Ida deals new blow to Louisiana schools struggling to reopen

Tara Williams’ three little boys run shirtless, because most of their clothes were swept away, and they stack milk crates beneath a blazing sun because their toys are all gone too. Their apartment is barely more than a door dangling from a frame, the roof obliterated, most everything in it lost.

A Ford Fusion is the family’s home now, and as if Hurricane Ida didn’t take enough, it has also put the boys’ education on hold.

“They’re ready to get inside, go to school, get some air conditioning,” said 32-year-old Williams, who has twin 5-year-olds and a 7-year-old and is more pessimistic than officials about when they might be back in class. “The way it’s looking like now, it’s going to be next August.”

After a year and a half of pandemic disruptions that drove children from schools and pulled down test scores, at least 169,000 Louisiana children are out of class again, their studies derailed by the storm. The hurricane followed a rocky reopening in August that led to more COVID-19 infections and classroom closures, and now it will be weeks before some students go back again.

“How concerned am I? If you pick up a thesaurus, whatever’s the word for ‘most concerned,’” said Jarod Martin, superintendent of schools in the hard-hit Lafourche Parish, southwest of New Orleans. “We were brimming with optimism and confident that we were going to defeat COVID, confident we were on a better path. And now we’ve got another setback.”

Williams was working at McDonald’s until COVID-19 cutbacks claimed her job. The family rode out the storm in their apartment as it disintegrated around them, then drove to Florida, where they found a hotel room, which they could afford for only a few days.

The streets around them are dotted with gutted trailers, peeled roofs and mounds of debris, and every mention of the Federal Emergency Management Agency seems to be preceded by a colorfully profane adjective. School would be nice for the boys, Williams says, but right now, they don’t even have a home.

A couple of miles away, at the boys’ school, Luling Elementary, crews are cleaning up fallen trees, and piping from giant dehumidifiers snakes through windows. Shantele Slade, a 42-year-old youth pastor, is among those at work, but her own children an hour away in Amite are on her mind. The pandemic had already taken its toll on her 14-year-old son, who had to go to summer school because he’d fallen behind while learning virtually. Now she’s worried that he will have trouble keeping up with algebra after so many days of absence.

“The last two years have already been so hard on them,” she said.

Though many children spent most or all of last school year back in class, some children remained in virtual programs and arrived back in class last month for the first time since the shutdowns began. The return did not go smoothly, with nearly 7,000 infections of students and teachers reported in the opening weeks, a fact that led to quarantines, more shutdowns and more disruptions.

The latest state standardized test scores, released in August, showed a 5% drop in proficiency among students across Louisiana, blamed largely on disruptions from COVID-19. Younger and poorer children fared worst, as did members of minority groups and those with English as a second language.

The state’s education superintendent, Cade Brumley, acknowledged that students “did lose a little bit” and that Ida dealt another blow. A quarter-million students’ schools remained shuttered Friday, but classes for 81,000 children were to reopen Monday, according to the education department. Brumley said the rest would likely be back in a matter of weeks.

“We need to get those kids back with us as soon as we possibly can,” he said.

But in the most devastated areas, returning to class requires not only schools to be repaired or temporary classrooms to be set up, but for students and staff scattered around the country to come back to Louisiana. That means they must have homes with electricity and running water. Buses also have to run, and cafeterias must be stocked with food and people to serve it, and so on.

After the storm destroyed their house in Dulac, a stretch of Cajun country swampland, Penny Verdin’s two children and a nephew she cares for began cramming each night into a car, along with a gecko, a hamster and a squirrel named Honey. They hope to use some lumber and tin from the carcass of their home to fashion a new shack they can stay in.

The children are smiling, one doing handstands on the soggy lawn, another fishing a 3-foot gator out of a creek, but Verdin, 43, says they’ve been shaken up by the storm. After a year in which nearly the whole family fell sick with COVID-19 and her disability checks were suddenly halted, she’s worried about them falling behind in their studies.

“It’s going to be a big catch-up,” she says.

When the pandemic first raged and students were forced to learn on screens at home, some observers warned of a “lost generation” of children falling through the cracks. The opening of the school year gave some teachers their first chance to fully assess the effects on pupils, only to have students forced out again.

Lauren Jewett, a 34-year-old special education teacher in New Orleans, said she was just starting to evaluate any regression due to the pandemic’s disruptions, not to mention the “summer slide” that happens each year. She already had students who were dealing with family deaths from COVID; now she’s hearing about their collapsed roofs, swamped homes and dwindling resources.

“We couldn’t cover all of the things that are supposed to be covered because of all the disruptions,” said Jewett, whose own home was damaged in the storm.

Many people remain without power or running water, and some districts are still assessing damage. In several parishes, no reopening dates have been announced for schools. They are simply closed until further notice.

“Last school year was rough. This school year started rough. And then there’s this thing here,” said Randy Bush, a school board member in Tangipahoa Parish, who worried that the widespread lack of electricity might mean students are not welcomed back until October.

Ida’s 150 mph winds tore the roof from 44-year-old Christy Aymami’s rental home in Kenner, leaving it uninhabitable. Virtual school was rough on her 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter, both socially and in what they were learning, and she wonders what this new extended absence might mean. For now, she’s waiting at a hotel in Chattanooga, Tennessee, focused on finding a suitable hotel closer to home or leasing a new property sight unseen.

“I have all the resources, I have fairly good leads, I have cell service and internet and lots of contacts,” said Aymami, a former teacher who is a school technology director, “and I still can’t find anything.”

Inevitably, as parents and others ponder what’s next for their children, 2005’s monster Hurricane Katrina is invoked. When researchers at Columbia University and the Children’s Health Fund tried to determine that storm’s impact on children five years after landfall, they found unstable living conditions persisted, serious emotional and behavioral issues were rampant and one-third of students in affected areas were behind in schooling for their age.

“We don’t have to go back that far to see the outright and ultimate failure of our children,” said Kevin Griffin-Clark, a 36-year-old entrepreneur and father of three who is now running for City Council in New Orleans. “Now the children are going to suffer even more.”

Katrina led to the dismantling of the New Orleans school system, which was replaced with a first-of-its-kind all-charter school network that has seen test scores and graduation rates rise, alongside other positive metrics. But resentment simmers over the changes, seen by many as imposed by mostly white decision-makers on mostly Black communities, with widespread firings of teachers and disintegration of union contracts and protections.

Douglas Harris, a Tulane University economist whose work focuses on education, said he expects test scores will eventually recover, as they did after Katrina, but they won’t be a true reflection of the harm from the pandemic and now a hurricane.

“In both cases, it’s a significant amount of learning loss, a significant amount of trauma, a significant amount of anxiousness and disruption to life and school,” Harris said, comparing the post-Katrina landscape with today. “But the disruption has been so much longer now. We’re talking about 18 months of COVID. So the effects are going to be bigger here and the amount of time it takes to rebound will be greater.”

New Orleans’ schools superintendent, Henderson Lewis Jr., flatly rejects the comparisons to Katrina, saying physical damage to schools is minimal. He said some will be able to return to class on Wednesday and all should be back by Sept. 22. But he acknowledges the hardships for students since COVID-19 first shuttered schools on March 13, 2020, and everything that’s happened since.

“It’s one more thing compounded,” he said.

When students do finally arrive, they will bear memories of howling winds and cratered houses, of weeks spent in faraway places or without a home, of favorite toys and familiar comforts taken away. It amounts to trauma for many, even if their homes did survive, and it’s compounded by pandemic anxiety.

Ashana Bigard, a 46-year-old New Orleans activist and mother of two, worries schools will be so wrapped up in academic catch-up that they won’t do enough to address those lingering scars. She remains worried about her children being infected with COVID-19 in school and expects her kids will get “the same subpar education” they were getting before the pandemic. But she’s prepared to accept that as long as their emotional needs are met.

“Dead children can’t learn, and children who are broken emotionally and mentally cannot do good on your test. I want my children alive and happy. I’d rather that and have them five grades behind,” she said. “Their education deficits I can deal with.”