Could Louisiana students' swift return to school campuses since COVID-19 be an advantage?
With two-thirds students back in school every day in Louisiana, a state not usually recognized as a leader in education is accomplishing something other states haven't, and leaders say that could give kids in the Bayou State an advantage going into next school year.
Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools across the state on March 13, 2020, and most public school students didn't have classes again until September. Some districts offered optional "learning opportunities" for students to complete at home, but with unequal access to devices and broadband, nothing was required.
As Louisiana school systems reopened last fall, some invited students back onto campus part-time, while others kicked off the year virtually.
One year later, 71% of students are back in schools for daily face-to-face instruction, according to the state Department of Education's online dashboard. The other 29% of Louisiana students are attending school in the hybrid model (9%) or fully virtually (20%), according to the state's tracker.
Louisiana's fully face-to-face percentage is among the highest in the nation, according to a joint venture between the American Enterprise Institute and Davidson College called the Return to Learn Tracker.
The national website is tracking how 8,500 school districts' instructional models change during the pandemic, and it puts the state at 63.2% of students fully face-to-face as of April 16, lower than Louisiana's internal tracker.
Even with the lower figure, only 13 states have a higher percentage of kids back on campuses at this time. In fact, just last month Louisiana was ranked seventh in the nation for the highest number of students participating in face-to-face learning.
Percentage of students at school fully in-person, according to the Return to Learn tracker April 16:
- Iowa 100%
- Florida 100%
- Missouri 81.9%
- Alabama 80.5%
- Ohio 79.9%
- Georgia 76.5%
- South Carolina 75%
- Nebraska 75%
- Texas 73.8%
- Arkansas 71.1%
- Kansas 70.9%
- Colorado 68.4%
- Alaska 64.1%
- Louisiana 63.2%
"Louisiana schools have been at the forefront of safely providing in-person instruction this entire school year," State Superintendent of Education Cade Brumley said.
"I look across the country and I see places trying to figure out how to keep kids safe and how to string together instruction. I think we've been successful at both of those, so I am thankful, while it hasn't been perfect."
'I think we will come out of this stronger'
Since Brumley became state superintendent last summer, he has publicly advocated for safely reopening schools and is proud that so many have returned to campuses.
"Having kids in our buildings and fully face-to-face is the best approach — and not just an academic approach, but social, emotional and those base-level needs like food," the state superintendent said.
He's not the only one. District leaders have voiced similar opinions throughout this school year. St. Landry Parish schools Superintendent Patrick Jenkins said in February that returning more children to schools is the "best opportunity for them to get high-quality education."
"Virtual learning is great, but nothing beats a teacher in a classroom face-to-face," Jenkins said.
Brumley anticipates seeing more students move to fully face-to-face instruction, which could mean academic and social benefits.
"We've done a good job keeping it between the lines and moving it forward," Brumley said. "Because of that I think we will be better off than other states throughout the country (next year). I think we will come out of this stronger, with lessons learned post-pandemic."
Louisiana students' return has attracted national attention
Brumley credits the "whole educational community" in Louisiana — teachers, staff, administrators and all stakeholders — for making it possible for students to return to schools safely and receive quality instruction no matter where they are.
"I would place our educational community up against any other because of their collective efforts to make this possible," Brumley said. "I'll put our model up against any in this country, and I will put our educators up against anyone in this country."
'We would be lost without it': Learning Centers at St. Landry schools fill gaps from COVID-19
Others are doing just that, taking note of what the Louisiana education community is doing.
Harvard University researchers with the Opportunity Insights project — a pandemic data tracker headed by economists at the Ivy League institution — found that Louisiana students had the greatest increase in math performance this spring, despite having the steepest drop in math after schools had been closed for six weeks last spring.
The tracker uses data from an academic app called Zearn that schools across Louisiana and other states have implemented. In spring 2020, Louisiana student performance in math fell more than 50% across the board. But in spring 2021, math performance was up 31% in Louisiana, compared to 10% nationally.
Such results prompted Zearn co-founder and CEO Shalinee Sharma to call Louisiana "a real bright spot" in an email to state education officials.
"No other state demonstrated higher gains in student progress for as many students as Louisiana did between May 2020 and March 2021," Sharma wrote.
'It speaks to our resilience'
Louisiana also was recognized by the U.S. Department of Education in its latest guidance on reopening schools, which highlighted Louisiana's statewide use of tutoring as an example of effective ways to address lost instructional time.
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The Louisiana Department of Education is encouraging tutoring for all students, recommending that it occur in high-dosages (at least 30 minutes three times per week) and providing comprehensive materials aligned to state academic standards through the Accelerate program, reads the federal "Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students' Needs."
Brumley and his team met with other leaders in the state to find ways to support implementation of tutoring across the state and then "built out" those tutoring resources, he said.
"I think it speaks to our resilience to see Harvard and the U.S. Department of Education citing the work of Louisiana educators as exemplars," the superintendent said.
Going forward, he remains a staunch advocate for full face-to-face instruction following any mitigation efforts necessary to maintaining safety.
"We will have to track this virus and watch that closely, but my hope is that we start next school year on time and fully face-to-face," Brumley said.
Contact children's issues reporter Leigh Guidry at Lguidry@theadvertiser.com or on Twitter @LeighGGuidry.