COVID-19: Education & the Legislative Session
By Lisa Moomaw (Tulane University), OPEN Intern
It’s obvious that the spread of COVID-19 has transformed daily life from employment, to government to schools. On March 11th, Governor John Bel Edwards issued a proclamation banning gatherings of more than 250 people and closing schools through April 13th. On March 20th the federal Department of Education approved Louisiana’s waiver request for accountability, assessment and reporting requirements. Earlier this week, Edwards announced that he would follow federal and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and extend stay-at-home orders to the end of April. Due to the state’s response to COVID-19 concerns, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) cancelled LEAP standardized testing and waived school performance scores and some diploma requirements for the state’s 44,000 seniors for the 2019-2020 school year. Sports, recreational and celebratory events like senior trips, prom and graduation have also been cancelled. School districts can determine how they will handle end-of-year events and promotional exercises either virtually or in the summer. The ACT exam has been rescheduled for June 2. Of note is that while school districts are making accommodations for testing, grading and class ranking of seniors, the requirements for TOPS scholarship programs for these students to attend higher ed will remain the same.
Some essential services typically provided by schools, such as meals have continued. Currently 45 school, business and NORDC sites across the city are distributing breakfast and lunch to children 18 years old or younger attending a public school and students with special needs attending a public school through age 22. Families can pick up several meals at a time twice per week at any location even if their child is not enrolled at that particular school site. The Department of Education confirmed March 27th that school employees will still receive full pay regardless of the school closures. Yet, there is no such provision for part time personnel or staff provided through third-party vendors such as meal service and janitorial staff. While some schools have closed during this period most others have transitioned to some form of online/distance learning. To support schools and students NOLA Public Schools purchased 5,000 internet hotspots to give to families without internet at home. Systems actors and advocates have been working with internet providers to address the digital divide in the city and get students and families connected to internet services. Even with these additional supports, there remain concerns about the fate of students with special needs who receive services in order to access their education programs. Generally, schools are not required to provide special education services while schools are closed and there are few guidelines on how to accommodate special needs through online platforms/ distance learning.
The 2020 state legislative session is also making shifts. On March 19th, state leaders met and considered a proposal to suspend Open Meeting Law, which would allow the legislature to pass bills without the public being involved. OPEN and other advocates raised concerns over this because it would keep the public out of the policy-making process. Trying to make decisions without public involvement and in a time of such uncertainty could allow things for important issues to either be addressed inappropriately or not at all without pushback from the advocacy community and citizens. Ultimately it was decided that the state legislature will suspend until March 31. On that day a little more than half of representatives and senators reconvened to discuss COVID-19 recovery bills and future plans for the session, considering the session is likely to be suspended through April. Something to note is that 2020 is a budget year, which makes this session especially important. Programs like SNAP, paid leave, Medicaid, and, of course, education rely on state funding to function. As of 2019 Louisiana had the third highest poverty rate in the country. Budget sessions that determine what monies are needed and how they will be raised and allocated particularly hit the state’s low- to middle- income families hard.
COVID-19 has touched every aspect of civic, economic, political and social life. Many of the policies and programs to either curb the spread of the virus or help citizens navigate their way through it are being decided in real time. While we recognize the swift action to ensure that the needs of families across the state are met and that citizens can access sources of support, we do keep in mind that the decisions being made quickly today will have repercussions for the future. Much still remains to be determined, and school districts are still working to figure out their policies for the remainder of the school year, whose final end date has not yet been determined.
Over the next 4 months students, families and advocates who are planning to remain in the school system and re-enroll in the Fall are encouraged to look out for answers to questions like these:
- What are the academic plans through April 30th?
- Will my child’s school decide to close for the rest of the school year?
- Will the school modify any promotion or retention policies?
- Will free meals continue to be distributed through April 30th?
- What is my child’s school policy for academic work completion through April 30th? Is it optional? Will it be graded? Can kids receive failing grades?
- Will all students be promoted automatically to the next grade? Will my student be supported in moving to the next grade even if they’re behind because of COVID-19?
- When will students be notified that they are eligible to graduate?
- If my child was not on track to graduate before the school closures what can they do to get back on track?
- Are any schools considering implementing summer learning options? What about an earlier start to the 2020-2021 school year?
- Will students be expected to complete work over the summer to catch up?
- If my child is considered behind next year because of this situation, what accommodations will schools put in place to address any academic, social, emotional or psychological concerns?
- If families continue to have difficulties at home due to loss of employment and stay-at-home orders how will schools support students on campus if schools are open in the fall?
Stay tuned for more information on this evolving situation and check OPEN’s social media for resources!