ST. FRANCISVILLE — The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has altered the future of public education in West Feliciana Parish for perhaps months to come, but planning for a new elementary school has continued while students are out of their classrooms the last months of the school year.
The parish School Board met in an online meeting Tuesday to review and approve plans for the school, which will be constructed on 11 acres the board purchased last year along U.S. 61 at Bains Road.
Board members also heard reports from Superintendent Hollis Milton and school food services director Patricia Gilmore on some of the changes in school routine since Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools statewide last month.
Milton said high school seniors have been surveyed on how graduation ceremonies should be handled this year to comply with social distancing guidelines.
He said the graduates were presented with three options: a drive-by parade in vehicles for graduates to receive their diplomas, a walk-through ceremony with each graduate and a limited number of guests to pick up diplomas, or a more traditional graduation program on July 10 or July 17.
If the walk-through event is held, students would receive a DVD of the class members accepting their diplomas, Milton said.
The company that provides caps and gowns for graduation programs is closed now, but Milton said it may reopen in time to support a July graduation, if social distancing guidelines are relaxed enough to allow a large gathering.
Milton, who is recovering from the disease caused by the coronavirus, said “distance learning,” either online or through traditional “pencil and paper” materials will be provided through the end of the school year to help students “stay sharp and provide a structure for families.”
In the next few weeks, the school system will provide guidance to parents on how promotions and pupil progression are handled.
Milton said 50 percent of the school system’s parents and guardians participated in a survey on how many families need devices to participate in online learning programs.
The survey showed that most students and families depend on cell towers for internet service, while only 20 percent of those responding have reliable, high-speed internet service.
He said 45 percent reported having “somewhat reliable” internet service, while 35 percent have no or poor connectivity to the internet.
Summer school is not a given, Milton said, as social distancing restrictions may make it impossible to reopen schools. However, distance learning will be offered in June, he said.
The superintendent said the budget for the current school year had envisioned a $350,000 operating deficit for several reasons, and the staff is attempting to stay within that margin.
Gilmore estimated that $29,000 was spent during the period when the school system provided meals to students at home through school bus deliveries. The Federal Emergency Management Agency may reimburse the district for some of that expense, she said.
Milton also said the board probably spent $25,000 to produce copies of materials sent to students for instructional purposes.
Gilbert also said schools will participate with a federally funded Baylor University program to deliver foodstuffs to families, with deliveries possibly beginning April 24. The program was delayed because of problems in ascertaining the addresses of some students to allow for third-party deliveries, she said.
Marco Gonzalez of Volkert Inc., the new school’s construction manager, and architect Gary Gilbert of Coleman Partners Architects said the design teams are moving into the final phase of preparing construction plans for the new school along U.S. 61, with eye toward seeking construction bids in late summer.
Gonzalez said the only major kink in the planning involved a study of traffic patterns around the entire group of schools near the intersection of U.S. 61 and Bains Road.
“You cannot do a traffic study when there’s no traffic,” Gonzalez said, but added a traffic survey will be done for the new school, which will have an entrance on Marydale Road, a short distance from U.S. 61.
Gilbert said the new school will have 129,000 square feet of space, a reduction of about 4,000 square feet from the original concept.