Now that classrooms are closed for the rest of the school year because of the coronavirus, local educators face two huge challenges: how to deliver remote learning for another month, and how to avoid a crippling learning gap for thousands of students.

Education leaders also say students and parents need to get used to the idea that traditional school routines are gone, maybe for good.

"If the best solution is to have kids in a school building in mid-July, then we need to have them in mid-July," said Tony Davis, a member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Gov. John Bel Edwards last week formally closed schools for the rest of the academic year as part of efforts to stem the spread of the virus.

That means students will miss around nine weeks of traditional classroom time, from March 16 until the third week of May, when most schools finish the year.

At least 40 of Louisiana's 69 school districts are offering some form of distance education, including videoconferencing, satellite learning, online chats or emails.

But even affluent districts are having trouble reaching all their pupils, especially in a state where nearly half a million students live in low-income households.

In addition, only 69% of households have internet access, a huge stumbling block in any push to deliver online and other instruction.

Doris Voitier, superintendent of the St. Bernard Parish School District, said while her district is offering Google Classroom, Zoom and other forms of distance learning, 80% of her students are economically disadvantaged.

Many of them are relying on paper-based materials, with teachers checking on students via telephone, email and screenshots.

"This only intensifies the long-term need for the technological infrastructure that we need in the state of Louisiana," said Voitier, a 46-year educator and one of the governor's three appointees on BESE.

Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said school leaders are grappling with a wide range of challenges trying to deliver instruction for another four weeks.

'I am finding that even with larger districts there are some areas that do not have broadband capability, internet access, Wi-Fi," Faulk said.

He said some school districts have delivered materials to students and others have set up times for parents to pick up work sheets.

Others installed Wi-Fi on school buses to assist students who lack connections.

Leaders of the state Department of Education are offering guidance to local school leaders.

But acting State Superintendent of Education Beth Scioneaux has made clear that local officials will have the final call on grade promotions, where students stand academically and whether wholesale summer school classes are needed.

Adding to the scramble is the fact that everyone is learning on the fly.

"This is so unprecedented, there is no research to point to, there are not best practices," said Stephen Pruitt, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which is based in Atlanta.

"Everyone went into triage mode when this hit," Pruitt said.

School leaders say how students fared until schools were closed March 16 will play a big role in promotion decisions.

Those who were struggling will have a chance to make up ground.

Superintendents have raised the possibility of summer school for thousands of students to make up for lost weeks or starting the 2020-21 school year early.

Carrie Monica, executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children, said officials should consider summer school, an early start to the next school and abbreviated breaks in case of future disruptions.

Monica also suggested literacy coaches in kindergarten through fifth grade to ensure students are reading on grade level, a longtime state challenge.

Ashley Ellis, assistant principal of Neville High School in northeast Louisiana and the mother of three children, said the potential learning gap is real.

"Even your middle of the road, average student is going to have a gap that could affect the ACT, could affect what college they get into," said Ellis, who is also a BESE member.

"It is bigger than just at-risk students. It is all students. Missing nine weeks of the school year is a challenge."

Allison Hughes, superintendent of the Red River Parish School District in north Louisiana, said she hopes to have students back in the classroom a week after Edwards gives the go ahead.

"The biggest challenge is how do you recover instructional time," Hughes said.

Her district is offering distance learning and Chromebooks for all students.

But not all 1,400 children in the district have internet access.

Packets of work materials, most subject review but some covering new topics, are sent to students' homes every two or three weeks and students have weekly contact with teachers.

Wes Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish School District, said schools had gathered lots of data when classes were shuttered.

"We will have ways to know which students need to remediate this summer," Watts said.

Davis, the BESE member who lives in Natchitoches, said he has told superintendents in his district that there is nothing to keep students from returning to classes before the traditional August start dates.

"We cannot assume that we are going to move forward with the way things used to be," he said.

"The most educated and most affluent, nuclear families … those kids are not getting the education they would in a classroom with a good teacher."

Pruitt made the same point.

"When we open this back up there is going to have to be a recognition that this is not business as usual," he said. "What you have done in August and September in the past will not be applicable." 


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.