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Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Sandy Holloway, left, La. Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, and Louisiana High School Athletic Association Executive Director Eddie Bonine talk with each other, Monday, July 13, 2020 just before their apperances before the House Education Committee to discuss the reopening of public schools.

While Louisiana's top school board and other state leaders are providing guidance, when public schools start and what formats they use for instruction amid the coronavirus pandemic is strictly up to officials in 69 local school districts.

"The local school district has a lot of autonomy, flexibility and authority," said Sandy Holloway, president of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"They are the driving force," Holloway said.

The virus has set off a statewide scramble among school leaders, parents and students to come up with plans that strike a balance between pressing education needs and how to keep children, teachers and others healthy.

Lots of districts are offering in-person classes for younger students and virtual learning for those in high school as long as the state is in Phase 2 – it will last at least until Aug. 7 –  for the reopening of its economy.

In areas hard hit by the pandemic, including Baton Rouge and New Orleans, in-person classes have been delayed until at least after Labor Day.

Others, like the West Feliciana Parish school system, plan to offer in-person classes for those in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade five days a week, and four days per week for students in grades 9-12, with one day of virtual learning.

"The overwhelming majority of school systems in the state, they have August starts," said state Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley. "We have starts throughout the state beginning Aug. 3."

Most systems, he said, are beginning with a combination of in-person and virtual classes. BESE has approved minimum health safety standards for districts, including a recommendation that students in grade three and above and adults, while in school, wear face masks.

Specific plans by local school districts are due to the state Department of Education by July 28.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was peppered with public school questions last week, praised BESE's safety standards. He also noted that details of what the state is recommending are linked to whether the state is in Phase 1, 2 or 3.

But at the end of the day it is 69 local school superintendents and school boards who are deciding exactly what students and parents can expect when the new school year begins.

Local education leaders wary of the virus are free to delay the start of school until October or beyond as long as students get the required number of instructional time before the end of the academic calendar: 63,720 minutes, or 177 school days.

Holloway said BESE has no plans to issue waivers for school districts that start late, then ask to cut the school year short because of pushback when classes continue through June, July or later.

The same debate is taking place nationally.

Republican President Donald Trump is pressing for in-person classes to resume, and talking about linking some federal aid to whether schools have reopened.

Teacher unions, who are generally allied with the Democratic Party, have taken a more cautious approach and applauded plans to delay classes in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

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"I think one of the real avoidable tragedies of this pandemic is the politicization of the pandemic," said Joshua Stockley, professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.

"One of the political arenas that we have seen this spill over into are schools, school reopening, school formats, school calendars and school extracurricular activities," Stockley said.

The state has 643 local school board members.

Lots of districts have done surveys of families ahead of deciding when and how to start school, including whether they favor in-person or virtual classes or a combination of both.

Survey results are often shared with school board members, said Janet Pope, executive director of the Louisiana School Boards Association.

Hollis Milton, superintendent of the West Feliciana Parish school system, said planning for what the 2020-21 school year would look like began right after the end of the 2019-20 school year.

Around 400 of his district's roughly 2,300 students have opted for virtual learning.

The others will be in classes where student/teacher ratios average around 20 to 1, well within safety guidelines.

While Milton overcame a case of COVID-19 – the illness caused by the virus – the parish has only had a little more than 300 cases out of more than 100,000 statewide.

"We are in a unique situation where we are able to provide education to kids that fit all the guidelines in a way that we feel is safe and yet we have tremendous respect for the virus," he said.

The West Feliciana Parish school board approved the plans during a six-hour meeting on a wide range of topics.

Pearson Cross, an associate professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said the reopening points up the pluses and minuses of how public schools are set up in Louisiana.

"The localism is a strength of the system but it is also an Achilles heel in the sense that it makes for all kinds of chaotic policymaking, different decisions by different districts," Cross said.

"There is a lot of looking over your shoulder to see what other districts are doing," he said.

The debate involves politics, learning and children's health in the midst of a pandemic.

"Issues that involve kids and the health of kids raise flags and alarms for everyone," Cross added. "It makes the issue supercharged."

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