Schools still dealing with Hurricane Laura damages; System for suspected COVID cases explained

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School Board members for the 2020-21 school year are, from left, Tan’Keia Palmer, Steven Harris, Beverly Broadway, Reba Phelps, Emile Metoyer, Dorothy McGaskey, Billy Benefield Jr., Katrina Willis, Russ Danzy, Rhonda Guidroz and Eugean Garner.

By Carolyn Roy, Carolyn@natchitochestimes.com, 318-352-3618 ext. 219

Natchitoches Parish school property did not escape the wrath of Hurricane Laura. Supervisor of Finance Lee Waskom told the school board at its committee meeting Tuesday that every one of the system’s 12 campuses sustained damage that ranged from minor to severe. He estimates the damages will total $1.3 million. Goldonna and Natchitoches Jr. High received the most damage. At the junior high, the dome over the center of the building was rocked leaving holes where rain blew in. At L.P. Vaughn, HVAC units on top of the building were also rocked by the high winds that drove rain under the metal flashing. In some of the older schools, the tile roofs and metal flashings were damaged. Waskom said his focus was on moisture penetration and life safety issues.

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The board passed a resolution Thursday declaring an emergency to bypass the bid laws that will allow some damage to be repaired immediately. Some will need the inspection of engineers and architects who will help prioritize repairs. The repairs will be paid for with money from the school district tax funds and will possibly be reimbursed by FEMA. Supt. Grant Eloi gave a recap of what will soon be his first six months. He was hired April 20.

He listed the following progress:

•The system is now equipped with one-to-one electronic devices.

•There is a new food service manager, Shauna Hicks, and new business supervisor, Waskom.

•Eloi said he has hired an amazing team of principals.

•A virtual school has been developed in two and one half months.

•The system endured the worst hurricane in the history of the parish and state.

•The system has thousands of followers on social media with the hiring of district technology coordinator Mike Cozad.

•The staff is working to reduce the number of uncertified teachers or long-term substitutes. Some 90 percent of them have a bachelor’s degree, three have a master’s degree and many are in the process of earning certification.

•There is discussion of the need to analyze the budget with an audit to provide transparency.

•There is a review of internal policies, some of which have been in effect since the 1990s.

•The system has moved into the 21st century through new software and policies to address, specifically, payroll and certification issues for employees.

•There are agreements with Northwestern State and the Central Louisiana Technical Community College to improve support for students.

Eloi said all that had been done in less than six months. “That’s been an effort of all the fine folks in the room,” Eloi said to the principals and central office staff at the meeting. He believes there is an improvement in the morale and culture in the system. Eloi then reported on his strategic plan that will adopt successful practices of other systems. They include research of Charlotte Danielson and her framework for teaching; Doug Reeves’ 90/90/90 schools that have high poverty, mainly ethnic minorities and more than 90 percent mastery level students; and John Hattie’s Common School Practices.

“We are going to be a data center and a research center district. We are going to do what works because we’ve seen them work in other places.” Eloi then briefed the board on the COVID-19 crisis. He explained the process for determining if a student or employee should be quarantined and what kind of tests are required if COVID-19 is suspected. As a testament to the success of the system’s practices for handling the virus, he said since Aug. 24, only eight school board employees and nine students, from the same three families, tested positive. All of them received the virus from a community source and not at school.

Eloi said District 7 Office of Public Health Director Dr. Martha Whyte told him and Director of Personnel Linda Page that Natchitoches Parish was doing an outstanding job of handling the COVID-19 crisis. Eloi said it was one of his proudest moments. Page and other employees often visited students’ homes on the weekends to deliver COVID-19 information. He recognized the protocol is challenging and asked that parents who have concerns contact him, Page or the Office of Public Health. He will continue to give the school board monthly reports on the number of those infected. The COVID-19 information has been posted on numerous social media outlets and one-page information sheets in simple terms were distributed by the schools. Eloi said the simplest thing he could say, to students and staff is, “If you are not feeling well, do not come to school.”

In other news, he said that Hicks had recovered $86,000 of the $96,000 loss of food items during Hurricane Laura. She has also obtained a $10,000 grant for the food service and has passed the second phase for a $25,000 grant from Weyerhaeuser. In other news, Eloi said he is negotiating a contract for use of Northwestern State‘s football stadium and basketball coliseum. The fee will defer NSU expenses such as utilities and sanitation related to COVID-19. NCHS Principal William Gordy said he received permission for the band to use the NSU concession stand at football games. Concessions are the band’s main fundraiser.

The upgrade to the NCHS athletic facilities includes installation of bleachers to seat 1,000, a new press box and field house. Gordy proposed naming the football field after late J.D. Garrett, a long-time coach and teacher at NCHS who was instrumental in the development of football in Natchitoches. The field is used for junior varsity games and other sports. He proposed naming the field house after the late Eugene Christmas, a former trainer at NSU. “The road to state champions begins in the field house,” Gordy said. Christmas gave training sessions to NCHS athletes, twice a week, starting in the 1970s, free of charge. Gordy said the field house will have a weight room, class rooms, digital film center and training room.

Eloi proposed a change to the pupil progression plan that will eliminate zero grades. Instead, students will get an I, for incomplete, and have the next nine weeks to improve the grade. He said that while that was a hot button issue, grades should not be punitive and students should have a chance to recover. Students who receive grades below 75, may be able to retest.

Another part of the pupil progression plan is to increase the number of dual enrollment hours to nine for students who are pursuing an associate degree. A third change relates to virtual students who have not engaged in classes. They face academic probation and being required to go face-to-face.