Report from Louisiana: Education Disparity during Covid Closure

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – One of the issues this pandemic has exposed has been the complete and utter lack of preparedness by education systems for such an event. Granted, nobody could have expected a nationwide shutdown of the economy and stay-at-home orders for weeks on end. But, in Louisiana at least, this is not completely without precedent. When Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, we dealt with extended school closures in specific areas of the state. The difference, of course, as far as education goes at least, is that those displaced students had other school systems still in operation where they could transfer. That is not the case now.

What has emerged is a patchwork of fixes and plans between school systems. Each district is working in different ways to educate their students and there is little uniformity between systems much less within each individual district.

The result is that some students are receiving an education and others are not. The Advocate reports on survey results by the state Department of Education:

Educators said the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a national digital divide that is especially jarring in a state like Louisiana, where about two-thirds of students — nearly 500,000 youngsters — live in low-income households.

When the shutdown order came, the school in which I teach, for example, was winding up Spring Break. We walked out of our classrooms that previous Friday fully expecting to return in ten days. My classroom right now is exactly as I left it on March 6.

School districts across the nation scrambled to enact a plan. Nobody knew how long we would be closed. Students did not leave the campus with textbooks, work packets, or technology.

In a Title I school, like mine, the problems are compounded by the fact that many of our students do not have home computers or Wi-Fi.  But, in another school across town, kids have Wi-Fi, strong parental support, and personal computers.  

What were districts to do? How can you level this field over night?

We did the best we could, I guess. We set up dates where students could come to the school and sign out Chromebooks if they needed technology, but that doesn’t solve the Wi-Fi problem. Some students were given copied work packets. We enacted a “do no harm” policy where students can be graded on the work they turn in, but can’t be given a zero for work they don’t do, and overall a student’s grade can not go down from what it was on March 6.

Is this ideal?  Nope. But what’s the answer?

And how do you prepare for something like this?

Some school districts across the country have set up mobile Wi-Fi hotspots in buses parked in the neighborhoods, but obviously this has not been a uniform practice.

According to the survey:

Officials in the East Baton Rouge Parish school district told the state that 55% of their students lack access to a laptop; Central, 50%; Jefferson Parish, 40%; Livingston Parish, 38%; St. John the Baptist Parish, 65%; West Baton Rouge Parish, 65%; and St. Landry Parish, 60%.

At the other end of the spectrum for students lacking laptops is Ascension Parish, 1%; Lafayette Parish, 20%; Orleans Parish, 20%; St. Bernard Parish , 15%; St. Charles Parish, 5%; Plaquemines Parish, 10% and Zachary, 0%.

The shortage is even worse in rural areas, where five mostly north Louisiana school districts say 75% or more of their students lack access to a laptop or tablet at home.

Governor Edwards is planning to begin to reopen Louisiana for business at the end of the week and will announce his plans during a press conference later today. He has cautioned residents to temper their expectations and notes that this will be a very gradual process.

One of the things we certainly must address in the near future is to develop some kind of emergency plan that does not contribute to the already huge disparities in our education systems. While it’s impossible to prepare for what you don’t know, it is possible, now that we DO know, to create some kind of contingency plan for our students.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and Twitter @paustin110.

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