The East Baton Rouge school system has formally retreated from plans to open the new school year with in-person instruction, announcing Wednesday it will instead provide only virtual instruction until at least Labor Day.

The public school system’s decision is an about-face from plans announced just six days earlier.

“We know the fall semester will look and feel different from those of the past," said incoming Superintendent Leslie Brown. "Just as none of us could have predicted the past four months, the future remains uncertain.”

A nationwide resurgence in coronavirus cases has prompted similar moves across the country. Five of the 10 largest school districts in the country have opted to start the 2020-21 school year with remote learning only, according to Education Week.

New Orleans public schools announced a similar shift Tuesday. Two Baton Rouge charter schools — Capitol High School and Democracy Prep Baton Rouge — announced Wednesday they also will go with virtual-only instruction through Labor Day.

Other Baton Rouge area school districts, though, are damning the torpedoes.

For instance, West Feliciana Parish on Tuesday announced plans to reopen schools with five days a week of face-to-face instruction for prekindergarten to eighth grade and four days a week for high school students.

In a similar vein, the Diocese of Baton Rouge announced Wednesday it will start the new school year with at least some in-person instruction at its 31 Catholic schools across eight parishes. The diocese is getting logistical help from Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center.

"It is important for students to have social interaction at school for their holistic development, so the ideal is for students to return to classrooms and develop relationships with teachers and their peers," the diocese said in a statement.

Each Catholic school will offer its own mix of face-to-face and virtual instruction: “There is no 'one-size-fits-all' protocol.”

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system will provide bus service for the parochial schools as it has in years past, even though the public school buildings will remain closed, spokeswoman Taylor Gast said Wednesday.

East Baton Rouge had originally planned to start the new school year on Aug. 6 with a hybrid of in-person instruction two days a week and virtual learning the other three days. The district will now start school four days later with just virtual instruction. The school system has posted answers to frequently asked questions about the new plan.

The old plan was met with immediate backlash from two teacher unions — the Association of Educators and the Federation of Teachers — whose officials expressed concern that plan would endanger staff and students. The unions quickly scheduled a protest Wednesday night in front of the School Board Office on South Foster Drive. The protest was held despite the newly announced delay in in-person instruction.

About 100 protesters spread out along Foster Drive, waving signs at passersby.

Storm Matthews, a teacher at Sherwood Middle School in Baton Rouge, addressed the protesters via a bullhorn, her head sticking out of the sunroof of a minivan.

“We are not disposable!” shouted Matthews.

Union leaders and protesters applauded the month-long delay of in-person instruction, but said it’s not enough.

“We want to teach,” Angela Reams-Brown, president of the parish Federation of Teachers. “We love our kids, but we also want to be safe."

Both organizations say they want to see coronavirus cases decline for at least 14 consecutive days before reopening, a key plank in school reopening guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Jasmine Pogue, a parent, echoed that point of view. She came to Wednesday’s protest with her daughter, Kennedy, who is just about to start first grade. She said the CDC guidance should come into play in Baton Rouge.

“They need to lay out what will be the trigger for opening the schools back up,” Pogue said. “If our cases are still going up and we’re still in Phase 2, are you going to open the schools?”

Stephanie Washington, a middle school teacher in Baton Rouge, had deeper doubts. She pointed to recent research suggesting that even young children can pass the virus to others.

“Is it worth it?” Washington said. “What parent wants to be the one to bury their child?"

Of the 3,558 deaths so far in Louisiana from COVID-19 and other underlying illnesses, four were children. 

East Baton Rouge school leaders plan to make a call by Aug. 21 about whether a post-Labor Day reopening still makes sense.

Brown, who takes over on Aug. 3 as superintendent, said younger children as well as students with disabilities will get first priority when it comes to in-person instruction. She also said families that want to continue with virtual education can do so.

“Families will have the option for an all virtual option for the entire school year,” she said.

School officials say they are still working on answers to other reopening questions:

  • Will school employees work from home as they did in the spring or will they report to work at their school site?
  • How will student meals be served during the period of virtual-only instruction? Options include delivering meals via school bus, drive-up service at school and multi-day meal distribution.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com.