NEW ORLEANS — Gov. John Bel Edwards is seeking federal waivers to let Louisiana public schools drop standardized LEAP tests and end-of-course testing this spring, eliminating school performance measures because of the coronavirus shutdown.
At the same time, school districts across the state are setting up distance-learning instruction over the internet, which is proving more challenging in districts with more students living in poverty.
That’s especially true in New Orleans, where every public school is a privately operated charter school and three of every four students’ family incomes are less than 185 percent of the poverty level, according to the New Orleans Education Equity Index.
The New Orleans Public School district announced Wednesday that it has used emergency funding to purchase 5,000 wi-fi hotspots and would soon provide details on where students can access them to help with distance learning. The district also said it’s looking to purchase laptops and tablets in bulk to distribute to needy students.
The original plan was for students to use public computers at New Orleans Public Libraries for distance learning. But that fell through when library employees and patrons expressed concern about COVID-19 exposure and the city decided Sunday to close the libraries to the public.
NOLA Public Schools said it set up an “online toolbox” with distance learning resources for charter, private and Archdiocesan schools to use. But some charter schools have already set up their own processes for keeping instruction going over the state-imposed monthlong closure, now set to end April 13.
“We set up Google Classrooms, we’re giving devices to kids who need devices, we’re actively monitoring the classrooms and we’re acting as if the only thing that’s changed is the bodies aren’t in the building,” said Erika Mann, head of school at James Singleton Charter School at the New Orleans YMCA.
Under previous leadership, Singleton was a failing school, and its performance this year was going to determine if the YMCA/Singleton management organization would keep the school charter. Mann said getting an additional year to raise scores is helpful, but getting students set up with online classes may prove even more beneficial in the long run.
“The largest silver lining is my children have embraced this and they’re persevering,” Mann said. “I think moving forward, (distance learning technology) is a platform we have now put in place that will equip our kids for future learning.”
It’s been a challenge, Mann said, because surveys show about 15 percent of James Singleton students don’t have consistent internet at home and many who do, only have smartphones to access online classes, which she said isn’t ideal for Google Classroom and other online learning tools.
Mann said she has distributed computers to students who didn’t have them and put in a request to the district for devices that let teachers project what they are doing on their computers to their remote students in real-time.
Armtrice Cowart, the parent of a junior at Warren Easton High School, praised that charter school for using its school bus contractor, Donovan Transportation, to deliver school materials and assignment packets to students who weren’t able to join online classes.
She suggested the same could be done district-wide, and school meals could also be dropped off using existing school bus contracts. She pointed to a message from an Atlanta-area school district that began delivering meals on school buses this week.
“Why are these things not already set up?” she questioned. “I’ll tell you why they’re not set up. Because we’re not in a centralized system.”
Cowart, a former educator, has been critical of the Orleans Parish School Board’s all-charter model. She’s also concerned with Edwards’ plan to waive the LEAP and end-of-course exams. It’s sure to relieve stress for parents worried about their children falling behind during the shutdown, but she believes it’s a big mistake that will allow ill-prepared students to advance to the next grade level.
“Waiving the LEAP test and the end of the course (exams) isn’t for the kids,” she said. “In all honesty, it helps the charter schools that are failing and might have got their charter revoked be able to fly under the radar another year.”