Coronavirus file photo stock of closed New Orleans school

School Resource Officer Donald Lee locks the gates of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for Science and Technology after all the students left, in New Orleans, Friday, March 13, 2020. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards has closed K-12 public schools across the state for roughly a month in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Gov. John Bel Edwards said Monday he will order public schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year because of the coronavirus, leaving major challenges for state and local education leaders and nearly 720,000 students.

The decision means students will end the school year missing more than two months of traditional classroom instruction.

The governor made his comments in Monroe, where he met with reporters after touring damage to the area from storms on Sunday.

He said he will issue a proclamation later this week after consulting with state education leaders.

Edwards said while distance education will continue it is not feasible to bring youngsters back to the classroom while the state tries to halt the spread of the virus.

Edwards has said students will not have to make up the missed time.

But school leaders are now faced with trying to assess where students stand academically, and how to address potential learning gaps.

Exactly how that will happen is unclear.

State education leaders have offered assurances that education will continue, as well as meals for the thousands of students who rely on school systems for part of their daily routine.

Summer school and an early start to the 2020-21 school year have been mentioned as possibilities by some superintendents.

The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which sets policies for students statewide, will play a key role in offering guidance to local school districts on what they can and should do.

BESE was set to meet on April 20-21 but that gathering has been postponed.

The governor's announcement was not a surprise, especially since he told reporters last week there was a "really good chance" he would do so.

He was requested to act by the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, leaders of BESE and the Louisiana School Boards Association.

All three groups said concerns about the spread of the virus prompted their calls as well as practical problems getting schools ready for finishing a potentially risky final three weeks on the academic calendar.

Edwards announced on March 13 that schools would be closed effective March 16. He extended his initial order to April 30.

Thirty-nine of Louisiana's 69 school districts have been offering some form of distance learning, including videoconferencing, emails and assessments on homework.         

But 29 school districts offered no such plans – St. Tammany officials did not respond to the state survey – and debate continues on just what is taking place in those districts and how students will be impacted.

Interim State Superintendent of Education Beth Scioneaux, in a letter to the governor Thursday, pointedly said all districts need a roadmap for addressing the shutdown of public schools. "Every community needs a plan for continued learning," Scioneaux wrote.

Not everyone was behind the push to close schools for the academic year.

Officials of The Pelican Institute, which calls itself a think tank that advocates for free markets, said BESE needed to first spell out how and when students can return to school for remediation for the time spent out of the classroom.

The group also said the state Department of Education should require all districts to offer virtual learning "where possible" and for others to offer a "high standard of distance instruction," with state standards in place.

"The 44% of districts not currently providing adequate distance learning opportunities must rise to the challenge to ensure the continued learning and education of the children entrusted to them," according to a statement.

Crystal Forte, who lives in Metairie and whose nine-year-old son attends J.C. Ellis Elementary, also questioned the closings.

"Our state has been behind for many years, and this closure puts our children even further behind," said Forte, who also has a one-year-old son at home.

"I am doing the best I can to teach my child a home using the resources the schools have provided, however I do not pretend that I am a teacher," she said. 

"My son needs to attend school."

Earlier in the day the Council for a Better Louisiana, a non-profit advocacy group, said any executive order by Edwards shuttering public schools for the rest of the academic calendar should include a "strong directive" that districts continue providing some sort of instruction.

"When fall gets here we just can't afford to have hundreds of thousands of our kids further behind than they ordinarily would be," said Barry Erwin, president of CABL.

The group said Louisiana has "hundreds of thousands of very vulnerable students in our public schools who are not so much at greater risk of infection from the coronavirus but at risk of a disruption in their education that could have a significant impact on their futures."

Sam Karlin of the Capitol news bureau contributed to this report   


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.