The return to school was marked by warm greetings at the gates of Lafayette Parish School System campuses and behind-the-scenes anxiety for parents re-evaluating decisions to send their children back to in-person learning as COVID-19 cases in the community and state surge.

On Thursday and Friday, most LPSS students returned to campuses for the start of school. First- through 12th-grade students returned in A and B groups over two days to ease into the school year, with all students beginning full attendance Monday. Pre-K and kindergarten students will follow a similar scheme Monday through Wednesday.

It’s a start with mixed emotions for many parents.

In April and May, when parents made key enrollment decisions, the seven-day average for COVID-19 cases in Region 4, the Louisiana Department of Health’s designation for Acadiana, was between roughly 50 and 78. On Aug. 1, the seven-day average for Region 4 was 646.3 cases. 

COVID-19-related hospitalizations in the region, likewise, have risen from the upper 30s to mid-60s daily in April and May, to 380 people as of Aug. 12, per data from LDH’s coronavirus dashboard.

The Lafayette Online Academy, which had an enrollment of 8,500 students at the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, asked parents to commit to the program in spring, closing applications April 6.

According to LPSS spokesperson Allison Dickerson, as of Friday there were 373 students enrolled in LOA for the current school year, though numbers may fluctuate as families opt to return to their base schools and others are brought in from the waitlist. Pre-pandemic, the program had an enrollment of about 200 students.

Jessica Broussard has three children in magnet programs across Lafayette Parish: a 15-year-old at Lafayette High, an 11-year-old at David Thibodaux STEM Magnet Academy and a 6-year-old at Myrtle Place Elementary. Last year, all three did virtual learning through LOA. Broussard, who worked as a substitute teacher and tutor for the district, stayed home to teach them. 

This spring, Broussard said she was told to make a choice: Keep her kids in LOA and lose their magnet academy seats, which the district announced it would not hold for students opting into LOA for another year, or forego LOA for the 2021-2022 school year and attend in-person classes at their magnet academies. Broussard opted to keep their magnet spots.

Her children are now on the LOA waitlist.

Broussard said she’s frustrated there wasn’t more flexibility provided to families in recognition of the changing COVID-19 situation in the community. The virus’ strain on the community now is vastly different than it was when she made her decisions for the school year, she said.

“I didn’t think it was fair. I felt that if I kept their places they should have still worked with us to keep them in their programs because it’s not my fault we’re in a pandemic. It’s not my kids’ fault we’re in a pandemic,” Broussard said.

Her children’s first day was Thursday.

Broussard said she cried the night before, anxious and heartbroken for her children and other families, and prayed. She’s scared for the safety of her children, especially her 4-month-old infant at home, but she put on a positive attitude and cheered her children through their first day.

The best she and her husband can do right now is model good virus mitigation behaviors for the children, like reminding them to wear their masks properly, social distance, avoid touching their faces and other people’s belongings, and arming them with hand sanitizer. Before her children left for school, they prayed together as a family, she said.

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“They’re going to have to keep going to school because they can’t miss school, or they’ll be truant. We’re just going to be praying and hoping for the best in the meantime,” Broussard said.

The first day was a mixed bag for her children.

They were happy to see their friends, loved their teachers and were ready to learn, but her two eldest children felt uncomfortable about the number of students in their classrooms and the inability to social distance. She said both told her they were uncomfortable eating in their classrooms, close to others and unmasked.

The mother of four said the family is having open discussions about the situation and the children’s feelings, but she’s trying to shield them from her fear and anxiety.

“I don’t want them to be at school panicking or thinking, ‘Is Mom upset? Is something going to happen?’ I want them to enjoy life and enjoy the first day of school. I want them to still have fun at school. I don’t think it’s good to put that on kids because they have enough to worry about,” Broussard said.

She’s not alone in her feelings.

Broussard has been messaging with other parents in a group on Facebook and said having parents to commiserate with is both comforting and difficult; she feels bad that so many parents are in tough positions, whether they want their children to be in school or want the option to transition to virtual. It’s hard all around, Broussard said.

Like Broussard, Kendra Nelson has her children on the waitlist for LOA.

The mother of five, one of whom is a foster child, has a sophomore and freshman at Ovey Comeaux High and second-, third- and fifth-graders at Broadmoor Elementary. The children spent two years in LOA, but this spring Nelson opted to send them back to in-person learning.

She consulted with her sister, who works in administration at Ochsner Lafayette General Medical Center, on the decision. They both felt confident it could be a safe experience, but as numbers began to rise in July, that confidence dissipated, she said.

“I wasn’t concerned at all in May and now I’m a nervous wreck. I sent them all with extra masks, reminding them if you drop it, don't put it back on, and hand sanitizer for everybody. I was telling them don’t touch anybody,” Nelson said.

Aside from LOA, Nelson said she’s trying to get in touch with administrators at University View Academy, a Baton Rouge-based virtual charter school, to explore that as another virtual learning option for the children.

Like Broussard, she said she’s frustrated LPSS didn’t opt for more flexible back-to-school options for families, especially with the rampant spread of COVID-19 in the community.

Contemplating a shift to virtual isn’t without its hardships, particularly when it comes to the kids’ social-emotional needs. Nelson’s two older children lost some friendships while out of the social loop last year, and her 7-year-old daughter, the youngest, was scared her friends didn’t like her after they became upset that she wouldn’t share her pencils because of coronavirus concerns on Thursday, she said.

“If I could take them out of school right now and put them in LOA, I would definitely do it today...It would definitely be hard to pull them again. But with the COVID numbers like they are, and the hospital rooms packed like they are, if we get the chance we’d do it and we’d figure out some kind of way to get them socializing,” Nelson said.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com