No Cliffs-Notes for COVID-19

New state superintendent of education crams for his biggest test yet — reopening schools.
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Portraits by Greg Miles

“We can’t be naive to think that there isn’t learning that needs to be recovered, but systems don’t need to spend an entire year in remediation.”

One of COVID-19’s most punishing effects has been its profound disruption to school systems.

Questions over how to ensure safe schooling have only multiplied since students left campuses in mid-March with no certainty about when they might return. Those closures brought an abrupt shift to remote learning that worked well for some, but not others. As parents suddenly added home-schooling to their list of responsibilities, educators fought to keep students engaged, including many without technology resources.

As a new school year dawns, Louisiana’s recently appointed superintendent of education, Cade Brumley, is leading a massive operation to reopen schools across the state. In June — the same month Brumley joined the state department — the department released “Strong Start 2020: School Reopening Guidelines & Resources,” a road map for guiding districts through COVID-19 schooling scenarios. These guidelines include models for in-person, virtual and hybrid learning, as well as recommendations for face coverings, daily temperature checks and social distancing everywhere from school buses to classrooms.

In an interview with Biz New Orleans, Brumley discussed the tough assignment of getting back to school safely.


Louisiana Public School Student population

American Indian | 4,418 (.61%)
Asian | 11,508 (1.61%)
Black | 305,377 (42.63%)
Hispanic | 59,975 (8.37%)
Hawaiian/Pacific Islander | 630 (0.09%)
White | 313,911 (42.82%)
Multiple Races (non-Hispanic) | 20,597 (2.88%)

4.08% of Louisiana students have limited English proficiency

70.59% are economically disadvantaged

SOURCE: Louisiana Department of Education statistics as of Feb. 2020.


What were the guiding principles behind the Strong Start 2020 recommendations?

We released Strong Start 2020 after a ton of conversations with individuals who are experts on the virus — medical professionals — but also educators and school leaders who are experts on what it will look like to operationalize this guidance in a school system. The department of education in and of itself does not necessarily have the authority to mandate to local systems, but we do feel like everything in our plan is sound guidance for local school systems to follow.

We believe our schools need to be in operation. Now, what that looks like will depend on the virus, so we wanted to craft guidance that gave systems the ability to know how to operate under the different phases that the state might be in.
We wanted to avoid the political context around the virus but simply rely on what our trusted medical officials are saying about this virus and what we know about how to operationalize this on the ground in schools.

I do think it’s important that [Strong Start 2020] evolve because we’re going to learn more about this virus. We are just making decisions in real time based on the information we have.


Recent surveys of parents, teachers and community members in Jefferson and Orleans parishes revealed differing opinions on the best models for reopening. Will individual districts shape their own models?

I hope so. I’ve led a school system in north Louisiana [De Soto Parish] that was a smaller, more rural suburban system, and I’ve led Jefferson, which is the largest in the state in an urban setting in south Louisiana. They’re different school systems. And I encourage systems to get feedback from their communities to make decisions. The survey in Jefferson [showed] the overwhelming majority of people want there to be school in congregate, whereas a similar survey in Orleans [asked for] more of a hybrid or online model for students. So, the system has to take into consideration the feelings and the opinions of the community in which they serve. Our guidance provides a roadmap… but local school systems are working to make good decisions.


How does the pressure to let parents get back to work weigh on your decision making?

The American Academy of Pediatrics put out a report last week basically encouraging school systems to go back to school. It talks about the various reasons why — the social experience, learning loss, just a ton of different reasons. So that’s something that we looked at. Kids need to be in school for learning. Now, what school looks like — it could be in congregate form or hybrid or fully remote. It’s going to depend on the local setting. But in Louisiana we have so many parents that have to go to a physical job. They don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘OK, I’m going to stay home because my kids need to stay home.’ It’s a real problem for many parents in our state if schools are not in operation in the normal way because if they can’t go to work, then they’re unable to meet the demands they have. So, we certainly have to consider that with any decision that we make.


Do you foresee a great need for instructional recovery, or catching students up academically?

I’ve always been really concerned about summer learning loss. You have two months in the summer when kids aren’t at school, and that has a negative impact on students. Sadly, it has a more significant impact on students who can least tolerate that impact.

So, when we think about this situation where basically you have a double summer, we can’t be naive to think that there isn’t learning that needs to be recovered. But systems don’t need to spend an entire year in remediation. I think you have to remediate as quickly as you can, but then at some point, you have to make the conscious decision to jump to content that is on grade level. Because if you don’t by a certain point, then you’re just perpetuating this continuous cycle of remediation where students are not on grade level.

I think when school buildings were closed in March, you did see a wide variance in schools filling in gaps for kids and families. Some systems did that really well, others not as much, but I think that across the board, systems and educators learned a lot during the spring about how to do this in a better way. And I am confident, and frankly impressed, by a number of the innovative ways of thinking through education that I’ve seen over the last few weeks especially.


Did You Know? Louisiana’s Department of Education oversees 1,400 schools, educating a total of 716,416 public school students


Will schools offer before- or after-care options to help working parents?

That’s going to be a local [decision]. But, it’s important because the CARES money [federal aid to support schools through the pandemic] that school systems have already received can be utilized for before and after care, weekend programming, even summer programming. So, in Jefferson, for instance, I know that funds were set aside… to help provide for instructional recovery during the school year, which could include afterschool programs, weekend programs or the like.


Have districts made a greater effort to ensure that all students have access to technology needed for remote learning?

Without a doubt. I think that we will probably be in a place where on the first day of school… three quarters of our students will be one-to-one [with access to an internet-ready device] in the state.

I think you will see that number increase rapidly. Connectivity is a bit more of a challenge because some locations in the state — albeit very few — even if you could afford to connect, there’s not an option to connect. I know that schools throughout the state have really prioritized this to make sure that they are one-to-one for all of their students.


The Strong Start 2020 plan strongly recommends mask-wearing for third grade and up (including teachers and staff). What has the response been to this recommendation?

I mean, people have their thoughts and feelings around that, but I’m trying to base my opinion on what medical experts are telling me. And if you have a conversation with officials at the department of health or the experts at Ochsner or Children’s Hospital, these individuals are going to strongly urge you to have students in a face covering. So again, while we recognize that this is a political flashpoint, at the same time, it’s pretty clear for us. The medical experts are saying wear face coverings. So that’s why we included that in a recommendation.


What happens if parents object? Do individual schools or districts have the power to enforce a mask policy?

I think you treat it like a school uniform decision. Local school systems have rules around the color of a shirt, or if shorts or blue jeans can be worn. I think you have to enforce it in those ways if you make the choice that you’re mandating a face covering within your school system.


Prior to taking over this job you served as superintendent of schools in Jefferson Parish for two years. How did that role prepare you for this challenge?

I think I came into this role with some degree of credibility in terms of managing COVID-19 because I had been managing it for three months in the largest school system in the state.

We responded in Jefferson very aggressively and very early to concerns around COVID-19. I think we were one of the first systems, if not the first, to cancel field trips and assemblies. When the governor came in and closed school buildings on March 13, we took action immediately.

Within a matter of a few days, we stood up online resources for every grade level, which included resources for diverse learners, students with exceptionalities, gifted and talented, and language learners. But we also printed probably near 100,000 paper-based learning packets for students who did not have a device or access. We loaned out nearly 5,000 Chromebooks to students. We served probably 1 million lunches curbside in a grab-and-go setting. We opened up a homework-help line in multiple languages. We opened a mental health call center for individuals to have a trained mental health professional hear their concerns. We did a lot in Jefferson in a short period of time in very uncharted territory, and I think we did a good job.


As father to two school-age children, have you experienced this educational upheaval on a personal level?

Yep. I have two sons, and they attend public schools in Louisiana. So, every decision I’m making, I’m approaching it as a dad as well and thinking about how does this impact me? How does it impact my children? Because like every parent, I want my kids to be safe. But I also know, having had my boys home since the middle of March, it’s going to do them, and us, a lot of good if they can go back to a physical school.


Once we reach the other side of this crisis, what do you hope Louisiana’s educational system will have gained?

Over this next year, we’re going to see so many innovations develop, and I would encourage educators to keep their eyes and ears open for models that are developed for best practice and then steal those ideas and use them as their own because we’re all learning so much right now about how to educate in a global health pandemic.

Once we get beyond, or to some degree through COVID-19, there are some things that really matter to me.

I think that early childhood education is the greatest educational challenge we’ll face in our generation. I want to make sure that we do more to ensure that every child is on grade-level reading by the end of third grade. Studies will show a child who’s not on grade level by the end of third grade is [many] times more likely to be a high school dropout.

I think a renewed emphasis on career education, technical education, is important so that students are graduating from high school ready to go into a high-wage job. For students choosing the college route, this means looking at how we can expand dual enrollment options in our high schools that help make an authentic connection between our local colleges and universities and our high school students.

So, as far as student outcomes, those are some things that really matter to me. In terms of workforce, we have to invest in building up the teacher profession and then building capacity within aspiring school and system leaders.
I’m a Louisiana native, so I want nothing more than to see this state advance and to hear people talk about Louisiana in a new, more positive way, when we talk about educational outcomes.


State Performance Scores 2018/2019

State Letter Grade – B

District Performance Statewide (70 total districts):

A | 9 Districts: Ascension, Cameron, Lafourche, Plaquemines, Vermilion, Vernon, West Feliciana, Zachary Community School District, Central Community School District

B | 32 Districts

C | 23 Districts: including Orleans and Jefferson parishes

D | 5 Distrcits

F | 1 District: St. Helena Parish


SOURCE: Louisiana Department of Education – updated 2/12/2020.