Saying it’s finally safe enough to return, East Baton Rouge Parish schools will bring back elementary school children starting Sept. 14 for twice-a-week in-person instruction, with older children to follow at an undetermined date, Superintendent Leslie Brown announced Tuesday afternoon.

“There is no better place for children to be educated than in the classroom,” said Brown at a press conference held at the School Board Office. “That is our primary goal. That is where we are headed."

Brown, however, is reserving the right to change course over the next 13 days if health data takes a turn for the worse.

More than 19,000-plus children in elementary grades will return first,  representing nearly half of all students in the school system.

Students have been learning 100% virtually since the 2020-21 school year began Aug. 10. No students in Baton Rouge public schools have had in-person instruction since March 13, the day Gov. John Bel Edwards abruptly ordered all schools in Louisiana closed to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Brown said, while there have been significant challenges, she’s pleased with how the school system has handled virtual learning this school year.

Students in grades 6 to 12 will continue learning strictly online for the time being. Brown said she plans to make a decision about their return by Sept. 28.

She said bus capacity is a big constraint on reopening further. Under the current Phase 2 of Louisiana's re-opening, buses are required to operate at half capacity. That could be eased if the state moves to Phase 3.

The decision mirrors one made Friday by public schools in New Orleans, which are shifting from virtual-only to some in-person instruction starting Sept. 14.

Students don’t have to return to school if they don’t want to. The school system is giving parents until Sept. 8 to complete a virtual “opt-in” form if they want to remain learning from home. If families want to return in person, but at a later day, they need to talk to their school to coordinate that transition.

The school system intends to use a “hybrid” reopening plan, similar to what many Louisiana schools are already doing. East Baton Rouge Parish had planned to open the new school year in a hybrid fashion as well, but opted in late July for a virtual-only school start until at least Labor Day after many parents and teachers protested. There was also heightened concern with COVID-19 as Louisiana saw a resurgence of cases over the summer.

To help her decide when it’s right to reopen schools, Brown, whose first official day as superintendent was Aug. 3, formed a Health Advisory Committee, which includes a handful of local medical professionals. At her press conference Tuesday, Brown was joined by two of them: Michael Bolton, co-director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Our Lady of the Lake Children’s Hospital; and Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake.

“We’ve now had a six-week decline in community cases and a slow but steady decline in hospitalizations,” said Dr. O’Neal.

Both Bolton and O’Neal said they take comfort that cases were declining even as many schools in the Capital region reopened, offering at least some in-person instruction, including all the Catholic schools.

Dr. Bolton noted that Our Lady of the Lake works with the Catholic schools and ‘we’ve not seen tremendous outbreaks.”

The hospital also has a special arrangement with a Baton Rouge charter school, Louisiana Key Academy, in which, among other things, saliva tests are administered twice a week to check students for COVID-19. Bolton said there have been positive cases at that school, but “we’re not seeing outbreaks."

“So while we’ve seen cases, it doesn’t portend that the cases spread in the school. They are community spread, which is what we’re seeing around the area,” he said. “So as we get the community spread under better control I think that gives us a better opportunity to send kids to school more safely.”

Here’s how the school return will work for elementary children:

  • Students with last names beginning with A-K will attend in person on Monday and Tuesday, and will shift to virtual the rest of the week.
  • Students with last names beginning with L-Z will attend in person on Thursday and Friday, but will learn virtually Monday - Wednesday.
  • All school buildings will undergo “deep cleaning” every Wednesday, while students all learn virtually that day.
  • Students with disabilities in certain “self-contained” classes will come to school every day but Wednesday, as will elementary-age children of school system employees.

Even though students have been learning from home, school employees have been working in school buildings since Aug. 3. A total of 29 of them — about 0.5% of the district’s roughly 5,700 employees — had tested positive for the virus as of noon Friday. Seven more employees reported positive tests over the previous week, according to a weekly virus report the school has been releasing each Friday.

Brown said that all employees, including about 28% who are teleworking, will report back to work on Sept. 10.

Children learning in person will receive hot meals at school. For children learning 100% virtual or hybrid students on days they are learning at home, families can continue coming to collect school meals — “semi shelf-stable” at first, but that may shift to hot meals in the future.


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