Covid creates dilemma of failing grades; Board weighs options

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Supt. of Schools Grant Eloi was on a television screen at the board meetings Tuesday and Thursday because of a COVID-19 quarantine. He joined Rhonda Guidroz and Billy Benefield Jr., in the Pledge of Allegiance.
Photo by Carolyn Roy

To show he is following protocol, Supt. of Schools Grant Eloi was not at the school board committee meeting Tuesday or regular meeting Thursday, but instead appeared electronically because he has been exposed to COVID-19. Eloi appeared on a television screen in his place at the horseshoe dais. He said he is in quarantine to stay in line with all the good things the system has done to prevent the spread of the virus.

La. Dept. of Health provides weekly reports on Covid-19 cases in schools. The reports tell how many schools in a parish are enrolled in reporting, but do not give a specific district or campus breakdown of positive cases. As of the Jan. 6, LDH report, the parishes with the highest totals in student cases are St. Tammany, 861; Jefferson, 653; Lafayette, 583; Livingston, 474; and Ascension, 453. By comparison, Natchitoches Parish has 56 cases among it’s 16 schools reporting.

He reported that 56 students and teachers have had the virus and were exposed outside of school. There has been no big bump from the holidays reported thus far. He has hired an additional registered nurse to boost COVID-19 procedures.

Thursday, Eloi said that plans are final for employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, in anywhere from one to six weeks. He was to give more information on Friday. He “strongly encourages” them to take it since he believes it will change operations and make a safer atmosphere for students and employees. The staff has another problem related to COVID-19. A national problem is what to do about failing grades resulting from the onset of the virus. The two choices are giving no failing grades or adhering to previous policies that were in place concerning promotion and retention. Those options will be discussed. There should be $1.9 billion forthcoming from the federal government to aid K-12 schools in fighting COVID-19. Eloi is hopeful he will have information at the February board meeting about how much this parish will receive.

Also in his report, Eloi spoke about the board’s relationship with Northwestern State that he said is a “massive resource.” The Praxis tutoring program at NSU will guarantee passing or refund the cost of the test; Educators Rising is a program to seek local residents to enter the education program; and the board is in the final stages of developing an additional associate degree for high school students who can now take nine dual enrollment hours. NSU will work with Eloi on a plan to fill the principal’s vacancy at NSU Middle Lab. NSU E-Lab principal Caron Coleman will be a supervisor of both schools but remain domiciled at E-Lab. Former Middle Lab principal Ben Lagrone will return to the central office and an assistant principal will be named. Many lab schools operate this way and it should not entail more money. If it does, NSU will absorb those costs as part of conducting the schools as research schools.

Eloi got good news from a survey to determine whether teachers felt they received emotional support from the system. Of 300 responses, 85 percent said they felt supported by the system and 93 percent said they felt supported by their principals and assistant principals. Their biggest issue was communication and response to virtual classes. The board is currently contracted with Ecco Ride for transportation. In June of 2018 the Ecco Ride bid created an estimated $1.2 million savings compared to Durham, a $1.7 million savings compared to First Student, a $2.9 million savings compared to STS and a $3.4 million savings compared to DS Bus Lines over the life of this contract which expires June 2021. “We have had a good experience with Ecco Ride and their manager, Alfred Matthews,” said Supervisor of Finance Lee Waskom.

“We are notifying the Board that we would like to extend this contract for five years, which will create a $747,760 additional saving gain through lowering their yearly scheduled increase of 2.3 percent down to 0 percent in year one, and 1.85 percent in years two-five. This creates great service at a great price. If anything happens where we are not happy with the service then we can terminate the contract.” Eloi said there was more to the policy than savings and praised Echo Ride for the prompt service from Williams. Eloi said Williams was always there when needed and had great rapport with staff and principals. He advocated extending the contract. Board member Rhonda Guidroz said the students were getting to school on time and service was much more efficient.Board president Billy Benefield Jr., termed the relationship with Echo Ride as “outstanding.”

Waskom said the board will consider a resolution at the Feb. 4 meeting that will authorize calling for renewal tax elections for schools at Provencal and Marthaville. The biggest NCHS parking lot holes have been filled in with a new product called Aquaphalt. Testing this product will verify if it can hold up and then can be used at other school locations that have pavement issues. The key is to fix these pavement issues when they are small.

Benefield relinquished his office as president with the election of Steven Harris. He thanked the board for their cooperation and named the highlights of his tenure as hiring a new superintendent; forming a committee to preserve assets; expanding dual enrollment; forming a partnership with NSU; reducing the number of uncertified teachers from 104 last January to only 35 who are not in degree programs; and forming a road funding and repair with Parish Government. “We’re building an all-star team here,” Benefield said. The board elected Reba Phelps vice president.

School Board President Steven Harris
Photo by Carolyn Roy
Reba Phelps
School Board vice-president

In two financial items, the board voted to give certified personnel a one-time supplement of $583 and support staff $300. The board also approved adding the position of benefits coordinator and payroll assistant with a salary range between $25,000 and $35,000. Waskom asked for the new position in a move that will give employees a good experience concerning their salary. Multiple staff now handle those jobs but Waskom said they should be handled by one person since they concern multiple details for a $3 million monthly payroll for some 670 employees.

Eloi agreed saying the current system is “a diminishing return on efficiency” and that position would improve the salary product for teachers and staff. The board passed a resolution naming the week of Jan. 17 as “Week of Service” in conjunction with the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In response to a concern from Dorothy McGaskey that two schools were not taking temperature checks, Eloi said that school cameras were able to detect students with fever.

The board accepted next year’s calendar after conducting an extensive survey. A majority would rather have deleted a holiday than adding an additional day or minutes to get the required 63,720 instructional minutes.