School board weighs options on face-to-face or virtual school

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By Carolyn Roy, Carolyn@natchitochestimes.com

The Natchitoches Parish School Board voted to push back the opening of school until Aug. 31 as COVID-19 continues to present the challenge to educate students and at the same time be concerned for their safety. During a special called meeting July 25, board members approved the recommendation of Supt. Grant Eloi to open later.

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Eloi said that about two weeks ago, he sensed a shift in the mood of parents, teachers and families that they were not ready to start school Aug. 5. “We have to listen to our educators when they say they’re not ready. They’re genuine. They’re not ready,” Eloi said.

Teachers will report Aug. 24 for five days of professional development at their respective schools. One-fifth of virtual students and one-fifth of face-to-face students will report Aug. 31 for a “soft opening” during which they will learn the protocol for social distancing, wearing masks and other regulations. The first full day of classes for both virtual and face-to-face will be Sept. 8.

There will be a four-day fall break Oct. 9-12. The last day of school for students will be June 3 and last day for teachers will be June 4. Should COVID-19 cases spike or should Gov. John Bel Edwards close schools, the system will be ready for full virtual instruction and paper-based instruction.

As of last week, approximately 2,200 students were signed up for virtual school. Eloi said that if as many as 3,500 students eventually decided on virtual, that would be fine. “That would make face-to-face all the more safe.” In addition to safety concerns, there has been a delay in getting vital supplies such as iPad cases, cameras, thermometers and touchless water fillers.

He believes teachers need more time to learn the internet program used for virtual classes. While there were many questions from board members about the later starting date, one board member advocated for only virtual instruction. Tan’Keia Palmer didn’t think the system should send students “into a bad situation.” Palmer said, “If the numbers are high, we must think about it. School is the riskiest place ever.” She questioned if the precautions for sanitizing the schools would be enough since students would be so close to each other.

“If we do online learning 100 percent, we bypass flu season. If the numbers go up in flu season, the kids will be online already.” Palmer suggested starting only virtual at least until January. She cast the only vote against the later starting date. Eloi said that in addition to the problems presented by COVID-19, 30 percent of the students would not have internet access, a problem that cannot be solved overnight. Elois said he believed that students and teachers would get used to the guidelines and would cooperate.

“What we are saying is that students in poverty would be receiving a lesser version of education because of that full virtual model,” Eloi said. If students or teachers exhibit symptoms of COVID-19, the Office of Public Health that will dictate the protocol. If the school board deviates from BESE board guidelines, the district will be considered negligent in the courts. Palmer asked about pay for long-term subs. It will not be affected since they will work the same number of days. Metoyer was concerned about hourly workers not being able to get unemployment.

Eloi said there would be a three-week difference and most have been contacting employment offices about their cases. The federal unemployment benefits have helped most of those workers. Other details are on the Natchitoches Parish School Board website as are any frequently asked questions (FAQ).