State says kids can eat free for rest of school year

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

During a committee meeting Tuesday, Supt. Grant Eloi said, as of that meeting, 16 students have tested positive for COVID-19 as has six staff. That compares to the October report of nine students and eight staff.

Eloi said that those numbers are in the predicted statistical range with the La. Dept. of Health (LDH) and compares with other districts around the state. He held a productive meeting with doctors in the area with the result being a better understanding and open dialog between them and LDH. Eloi said that there has been a lot of gossip and miscommunication with many jumping to conclusions about the number of cases in the schools. While there have been multiple cases in some schools, there have been no “outbreaks.” A

COVID-19 issue that has arisen is of a human resources nature related to some staff being quarantined multiple times. According to the board’s legal counsel, an employee is entitled to 10 federal days leave, with pay. After that, an employee has 10 days paid sick leave. After that, employees can use accrued leave. While the board is empathetic, not every employee has accrued leave.

Eloi said that while that may be unfortunate, the policy would be applied in the most equitable way in every situation. Employees with questions can reach out to human resources.

On another subject, every public school student will be entitled to free meals until the end of the school year according to Shauna Hicks, child nutrition district manager. That is possible because the State extended the summer feeding program. The child nutrition program is about $20,000 over budget at this time because of the smaller number of students eating. Hicks said that last year, school started in August as compared to mid-September this year.

In 2019, the average number of students eating breakfast was 6,300 compared to 2,461 this year. In 2019 breakfasts averaged 2,758 compared to 1,579 this year. Hicks said that 24 percent of the student population is virtual with little participation. The problem is statewide, not just in Natchitoches.

Long-term substitutes may get a financial boost. The current policy calls for long-term subs to begin each year at a rate of $120 per day for 30 days before they are bumped up to $180 a day. After their first year, they are compensated for the difference between the pay grades for those 30 days, usually in September. But the delayed start of school this year resulted in the difference in pay being distributed in November because of COVID-19. Eloi proposed waiving the 30-day waiting period.

Eloi and Director of Personnel Linda Page said the school board has a partnership with Northwestern State that will support long-term subs who are getting certified. Supervisor of Finance Lee Waskom told the board about two ways the school board can get funding from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA). The first is to get money for damage sustained during Hurricane Laura, which is in progress The second is to apply for money for facility upgrades, 75 percent of which will be reimbursed by FEMA. It is a new program that so far is not widely used.

Waskom said the money could be used to strengthen facilities that will better withstand storms and another hurricane. It’s a lengthy process requiring much paperwork but has the potential to prevent future damage. The applications must be justified with engineering input but will be worth the investment of time. Eloi said he had a strategic planning meeting with staff, Mayor Ronnie Williams Jr., Northwestern Dean of Education and Human Development Dr. Kim McAlister and others about one and five year goals and how to execute those goals. There should be a final draft of the report in January.

Eloi acknowledged that there was a slight increase in ACT scores to 17.3 but they are not where he wants them to be. While State scores were down, Eloi wants local scores should be in the 20-21 ranges. He created advisory councils composed of parents, teachers and students in seventh grade and higher. Council members will give Eloi input about their schools. Principals will get training about how BRE tax money is collected and what it is used for.

In the matter concerning the construction of a parking lot near the warehouse on Parkway Drive, the school board will ask the City Council to adjust deed restrictions that prohibit the lot being built near a residence. There appears to be a communication problem between attorneys for the two sides.

Eloi told the board that he successfully defended his doctoral dissertation and will graduate in December. One of the qualifications of his employment was that he receives the Ph.D. The board is expected to make a change to the Pupil Progression Plan. Eloi, at the October meeting, proposed an elimination of zero grades that was met with opposition from teachers and principals. He presented a new grading policy that addresses such items as retest/reteach option on major grades of at least 50 points; exempting and incomplete grades, zeros-no score; and number of grades and bonus points. Eloi said parts of the policy are already in practice by many teachers and each school will have input about how the policy is applied.

The policy will not be punitive and will give students multiple chances but with parameters. The changes are in response to the increasing failure rate statewide. The board is expected to go into executive session today, Thursday, to evaluate Eloi.