Louisiana education leaders: COVID-19 pandemic highlights need to consider permanent school calendar changes, other reforms

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Dump trucks and back hoes continue to work on the dirt fill base for the new Denham Springs Elementary on Range Avenue in Denham Springs.
McHugh David | The News

BATON ROUGE, La. (The Livingston Parish News) – The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need to consider changing the traditional school calendar, the state’s top K-12 education official said Thursday.

State Superintendent Cade Brumley has long advocated for a “balanced” school calendar with shorter breaks throughout the year rather than a long summer break that erodes what students learned the prior year. That problem will be more extreme for many students this year because they have been away from campus since March, he said.

“We’re going to see a loss, and we have to be ready to start overcoming that loss,” Brumley said during a webinar hosted by the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, which this week published a policy roadmap for expanding school choice options in the state.

School systems are being asked to give students diagnostic tests in math and literacy within the first 30 days of beginning classes. The results will be used to drive policy and funding decisions, Brumley said.

“You’re not getting back the same kids that left on March 13,” Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Holly Boffy said during an earlier Pelican Institute webinar this week. Boffy said she was especially concerned about children in abusive home situations.

The state Department of Education has released best practices for virtual instruction. Most of the $300 million in federal CARES Act funding for Louisiana K-12 schools was spent on devices and internet connectivity, Brumley said, adding that about a quarter of the state’s students do not have internet access at home.

Boffy said some districts are focusing on in-person instruction for younger students who cannot be left home alone while providing online learning for older students. She said virtual learning will be important to academic success this year, because many families will not feel comfortable sending their children to school buildings, and said virtual options should continue to be available to families even after the pandemic ends.

BESE member Ashley Ellis said some systems are providing mobile hotspots on buses that drive into neighborhoods. She said the challenges presented by the pandemic will show which education leaders are able to adapt and make quick decisions, adding that many schools were not prepared for the interruption last semester.

“I was really disappointed in where we were as educators,” Ellis said.

Last year, student assessments and school accountability measures were called off due to the pandemic interruptions. There are no plans to cancel those assessments this year, Brumley said.

“We have to find a way to make sure every child gets the education they deserve with the most efficient and effective use of our taxpayer dollars,” he said.

In its policy paper, the Pelican Institute recommends several changes to address educational needs stemming from COVID-19-related challenges, including implementing emergency Education Savings Accounts so parents can choose to send their children to private schools, encouraging creation of micro/pod schools, expanding virtual charter schools, and expanding offerings in rural and suburban areas of the state.

“COVID-19 has taught us that the way we delivered education was neither prepared nor agile enough to respond quickly to a major disruption, and now, Louisiana’s children are paying for it,” Ethan Melancon, the Pelican Institute’s education policy director, said in a statement. “Our goal must be to make educating our children the number one priority and to do that, we must envision a better education system that provides options for all students, regardless of their location or financial situation.”

Pelican Institute CEO Daniel Erspamer said the need for transformational change in Louisiana’s education system is more important than ever before.

“What so many Louisiana families and advocates have known for a long time has become abundantly clear in recent months: our business-as-usual approach to education isn’t working, and an urgent fix is required,” Erspamer said. “The time to give parents greater options in how children receive their education is now. By placing the decision-making in the hands of the parents, we can help ensure every child has access to a high-quality education and give all students an equal chance to succeed.”

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