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Some educators on Monday began the herculean task of trying to deliver instruction to 719,000 students sent home because of the coronavirus amid huge gaps in access to computers and other resources.

While delivering classes online may be possible in select areas, Louisiana has one of the lowest rates of households with internet access in the nation: 69%.

In addition, nearly 71% of public school students come from economically disadvantaged families, another challenge in any effort to suddenly upgrade instruction from traditional classrooms to Zoom, YouTube or other avenues.

"We know that the significant time out is going to be a challenge," Hollis Milton, superintendent of the highly-ranked West Feliciana Parish school system said in an email Monday.

Ken Bradford, assistant superintendent for the Office of Student Opportunities, said the state is taking a headcount on which of the state's 69 school districts plan to simply release their students during the closures compared to those who plan some kind of distance learning.

Bradford noted that Gov. John Bel Edwards' proclamation Friday waived the requirement that students attend schools a certain number of instructional minutes per year.

"I think it will be done differently depending on the school system's capability, which is why that was addressed in the governor's proclamation," Bradford said.

Even the Zachary School District, which has been rated No. 1 in the state for 15 consecutive years, is taking a measured response during the schools closure, which last until April 13.

Scott Devillier, superintendent of the school system, said officials have put together a "resources packet" for students and are sending links to curriculum and other sites "where our kids could go online if they like."

"The way we are handling this is we are providing them with resources to keep their minds sharp," Devillier said.

"But we are not going to say that you have to complete all the assignments," he said. "We are not trying to put pressure on kids."

David Alexander, superintendent of the Ascension Parish school system, said while there are outstanding platforms with academic content "the challenge here is how do you focus on what you need to do right now.'

"We are trying to teach children without being present with them. Trying to figure out where are all the available resources to do that."

"And we don't want to wait a week or two to start so we are going to push some of this out Wednesday and it is going to be imperfect."

"We are going to have to give students margin to learn how to join us, teachers margin to learn how to do this well."

Alexander said, "If we could get two high-quality weeks then we could go on spring break. It was already scheduled anyway."

The state Department of Education, in partnership with Louisiana Public Broadcasting, will offer distance and home learning tools for students, educators and caregivers by Wednesday, including lessons and resources for math, English/language arts, social studies, science and early childhood.

Low-income families can apply for monthly internet access for $5 or $10 through AT&T Access, Cox Connect2Compete and CenturyLink Lifeline.

Milton said his district is offering a combination of "practice packets" and online resources "to keep ours students sharp during this time out of school.'

"We are using a blended approach (paper and online) so that all students have an opportunity," he said.

Rural school districts are even more pressed.

"The majority of our kids don't have machines or internet accessibility so we will be preparing paper packets for review/practice work," Paul Nelson, superintendent of the Tensas Parish school system in northeast Louisiana said in an email Monday.

State officials have made clear that distance learning is not required during the schools closure.

"Schools may offer complete distance learning as capabilities exist," according to one of the guides on the website of the state Department of Education.

However, teachers who offer instruction through YouTube or other formats are required to take attendance at the start of the instruction.

Louisiana is ahead of only four states in the percentage of households with internet access – Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and New Mexico.

The state's 69% rate is below the U.S. average of 77%.

Former Recovery School District Superintendent Paul Vallas said the scramble for online instruction points up the need for districts to set up systems where online instruction is commonplace.

"If you build this structure in normal times it is a huge asset for the schools to have," Vallas said.

"You can extend your online instruction day, you can extend your online instruction year, you can help kids that are disciplinary problems."

While the governor's order did not require the closing of early learning centers, a top state official Sunday encouraged families with children from birth to age 4 to keep them home if possible.

The advisory was sent to the roughly 1,700 operators of the centers by Alexander Billioux, assistant secretary for the state Department of Health.

Staff members who are elderly or those with medical conditions should also be encouraged to stay home, Billioux said. 


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.