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Before storm, school amidst virus ‘smooth’

Tuesday, September 1, 2020
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Before Hurricane Laura forced Lincoln Parish schools to close for at least four school days beginning Thursday, class had been in session for six days under new guidelines to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom.

When students are able to return from their weather-induced break, they will still be under those guidelines, and so far district officials and school administrators report overall success in implementing them, despite some “hiccups” in the early days of the virtual program.

The system includes mandatory mask-wearing for third grade and up, more than 2,100 students enrolled in fully virtual classes, an alternating day schedule for seventh grade and up, and lots of sanitation and social distancing measures.

“Amazingly, it’s gone very smoothly,” Superintendent Mike Milstead said last week. “Obviously we’ve had some glitches along the way, but as far as scheduling and people complying with mask mandates, it’s going well.”

He said schools have had some families originally enrolled in the virtual program who have since wanted to bring their students back onto campus.

“If there’s an extenuating circumstance we feel that merits it, we’ve let them back in,” he said.

The school district is working on a plan to inform the public of positive COVID-19 cases among its students and faculty, as well as healthy individuals asked to quarantine because of close contact with positive cases, via weekly updates on its website. The updates would likely list the cases and quarantines as a percentage of the whole school population, rather than a specific count, so as to not violate individuals’ privacy.

But those updates are contingent upon guidance reportedly coming soon from the Louisiana Department of Education, after which Lincoln Parish would finalize its plans.

Ruston Elementary School Principal Mandy Brown said parents and students have been compliant with all they’ve been asked to do in this unprecedented year.

“Everybody’s thinking that, even if I don’t like the masks, I’m doing it to help keep everyone safe,” Brown said.

While virtual students in the older grades are mainly participating in non-live, asynchronous forms of classwork, Brown said her elementary students are live with their teachers every day, and that has presented some connectivity challenges.

“Our kids and teachers know a lot about technology, but the internet is not consistent and lags, and that has been a barrier,” she said. “We’re anticipating it’ll get a lot smoother the longer we do it, but right now we’ve had hiccups with our virtual (learning). But everyone is still trying.”

The plan for elementary grades has been to keep each individual class as its own static group, separate from other students at all times, to reduce potential spread of the virus and cut down on the amount of people who would need to quarantine if someone tests positive.

Brown said the static groupings have gone very well at Ruston Elementary.

“They stay in their groups even at lunch and recess, and that has not been a problem,” she said. “We divided our playground up into three sections, and they rotate daily.”

Ruston Elementary is one of the six school sites serving breakfast and lunch to virtualonly students via car pickup lines. But Brown said pickup numbers at her school have been much lower than in the spring thus far — only 20-30 cars per day.

Ruston High School Principal Dan Gressett said the first six days of this school year have been “some of the best days I can remember.” He said most students were more eager to return to the classroom than ever after the extended time at home dating back to the state’s stay-at-home order in mid-March.

“Our kids have been awesome,” Gressett said. “We’re asking a lot of the kids and the teachers this year. Granted, we’re accustomed to having 1,300 kids at the school, and now there’s about 400 each day. But there have been no issues with masks, sanitizing hands, cleaning desks, eating lunch in the classrooms, or anything. It’s been about as smooth as we could have hoped for.”

Gressett said the virtual learning plan assembled over the summer for the secondary grades is the best he’s seen across the state, though some teachers are still in a “learning curve” in the early days of implementation.

“It’s been more of a learning process for some of them,” he said. “Our plan is good, we have the resources, and we had a good group of teachers putting together these plans who made it readily available to teachers who were struggling with some of it. There’s still some kinks to be worked out.”

He said some students who didn’t attend the “prep days” prior to the first day of school have yet to receive one of the Chromebooks the district has provided for in-person and virtual learners, but the school has received another shipment of those devices and plans to distribute them soon.

“We’re trying to get a list narrowed down of the kids who are having trouble doing the virtual assignments or logging in,” he said. “But overall the problem is going very well.”

The school system will stay under its current restrictions until the state moves on from Phase Two of reopening.