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Top Baton Rouge education leaders spoke Tuesday afternoon at a 90-minute virtual town hall called by Mayor Sharon Weston Broome.

Leaders of LSU, Southern, BRCC and the East Baton Rouge Parish school system said Tuesday they intend to resume face-to-face instruction this fall, but they are still figuring out how much they will offer versus the digital instruction they were forced to shift to thanks to the new coronavirus.

“Will it be exactly like it usually is? Probably not,” said LSU Interim President Tom Galligan. “We’re talking about larger classes perhaps continuing online. We’re talking about smaller classes that will be in bigger rooms. We’re talking about maybe having some capacity restrictions in some of our bigger buildings.”

Dorms will be a particular challenge. Galligan is hoping it will be safe for students to have roommates if they live on campus, but if federal guidelines require students to live alone, LSU will shift to no-roommate housing, though that would be costly.

“All of those things are on the table right now,” Galligan said.

Southern University President and Chancellor Ray Belton said the university will enforce social distancing this fall throughout its Baton Rouge campus, including installing plexiglass dividers in spots. Being safe is a must if Southern and other Louisiana schools are going to continue to attract students, he said.

“There is belief that Louisiana is a hotspot, especially south Louisiana,” Belton said. “So people are awaiting evidence that if they send their children to us that it’s going to be in a safe environment.”

At the same time, Belton said Southern won’t be too socially distant.

“We do value and look forward to the interaction of students coming back on campus,” Belton said.

These top Baton Rouge education leaders spoke Tuesday afternoon at a 90-minute virtual town hall called by Mayor Sharon Weston Broome.

Warren Drake, superintendent for the East Baton Rouge Parish schools, said K-12 schools will look “totally different.”

“We may be in shifts when we go back to school,” Drake said. “We may have fewer students in the classroom. We may eat our meals in the classroom. We may have some students staying at home one day and coming the next day.”

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Broome served as the moderator of the town hall. Broome first teamed up with the leaders of these institutions in 2018 to launch Capital Area Promise, an initiative to create more college and career pathways for students in the Capital region.

Broome said COVID-19 has prompted not just a new normal, but a new reality.

“We won’t be doing things normally,” she said. “It is a new reality that we will be embracing as a nation, as a state, as a city.”

Schools throughout Louisiana closed their doors in early-to-mid March in response to the coronavirus and moved quickly to online education. That shift sparked much discussion Tuesday.

“I got out of the shower the other morning and it hit me -- the debate about online education, to the extent that it continued in America, is over,” said Galligan. “We have proven that we can do it.”

Interim Chancellor Willie Smith said, as part of its digital shift, Baton Rouge Community College provided students with access to 100 online databases, thousands of electronic journals and other publications and 70,000 e-books.

“This pandemic has caused us to act differently, support students differently,” Smith said.

Making sure students can take advantage of the change, however, is an ongoing challenge. Belton, for instance, some students remained in the dooms this spring because they didn’t have technology at home.

Drake said the school system is using privately raised funds as well as new federal assistance to expand home internet in Baton Rouge.

Smith said he worries the economic problems at home caused by coronavirus will prompt students to skip school next year, exacerbating the gaps that already exist in education.

“I imagine many of their parents, even themselves, will be laid off of work and can’t afford to go to our institution, so now they are going to need even more resources and support from all of us,” he said.


Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.