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Without Internet, Distance Learning Will Be ‘Optional’ Or Impossible In Calcasieu Parish

Utility poles tilted sideways in Westlake, Louisiana on Sept. 1, 2020.
Utility poles tilted sideways in Westlake, Louisiana on Sept. 1, 2020.

School administrators were optimistic that a quick pivot to online learning could rescue the start of the school year in Southwest Louisiana, where Hurricane Laura hit late last month. Now, the region’s largest district has announced that virtual learning will be optional, citing a lack of internet access.

Put another way: attending school will be impossible for some students.

The conditions in Calcasieu Parish are extraordinary. The district itself is without internet and is therefore unable to distribute the 6,000 laptops it has on hand. At the same time, it's dealing with $300 million in storm repairs across more than 70 buildings.

Officials said that while they may be able to provide families with laptops and hotspots at a later date, for now, they’re on their own.

It isn’t uncommon for students to miss weeks and sometimes months of classes after natural disasters, and schools often shift their calendars to make up for lost time. Some families choose to temporarily enroll their children in another district or place them in a private school. For families with fewer resources, children often stay at home waiting for their schools to reopen while their parents try to educate them on their own.

After Hurricane Laura, districts in southwest Louisiana had a new option thanks to COVID-19 — online learning. But administrators soon realized the equity issues that have plagued virtual learning across the country are even more pronounced in a disaster zone.

As families have returned to the parish in the weeks since Laura, they’ve been surprised to discover that they are still without internet access and in some cases electricity. Some families have decided simply to stay away.

According to the district, 48 percent of families had not returned to the parish three weeks after Laura hit. In some parts of the region, 60 to 70 percent of homes were rendered uninhabitable during the storm, either by wind, water, or fallen trees.

A map displays displaced families from Calcasieu Parish public schools. Forty-eight percent of families had not returned to the parish three weeks after Hurricane Laura hit.
Credit Calcasieu Parish School Board
A map displays displaced families from Calcasieu Parish public schools. Forty-eight percent of families had not returned to the parish three weeks after Hurricane Laura hit.

The district has acknowledged that the best — and in some cases the only way — to reach students is by reopening physical schools. Before Hurricane Laura about 10 percent of the district’s 32,000 students did not have access to the internet. Now that figure has flipped.

Suddenlink, the region’s main internet provider, said late last week that 11 percent of customers impacted by Hurricane Laura currently have service.

Given the inaccessibility of online learning, the district said it's pushing to reopen physical school buildings as quickly as possible and hope to bring back 10 to 15 schools as early as next week.

The buildings won’t be perfect, but they’ll provide a place for children to go during the day where they can interact with their teachers and access basic services.

South Cameron High School on Thursday August 27, 2020. The Cameron Parish School Board has approved a plan for students to learn online through the end of the year. They plan to provide their 1,300 students with laptops and hotspots as needed.
South Cameron High School on Thursday August 27, 2020. The Cameron Parish School Board has approved a plan for students to learn online through the end of the year. They plan to provide their 1,300 students with laptops and hotspots as needed.

“Education, while it is so important, it becomes secondary to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” Calcasieu Parish School Board Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus said at a hearing before the Senate Education Committee last week.

The district’s student body is majority low-income and many students experienced food insecurity before the storm. Now they’re dealing with housing insecurity too.

“They need shelter, they need food,” Bruchhaus said. “We may be able to offer a little bit of that with the food and the cool air of an air conditioner if we can get them back in the building. That’s why we are going to work so hard to get them back.”

Rather than return students to the classroom based on need, in-person instruction will be determined by luck. If they remain in the district, students are required to attend the school they were enrolled in before Hurricane Laura hit.

“Because many families have limited internet and technology access, students will not be penalized for not completing assignments,” Calcasieu Parish School Board wrote in a statement Tuesday night. “When your child’s school opens, traditional academics will proceed, however, students that are unable to attend face-to-face will be allowed to continue with online learning for as long as necessary.”

Virtual learning will begin Sept. 28, when families have the ability to log on to a virtual learning platform called Odysseyware, the district said.

Students can continue with virtual learning even after their school reopens if they’re displaced or unable to attend physical classes due to COVID-19. Prior to Hurricane Laura, about a quarter of the district’s 32,000 students had elected to start the year virtually.

“Suddenlink infrastructure in Lake Charles experienced significant damage during Hurricane Laura, requiring much of our system to be rebuilt,” a Suddenlink representative said in an email. “Our crews have been working around the clock to assess damage and make the necessary repairs to bring our services back online as quickly as possible.”

Elected officials have criticized Suddenlink in recent days for insufficient action. While energy companies sent tens of thousands of employees from out of state to make necessary infrastructure repairs, Suddenlink had dispatched just hundreds.

According to the district’s restoration plan, all schools should be open before the end of October. But some families worry their children could be out of school for several more months if repairs take longer than expected.

Families consider whether to jump ship or stay put

Darren Spicer, his wife, and two children live in Lake Charles, where they’re still without electricity. Spicer said they’re in good shape compared to some of their neighbors. They have roof damage, but their house is safe to live in; they have a generator and internet access.

His children have the resources they need to participate in virtual learning, but Spicer said if the quality of instruction is the same as it was last spring he may pull them out and enroll them elsewhere.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, public school parents have the option to enroll their children in a different district following a natural disaster.

“It helps, don’t get me wrong,” Spicer said about virtual learning. “It’s better than zero. But to us, there’s really nothing that compares to having your kids physically at the school.”

Spicer’s 10-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son attend T.S. Cooley Elementary in Lake Charles and were supposed to return to the classroom just days before Laura hit. Almost a month later, T.S. Cooley does not have a reopening date.

Spicer said his kids haven’t had any real-time instruction since their school closed last March due to COVID-19. Instead, virtual learning consisted of links to lesson plans parents could complete with their children whenever they chose.

“It was difficult to keep them engaged, to say the least,” Spicer said. “I’m not a teacher … I don’t know the material or how the teachers went about teaching the material.”

Starting Monday, Spicer’s kids can learn using Odysseyware, a state-approved curriculum that offers courses in core subjects. According to the district, the lessons will be in a “preplanned video format … conducive for self-pacing.”

Students are expected to spend between 30 and 60 minutes per course each school day and will receive grades for the work they complete.

By ensuring that lessons are accessible at any time, it means students won’t have the option for real-time interaction with teachers and classmates until they physically return to school.

While Spicer’s family is in a position to give virtual learning another try, Gretta Mask’s family is in a more difficult situation. Their internet was already unreliable under the best of circumstances.

“Where we live off of Highway 90 in Lake Charles, our internet is kind of slow. That would be our only setback,” Mask said.

Right now, her family is sheltering in a New Orleans hotel. They plan to assess damages to their home later this week. Mask said her top priority is making sure her son, 16-year-old Caden Mask, can still play football.

Even if the family has to relocate to another part of the state, she plans to drive him to his high school in Iowa, Louisiana, where he can remain enrolled and eligible to play.

Caden said not being able to play football has been “very depressing.” On top of that, he’s worried about his academics.

“Virtual learning would be a challenge for me. I gotta have a teacher to learn,” Caden said. “That’s what I was kind of worried about with the end of school testing. I don’t know if I’ll be ready.”

Justin Clark, who teaches AP human geography in Calcasieu Parish, said many of his students are in a similar position and struggled to access the internet even before the storm.

“We did our [exam] review [last spring] in the best of situations when everybody had internet, everybody had electricity, everybody had their houses, and we still had trouble,” Clark said. “We had kids dropping off the call, dropping off because their internet was still not that great.”

Pop-up school offers children in-person instruction during virtual learning

Many teachers are also without internet access. According to the district, 72 percent of Calcasieu Parish public school teachers said they were ready to teach online, but with widespread internet outages, that number may actually be lower.

Clark’s wife, Kelly Clark, who is also a public school teacher, said when they responded to the district’s survey, they were sheltering in Houston, Texas, and had access to the internet. Now, back at home in Lake Charles, they do not.

She said it’s unclear what responsibilities she’ll have during virtual learning. Before Hurricane Laura, some teachers were designated to help with virtual learning for students who had decided not to return to school. She hasn’t been given instructions as to what she’ll be doing while all students are virtual.

While online instruction is the only official option while schools are repaired, teachers in Sulphur, Louisiana opened a pop-up school this week serving more than 350 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Andrea McFarlain, an AP English teacher at Sulphur High School serves as “co-principal” and teaches alongside 25 other teachers. She said attendance is staggered so that no more than 100 students are in the building at any given time. McFarlain said they can’t accommodate any more children and have had to turn families away.

The school is housed in a Knights of Columbus Hall. To cover rent, families are asked to contribute $10 a week. The finances are handled by a volunteer parent and not by the teachers.

McFarlain said the idea for a temporary school started as a joke among a group of teachers, some of whom were also trying to figure out what to do with their own kids.

“We just really felt like we needed to be teaching again and we knew our kids needed to be in school,” McFarlain said. Her son is a 12th-grader at Sulphur High and now attends her temporary school, which held its first day of classes on Monday.

“We're looking at this just as a supplement,” McFarlain said. “We're not trying to pretend that we're a regular school. We're not accredited. We won't be grading.”

McFarlain said their goal is to bridge the gap created first by the coronavirus and now by Hurricane Laura. Their goal is to continue operating the school until all participating children have the option to return to their actual school.

Copyright 2021 WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio. To see more, visit WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio.

Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.