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Governor John Bel Edwards speaks during a media availability to discuss the presence and spread of COVID-19 in Louisiana, Tuesday, April 7, 2020, at GOHSEP in Baton Rouge, La.

Louisiana public school superintendents Wednesday asked Gov. John Bel Edwards to extend his schools closure order through the end of the academic year because of the coronavirus.

The request significantly boosts chances that classrooms will remain locked for nearly 720,000 public school students, and that the school year will have effectively ended for many students on March 13.

"By not having students return to school facilities this school year combined with social distancing intervention there could be lessening or even prevention of further community spread of the virus," superintendents said in their request to the governor.

"The Louisiana Association of School Superintendents respectfully request that the governor extend the order currently in effect until April 30 that students and staff not return to the school facilities for the remainder of the scheduled school days in order to keep students and educators safe," it says.

Edwards' current closure order goes through the last day of the month. Most schools are set to finish the 2019-20 school year around the third week of May, which has prompted speculation for days that classes are unlikely to resume for such a short period.

The governor's office said Wednesday evening it is reviewing the superintendents' message.

"We're looking at the request and have been in discussions with stakeholders, including the interim superintendent and members of the BESE board about the next steps for our school systems, which we hope can be announced soon," said Christina Stephens, a spokeswoman for Edwards.

BESE is the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The governor's initial order took effect on March 16, which means students will have missed more than two months of instruction if schools remain shuttered.

Michael Faulk, executive director of the group, said only a few of the state's 69 superintendents objected to the request when he polled school leaders Wednesday.

Faulk, former superintendent of the Central school system, said school leaders need to find out how classrooms could benefit from Louisiana's $1.8 billion share of the federal $2.2 trillion stimulus bill.

What happens if the governor goes along with the request is unclear.

BESE, which sets policies for students statewide, will play a big role in spelling out next steps.

Sandy Holloway, president of the 11-member panel, stressed that student access to food and quality learning will continue.

"I can assure you that the (state Department of Education) is working day in and day out in collaboration with district leaders to problem solve, innovate, and make decisions that are in the best interest of all students in our state," Holloway said in a statement.

Beth Scioneaux, interim superintendent for the department, noted that the final call on school closures rests with the governor.

"Even if we close school facilities for safety it is important that we continue learning," Scioneaux said, also in a statement. "Every community needs a plan for continued learning. The department will continue to support our school systems in the creation of those plans."

A total of 39 of the state's 69 school districts are offering distance learning, which can include videoconferencing, satellite learning, online chats and feedback on homework.

The St. Tammany Parish school system did not respond to the earlier state survey on distance learning.

However, what is happening academically varies from district to district and educators have said there are sure to be wide learning gaps once classes resume.

The extended closure has sparked anxiety among students and parents alike.

Carrie Griffin Monica, executive director of the advocacy group Stand for Children, said a survey by her group last week showed that about 50% of school-aged families said their biggest concern was that their child might be falling behind academically or would be ill-prepared for the next school year.

"These are unprecedented times and the priority should be ensuring the safety and health of students and educators," Monica said in a statement. “This is also a time that calls for great innovation, problem solving, and leadership with regard to how we will answer the call to ensure our students remain fed – both with food and with an education that ensures they are on track rather than slipping behind given the potential of school closure for the year.”

During his daily update Wednesday on the virus, the governor said it was too soon to tell how long his stay-at-home order, with some exceptions, remains in place for most residents.

However, the superintendents' request would make it easier if Edwards decides to keep schools closed since he could cite those closest to classroom operations.  

   


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.