Lyndsey Jackson

Lyndsey Jackson, a veteran teacher at Allen Ellender School in Marrero, says despite a top-notch principal and hours of planning she and others are uneasy about the start of school. "Everyone is looking for the normal but this is just so far from normal." (Photo courtesy of Lyndsey Jackson).

Veteran Marrero teacher Lyndsey Jackson, like lots of educators, students and parents, is nervous about the start of school amid the seemingly endless coronavirus pandemic.

“So much about this year feels impossible,” Jackson said. “Anybody who knows me, knows I am known as the positive one. I am always the cheerleader. And even now I am having a hard time finding the bright side.”

JoI Nicole Johnson, a 17-year-old honor roll senior at Istrouma High School in Baton Rouge in the running to be tops in her class, is just as anxious.

“They are just throwing us out there,” Johnson said. “I am kind of scared.”

After weeks of planning, schools are reopening with a combination of in-person and remote classes.

The aim is to keep students and teachers healthy and resume instruction that was derailed in March.

But even students beyond eager to see their friends and teachers desperate for a new school year say the outlook is blurry.

“Everyone is looking for normal, but this is just so far from normal,” Jackson said.

Wes Watts, superintendent of the West Baton Rouge Parish school system, believes things will be easier once classes resume.

"I really think in a week or two we are going to be comfortable with what we are doing, that everybody realizes and feels good about it," Watts said.

In the meantime, 1 in 4 students in the district has opted for virtual learning for at least the first semester.

“How do you alleviate some of that anxiety for our parents, teachers, students, everybody?” Watts asked. “It is so new.”

The 2020-21 school year begins as Louisiana remains a national hot spot for the virus even with improving numbers in recent days.

Gov. John Bel Edwards said last week the state will remain in Phase 2 for the reopening of its economy until at least Aug. 28, including a statewide order to wear face masks while in public.

Officials of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other experts, have said in-person classes are preferred, especially because lots of students lack computers, tablets or internet access for remote learning.

They say both students and their families benefit from children being in classrooms, and that too many interruptions in traditional instruction could leave permanent academic scars.

Jackson, a 12-year veteran of the classroom, will be teaching three-, four- and five-year-olds who are deaf or hard of hearing at Allen Ellender School in Jefferson Parish. Her classroom aide for the past five years was let go a few weeks ago.

A total of 270 of the school's 670 students have opted for remote learning.

How to instruct youngsters who want to touch the teacher's neck to hear the vibrations of a "g," or her face so they know how to move their lips, are just a few of the challenges.

Washing little hands every two hours is another.

Keeping masks on children and finding the clear masks – they can cost $12 each – is another hurdle.

"After two days I feel like I am still rudderless," Jackson said, even with a top-flight principal.

"I feel like no matter who you ask the question to you are constantly passed to someone else," she added.

"Of course my concern is whether or not I get the virus," said Jackson, 35. "Absolutely. But more than anything I am concerned there is little concrete guidance on how I am going to keep myself and my kids safe."

At Istrouma High, Johnson is in the running to be valedictorian with a 4.1 grade point average.

Her courseload includes advanced placement composition, physics honors and world history and psychology classes for both school and college credit. She is also captain of her basketball team, where she prefers to play power forward.

"It is my senior year so I want to attend school," Johnson said. "But I have asthma. I have one of those underlying health conditions."

"I really do want to attend school but if we are attending school you have to have the right guidelines," she said. "Some kids do not take it seriously."

Virtual classes are set to begin Monday.

The East Baton Rouge Parish School District, under pressure, pushed back the start of in-person classes from Aug. 6 until at least after Labor Day, which is Sept. 7.

Even that delay may not be long enough, according to Johnson's father Robert, a recreation manager.

"I just don't see the numbers dropping that rapidly," Robert Johnson said, a reference to positive cases of the virus.

He said the school safety standards are fine – as far as they go. "With so many students at Istrouma, I don't know how they are going to be able to hold everybody accountable."

Even the virtual classes, which schools were forced to move to when classrooms closed in March, have limitations.

"Our classes are not right, we are missing teachers," JoI Johnson said. 

"It is like they are staring us off bad. It is going to be kind of haywire."

The West Baton Rouge Parish school system, which also begins Monday, will offer in-person classes for students from Head Start through sixth grade.

Those in grades 7-12 will have alternating schedules – in-person and remote classes.

Watts said some of the district's roughly 350 teachers want to know what happens if they get sick, and how the leave works.

Students mirror parental concerns.

"Whatever the anxiety of their parents is what their anxiety is," he said.

"They are concerned about the masks. Don't know if they can handle wearing that all day. Or are people going to be wearing them."

Said Jackson, "You can make grand, overarching guidance."

"But as a teacher I am the one that understands the specificity of my classroom. It seems like some of the specificities were overlooked in this grand plan."  

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