The prospect of shifting from face-to-face instruction to online classes in response to the coronavirus is proving tricky for many school districts in Louisiana, even though they have collectively spent hundreds of millions in recent years improving their educational technology.
The issue is less the capacity of the schools and more the technology limitations families have in their homes, especially the fact that many families in this state don’t have internet at home.
As of Wednesday night, all K-12 public schools in Louisiana were operating as normal, but a growing number of schools across the country, particularly on the West Coast and in the Northeast, are closing.
Several higher education institutions in New Orleans announced Wednesday they too will temporarily suspend traditional classrooms in favor of remote learning.
LSU on Saturday said it’s considering doing the same if necessary. On Wednesday, the university discouraged students from leaving town for spring break.
While home internet is common in Louisiana, the state is still ranks low nationwide. A 2016 U.S. Census survey found that about a quarter of the households in Louisiana did not have subscriptions to broadband internet — Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico and West Virginia were worse.
And about 10 percent of Louisiana residents don’t have access to broadband internet and about 5 percent have no internet provider at all, according to the consumer site Broadband Now.
Those problems are even worse in the state's poorer urban and rural communities.
St. Helena Parish’s three public schools, for instance, have strong internet connections. But only 23 percent of the residents in the parish seat of Greensburg have access to a broadband internet.
To get around such problems, school leaders in East Baton Rouge and St. Helena parishes said they are considering having students use their family smartphones.
“Almost every household has a cell phone device,” said Ben Necaise, associate superintendent in East Baton Rouge Parish.
Kelli Joseph, St. Helena’s school’s superintendent, said her staff is working on an app it hopes to roll out soon, allowing families to connect to online courses through their phones.
“They may not have a computer, but they absolutely have a smartphone,” Joseph said. “That would have to be the option we'd use.”
On Wednesday, state Superintendent of Education John White said his staff has been discussing the issue internally. He noted that some Louisiana schools already operate with online classes only.
"I think it is feasible," White said. "Whether or not it is desirable or feasible at the scales contemplated is a different question."
In January, the Louisiana Department of Education released its annual school technology survey. The agency found that there are more than 566,000 computer devices in the state’s public schools, which is almost one for every student. Fifty-two percent of those are Chromebooks, uncomplicated laptops with limited internal memory that require constant internet connections to work.
The vast majority school districts, according to the survey, keep their computers in the classroom, the library or on mobile carts. East Baton Rouge, for instance, has about 33,000 Chromebooks at its schools.
Necaise said it has been considering whether to let students take those home in the case of a school closure, but they would be hard to track in a school district where many students transfer from one school to another through the year. And if schools are closed suddenly, those laptops would be hard to distribute to students' homes, he said.
In Livingston Parish, school leaders are still debating how to handle school closures. About 70 percent of students have access to laptops in school and the school district has software for online instruction.
But Superintendent Joe Murphy said shifting now to remote instruction would problematic at this point given the “vast differences in available services throughout our geographic district and the inequalities in technology resources among our students.”
A small number of Louisiana public schools — Ascension Parish schools were among the first — lets students bring laptops home each day to do their schoolwork.
Jackie Tisdell, a spokeswoman for Ascension schools, said the district is working on contingency plans but offered few details.
“There are multiple scenarios that could take place and perhaps even unexpected scenarios that we may have to overcome in this process,” Tisdell said. “We are prepared to respond, as needed.”
Joseph in St. Helena said the arrival of the coronavirus to Louisiana comes at a bad time for school.
“It’s really scary, the possibility of having to close school right now, right before (standardized) testing," Joseph said. "It is a grave concern for us. We are preparing for what to me seems to be the inevitable.”
Necaise said East Baton Rouge schools will announce their contingency plans soon.
“A lot of this is gray for us,” he said. “We’re just trying to wargame it.”