Pandemic changed meaning of normalcy for area schools

Staff Report

The continued drop in cases has prompted Iberville Parish School Board Superintendent Dr. Arthur Joffrion to take a big step in normalcy at the end of the school year.

Iberville Parish School Superintendent Dr. Arthur Joffrion

He plans to resume in-person graduation ceremonies one year after schools in the parish resorted to drive-thru ceremonies.

“We will likely do outdoor graduations just because the outdoor settings offer a healthier environment, and stadiums afford us more space to be able to have parents, grandparents and visitors,” Joffrion said Monday.

It’s a big step for the end of the most unusual year for the school system, when

“There was not much information about the coronavirus, and we didn’t know the impact it would have or affect us,” Joffrion said. “Originally, when we went on the first lockdown, everyone assumed it would be a quick, two-week issue and we would come back to normal.”

“Clearly now, we know that didn’t happen,” he said. “Here we are a year later in the new normal, check temperatures and wearing faces masks and socially distancing to the best of our ability.”

Instead of a forced two-week sabbatical, teachers and students were sidelined for nearly five months in Iberville Parish. They got the word in early May when Gov. John Bel Edwards announced that classes would not resume, amid high numbers that didn’t slack in April.

They returned in late August to a format unlike anything seen before in Iberville Parish or any other system across the state – and, possibly, the nation.

Some were hybrid, going to school a couple days a week and staying home for virtual learning the other days. Some parents opted to enroll their children only in the virtual format.

Not everything in the process was unknown, Joffrion said.

“The thing I already knew was that perhaps teachers are the most resilient people just because they were able to take everything that has been thrown their way and they found a way to do it,” he said. “We’ve always said teachers are perhaps the most important … it’s the most important profession and this pandemic reminded us of that because if parents are going to work, there has to be somewhere their children will be and where they’re children are safe and taken care of.”

Parents and teachers alike had to make adjustments, the superintendent said.

The primary mode of instruction has been traditionally face-to-face, but the pandemic changed the rules of the game.

“It challenged us to think outside of the box to meet the needs of our students, and we also have to take into consideration every parent’s comfort level,” Joffrion said. “We all had to offer something different for learning, and that resulted in the creation of the Iberville Virtual Learning Academy.”

School systems eventually grasped new techniques to keep education moving forward.

The priorities have also shifted during the pandemic.

“When we first started this, our first concern was what would children going to do for lunch and breakfast,” he said. “It’s amazing that employees, educators, custodians and everyone in the school system worried about the students before they worried about their own wellbeing. They knew education had to go on.”

The shift to Phase 3 and the continued drop in cases gives Joffrion and other parish officials hope that Iberville has seen the worst of the pandemic.

“Our hope is that some of our normalcy when schools reopen in August,” he said. “We’re hopeful that next year schools can go back to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, have more people vaccinated and perhaps not be so worried about being six feet apart from one another, having dividers in classrooms.

“Teachers, by nature, interact, and that requires close proximity,” Joffrion said. “Hopefully, some of our old pre-normalcy will come back.”

As he looks back on school life one year into the pandemic, Joffrion has little doubt the school system could have done some things better.

The uncertainty makes it hard to figure it out completely, he said.

“Hindsight is always 20/20., and there are things we could’ve done better, but given the circumstances with such little base knowledge, I think we made good sound decisions around returning,” Joffrion said. “We really stuck to the data and used that to help us drive decisions around schools, who’s virtual, and who’s face to face.

“It wasn’t perfect, but I’m extremely proud of all the school-based personnel and central office staff for work we’ve done, not only about shelter and safety, but also the social emotion of students while still providing quality instruction.”

The only certainty comes from what has become perhaps the most common message during the pandemic.

The school system will continue mitigation protocol until further notice – something that, in itself, has become a norm on campuses.

“Mitigation protocol is the one thing we will continue to stress” Joffrion said. “While we can see light at the end of the tunnel, we haven’t made it out yet, and we need to do our part to continue to stop the spread: Frequent handwashing, masks, social distancing. We still encourage that.”