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As Coach Mark Harper, right, watches technique, players work in the weight room during the first day of workouts at Episcopal High School Tuesday June 9, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La.

State education leaders are finalizing guidelines for the reopening of public schools amid thorny questions on whether students will be expected to wear face masks, ways to avoid crowded school buses and how many skittish families will opt for distance learning over traditional classrooms.

"Opening schools is going to be very, very tricky," said Larry Carter, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, echoing a refrain heard around the state.

Some schools resume classes Aug. 6, and earlier in districts offering remedial work because of the sudden shutdown in March.

Exactly what schools will look like this time depends on what phase the state is for combating the coronavirus pandemic, said Cade Brumley, state superintendent of education.

State leaders are expected to hold a press conference, possibly Thursday, to spell out some of the details of what children and parents can expect.

"I think that is our intent, to reopen in congregant form," Brumley said in an interview. "But that will depend on what phase we are in and the decisions that the governor will make."

Brumley said the aim is for the state to provide local educators with what amounts to playbooks that vary based on the state restrictions in place.

Louisiana is in Phase 2 for reopening its economy, which generally limits churches, restaurants and other sites to 50% of capacity.

Gov. John Bel Edwards is set to announce any changes next week but looser restrictions appear unlikely amid the rising number of cases in Acadiana and some other locations.

Once the state is in Phase 3 school restrictions will loosen again while a return to Phase 1, which is not expected, could mean distance learning only.

Brumley emphasized that state guidelines will include minimum standards, best practices and sources for health and other information, leaving flexibility for superintendents in the state's 70 school districts to spell out rules based on conditions in their areas.

He said recommendations around face masks will be based on information from state health officials and others.

"We are still finalizing what that might look like," Brumley said.

He noted that some medical professionals believe masks can be problematic for children because it means touching their face more.

Edwards has repeatedly said residents need to wear face masks while in public.

West Baton Rouge Parish School District Superintendent Wes Watts said some parents have already told him their children will not be back if masks are required.

David Alexander, superintendent of the 23,000-students Ascension Parish school system, said the issue of students wearing masks is up in the air.

"We will follow what the guidelines require," Alexander said.

How to get many of the state's 720,000 public school students to class daily is another key challenge, especially since students typically pile in three to a seat on buses going to and from school.

Districts cannot simply buy more buses to ensure social distancing.

Requiring riders to spread out, with vacant seats in between, will likely mean multiple runs and new routes and pickup times.

"The transportation issue is tricky for a number of reasons," Brumley said. "That makes it one of the most significant challenges."

Traditional classrooms ended nine weeks early because of the pandemic, sparking hasty efforts to switch to distance learning in a state where nearly one third of families lack internet access at home.

Part of the problem – major gaps in student access to computers or tablets – has been addressed with the help of $260 million from the federal CARES Act.

Students in most school districts will have their own computers once that federal money is utilized, officials said.

Addressing the lack of internet connections, especially in rural areas, remains a major challenge, especially if schools are interrupted again because of the virus.

"We are not solving broadband access in the state of Louisiana over the next month," Brumley noted.

The issue is especially relevant because some families plan to keep their children at home when classes resume amid health concerns, or because districts prefer "blended" school services -- in-person and online.

Watts, whose district includes about 4,000 students, said a survey of parents showed about seven percent plan to rely on distance learning for their child's education.

"If parents are not comfortable sending their child to school we will have a virtual school option," he said.

Officials of the highly-ranked Ascension Parish School District last week asked parents to fill out surveys on whether they prefer online learning and, if so, what kind.

If the state remains in Phase 2 when schools start Ascension plans to have young children in classrooms while older students will be served through distance learning, which has been offered since 2013.

Alexander said his top concern is ensuring a quality school day around a time crunch sparked by steps needed to combat the virus.

"Because to implement some of the anticipated restrictions, guidelines and safety measures when you actually think about it they are going to take some time," he said.

Carter noted that schools will be expected to do more at a time when state aid is frozen.

Tia Mills, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, said her group is most concerned about the health of students and school employees.

Mills said the LAE opposes a proposal awaiting a House vote – House Bill 59 – that would remove any civil liability for school districts and colleges for deaths or illnesses caused by the virus.

Top officials of the state Department of Education last week briefed the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on the recommendations, including input from a wide range of state health officials, a task force set up by the Southern Regional Education Board, the 13-member Superintendent Advisory Group and the Resilient Louisiana Commission.

"We are right where we should be in getting these guidelines right and getting them issued," said Ken Bradford, an assistant state superintendent of education.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.