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Edwards asked to extend school closure

Milstead, other superintendents support closing through academic year
Friday, April 10, 2020
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The chance that Lincoln Parish students may have seen their in-person school year end on March 13 is widening after school system superintendents and the state’s education board asked Gov. John Bel Edwards over the past two days to extend his order to close public schools through the end of the academic year.

Schools are currently closed through April 30 as part of Edwards’ extended stay-at-home order to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Louisiana Association of School Superintendents sent a letter to Edwards Wednesday requesting that he keep schools closed “in order to keep students and educators safe.” The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education followed suit on Thursday.

Lincoln Parish Schools Superintendent Mike Milstead said he was in agreement with the recommendation.

“It was close to 100% of superintendents favoring it,” Milstead said.

“Simply because of the uncertainty, the unknown associated with coronavirus. We had to ask if it would be detrimental for us to come back right at the time when we start to see a downturn in the virus and risk starting it back up, putting kids and staff in harm’s way”

The 2019-20 school year in Lincoln Parish is set to end on May 21. If neither the school closure nor the academic year are extended, that would leave students with 14 days of face-toface instruction upon returning to the classroom.

“If the governor chooses not to do that and we go back on May 4, I’m certainly fine with that,” Milstead said. “I didn’t have a strongfeeling either way, but with all the facts considered, (the superintendents) felt like this was the best way to go.”

Edwards said during a press conference Thursday there was a “really good chance” he would soon shut schools down the for the rest of the year, but he wanted to consult with acting Superintendent of Education Beth Scioneaux first.

Catching up

If Edwards makes the call to extend the closure, it will be up to BESE, the body that sets policies for Louisiana school systems, to implement any changes in the 2020-21 school year to make up for the missed learning. Ideas being discussed include summer school, starting the next school year earlier, or adding hours to next year’s school days.

The Louisiana school system doesn’t legally have to make up every day missed during the coronavirus closure, as the normal federal and state requirements for instructional minutes have been waived. And many districts, including Lincoln Parish, have transitioned to distance learning methods to continue students’ education during the downtime.

But Milstead said students may need some form of supplement to catch back up.

“It’s more along the lines of, how can we make up the educational opportunities we’ve missed?” he said. “We’re not sure what that’s going to look like. We can give lip service to starting school a week or two early, but we know two weeks doesn’t equate to the eight weeks (out of school) we’re presently under... We’ll get the knowledge made up in some way”

The idea of extending next school year also depends partially on whether stimulus aid from the federal government can be used to supplement the state’s funding of local school systems. If not, the finances of being in school longer could be an issue across the state.

Classes and meals

Students are not entirely without education during the closure period. Some classes have been employing distance learningmethods almost since the downtime began, while schools began the process in earnest earlier this week.

Milstead said the district will continue to provide online instruction and paper assignments as needed throughout any extra closure time.

Meanwhile, the school system is making some changes to its meal distribution program starting next week, cutting back to two pickup days a week, though the total amount of meals prepared will remain the same. Students will be able to pick up two days of meals on Mondays and three days of meals on Wednesdays.

Milstead said this change is a financially driven one, as the district is paying its food service personnel for their time preparing and distributing the meals on top of their regular pay that all school employees are still receiving. This expense makes providing meals during school closure more costly than when schools are in session.

And that expense is the factor that will determine whether the service will continue throughout May if school closure is extended.

“We’re hopeful to continue food services through May 21,” Milstead said. “That would be our optimal goal.”

That goal depends on whether federal and/or state dollars will be available to reimburse the school district for their food service expenses during the pandemic.

Teacher pay

Teachers and other school district employees would continue to receive their regular pay if schools remain closed for the academic year, since the state has promised funding for that pay will continue.

However, the usual May salary supplement, also known as the “14th check,” is funded by sales taxes, which are proj ected to take significant hits as businesses remain closed during the governor’s stay-athome order.

The school board approvedthat supplement check at its March 3 board meeting in the amount of $5,825 for certificated personnel and $2,913 for support employees, to be paid on May 21. Milstead said the actual amount may be affected by the coronavirus situation.

“It could be a partial payment; it could be the whole thing,” he said. “We don’t know yet until we can see what the sales tax trends look like.”