New Orleans schools have done incredible work providing support, from launching mental health hotlines to hosting weekly online dance parties that provide a sense of joy and connection.
Planning for In-Person Reopening
The academic and social-emotional reasons to return to in-person school are clear. The management consulting group, McKinsey, modeled the learning loss that students will experience under different remote learning scenarios this school year. In one scenario, where in-class instruction does not resume until January 2021, they estimated that students could lose “three to four months of learning if they receive average remote instruction, seven to 11 months with lower-quality remote instruction, and 12 to 14 months if they do not receive any instruction at all.”
While this is compelling, our students’, families’, and educators’ safety comes first. When NOLA-PS announced its virtual launch to the year, they also said they would make a decision around in-person reopening by Labor Day. Many other districts with similar percentages of students from low-income backgrounds made similar choices—virtual learning for the first nine weeks of school, then a plan to revisit based on local health conditions. According to a survey from the Center for Reinventing Public Education (CRPE), students in the highest-poverty districts (41%) were most likely to start the school year virtually.
New Orleans is starting in-person learning earlier than peer districts.
Importantly, NOLA-PS committed to monitoring the COVID-19 infection data in partnership with local public health officials, and ultimately made their decision based on guidance produced by our nation’s foremost experts in both the wellbeing of children and the management of the coronavirus. Currently, only eight percent of the 477 districts surveyed by CRPE were using such a model as of August.
NOLA-PS’ Decision and the Additional Importance of In-Person Instruction for Young Learners
As promised, NOLA-PS made its announcement around re-opening before Labor Day. On August 28, they announced that schools must begin offering a full week, in-person instructional option to all students in grades Pre-K4 through 4 by September 25. Older students are slated to begin in-person classes in October, depending on a continued review of the latest public health data. This is a thoughtful approach that considers safety as well as the educational and social-emotional needs of the youngest learners. It also accommodates some parents’ needs to return to the workforce or other responsibilities.
NOLA-PS’ decision is in line with expert advice. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine released a report noting that “young children in particular will be impacted by not having in-person learning and may suffer long-term academic consequences if they fall behind as a result.” Of the nine recommendations made in their report, the first is that districts prioritize full-time, in-person learning for young elementary children and students with disabilities. We know that academic gains made in the early elementary years set students up for success far down the road.
Ensuring the Safety of Our Students
Reopening, for any grade, must happen in a physically safe environment. In order to feel comfortable accessing the benefits that in-person instruction provides, parents must know their child’s health and safety are paramount. Educators and school staff need to know that they are safe, too. The return to buildings is understandably frightening for many, so it was important that the choice to re-open was paired with the most stringent of safety standards.
To achieve that, NOLA-PS is following the Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations around buildings and transportation, food service, and personal protection. NOLA-PS’s Roadmap to Reopening, which was developed with the input of state and local public health officials, makes these guidelines clear.
NOLA-PS and schools recognize that some families might not be ready to return to the classroom yet, no matter the grade of their child. The majority of New Orleans’ public school students are Black and from low-income backgrounds, which, due to the results of racism and systemic inequities, means their families have been disproportionately impacted by this disease in a city that has seen high infection and mortality rates. This, among other concerns, may lead families to want to continue virtual learning for their children. NOLA-PS will therefore allow a virtual learning option for all families for the remainder of the school year. Schools are also planning for accommodations for educators and school staff that have certain health conditions.
Despite the obstacles, our families, the school system, and educators are being immensely thoughtful, careful, and wise. Together, parents and NOLA-PS are making decisions backed by the guidance of experts in education, medicine, and public health, along with each family’s nuanced understanding of their own needs. The continued flexibility of NOLA-PS and schools will allow them to successfully meet the diverse needs of families as we all navigate this crisis. Together, we will support students through this disruption, trauma, and hardship, while also ensuring they keep learning and growing academically. We will do everything we can to make sure COVID-19 does not hinder their goals and dreams.