School year opens on campuses, but mask mandate still required

Staff Report

Students across Iberville Parish public schools returned to class for the start of a school year that proved both different and, in some ways, similar to the last school year.

Plaquemine High School teacher Renita Whitaker speaks with her seventh-grade class during opening.

Buses rolled and students returned to campus for what Iberville Parish School Superintendent Dr. Arthur Joffrion deemed a very smooth opening day last Wednesday.

“Dr. Louis Voiron (Chief Academic Officer), supervisors and I were able to visit the majority of the schools yesterday and today, and everything was in place, the students were in classrooms, teachers were creating relationships, and everything went off without a hitch.”

And then there were masks.

School was set to start with “strong recommendations” – but no mandate – to wear face coverings.

But the rapid spike in new cases of coronavirus since early July prompted Gov. John Bel Edwards to reinstate the mask mandate in indoor public places for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated students.

Unlike last year, this year’s mandate requires masks for the Pre-K through third grade students.

Iberville Parish School Superintendent Dr. Arthur Joffrion

“Educators obviously had them, so it was not something that was challenging, but we do expect that with our youngest learners it will be a very difficult task to maintain all day,” Joffrion said. “Teachers do such an outstanding job working with students on those types of things.”

He classified the year as both “same and different.”

“Health and safety still utmost concern, now more than ever, paramount and at the forefront of all decisions we’re making,” Joffrion said. “But there’s less fear because it’s something now that has been around for what’s now our third school year where we’re dealing with COVID-19.

“As superintendent, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” he said. “We’re trying to have contingency plan, looking at each school and program individually, started monitoring numbers as far as who could not come to school due to exposure.”

Weekly testing may be an option, but the School Board has not yet made that decision, Joffrion said.

Even with the continuation of the COVID protocol, most students were happy to return to campus life after their experiences with remote learning.

For some students, the start of the 2021-22 school year marked the first time they rode a school bus and set foot on a campus since March 13, 2020, when Edwards imposed the executive order that closed schools at the start of the pandemic.

Everything from seeing friends to eating in the school lunchroom brought back the sense of familiarity for students.

“One of the things we were able to see and what some children expressed to us was that they were so excited to go back to the cafeteria because they had been taking meals out of the cafeteria, but they were super excited to see their friends and actually be able to have a meal in the cafeteria … that was exciting to see,” Joffrion said.

The school system took extra steps to make children feel welcome, including the lunches in the cafeteria.

“We had ground meat and spaghetti, broccoli and fruit for the meals on the first day, so we didn’t skimp,” Joffrion said. “We had homecooked meals, and not sandwiches in plastic bags.”  

As for busing, it had the usual first-week kinks with the routes, but nothing out of the ordinary, according to Kelcy Dotson, School Board Transportation Supervisor.

Bus drivers must also spray seats for disinfection after each route.

The masks may be the biggest challenge, Dotson said.

“It’s going to be tough just trying to get kids to keep their masks on,” he said. “They don’t like wearing them.”

The Pre-K and kindergarten students will be added to the bus route once they start school Monday.

The Iberville Virtual Learning Academy, meanwhile, remains available for parents who choose that option for their children.