Amid ongoing concerns about the safety of physically returning to classrooms in a pandemic, Louisiana schools vastly expanded remote-learning options this past year — and tens of thousands of students have taken advantage of them.

Next year may prove much different.

Some schools in the Baton Rouge area are retooling their online offerings to draw more children back to campus.

The shift comes as coronavirus infections trend downward and more Louisianans get vaccinated. It's also inspired by growing evidence that COVID's spread inside school buildings has been minimal.

Another motivating factor is fear about virtual education leaving many students behind — especially those from low-income families.

While many schools across the country went virtual when the pandemic started in spring 2020, the vast majority of Louisiana's have stayed on campus since early in the school year. According to the latest state figures, about 25% of Louisiana students are learning online every day or receiving "hybrid" instruction where they spend part of the week and the rest behind a computer. That's about half the level of online instruction from last fall.

Still, for a host of reasons, many online-only families hesitate to give up on remote learning.

They point to Louisiana's relatively low vaccination rates, resurgence of the virus in other states and countries and the threat of new COVID variants reversing recent progress. They also tend to be highly critical of what they see as Louisiana's lax rules around mask-wearing and social distancing, as well as the near-absence of surveillance testing for the virus.

"It just feels like there are too many unknowns," said Erin Ralston, a parent of two children learning virtually this year through Dufrocq Elementary School in Baton Rouge.

Nevertheless, East Baton Rouge schools are moving aggressively. Specifically, the district plans to end most of its remote instruction, which now serves more than 12,500 students, or 31% of district students.

"It's important for us to get kids back in school, in person," Superintendent Sito Narcisse said at a March 31 press conference.

As justification, he noted how relatively few people — adults and children alike — have been testing positive for coronavirus.

"As we look at our rates, they are very low," Narcisse said. "We don't see kids or adults getting infected, so we feel that we are ready to make that announcement."

The most common mode of virtual instruction involves teachers working with kids in class as others watch remotely from home. It's a setup that can be very taxing on teachers.

For that reason, Narcisse said, "We will not do the split model. It will be in-person."

For those who want to stay virtual, the school system is directing them to the tiny EBR Virtual Academy, a five-year-old virtual high school that serves about 30 students. Narcisse plans to announce more details next week on how to revamp the virtual school to accommodate more grades and greater demand. The school board is set to debate the idea when it meets at 5 p.m. Thursday.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Ralston said she first heard in February she might need to transfer her children from Dufrocq to EBR Virtual Academy next year if she wants them to continue to learn remotely. She's been waiting in vain since then for more detail, she added, and is also unhappy that there's been no effort to find out what parents like her want.

"I've seen no data that they made any attempt to survey virtual families to see what's going on," she said.

One big unanswered question is whether students who enroll at EBR Virtual Academy would have to transfer out of their current school. It's of particular concern for students who attend popular magnet programs and worry about losing their spot if they left for virtual school.

During an April 20 town hall, Narcisse said the details are still being worked out. But he added that he's inclined to require those who want to continue learning virtually to transfer out of their home school.

"We can't have it both ways," he said. "We have to get schoolkids back in person."

In Zachary, the state's top rated school district, about 20% of students learn virtually these days. While down from earlier in 2020-21, Superintendent Scott Devillier said he's sure there will still be families in Zachary insisting on virtual instruction next year and he will work to accommodate them. His team is still deciding what it wants to do about virtual learning next year and is likely to have settled on an approach by late May.

There is nothing in stone," he said. "We're looking at all those different options."

Nevertheless, he said there will likely still be some school-based online instruction as well as students enrolling in Zachary's small virtual school. He sees virtual instruction as here to stay.

"Some folks have learned that maybe virtual learning is best for their child," he said.

Not all virtual-only students have suffered this past year.

Mari Rethelyi said her son, a second-grader at Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts, or BRCVPA, has thrived. She credits the school's schedule of 45-minute classes and 15-minute breaks between. It reminds her of the way education was for her and her husband growing up in Europe.

"The virtual schedule at BRCVPA is so amazing" for Rethelyi's son, she said. "It's so developmentally appropriate for his age."

Consequently, she's loath to give it up for the more traditional American school schedule. Like Ralston, she's wary of possible COVID variants, especially ones that might prove more dangerous to children. But otherwise, she doesn't share that level of safety concern.

Rethelyi would also like her son to reacclimate to the school he loves. She's skeptical of EBR Virtual Academy and is nervous about losing her son's spot in the magnet program.

Other districts in the Baton Rouge region are tinkering with their virtual plans for the 2021-22 school year as well.

Ascension Parish on Friday sent a survey to parents, which, among other things, asks if they're satisfied with online education. Currently, about 3,100 students, or 13%, are learning virtually. A total of 762 are in a special virtual school, APPLe Digital Academy, which first opened in 2013. The rest are getting virtual instruction from their teachers in a classroom.

In Livingston Parish, Superintendent Joe Murphy said he hopes to have a 2021-22 virtual plan by the end of May — but it’s still a work in progress. Livingston has far fewer online students: 477, or about 1.8% of all students. Like Ascension, Livingston has offered online instruction through both a special school, LPLTC Virtual Program, which started last summer, as well as from classroom teachers.


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