Danielle Gordon (left) checks Holden High senior Bailey Hull's temperature she heads to class on the first day of the 2020-2021 school year at Holden School on Friday, August 7, 2020, in Holden, La.

Some Livingston Parish teachers and parents say the demands of online learning during the coronavirus have already put them at a breaking point two weeks into the school year.

Teachers have told school leaders they're overworked and don't have the resources they need to pull off both in-school and at-home classes. And, in a largely rural parish, some families don't have the right equipment or a reliable enough internet connection for students to do the hours of work a day expected of them.

“The arrangement you have in your school system is unacceptable, the teachers are worked to death,” said Mona Icanima, a representative of the Livingston Parish Federation of Teachers, at Thursday night’s Livingston Parish school board meeting.

Roughly a dozen teachers and parents spoke at the meeting – many crying or with breaking voices – about how ineffective the parish’s virtual learning model has been.

“I beg you to look at some other model,” parent Farrah Krautsdorfer said. “I’m less scared of COVID than the lack of education (my children) will receive this year.”

Livingston Parish was one of the first Louisiana public school districts to return students to class amid the coronavirus pandemic. Its K-2 students — and specific groups like special needs students — are on campuses five days a week, while all higher grades are alternating days of in-person and remote learning.

That arrangement is set to stay in place through until Gov. John Bel Edwards moves Louisiana into Phase 3 of reopening. Then all grades will be receiving face-to-face instruction with some additional distancing guidelines. 

But it's not clear when Phase 3 might be announced.

One of the problems teachers noted about digital learning is a lack of equipment. As of Friday, the district has not equipped every student with a laptop computer, and officials don't know how many students have home internet access.

When pushed Thursday night by a teacher who said 45 of his 142 students don’t have internet and a computer at home, Superintendent Joe Murphy said he did not have a number, but officials had started to look into it.

“I could not sit here as Superintendent and say every child in Livingston Parish has internet access,” he said. He said parts of the parish have infrastructure issues prevent students from being able to access internet at all.

A Livingston parish schools spokesperson said Friday that “all students do have access to a laptop either at home or on school sites” but did not answer how many students do not yet have a district-provided laptop to work from while at home.

The spokesperson went on to say that “schools are continuing to work diligently at each school to ensure that students in need of a device are provided one.”

Many of the teachers who spoke during the school board meeting this week categorized their work as having two jobs – one during the day teaching their students in-person and another at night catching up on helping the virtual students who’ve struggled throughout the day.

One teacher said he’d responded to more than 40 messages from virtual students while sitting through the roughly two-hour board meeting. Another said she has students whose parents need to work all day, so they don’t begin their school day until after 5 p.m. when they can get home from day care and onto a computer.

Most teachers and parents who addressed the board were met with rounds of applause, and many teachers wiped tears from their eyes as others spoke. Some were forced to stand outside and listen because the meeting was over capacity under social distancing regulations.

School board member Devin Gregoire, who put the item on the agenda after receiving numerous calls from frustrated teachers, suggested allocating Friday as a full virtual day to allow teachers to catch up on creating content and working on one-on-one Zoom meetings with families.

He also floated the idea of moving to a 100% virtual model to streamline teaching styles.

Those proposals were met with pushback from almost all other board members beside Kellee Dickerson.

School board member Jan Benton, a former educator herself, said there’s a learning curve at the start of any school year and assured the audience that supervisors are working toward solutions.

“It takes a while,” she said, to which Gregoire responded “we don’t have a while anymore, they’re two weeks into the school (year) and this stuff should’ve been figured out before it even started.”

Third grade teacher Kindra Williamson said she’s had issues when grandparents supervise class time while parents work but they’re struggling to understand the technology. She said it’s frustrating that the district doesn’t know which students have internet.

While the virtual model seems to work well for older high school aged students, it doesn’t work in lower grade levels, Williamson said.

“If we know we are a rural district and we have places that have no internet access at all, we can’t set that expectation because we can’t set our kids up to fail,” she said. “We work with kids, not their parents, we work for children, we work for 8-year-olds who need more from us than we are possibly able to give them right now.”

Dickerson, whose comments were met with numerous hugs from emotional teachers after the school board meeting, pushed for some kind of tangible action.

"What are we going to do to make it right so we keep our best people? They can't take this," she said. "I don't know how to take the load off, I don't know what to do to make it right, but we have to do something."

Though no action was taken by the board at the meeting, the general sentiment was to wait it out until the Governor’s Phase 2 order expires on Aug. 28. If the state doesn’t move into Phase 3 then, more long term solutions will be expedited.

“You don’t want to be changing multiple times real quick as things change so I think one of the real keys… is you’ve got to figure out if we’re going to Phase 3 and that does mean a lot,” board member Bradley Harris said. “It doesn’t solve all the problems, but it helps us go forward.”

Murphy said in closing on the topic that he appreciates teacher and community support, and assured the audience officials are working to lessen the load on teachers.

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