A Year of Pandemic Learning at One New Orleans-Area School
Educators and families reflect on how they've coped with the challenges of COVID-19 and what lies ahead for their community.
Everything was falling into place for the school Claire Heckerman founded, Laureate Academy Charter School, at the start of 2020.
Laureate had only offered kindergarten and first grade when Heckerman (South Louisiana ‘11) founded it six years ago in Louisiana's West Bank neighborhood, just outside of New Orleans. Now it enrolled 400 students in grades K–6. It had just received a five-year renewal based on its strong performance. It had also earned a reputation as one of the community’s most promising schools.
Heckerman’s dream of expanding Laureate into a K–8 school was on the horizon. Then came COVID-19.
On March 13, a Friday, Gov. John Bel Edwards ordered all Louisiana schools to close indefinitely due to surging numbers of coronavirus cases. Heckerman and her team had only a weekend to set up remote learning and address other urgent, basic needs of Laureate students and their families. They knew that some of the families would face food insecurity, job loss, and the risk of eviction. Heckerman, who grew up in a financially-strapped, single-parent home, knew especially well what was at stake.
“People were really terrified,” she said. “We acted pretty immediately on that.”
Under Heckerman’s direction, the school sprung into action. Within 48 hours, they raised $10,000 to set up a food bank and provide rent assistance. By Wednesday, Laureate launched a YouTube channel of teachers’ uploaded daily lessons—a stopgap until the team could figure out more permanent plans for remote learning. And within a few days, they secured computers for every student to use at home.
But there wasn’t enough time for everything. Some students, such as sixth-grader Keila Jackson, never got to say goodbye to their teachers. “She ended up feeling just like there was no closure,” said Keisha Jackson, Keila’s mother. Keila still hasn’t returned to the school building.
Adjusting to Remote Schooling
March to August 2020
Each weekday, Keila Jackson sits on an ottoman at the coffee table in her family’s living room and logs onto her computer for school. Initially, at the start of the school year, she attended online classes from her bedroom. But when Keila’s grades began to slip in the first quarter, her mother wanted to be able to keep a closer eye on her and make sure she was attentive and taking well-organized notes.
With this setup, Keisha Jackson can monitor Keila—while resting on the nearby couch when necessary due to having lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease—and assist her with schoolwork. And Keila’s grades improved. “Now she's back to where she was,” Jackson said. “Now I'm more aware of the type of support that Keila needs at home. She's more aware of what is expected of her and she's doing excellent.”
Neither Keisha Jackson nor Keila expected to have to set up a remote learning station in the living room, let alone use it the entire school year. They thought that school would return to normal by Easter.
Leaders at Laureate also thought the school building would reopen by April. Then, they figured, maybe that would happen by the end of summer. But the pandemic—and measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 infections—continued. Eventually, infections leveled off, and local governments eased lockdown orders. Several schools in the West Bank area reopened for the 2020-2021 school year. But the Laureate building remained closed.
It was one of the most difficult decisions in Heckerman’s career as a school leader. Ultimately, she made the call to advocate to the board to continue virtual instruction when the new school year began because she knew that her staff had to be in a space to take care of the students. And although the Laureate community generally agreed that beginning the school year remotely was the right call, it was far from an easy adjustment.
Much like the Jacksons, the Calvin family had to adjust to remote learning. “I work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” Ashley Cavin said. “In the beginning, it was so hard trying to make sure everything was set up with school.” As a working mother, coordinating her life around remote learning was challenging and exhausting.
How Teachers Coped with the Switch to Remote Instruction
August to Mid-October 2020
Remote learning has been tough for teachers too. For Cecilia Dye (Greater New Orleans ‘18), a first grade teacher at Laureate, building new connections with parents and students over Zoom was challenging. It just wasn’t the same as engaging face-to-face. She was also troubled by the issue of equity in remote learning, knowing that not every guardian or parent was able to stay at home to supervise their child during virtual school.
“Teaching, in general, is so much easier in person,” she added. “Anybody would say that. Teaching online is just really challenging, but it also is safer.”
The adjustment to teaching online was also difficult for Jack Ullman (Greater New Orleans ‘18), the music teacher at Laureate. As a teacher, there’s always a need to be flexible, Ullman said. But this year has been especially challenging in that regard. “There's been lots and lots of changes this year,” he added. “Being flexible and rolling with the punches can be somewhat taxing, but it's also necessary so that we can provide the best and safest education for our students.”
The transition to distance learning led to greater demands on educators’ time. They were expected to quickly acclimate to new technology platforms and the need to plan, teach, and record lessons in multiple formats, said Olga Acosta Price, the director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools and an advocate for school-based mental health services. While disconnected from their students, many teachers lost out on the very thing they joined the profession for: witnessing the spark in a child as they learn something new.
Addressing Students’ Mental and Emotional Needs
The transition to remote learning was perhaps most challenging for Laureate’s students with disabilities who are eligible for individualized education programs.
The pandemic contributed to significant accessibility obstacles for the 7 million children who receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal special education law. The accommodations and services that must legally be provided to students with disabilities do not always translate well to remote learning. Many disability rights advocacy groups have expressed concern that students with disabilities are being left behind during virtual instruction.
Zach Fojtik (Greater New Orleans ‘14), the director of Laureate’s scholar support and a member of the school leadership, was mindful of all of this going into the first quarter. The school’s case managers worked closely with parents over the summer and essentially rewrote IEPs to ensure that students’ needs could be met virtually.
This included offering a modified schedule for students who needed additional time online with their teacher. The administration also offered the accommodation of in-person instruction in quarter one to a select few students who were unable to interface online.
“There's a big difference between what we did in the spring versus what we did in this semester,” Fojtik said. “We learned a lot based on what happened in the first pandemic period.”
Reflecting on the start of the pandemic reminded Heckerman of the instructions that flight attendants give about wearing oxygen masks during an emergency. The Laureate community was operating in crisis mode in these first few weeks of remote learning. “I had to put the mask on our teachers in order for them to be able to show up for their kids,” she said.
Eventually, as the pandemic and lockdowns continued, school officials had to reckon with a collective weariness as well as students’ mental health and emotional well-being.
The pandemic continues to have serious ramifications on the mental and emotional health of children and families. Students across the country are struggling to cope with the stress of the pandemic and the sustained loss of routine and normalcy at school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits for mental health emergencies among children and adolescents have soared since the start of the pandemic.
“Among students, we're seeing increases in anxiety, depression, worry, sadness over all the different losses and the traumas and the uncertainties that are facing families,” Price said.
At Laureate, supporting students’ mental and emotional needs started with constant dialogue with families to identify when students are struggling with grief, trauma, and anxiety and could benefit from counseling and support.
“We have very close relationships with our families and our kids. As things come up, because there's trust built, we are able to identify who needs what and then make that connection,” Heckerman said. “For example, knowing which kids' parents have had COVID—we've had a few grandparents pass away, too—and being able to connect them to external counselors or external support systems.”
This year, children have witnessed a global pandemic, civil unrest following the killing of George Floyd, and a deeply divisive and violent election cycle, among many other things.
"Scholars and staff were watching police brutality on repeat, seeing family members sick and sometimes dying, and most were completely isolated from their normal social networks," Heckerman said. "They didn't know how to process it all.”
Laureate’s teachers began to provide space for students, twice a day, to discuss what’s on their mind, process their emotions, and to help contextualize the news in age-appropriate ways. These conversations can range from casual chats about weekend plans and check-ins about students’ feelings to serious discussions of current events, depending on the events of the week.
But Heckerman and her leadership team acknowledge that Laureate still has room to improve when it comes to social-emotional learning. The pandemic has shined a light on this urgent need for growth. This led the school to hire a social-emotional specialist counselor starting the second half of the school year to provide one-on-one support to students who need it.
How Laureate Resumed In-Person Learning and Managed an Outbreak On-Campus
Mid-October to December 2020
In mid-October, the start of the second quarter, the Laureate leadership decided to reopen the school for in-person learning.
When Ashley Calvin got the news, she was initially conflicted about whether to enroll Marlee, her daughter. She knew how much children love to hug and interact with each other. Also, little was known at the time about how COVID-19 could affect children. But in-person schooling would better accommodate the work schedules for Ashley Calvin and her husband. Marlee would also be able to improve her social skills and thrive academically in person, Ashley Calvin said. In the end, the family decided Marlee would return to class in person.
The first day back in the physical classroom was the best moment of the entire school year, Marlee said. She was finally able to meet her new teacher, Ms. Raison, and classmates face-to-face, not just on the computer screen. And although it was difficult to adjust to wearing a mask all day, Marlee said she was much happier. “In-person makes it easier for me to comprehend things when Ms. Raison is teaching,” Marlee said. “I like it better because in person, we can do way more things. I can communicate with my friends.”
Laureate administrators offered a two-track model of instruction. One track offered students the opportunity to learn in-person five days a week—an option that about 70 percent of the school’s families chose. The remaining families opted to continue with remote learning. Keila, whose mother has lupus, is one of the students who has remained in remote classes.
Creating a safe and calm in-person learning environment for students and staff takes a lot of work behind the scenes. Everyone in the building wears a mask. Temperature checks are taken daily, children are spaced six feet apart as best as possible, and clear thresholds are used to determine when and how the school would close in the event of a positive case. There is no recess or after-school activities.
The teachers of Laureate’s youngest learners have taken additional precautions to keep students safe. For Dye, this means reminding her children to cover their noses with their masks and to keep a distance from their peers. “Getting 6-year-olds to wear their mask all day is no small feat for them and for me,” she said.
Even with those safety measures, it’s not possible to eliminate the risk of COVID-19 infections. At the end of October, Laureate had a confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus—a staff member had contracted the virus.
Laureate administrators enacted the school’s contingency plans. They closed the building for two weeks and required every employee to test negative for COVID-19 before they were allowed to return in person. No one else was infected, and the staff member who tested positive for COVID-19 has recovered, Heckerman said.
“Since then, we've had several exposures,” Heckerman said. “I've been a little obsessed with making sure the minute you feel sick, you go home and you work virtually if you have to. They have to have a negative test to return.”
Despite all the concerns around keeping students safe from COVID-19, many at Laureate felt that the trouble and risk were worth it to see happy, thriving students—and happier teachers, too.
“We as a leadership team expected a lot more anxiety, a lot more depression in students,” Fojtik said. “I think being back in person and being back with their friends really has helped a lot.
How the School is Preparing for the Long Haul of the Pandemic
January to March 2021
A year into the pandemic, the Laureate school community has generally come to accept that COVID-19 will remain a disruptive factor for the foreseeable future and has started to adjust accordingly.
Adjusting required settling in for the long haul and accepting the many bumps in the road to recovery. For example, the leadership team had to postpone launching its concurrent model—also known as hybrid synchronous learning, in which in-person and virtual students receive the same instruction in real time—by an entire month after closing the school due to rising cases in the community.
Though Laureate’s students were doing better than expected, standardized test scores indicated that students experienced some learning loss during the pandemic, Heckerman said, reflecting the national trend of the pandemic’s impact on student achievement.
“We expected to have some academic regression due to stresses of the pandemic and inconsistency it created,” Heckerman said. “But we are coming to terms with the fact that we will have to work harder than ever in the next few years to ensure the gap that has been created this year is closed.”
The administrators proposed the concurrent model in order to help students catch up academically after many months of disruptions, especially the school’s remote students who needed more live support. “Teachers and leaders worked together to create the most fluid system possible for teaching in this new way,” Heckerman said. “Although a month later it is still challenging, it is incredibly impressive how teachers have completely modified how they teach to ensure all scholars are reached.”
These shifts from in-person to remote and back again have certainly not been easy for anyone at Laurate. “We have transitioned between virtual, in-person, and hybrid learning so many times I have lost count,” Dye said. But although this year has been difficult, Dye said, it has solidified her love for teaching and strengthened the Laureate community.
The Laureate community remains resilient despite these challenges, said Fojtik, adding, “Our teachers, families, and community members will always do whatever it takes to make sure our scholars are the best they can be.”
For parents like Ashley Calvin, the leaders and educators of Laureate made an unbelievably difficult year “a lot less stressful” for her family. The school’s leadership remained professional, well-organized, and supportive throughout the past year, Calvin said, which eased her stress and worry for her daughter’s safety.
Although this year has been the most challenging of her career, Heckerman is hopeful. “We have learned a lot this year that we can use to make our school more effective in the future,” she said. Going into next year, the administration will incorporate smaller class sizes, utilize technology more effectively in the classroom, and will pay closer attention to the social-emotional needs of staff members and students.
“This year has challenged our community in great ways, but it has not broken us. We are a relentless group of educators that will not stop until every scholar is on track to the life of their dreams,” Heckerman added. “We are more determined than ever to build a school that our scholars deserve and to be the model for other schools as they traverse challenges.
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