We gathered a panel of local experts to guide us through the ever-changing landscape of today’s Covid-influenced education.
We spoke with Dr. Pat Blackwell, a licensed psychologist, Dr. Lauren Hernandez, a board-certified pediatrician, Ken Ducote, Ph.D and Exec. Director of the Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, and Kathryn Fitzpatrick, Ed.D, Head of St. Andrew’s Episcopal school.
With school starting, or already underway, parents are understandably confused by conflicting reports and changing scenarios. Our expert panel gives insight into the state of New Orleans education and education options during this time of COVID-19.
Everyday the “official” word on health and safety, education, school openings, team sports – and more – is changing. What hasn’t changed is the professional opinion of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). They concluded also that online learning is ineffective for most elementary-school and special needs children.
The current national and local consensus seems to be that wherever possible, younger students are best served by communal learning situations, with in-school, classroom settings, as they are not as prone to the ills of COVID-19. By the same token, older students (middle through college), can adjust to and benefit from distance learning.
Dr. Pat Blackwell is a licensed psychologist who has worked with families for over 30 years. She is a regular contributor to Nola Family magazine.
Coping during COVID
First things first: Don’t forget to take care of yourself when dealing with the stressors of the “new normal.” It’s important for parents to take care of themselves, especially when it comes to coping and avoiding default, negative coping mechanisms, such as drinking, eating or shopping too much, or complaining in front of their children.
“Children are watching us and they’re learning; that’s a big factor. Adults need to make a conscious decision to be as positive as possible. A whole cycle of negativity can start. Stressed kids stress parents, and then repeat the cycle. But you can re-calibrate and see how to make better choices. There are good days and bad.”
Virtual learning from home
Families have been living on top of each other for the past six months, with everyone working from home — parents with their jobs, and kids learning and also needing to be occupied during free time and summer.
“This can be very stressful and for families that aren’t able to plan and have someone to co-parent or switch off with, I’m finding it doesn’t work well.”
Parents need to remember that some children really struggle to learn virtually and if it’s not working for your child, getting angry won’t help. More than anything, simply make the best of the situation and get through this together as a family unit.
“It’s so important for families to plan times to relax together and tune into each other and support each other.”
For young children, this can mean playing together and not screen time. For the whole family, this means having at least one meal together daily – whether breakfast, lunch or dinner, where everyone is present and supportive. Evening walks together are another great way to bond. And family projects or games, like jigsaw puzzles and cooking together, are a great way to have the kids pitch in and feel productive and valued.
Relax the rules a little
Remember that distantly learning and being away from their friends is taking a toll on your children.
“The other thing I find that’s helpful is that parents relax their rules and expectations of how kids spend their time. Not to say anything goes – but maybe a loosen expectations a little regarding academic performance.”
Dr. Lauren Hernandez is a board-certified pediatrician and a founder of Sprout Pediatrics. She is the mother of three boys and has been consistently recognized as one of the top three pediatricians in the city for the past 5 years.
Is it healthy to return to school?
“There’s no one answer that fits all.”
Every family has a different situation and must balance the information that’s out there to determine what’s best for them. The AAP continues to advocate that children gain more from school than just education and it’s better for them to be back in the classroom for many reasons. These factors include learning social and emotional skills, getting healthy meals and exercise, and mental health support, whether a school counselor or their peers.
“I encourage parents to send their children back to school. But families still have fears about whether they’re making the right decision. Unless there’s an illness or underlying immunocompromised reason, I do recommend children go.”
What’s your latest experience?
“We have not seen any COVID-positive patients at our practice. But I am seeing a lot of anxiety and stress in kids coming in. There’s anger and frustration, (and problems) how they’re coping with not seeing their friends.”
There’s been a higher reliance on social media and kids of all ages being on their electronics. With social media, they seem to have a larger social circle, but it’s not real and that’s not a good thing. There’s also less carefree attitudes and more stress, more worry, and sleep problems among kids.
Across the board, we are advocating the best safety and social distancing protocols. All of our patients are told to wash their hands regularly, wear their masks, stay 3-to-6-feet apart.
“The pediatric journals are all saying evidence is showing that kids in general are less likely to get or have a severe illness, and ten years and under don’t shed, and ten years and over shed less than an adult would.”
Can we go back to the “old normal?”
Education has evolved over time and it works for a lot of reasons. We need to remember that children of all ages – even older ones and college age – want to be in the classroom and will be happy to get back. Overall, children learn better being present in a class and being shown things 3-D, not just on a screen, virtually. And being able to see their friends and having playtime is invaluable.
Advice for parents
“There are tons of viruses and always have been. I hope it’s handled and we get a vaccine or herd immunity soon.”
“Have an open mind and be flexible. Take it day-by-day, have quality time, and spend time with them. It’s all about flexibility.”
Ken Ducote, Ph.D., AICP, is the Executive Director of Greater New Orleans Collaborative of Charter Schools, a network of community-based charter schools across multiple Parishes that advocates to improve educational quality. He has been a local educator since 1971.
How has COVID-19 changed education?
“My immediate reaction when COVID-19 first started happening was Katrina.”
Hurricane Katrina did more to get New Orleanians into the electronic age than anything else. Everyone had to learn how to text and email, and then there were smartphones and ready information, so fewer people were watching the news and were relying more and more on the internet to stay up to date. These kinds of events cause people to shift out of necessity. And those things were good and convenient and we’ve just kept doing them.
“Nobody talked about our area code being 504 before Katrina. But while we were in exile, those shifts, the 504 now means a lot to us, and it’s a sense of home.”
And after Katrina, we also shifted educationally after being exposed to other systems in Dallas or Houston or elsewhere, with their new schools. People asked why couldn’t we have those things here, in New Orleans?
What is the “new normal” in education?
“There will be the same kind of thing now, we will see a shift in information delivery. We will see more distance learning as we’ve now tapped it. We’ve crossed the threshold of distance learning with Zoom learning, for instance. A generic example is we can offer kids, say, in St. Helena Parish, who want to take Arabic, they can take it over the internet from a teacher at the International School on Carondelet in New Orleans.”
There are different aspects of the “old” and the “new” normal. People have developed a taste now for distance learning and there are resources that they can use. These include Course Choice, through the Louisiana Believes site, where secondary education is provided outside the traditional school. This may cause schools that aren’t virtual to have virtual courses. And for the students, once you go virtual, it doesn’t matter where you’re taking a course. Think of the state effort to address this and extend this to what it would have been like 100 years ago with the push to offer telephone service across the state.
Also, we will see all sorts of possibilities in programming, on the one hand, and on the other hand, we will have the value of social things that mean something to us on campus. Things like marching bands and music, and what makes New Orleans culture special, just like the 504 means home.
Ty Salvant is the founder of NOLA Homeschoolers and mother of six children with over fourteen years of homeschool program experience that includes Classical Conversations, K12 LAVCA, and Young Scholars. She has a Psychology degree from UNO.
What are you telling families considering homeschooling?
“First, I tell them to take a deep breath. And to start logically thinking things out.”
It’s important for parents to decide if they’re looking to homeschool permanently, or if they simply want to do it for a year. If it’s just this year, then parents can contact their child’s school and find out what their child would be learning this year, and then teach them that. They can ask the school for the curriculum and lesson plans. In this way, their child can return next year and know the same things as their classmates, with no lag.
The Louisiana Believes website posts instructional resources by grade and Louisiana student standards. These are terrific resources for all parents – regardless of whether they’re homeschooling or not.
IXL is something that some schools use and that can be purchased by subscription. It’s personalized learning to meet the needs of each child. There is a comprehensive K-12 curriculum, individualized guidance, and real-time analytics. You can teach your child this for the year.
Homeschooling takes many forms
“You have to define education for yourself, and research your own educational philosophy. It’s especially important before you buy any curriculum.”
Among these, a classical program has a very defined ideology, with rote memorization, a lot of reading, and in some ways like a one-room schoolhouse. Then the Waldorf or Montessori methods put the emphasis on life skills through lessons, with habit formation and instilling good habits. And there are other kinds, and hybrid models.
“The hard part about homeschooling is the flexibility and the many decisions that have to be made.”
What child is best suited for homeschooling?
All kids are good candidates! Slower children can take their time, fast children can move quickly without waiting for others. ADHD kids can get the flexibility and activity that they need. Spectrum kids can perform very well without the stigma of being different or labeled differently.”
Kathryn Fitzpatrick, Ed.D., is Head of School of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School, with co-ed enrollment PK through 8th grade. She has been an educator for twenty-one years and has three sons.
What preparations have been made for opening this fall?
“St. Andrew’s opened on August 12. We took – and are taking – extraordinary measures to keep everyone safe, our students and our faculty. Everyone has skin in the game, with families at home.”
St. Andrews was open for camp this summer also during the months of June and July. No one was sick during the summer and it helped the school get into and finalize a routine for the fall, with everyone coming to school every day. Most of the campers were St. Andrew’s students, so the relationships were preserved.
There are full protocols in place for monitoring and reporting illnesses, including isolation procedures, masking, regular hand washing, and maintaining 6-feet apart. Since St. Andrews has one class per grade, each grade will be socially distanced from all others. If one person in a grade – teacher or student – tests COVID-positive, then the entire grade will quarantine and distantly learn from home.
How was distance learning this spring?
“Considering that we had no experience in distance learning, I think we’re in good shape heading into the fall. The parental feedback was positive.”
Will recess and PhysEd be conducted?
Social distancing will be strictly enforced, with children kept 6-feet apart. No masks will be required during physical activities. There will be no contact sports (soccer, football, lacrosse, basketball), but volleyball and kickball will be allowed. Any equipment will be sanitized between uses.
How do you see this year progressing?
“I’m really hopeful. We know this is going to end and I firmly believe we have a good possibility for a vaccine this spring.”
Nola Family Staff, August 26, 2020