The president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education said Monday she expects "deep discussions" Tuesday on face masks when the board spells out minimum safety standards for the reopening of public schools.

Sandy Holloway, president of the board, also said panel members are getting heavy input from the public in advance of the meeting, which is set for Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

"We have received hundreds of emails from our constituents across the state," Holloway said.

The issue surfaced during a 3 1/2 hour meeting of the House Education Committee on a wide range of volatile topics surrounding schools, including how far the state should go in setting rules for face coverings.

The state Department of Education, in recommendations released Friday evening, stopped just short of mandating the use of masks.

The agency is recommending that BESE adopt a rule that says while in school "all adults and students in grades 3 through 12 must wear a face covering to the greatest extent possible and practical within the local community context."

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said that language means masks should be worn while also leaving some flexibility for local school officials.

The issue has turned into something of a political flashpoint, with backers arguing that masks are a key part of combating the spread of the virus and opponents questioning their value.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Saturday ordered the use of face masks for those 8 years and older while in public, which would take precedence over any BESE standard if it is still in effect when classes resume in early August.

Minimum standards adopted by BESE then have to be followed by local school districts, which will submit their own plans to state education officials.

Face masks are among a host of issues that have educators, parents and students on edge.

"It will be quite a monumental task," Brumley said of the upcoming school year. "It will be a year unlike any other."

An electronic survey of teachers and others showed that 58% are not comfortable with their children returning to schools, according to the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, one of the state's two teacher unions.

Another key challenge is learning gaps, especially since classrooms closed in March during the early stages of the pandemic.

Brumley said the gaps are why local school districts should do diagnostic tests when students return to school, especially in math and reading.

The fact many school districts plan to rely on both remote and in-person instruction, and the knowledge that schools may be forced to rely solely on remote learning if virus conditions worsen, are also major concerns.

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"I cannot confidently tell you that moving to a fully online model will produce the same results as having a child in front of a teacher every day," Brumley told lawmakers.

Getting students to and from public schools is another hurdle.

"Transportation is one of the most significant challenges of the entire plan," Brumley said.

Louisiana is in Phase 2 for reopening its economy, which means school buses have to be limited to 50% of capacity.

Brumley told the committee that buses typically have limits of between 50 and 80 students, which he said raises questions on whether districts will have to use multiple runs or take other steps to adhere to the rules.

If the state moves to Phase 3 when schools reopen the bus capacity would rise to 75%, including adults.

"Hopefully if we are able to get to Phase 3 that is really a game changer in the occupancy of the bus," Brumley said.

An update on high school sports

Meanwhile, the executive director of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association said his group will "follow religiously" Gov. John Bel Edwards' directives on the coronavirus pandemic in governing the resumption of athletics.

Eddie Bonine, who leads the LHSAA, also appeared before the House Education Committee.

"We have to get to Phase 4 to play football," Bonine told lawmakers, meaning the virus would have be under enough control to allow for football with helmet and shoulder pads, full contact scrimmages and games.

School leaders are crafting plans for the school year, with many districts opting for having young students return to classrooms while older students rely on remote learning, at least at the start of the school year.

Bonine said what the football season will look like "all depends on when we get students back to school."


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.