Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision Friday to close all public schools in Louisiana for the next month to limit the spread of coronavirus is catapulting families and educators into uncharted territory.

Students and faculty at Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts, a popular magnet school, learned Friday afternoon along with everyone else they were not returning for at least a month. Some cried.

"Mason, I'm going to miss you!" Principal Candice Hartley yelled at one child who was preparing to board the last school bus he’d ride for weeks.

The governor’s proclamation, which is in effect until Monday, April 13, didn’t mention private schools, But many, including Catholic schools across the state, closed anyways.

"In the spirit of that proclamation and for the safety of all involved in the ministry of Catholic education, schools in the Diocese of Baton Rouge will not conduct classes and activities during that time," said Superintendent Melanie Palmisano.

The unprecedented announcement by the governor sparked many questions.

Bus driver Azell Williams sat in her school bus Friday afternoon in the parking lot, waiting for the final bell at the magnet school, which goes by the acronym BRCVPA. She worried that she will be working an extra month and doing so in a bus that doesn’t have air conditioning.

"We have to make it up, so we'll be driving in June when it's really hot," Williams said.

The governor’s proclamation suspends the state law that spells out the length of the school year, so school time lost over the next month may well be waived.

Answers to other questions, though, remain up in the air.

East Baton Rouge Parish School Superintendent Warren Drake is directing all 12-month employees, like Principal Hartley, to come to work Monday to help sort out several vexing issues such as how to provide meals to needy students now at home and the needs of graduating seniors.

In an interview Friday, Livingston Parish Assistant Superintendent Stephen Parrill said shifting the district's more than 26,000 students to online instruction is not easy. Many households lack home internet access or a computer on which a child could receive and perform lessons. For instance, at one school in the parish, 250 of the 700 students didn't have internet access at home.

While families are more likely to have smartphones, those phones don't offer families an easy way to access homework. For technology-challenged families, the district is considering using paper packets instead.

"It's going to be a blended approach," Parrill said.

Parrill said, in preparation for possible school closures, school officials surveyed student at a school with about 700 children; about 250 didn't have internet access.

Waiting in the carpool line at Denham Springs Elementary, Rachel Holland, a stay-at-home mom with two preschool-aged children already at home, will now be adding a hyperactive kindergartner to the home environment. She expects added stress in an already stressful time.

"I worried about toilet paper. Is that horrible?" she asked.

Holland said she’s following medical advice about COVID-19, but she also thinks “the media” has overhyped the virus' risk, so she has doubts about the governor’s decision to close schools: "I think it's a little much, to be honest with you.”

Chris Mullins had just picked up his 8-year-old son Friday from the carpool line at the elementary school. He was unsure how he and his wife would work out child care for the next month. Mullins is a supervisory chef at LSU, and his wife works at a hair salon.

"If we both have to work, we're gonna to have to figure something out," Mullins said, saying they may have to send the boy off to stay with family in Slidell.

Ascension Parish public schoolchildren are making a fast switch to home instruction. Students in fifth to 12th grade came home with their district-issued laptops and those in the lower grades received printed packets of school work. A special page has been set up on the district website, www.apsb.org/COVID-19, containing resources and instructions for learning.

“If a child was absent today, we will develop a way to distribute either a computing device or a printed packet to them next week,” said Superintendent David Alexander.

For students who lack internet access at home, he said, “we are working on alternate plans to engage them in instruction.”

In Prairieville at Prairieville Primary, several parents approached by The Advocate said they were in decent shape to handle having their kids at home over the next month. They included a stay-at-home mom, a dad who works at home, a mom who can bring her children to work and a mom who’s a teacher in Ascension Parish who will be off work.

Back at BRCPA, school clerk Christine Savard is also about to spend the next month at home with her third-grader, who also attends the school. She found grim humor in the prospect.

“It's probably going to mean a thousand hours of Fortnite games,” she said.

Principal Hartley promised that instruction will continue. Students in grades 3-5 will learn online, while students in the lower grades will have a mix of online lessons and workbook pages to complete. Hartley, however, is not planning “punitive measures” against students who fail to complete their assigned work.

"You don't know what every student's home situation is," she acknowledged.

Latasha Howard will be joining her daughter at home over the next month as Baton Rouge Community College, where she works in human resources, is also shifting to online classes. She said she relishes the idea.

"I like to be at home when she's off. I love it," Howard said.

Sang Ly works as a part-time nurse and her husband works downtown. But she has an ace in the hole to help out with her two children, one a third-grader at BRCVPA, the other in middle school: "For me I'm blessed because I have a mother who lives with us.

Staff writer David Mitchell and Ellyn Couvillion contributed to this report. 


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

Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com