Louisiana public schools grapple with learning lost to pandemic surges and storms
PBS NEW ORLEANS: For April Vincent and her four young kids, trying to keep up with schooling has been an educational crisis, one calamity after another that has cost her family dearly.
Vincent quit nursing school and her job in March 2020 to get her kids through remote school, and watched as debts piled up. One of her daughters, then in fourth grade, struggled to learn virtually through a screen. Her two youngest children were suddenly without daycare, and distracted the older two from their work.
“It was very, very abrupt … you have to put everything you’re doing to the side,” said Vincent, a single mother.
When school returned, the difference in learning for her daughter, now in sixth grade, became clear. She’s thriving, Vincent said. But she worries about what her kids have lost. Her 4-year-old is having accidents during her naptime at school, and is struggling with what Vincent believes is anxiety — she’s afraid she’s going to get sick all the time.
“I am worried that they are behind. Playing catch-up, for all of us, will be really, really hard.”
“I am worried that they are behind. Playing catch-up, for all of us, will be really, really hard. I’m just trying to keep them feeling secure and feeling safe,” Vincent, 30, said.
It’s a story that is playing out for many parents in this phase of the pandemic — where some normalcy has returned, but so much has not — and is far from over yet. In Louisiana, pandemic challenges have been compounded by catastrophic hurricanes, flooding, and COVID-19 surges that have been among the country’s worst. Schools were caught off guard. They closed, and opened, only to close again. Nearly two years of classroom turmoil, virtual learning, and school closures have upended education for nearly 700,000 children enrolled in public schools across the state, in ways big and small.
One of Vincent’s children graduated from kindergarten during the earliest part of the pandemic — a Zoom ceremony followed by a drive-by-celebration. That same son would not set foot on school grounds until the second grade this fall. Vincent knew he and her other children were missing out on more than memories. They were missing out on mastering fundamental reading and math skills that could have significant consequences on the rest of their lives, especially for Black children like hers. Experts say the pandemic further illuminated racial disparities in education as well as for students with disabilities.
Educators publicly debate whether to call the past year and a half a learning loss or a learning disruption. Regardless of terminology, one thing is clear: The impact on kids’ futures is a big unknown, and academic setbacks continue to unfold.
A report from McKinsey & Company estimates students, on average, were five months behind in math and four months behind in reading by the end of the 2020-21 school year. For Black students and low-income students, the effect was greater. Black Students lost an average of six months of math and reading, according to the report, which analyzed assessments from more than 1.6 million elementary and middle school students across the country and compared them to performance from similar students before the pandemic.
“We saw a noticeable drop in our proficiency levels over two years. No surprise there given the challenges,” State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley, told the PBS NewsHour. “Frankly, I’m not aware of a state that has faced the multitude of challenges that we have faced. Still, our educators are resilient. We continue to get back up off the ground and keep moving.”
According to the Louisiana Department of Education, Louisiana test scores nose-dived 5 percentage points during the pandemic. The number of students achieving mastery on the test fell from 34 percent in 2019 to 29 percent during the most recent statewide testing conducted this spring. State tests were cancelled in 2020. Statewide, only one school district improved overall: Jackson Parish, located in Northern Louisiana, which grew 1 percentage point. In addition, state data showed a 15-point difference in outcomes between students who attended school fully face-to-face compared to those who attended entirely virtual.
“It speaks volumes. Our children failed, and that means their needs are not being met. If they missed any benchmarks, it’s only fair to revisit the lessons and get another opportunity. But, unfortunately, in the future, it will hurt them,” said Melissa Francis, a grassroots parent organizer with Step-Up Louisiana; a parent-powered non-profit focused on economic and education justice in the South.
“Before the pandemic and before [Hurricane] Ida, our children were not getting their needs met. Black and brown children have always been last and have always been at the bottom of the priority list with decision-makers,” she added.
The results present a significant step backward amid unprecedented stops and starts in classrooms, especially for a state that consistently ranks at the bottom in education nationwide. Educational leaders in Louisiana believe they must act swiftly to redress the harm caused to children’s education, especially for young students who saw some of the biggest declines.
“That’s why we’re doubling down on so many of our literacy efforts and more spending in the foundational years. We know that if we don’t invest aggressively there now, it’s going to be a lifetime of challenges,” said Brumley, who arrived at the top state education post in the early stages of the pandemic.
While the decline in this year’s results showed up across all grade levels, subjects, and subgroups, Brumley notes Louisiana schools did not dip as much as other states. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) 2020 report card, Alabama and West Virginia had the largest decreases in fourth grade math scores. And as schools move forward during the pandemic, Brumley boasts a high annual test participation rate. For example, 97.5 percent of students took the critical Louisiana Educational Assessment Program assessments (LEAP 2025) last May, giving the Louisiana Department of Education rich data to plan recovery initiatives.
“These are foundational years where there has been a constant disruption. So if we can’t figure out how to get them on grade level by the time they’re exiting third or fourth grade, it will be a big concern,” he said.
High costs of academic recovery
The Louisiana Department of Education announced in May the additional allocation of $5.4 million in “Accelerating Schools” funding to various schools throughout the state. The program distributes an additional $50,000 to $100,000 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to the schools with the greatest dips in performance. In April, the U.S. Department of Education awarded Louisiana $2.6 billion in ESSER funds from the American Rescue Plan. Brumley says 90 percent of the dollars from the federal stimulus package flows out directly to schools.
“It is critical that we provide additional resources to students in schools with the most significant two-year declines,” Brumley said. “We must do everything within our control to recover student learning loss and accelerate these schools’ performances as quickly as we possibly can.”
The “Louisiana Comeback Plan” focuses on handing out federal dollars to schools to tackle a few key initiatives—attendance and well-being, recovery and acceleration, and professional learning among them. Local school superintendents say the money is critical to helping kids catch up.
In rural Lafourche Parish, about 10 to 15 percent of the school population needed academic intervention before the pandemic, but the need has grown tremendously. According to school officials, 70 percent of students have skill deficits, which creates a predicament for educators.
Lafourche Parish Schools Superintendent Jarod Martin expects it will cost $49.5 million to fill the learning gap. In a typical year, the district’s entire operating budget is $175 million. His goal is for his teachers to become reading experts. Less than half of teachers currently have that status, but he expects it to grow to 80 percent in three years. As part of this effort, the district’s reading coaches are being provided 35 to 40 hours of intensive professional development funded by stimulus money.
“The online learning platform that we rolled out failed to adequately get our youngest learners to learn those fundamental skills on pace with their peers,” Martin told the NewsHour. “The amount of money required to accomplish all these things and increase staff to respond to these gaps in learning is profound. If we did nothing and sat on our hands and didn’t use this money, the trade-off would be a generation of students who did not develop the skills needed to succeed. It could hinder us for not just years, but decades.”
Classrooms in Louisiana closed nine weeks early in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The 2020 to 21 school year featured a mix of in-person and distance learning, ending with about 75 percent of students attending classes in person. Many schools struggled with rolling quarantines and high rates of absenteeism.
Hurricane Ida setbacks
By the new school year in Fall 2021, optimism for a typical school year quickly vanished with the spread of the Delta variant. And Hurricane Ida, one of the most powerful hurricanes ever to hit Louisiana, forced the state’s schools to shut down again, impacting nearly one-third of the students enrolled in Louisiana public schools.
Put another way, 169,000 students were out of class again in the 25 parishes declared disaster areas. In addition, many families were left homeless or scattered across the Gulf South following evacuations. Last year, schools in southwest Louisiana, hit hard by the pandemic, similarly experienced prolonged school closures following back-to-back powerful Hurricanes; Laura and Delta, followed by Winter storms, and unprecedented flooding.
In Lafourche Parish, which took a direct hit from Ida, schools shut down for 52 days due to schools damaged by Ida and a month-long power outage. The storm peeled back roofs, leaving collapsed walls, rain-soaked classrooms, toppled furniture, and exposed desks.
Martin estimates it will cost $97 million to repair the parish’s public schools. Students did not return until Oct. 18, and not everyone went to their home school. Getting students back in the classroom was logistically complex for the parish’s 15,000 students and 2,000 employees. Martin says it requires doubling up on campuses, alternating campus use, and transitioning supplemental spaces into classroom space. Some students are still only attending every other day to accommodate the classroom shortage.
“We got hit in the face with Ida, so now it’s just a matter of repositioning our forces, re-establishing our timelines and then getting back to work,” Martin said. “The hurricane just exaggerated all our problems because it delayed our ability to really address student needs in a real profound way. Some students and staff still don’t even have a home to live in.”
Mental health needs and teacher shortages
School closures from the pandemic and hurricane have brought significant disruption to the lives of children, affecting their socio-emotional development, their social life and relationships. Education leaders worry about a looming mental health crisis. Many teachers, students, and families have been pushed past their limits.
In Lafourche Parish, Martin doubled the number of counselors at each of the parish’s 18 schools. School psychologists will provide counseling sessions to students and their family members after school hours. In addition, LDOE offers more than 166,000 public school educators and support staff statewide access to free mental health virtual visits.
Louisiana educators still are sounding the alarm to fix flaws in the system before they steamroll forward with catch-up plans in a state with a growing teacher shortage. LDOE figures released last year show nearly 50 percent of teachers left their jobs in their first five years. In addition, retirements of teachers and other school personnel shot up 25 percent from 2020 to 2021, according to data compiled by the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana. The shortage has a direct impact on day-to-day learning.
Simply put, teachers are tired of Covid and the disruptions. For some, the first month of school this August felt worse than last school year. Even though vaccines were widely available, the state was tallying 3,000 new daily cases from the Delta variant at the peak of the wave — the highest infection rate in the nation.
“Those quarantine cases started popping up pretty rapidly, and that made it a challenge. The whole month was already challenging dealing with Covid, and then Hurricane Ida hit,” Lauren Jewett, a 34-year-old special education teacher in New Orleans, told the NewsHour. “We had to pivot and do virtual again when we had whole classes going out on quarantine. We were just in survival mode.”