By Edwin Wang
In conjunction with social restrictions, Covid-19 has underscored existing disparities and extended outcome gaps, particularly in New Orleans’ education community. Previous funding gaps in public schools coupled with new mandates for personal protection equipment, virus testing, and technological aids has hastened urgency for eliminating the inequality that plagues New Orleans.
Educators’ struggle is a sore reflection of the larger problem facing New Orleans. Kate Babineau, a Senior Research Fellow at Tulane University’s Cowen Institute, says, “Education in New Orleans is a systemic problem, the notion that public education can fix society’s broader ills. If we addressed poverty first, we would have better school outcomes, and that’s not just a New Orleans problem, it’s a national problem.”
New Orleans’ teachers and students have directly witnessed Covid-19’s harrowing complications to nourishing personal achievement and livelihood. After fruitless attempts nationwide by educators to bargain for pay raises and adequate supplies and equipment, this pandemic amplified the divide between schools with disparate funding levels and resources.
Nai Moore, an English teacher at New Orleans Accelerated High School (NOAH), bluntly reflects, “As educators our job has become difficult- we have to figure out a way that our lesson plans can work in the classroom and a virtual platform. This is the world we live in now.”
Similarly, for organizations tasked with enhancing New Orleans’ public education, career outcomes, and apprenticeship opportunities like the Cowen Institute, their mission has gained more significance with the pandemic. Vincent Rossmeier, a Cowen Institute Policy Director, says that “Our focus is on postsecondary success, so high school and older is our sweet spot now.”
New Orleans schools have long toiled with difficulties stemming from underfunding. Evaluations of Orleans Parish’s public school district are bleak; The Times Picayune reports 35 of 72 schools scored a ‘D’ or ‘F’ from the Louisiana Department of Education, indicating “nearly half of local schools were considered failing.”
While teaching is strenuously more challenging in this new normal, many Orleans Parish schools have tried to restore their in-person experience, in spite of the funding shortages that left numerous New Orleans schools understaffed and technology deficient at the pandemic’s outset.
Branden Hentrich, an English teacher at McMain Secondary School, reports his charter school striving to sanitize classrooms and enforce social distancing guidelines, despite painful financing shortcomings. Hentrich says, “From the start of the year, we had cloth masks, plexiglass shields, wipes, and hand sanitizer installed throughout the building, along with temperature checks for all students.”
McMain’s efforts appear exclusive given roughly 40% of New Orleans schools remain virtual this fall, divulging the widening learning gap between students who attend amply-funded charter schools and cash-strapped public schools.
“The safest option would be online,” Hentrich concedes, “But it is just so hard to get students engaged that way. I do my best to make class discussion-based and interactive, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out because they know I can’t force them, and they are at home.”
Covid-19 has been equally challenging for the Cowen Institute’s operations. Rossmeier reflects, “When you don’t have an option for in-person learning, it just makes things more difficult, especially when so much of our programming is geared towards folks setting their own schedule, coming in, and doing the work on their own terms.”
Though Babineau does not oversee the Cowen Institute’s career-counseling and apprenticeship program, she reports, “We directly see the difficulty of getting young people access to technology. My colleagues often speak to how much harder it is to engage teenagers across the city in social or emotional courses over Zoom the way they can in-person. Trades like carpentry do not translate well into online learning, so early on that was really problematic.”
Similarly, many schools in New Orleans have faced roadblocks virtually engaging students. Before transitioning to NOAH this fall, Moore taught with Hentrich at Marrero Middle School in Jefferson Parish, where Moore reports Covid-19 created “A trainwreck. No one had directions- I came from a school that is so behind in technology we didn’t even have enough computers to provide to all of our students, and some of them just didn’t have access at home.”
Understandably, adopting new applications like Zoom or Google Classrooms is challenging enough for both educators and students. Coupled with the obstacle of engaging students that may not even have requisite technology for basic virtual interaction, teaching appears impossible in the age of Coronavirus. Although Moore and Hentrich teach at different schools this year, their estimate of virtual teaching’s most arduous aspects strikes the same chord.
In her experience during the transition to remote teaching earlier this year, Moore describes, “Since it’s virtual, I feel a lot less control since I am not in the students’ environment anymore. I have to be careful because the techniques that work in the classroom might not work for students learning at home.”
As McMain Secondary School has welcomed some in-person teaching this fall to complement its virtual offering, Hentrich remains cautiously optimistic about the uncertain trajectory for students’ learning progress through the course of the pandemic.
Hentrich explains, “The biggest problems I’ve had so far are engagement and planning, and while the school has done their best getting the resources ready, we’ll see how it shapes out.”
Adding to the uncertainty surrounding socially distanced learning environments is the unknown impact of virtual learning on students’ mental health and education. A study conducted by the University of Colorado, Boulder found “The switch to online learning is negatively impacting their [students’] learning, grades, motivation levels, and stress levels.”
The Cowen Institute’s research team emphasizes these scholarly warnings of permanent damage to educational progression. Babineau worries that Covid-19 will render “Really severe economic implications for a lot of New Orleans families, which will trickle down to students in both their social and mental well-being and willingness to engage in academics.”
History compels Babineau to recount, “We saw this after Katrina- if you take an entire study body and basically traumatize them, it will take a while for them to recover.” She says, “People who work in education must collectively realize we need to slow things down and ensure young people’s basic needs are met- we can play catch up down the road. If we prioritize Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs with our kids first, they’ll be better off later.”
Many educators are optimistic about learning trajectories being minimally impacted, albeit with some expected setbacks. Although Hentrich does not foresee “Permanent, catastrophic damage,” he expects “There will be a learning gap of at least half a year. There will have to be catch up and ‘Response to Intervention’ strategies to get students back on track.”
However, many skeptics continue to forecast a more bifurcated return to pre-pandemic education, much like the economic recovery to Covid-19’s crippling, recession-inducing lockdowns, which have further illuminated the divide between institutions that were prosperous before the pandemic and those already teetering on the cliff’s precipice.
Nai Moore is among those fearful of disadvantaged students and schools being left behind. “I feel that it depends on how well the school prepares you,” she says in reference to her current charter school.
Moore adds, “I think that some public school students will be permanently hobbled because my son attends a public school in the parish I used to work in. I am shocked at how some of these classrooms are being run- luckily I am a teacher who can prevent him from falling behind, but a lot of these students are not so lucky.”
Policy organizers like Rossmeier face an equally steep challenge due to the uncertainty of Covid’s long-term impacts, which are speculative at best in ongoing strategy debates. Rossmeier cautions, “I do not want to predict the future, and none of us have lived in a pandemic, but this is absolutely going to affect kids long-term, and we have no idea what they will be and I imagine they can’t be good.”
Babineau and Rossmeier are both urging monumental reforms as legislators look to craft responsive policies for public programs. Babineau points to vast disparities in access to essential resources among varying income families, saying, “85% of New Orleans students are from low-income families, so at what point do you think you get 100% graduation rates? It’s naive to the broader society ills that we’re dealing with- it’s a race and economic issue to the core.”
While both policy experts slightly differ on the ideal remedy, they overwhelmingly agree additional resources to reinforce existing programs and financial support for the most vulnerable families are necessary supplements to boost a swift recovery.
For the Cowen Institute’s research and policy teams, the catalyst for hardships that folks like Moore and her son or Hentrich are experiencing stems from a much larger, systemic weakness than simply education outcome or funding disparities and will not be overcome with limited public aid.
Rossmeier says, “A stock answer that I don’t think is untrue is the immense generational poverty in New Orleans that cannot strictly be overcome by education. Education helps people long-term, but that’s generational and does not solve the immediate problem for people living in poverty day-in and day-out, and the inherent stresses and anxiety that comes with it.”
If anything is certain over the direction of education and family outcomes in New Orleans, the city’s unshakable spirit and streak of perseverance faces its stiffest challenge yet. While policymakers try to ensure children from all backgrounds undergo a complete recovery to pre-pandemic education standards, teachers passionate about engaging their classes like Moore and Hentrich will be instrumental in helping guide students and families out of the abyss.
As Hentrich optimistically says, “Several teachers at my current school were working at McMain during Katrina. There are deep similarities where students weren’t getting the education they need because the city was wrecked- but we managed to get through it.”