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Ascension Parish students, educators navigate start of challenging year

Michael Tortorich
Students wear masks and sit at a distance at Bluff Middle School.

Ascension Parish students, educators, and school staff members have been settling into the new year, two weeks after an uncertain beginning due to the pandemic.

In his week-end update, Ascension Parish Schools Superintendent David Alexander said he has been “amazed by the commitment and determination of everyone.” Teachers have brought innovation to instruction that has included both in-person and virtual learning methods, he wrote. 

Parish schools have been “tightly aligned” with safety guidelines from the state Department of Health, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the state Department of Education, he added. Experts from the Our Lady of the Lake hospital system have been reviewing daily implementation of preventative guidelines. 

Even with the precautions in place, positive coronavirus cases have arisen among some of the district’s schools. Those cases have been announced by the schools’ principals, in an effort to be transparent.

SURVEY: EDUCATORS WANTED TO DELAY START

The Ascension Association of Educators, a local affiliate of the Louisiana Association of Educators, announced last week that a majority of members said face-to-face interaction with students should have been delayed. Instead, they expressed an interest in only virtual instruction until there is a significant reduction in the amount of cases in the parish.

AAE created and sent out a survey July 30 to gauge the thoughts of school employees. The survey was completed by 238 faculty and staff members from every job category and every grade level, AAE reported.

The top concern cited by 91 percent of respondents was “the health and safety of students, staff, and their families.”

Secondly, 39 percent were concerned about “adequate resources to execute the district plan safely.”

AAE members cited a variety of issues, such as the inability to maintain social distancing, students removing masks and not wearing them properly, irregular cleaning, insufficient supply of sanitizing products, and a lack of training and protective gear to use sanitizing products.

At the time of the survey, 13 percent felt safe and prepared to return to school Aug. 10. Of the respondents, 18 percent were 50 years old or older.

The most common answer for returning to school, with nearly 29 percent, was to go all virtual until the number of cases in the parish fell below the number when schools were closed in March. Another 25 percent preferred to go all virtual for at least the semester, 17 percent indicated they would choose to begin after Labor Day, and 14 percent thought the district should go virtual until no new cases in the parish for 14 straight days. Just seven percent felt safe and prepared to resume using the plan implemented.

TEACHERS, PARENTS REACT

After reaching out to parents and teachers via social media last week, most expressed positive sentiments about the first two weeks of school. Others had issues with the return.

A teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said faculty members were provided with one container of disinfectant wipes for the entire year and a small soap product. Many teachers have stayed late at school to deep-clean classrooms.

One of the parents, Tasha Salter, said her 15-year-old son has struggled with virtual learning.

“I can’t be there to monitor him all day to make sure he is on track,” Salter wrote.

She and other parents agreed that being at home comes with its share of distractions.

Ashley Singletary said her son has been on the hybrid schedule, going into school and also staying at home.

“He’s always loved school, and is doing great keeping up with everything,” she said. “The teachers have been excellent with making sure every child in his class has what they need and understanding the lessons before moving on.”

Her two younger children are attending school five days per week. She said it has been challenging for younger students to wear a mask all day and only be able to play freely at recess.

“I get why they have to do this, and I try explaining it to her. But at 8, she just doesn’t fully understand it’s for everyone’s best interests at the moment,” she said.

Shane Brignac, parent of a fourth-grader, said his son has been doing better academically and in conduct so far this year.

“Kids are resilient, and he’s taken all the changes in stride,” he said.

Jessee Simmons’ eighth-grader has been in blended learning.

“So far it has been fine, there’s been a few glitches. With everything being so unknown, we remain patient until they work out the kinks,” Simmons wrote.

Amanda Allen said her eighth-grader at Bluff Middle has been loving the mixing of time at school and at home. Though getting through the spring was tough, she said the new year has been great so far.

Jessie Fridge’s daughter, who is in middle school, has experienced some issues with Google Meet at times. She felt her daughter would get more out of school if she were in the classroom with the teacher.

Kimberly Stein said the return to school has brought a sense of normalcy for her two children, as well as for herself.

“Internet issues have been a little challenging, ours and the schools, but I think things are going well, all things considered,” Stein said.

Jean Kling has two sixth-graders at Dutchtown Middle.

“Overall, major improvements have been made since the end of the previous school year when all of this COVID stuff started. The kids are much more involved in their learning this year,” Kling said.

Vickie Auguste’s son is a senior who opted into virtual learning since he is eligible to graduate early.

“We have received two alerts from Dutchtown High informing us of a positive case. I know, it’s scary; however, I appreciate APSB for alerting us to such events,” she said.

Additionally, the family has received two alerts for Bullion Primary, where her younger daughter attends.

Karl Guillory, parent of two middle school students and two college students, expressed frustration with how the school year has gone. He said virtual learning has made it easier for students to cheat on tests and ignore their teachers.

Guillory pointed out parents aren’t able to completely monitor their children because most have to continue to work to pay their bills.

Leah Millet, a bus driver for the school district, said she has been pleased at how “prepared and meticulous” the system has been to ensure the safety of employees and students.

Meanwhile at Ascension Catholic School in Donaldsonville, parent Danielle Blouin has been extremely pleased with how the school has handled the safety guidelines.

“They are doing everything possible to keep our kids and staff healthy, as much as in their control,” Blouin said.

Jimbo Gravois, owner of Jump-N-Jive on Old Jefferson in Prairieville, said area students have been participating in a virtual school assistance program at the facility.

Gravois said it has been a way for the local business to help families in need while students are learning outside of school.

Jump-N-Jive opens at 7 a.m. to welcome students on school days. They sign-in to their computers, and are able to have some social interaction while completing their work.

"We have all the precautions that the schools have with physical distancing and temperature checks," Gravois said.

The program allows working parents to send their children to a learning environment where they won’t be without social interaction.

Rose Pichardo said her son, a freshman, surprised her with his reaction to returning to school. He put his hands on her shoulders and said something she never thought she would hear him say.

“Mom, I‘m so happy to be in school. In real school!” she quoted him as saying.