Lafayette STEM Academy showcases student projects along with $9 million school expansion _lowres

Advocate Photo by BRAD KEMP Student Treyon Jackson melts a cube of sugar to see how long it takes to melt in one of the labs after ribbon cutting ceremonies for Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy's new $9 million science wing and new engineering workshop Friday Oct. 2, 2015 in Lafayette, La.. The sugar took 30 seconds to melt.

High school students enrolled in the Lafayette Online Academy are being given the opportunity to apply to return to their base schools. 

Lafayette Online Academy students began full-time learning Sept. 14 after a week of orientation, device troubleshooting and acclimation beginning Sept. 8. Roughly 8,500 K-12 students across the Lafayette Parish School System are enrolled in the program, which ballooned from about 200 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program consists of online learning completed through pre-recorded modules and videos, though school-based facilitators are available for assistance.

The option to switch back to a physical campus early in the semester is a loosening of policy after LPSS required parents to commit to the online program before the beginning of school. Current district guidance says students will not be allowed to transition back until January 2021, though consideration will be given to students struggling in the online environment.

Allison Dickerson, LPSS spokesperson, said the district asked for firm commitment before the semester because each student’s decision impacted staffing, safety measures and classroom capacity, which had to meet state and federal guidelines. Now past the hurdle of the start of school, the district can be more flexible while addressing student needs, she said.

The district chose to focus on high school students because their situation is more sensitive because of the students’ need to meet graduation requirements, Dickerson said.

“We don’t want to have anyone jeopardizing their graduation. We’re mainly concerned about our upperclassmen and graduation, that if you do not pass a class from LOA it could prevent you from graduating,” she said.

“If they feel they need in-person education over online education at this time, we don’t want to tell them, no, it’s not available. We want to do everything we can to set our students up for success,” Dickerson said.

The process to apply for return is being handled on a school-by-school basis because school leaders have the best grasp of what’s possible on their campus, she said.

At David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy, Principal Jeff Debetaz sent out communications to parents directing them to a Google Form. Families have until Wednesday to request to transition back and approved students will be allowed to return beginning Sept. 28.

“Please understand that this is only a request for your child to move from LOA back to DTSMA campus. Submission of this form does not guarantee that you will be able to return to DTSMA,” the form said.

Debetaz said as of Thursday evening 19 of the school’s 296 LOA students had requested to return to in-person classes. Applications are being considered on a first-come-first-served basis by Debetaz, DTSMA’s two assistant principals, four counselors and the instructional leader; the principal said at the current rate they should be able to accommodate all students’ requests to return.

“I’m happy to have them back on our campus. We miss our students and we want to serve as many students as possible in the best way we can possibly serve them. Our school is like a family and when the whole family is not there it functions a little different,” Debetaz said.

The principal said the main consideration when reviewing applications is safety and if the student’s course schedule is conducive to maintaining capacity limits and social distancing in each classroom. Classrooms currently remain under Phase 2 guidelines, with a class size limit of 25 people, including educators.

Each student’s class schedule will be considered and if a certain class is full they’ll look at switching them to a different course. The goal is to prioritize classes needed for graduation requirements, Debetaz said. The DTSMA application form said parents will be contacted if a student’s classes would have to change to return to in-person classes.

Capacity, rather than a student’s address, will also determine which day the returning students attend in-person courses while the district remains on a hybrid attendance schedule, Debetaz said. Currently, students attend on A days if they have an odd-numbered address and B days if they have an even-numbered address.

Dickerson and Debetaz said if students request to return but can’t be accommodated, schools may be able to revisit their placement when the district shifts to Phase 3 school attendance, but a transition would be difficult because of the difference in class schedules. LOA students are on a four-class block schedule, while traditional high school students have a seven-course schedule.

The later in the semester, the more difficult to adjust, but it’ll have to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

“For those that would come back at a later time, I think it is going to be a challenge, quite frankly, because you can’t walk into an engineering class midswing. It wouldn’t work. We’ll have to find some other ways to work a schedule that works for them,” Debetaz said.

Dickerson said the district also began assessing the rolls of Lafayette Online Academy students Friday to determine which students haven’t engaged in the program, from not completing orientation to not logging on during the first week of instruction. Staff will connect with those families to discuss next steps, which may include the student returning to in-person classes if they can’t participate or be successful online, she said.

Students must participate because state compulsory attendance requirements have not been waived for the school year, she said.

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