Schools outfitted with masks, thermometers to battle Covid-19

Photo from the Natchitoches Parish School Board social media page

By Carolyn Roy,

Information about Covid-19 continues to dominate the school board agenda as it did Tuesday at the committee meeting and Thursday at the regular meeting. On Thursday, the school board unanimously adopted the Strong Start plan for starting school that covers everything from sanitizing facilities to virtual and face-to-face instruction. The plan will be reviewed every 30 days.

Motel 6

Supt. Grant Eloi said he, a number of school board members and staff made a walk-through last week at L.P. Vaughn led by Principal Natalie Ducote. Eloi said Ducote put them at ease about her school’s safety plan that will act as a template for other schools on how to get ready to open. The Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (GOSEP) sent 6,000 washable masks, 10,000 disposable masks for the district and three thermal thermometers for each school.

Eloi expects 30 “hot-spot” connectors to the internet will arrive next week and Technology Coordinator Michael Cozad said he and his staff will work around-the-clock to get them installed by the start of school. The devices will enable students who do not have Wi-Fi at home to connect to the internet at locations such as churches and businesses. Some 30 percent of students do not have connectivity or access to the internet so the only alternative is the hot spot connectors. Cozad and his staff have spent this week installing thermal cameras at three campuses and will continue as they arrive.

Some 2,200-2,300 students have registered to attend virtual classes. That’s roughly 44% of the expected student body. Teachers are contacting parents of those students to help with the logistics of virtual instruction. Felicia Pinkney is heading the virtual instruction team. There is a new “Frequently Asked Questions” section about board website. One advantage of the Aug. 31 starting date is that the local office will have the advantage of seeing how systems that started this week are progressing and what problems they have.

Students can opt in or out of virtual learning during the first two weeks of school. Students in grades three through 12 must wear masks of any design and color as long as they are not vulgar.

Board member Tan’Keia Palmer again expressed her concern about face-to-face attendance believing it creates a risk. She advocated 100% virtual since the system had the capability to do so. “We’re taking a lot of risks. That’s all I’m saying.” Palmer said she didn’t think the 30% of students who don’t have connectivity were enough reasons to not be 100% virtual. “This is a different time. It’s serious.” She didn’t think having all virtual for the first four months would risk education.

Eloi told Palmer they were not adversaries and that he, too, was concerned about the safety of students but was doing everything possible to make the schools safe. “I’m trying to balance safety with the mode of delivery as much as possible.” He said at some point they had to realize that they couldn’t have students going two years with out an education at a crucial time when they were learning to read. “What we are talking about are students of color, more rural students and low socio-economic students who would be the ones in large part left behind. That’s not right either.”

School nurse Becky Phillips said the nurses were training staff on administering medications as well as dealing with issues such as vision and hearing screenings, immunizations, audits, head lice and student exceptionalities. She detailed how the nurses treat diabetic students, some of whom require medication four times a day and must have their pumps disconnected and reconnected. While the school-based clinics are an asset, they do not follow the same protocol as school nurses.

The school board tabled a request from Alliance Compressors presented by Human Resources Manager Michelle Brundige and Comptroller Latina Harris to approve a tax exemption application. Board member Steven Harris said the company is in the third year of an $8 million expansion that resulted in five additional jobs. The company has a $20 million annual payroll with the lowest entry level hourly wage being $11.53 and the highest being $29.34, based on 2018 reports.

Emile Metoyer said he opposed giving the tax breaks because everyone else, including him, had to pay taxes. Harris said Alliance turned down a request for a donation for Lakeview cheerleaders. After some discussion, Reba Phelps asked that it continue at a special called meeting after the board had time to get more information so the request was tabled. Eloi said he would like to honor the fact that the representatives had little time to fully prepare before addressing the board.

The board then voted to give an exemption to Martco LLC after CEO Roy O. Martin III asked for a similar tax exemption. Martin said the plant had a $36.6 million annual payroll with $10 million going to Natchitoches Parish employees. He said the tax exemptions lowered the company’s cost and influenced decisions such as where to hire employees.

Metoyer and Dorothy McGaskey voted no. Russ Danzy, Billy Benefield, Rhonda Guidroz, Eugean Garner, Beverly Broadway, Harris and Phelps voted yes.

Earlier in the meeting, board president Benefield said Katrina Willis, who was attending electronically, could participate in the discussions but could not make a motion, second a motion or vote because she was not physically at the meeting. This was according to an act of the La. Legislature. Board members were allowed to vote and make motions during previous electronic meetings because of a declaration by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

There were three administrative changes in the personnel report. Micah Coleman moves from teacher and coach at Natchitoches Central to assistant principal; Shauna Hicks moves from teacher at NSU Middle Lab to child nutrition supervisor; and Kristie Irchirl moves from assistant principal to principal at Lakeview Jr. High.

Board members received information on several other agenda items including a memorandum of understanding between the school board and Outpatient Medical Center and Central Louisiana Technical Community College; and a dual enrollment agreement between the school board and Northwestern State.

The board approved the COVID leave policy (Emergency Family & Medical Leave); Title IX policy; Emergency Closing of School policy; and public Health Emergency Policy. Harris brought up creating the position of combined business manager/assistant superintendent.

Eloi said that while he did not want to push away help, he was concerned about funding as well as a potential budget crisis. The board’s general fund was $1.3 million over budget at the end of the fiscal year with a major expense being salaries and benefits. He said it was hard to find someone who was certified and also had a business background.

He reiterated those thoughts Thursday and said he would prefer to wait until the system hires a new business manager.