Istrouma High School senior Jol Nicole Johnson, who was "kind of scared" before school began, says taking classes amid the coronavirus pandemic is going better than expected.

Johnson wakes up at 6:50 a.m., has a granola bar and heads to her desk for another day of virtual learning from home.

"It makes me more independent than I really am," she said. "I honestly like it. It gives me time to focus on everything."

Lyndsey Jackson, who teaches at Allen Ellender School in Marrero, said her academic year has been overwhelming at times, like the day she spent crying in her principal's office.

"I just sat in her office and said 'I just can't do it,'" Jackson recalled. "I had wiped one too many tables and that was just my breaking point," she added.

The two views reflect the mixed bag that educators, students and parents report a few months into a school year unlike any other.

Louisiana was still in Phase 2 for its economic recovery when classes began for many students on Aug. 3. Before the recent uptick, those restrictions were relaxed amid fewer case of the virus, allowing the state to move to Phase 3.

Some students are returning to classrooms after concluding that distance learning was impractical, especially for younger children.

West Baton Rouge Parish schools Superintendent Wes Watts said his districts rolled back its original rule that students who began the school year with virtual learning could not return to classrooms until January because of heavy demand. "What we found, especially the younger kids were really struggling academically," Watts said. 

Watts' 4,000-student district began the school year with about 1,000 students opting for virtual learning. About 700 do so now.

But only 46% of nearly 650,000 public and private school students whose schools have registered with the state are attending traditional classrooms.

Another 30% are relying on virtual classes and 24% have opted for a combination of virtual and in-person classes, according to figures compiled by the state Department of Education.

Johnson, 17, is like lots of students who remain fearful of contracting the virus, especially because she has asthma.

"I can be at home safe; I don't have to be around other people," she said.

"Even at the football games, I always sit by myself," Johnson said. "And I have my mask on."

Roughly one-fourth of students in the East Baton Rouge Parish School District — 11,000 or so — are taking virtual classes.

Istrouma has 382 students learning virtually of the 941 enrolled, according to the district.

Yet despite the turmoil, there have been bright moments, too.

Johnson was named Istrouma Student of the Year two weeks ago and elected president of the student government association. She also remains in the running to be class valedictorian and is captain of the girl's basketball team.

"It is going really good," she said.

Robert Johnson, Jol Nicole's dad, had concerns in August about the possibility for virus cases to rise, and whether students would be held accountable for following safety protocols.

"It is OK; it is not bad," he said. "I thought it was going to be a little bit worse, but it is not that bad."

Jackson, a 12-year veteran of the classroom, said the school year has been every bit as challenging as she expected. 

"Teachers are exhausted, teachers are tired," she said. "We have been tasked with more things than any one person can do. It is hard. But we are doing it."

Dr. Leron Finger, chief quality officer for Children's Hospital in New Orleans, said teachers and others face huge challenges.

"It is a level of complexity and responsibility that we have asked these educators and school nurses to do that they didn't really have before," said Finger, who advised the state on school reopening measures.

"They dedicate their life to children, and they feel that burden," he said.

Jackson teaches 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds who are deaf or hard of hearing. She learned on the first day that she would be leading both virtual and in-person classes.

"Teaching a three-year-old in class has its challenges," Jackson said. "But I can tell you teaching 3-year-old deaf and hard-of-hearing children virtually is unlike anything I have ever done.

"I feel like I am on the biggest learning curve in my professional life. I could tell you my days are nonstop. My sign-in is at 6:45 a.m. We hit the ground running until 2:20 p.m. when I walk them to the car or bus."

Educators say they have been pleased with how students are following the antivirus rules.

"Our kids are doing a great job in terms of just following safety protocols," Watts said. "I was concerned about that. They are kids. I have been really pleased with how our schools and staff have handled that."

Even the youngest students, many wearing hearing aids and glasses, are following the plan. "I am proud to tell you my kids are rock stars when it comes to masks," Jackson said.

Many of the inequities among districts that began surfacing in March when the pandemic began remain.

The highly ranked Ascension Parish School District has provided school-issued computer devices for all of its roughly 23,000 students.

Also, 100% of students enjoy internet connectivity away from school, according to a survey compiled by the Council for a Better Louisiana.

The Orleans Parish School District has issued 1,254 devices for its 46,000 or so students.

Only 81% of students have internet connectivity, a crucial piece in any effort to rely on distance learning.

The rising rate of cases in some parts of Louisiana, amid a surge of outbreaks nationally, is also setting off alarms among district superintendents.

"They are really concerned about what is going to happen when we get out for Thanksgiving break and then Christmas break," said Mike Faulk, executive director of the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents.

"What is going to happen to the second semester? They are starting to worry about that now."

Finger said that while Louisiana has not experienced any long spell of cold weather, he would expect "episodic disruption" of classes rather than any wholesale shutdown of classes, which happened in March.

"By and large, we have been able to mitigate the spread of the disease on school campuses with the simple precautions we have taken," he said.

State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said he is optimistic students will finish the school year next spring in a system that looks much the way it does today.

"There were many people that did not think the educational system would even get off the ground this year," Brumley said. "We have that plane up in the air. It is flying."

The sudden move to distance learning is also forcing some parents back to school.

Jackson's school began the year with about 200 of 600 students opting for virtual classes. That number has since dropped to about 100.

"We are hearing from the families that the technology piece is hard," she said.

"Essentially, they were given a device, and I think teachers kind of instructed students to do things as we did them," Jackson said. "But there is also the issue that not every adult in a household is technology aware.

"And that is actually something the (Jefferson Parish) district has started to remedy this week. They started parent technology classes."

Watts, who chairs the Louisiana Association of School Superintendents, said the looser rules allowed under Phase 3 have helped address some of the jitters before classes began. "It helped a little in terms of that comfort level," he said.

School buses can now operate at 75% capacity.

Limits on school gatherings were raised from 25 to 50.

But even so, parental worries sometimes ebb and flow based on the latest coronavirus count.

"Parents have fluctuated based on the numbers that come up," Watts said.


Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.