Report from Louisiana: National Anxiety over Return to Schools

By: Pat Austin

As we begin to explore strategies to reopen school this fall, teachers across the country are experiencing anxiety about their own safety, that of their students, and that of their own families. It is an agonizing position.

Many teachers feel they must choose between their health, and the health of their family, or their career.

Teachers are collecting Lysol wipes, pricing room foggers for sanitation, and stockpiling gloves and masks. Some are collecting page protectors that can be sanitized and plastic pencil cases.

Let’s be clear. If we are talking about putting pencils in individual plastic boxes so nobody else touches them, if we are worried about getting Coronavirus from a pencil, we have already lost this debate.

This back-to-school debate has exploded since the President spoke last week and said that schools must reopen or risk losing funding. I’ve been reading one article and study after another all week long, and they keep on coming.

Districts across the country are trying to figure out how to do this safely. It is a Herculean and perhaps impossible task and I do not envy these decision makers.

What absolutely must be done is that each community must decide if opening school is safe for them; to do this there must be low community spread of the virus. Currently, Louisiana has a 97% community spread.  As of this writing, cases are climbing as are hospitalizations.

Across the country, it is estimated that at least one-fourth of our teachers are 50 years old or older. Many teachers are themselves in a high-risk group and many more live with someone who is. While teachers are worried about their students, we are also worried about the health and safety of our own families.

For some teachers, a return to the classroom would also mean self-quarantine from their elderly parents to avoid risk of exposing them as well.

And yes, it is true that essential workers have been on the job for months. But unlike a grocery cashier, a delivery driver, or even a doctor or nurse, a teacher will be confined in a classroom with 25 or more students every single day for at least seven hours. Many of these classrooms are in older buildings with poor ventilation and windows that cannot be opened.

We are looking at returning to school with daily temperature checks of students and staff, seven hours in face masks, and a barrage of cleaning chemicals and heavy sanitation measures. Students will have to keep six feet apart (maybe three feet with masks, but I’d prefer six), there can be no sharing of materials like pencils or Chomebooks (what about library books?). Hand washing has been recommended every two hours. How many portable hand washing stations will that mean for a school with 1200 students or more?

And  all that hand washing goes right out the window once the kid pulls out his cellphone, doesn’t it?

It’s all very dystopian.

We can’t let our overwhelming desire for a normal return cloud our better judgement for safety of all of us.

Teachers across the country have come up with some sensible strategies, and while they are not always easy to do, some of them make sense, like keeping upper grades virtual for nine weeks, or until this is under control, and using our buildings and classrooms for lower grades where kids are less at risk, and for kids needing special services. This would enable classes to be quite small and spread out.

Teachers have a lot of questions and here are just a few of mine:

1. Who is going to wipe down my room between classes every day? Where will all of these disinfectant wipes come from? I haven’t seen any since March. Will we use bleach? How will this affect kids with asthma?

2. Will my classes truly be 10 to 15 students? I normally have 25 or more and we are literally on top of each other in my small room.

3.  Under our proposed Phase 2 hybrid model students will be on an A/B schedule and attend every other Friday. If little Johnny shows up on the wrong Friday, are we sending him home? Keeping him? In class? Who will watch him?

4.  Will there be an isolation room for kids with fever or symptoms to stay until a parent comes to get them?

5. Will there be daily temperature checks? At the front door or in homeroom? Once an infected person is in the building, what’s the point? By the time he gets to homeroom he will have exposed many other people.

6. Who will be quarantined if there is a positive case of COVID-19 in a classroom? For how long?

7. If students have to eat lunch in the classroom, masks will be off and there will be much talking; exposure will still be high. When will the teacher get a break?

8. When the inevitable teacher shortage comes due to early retirements and illness, where will all of the subs come from? Subs are often in high risk categories themselves.

9. Will teachers be required to cover classes when there are no subs?

10.  If masks are required, what of the student who shows up without one, wears it improperly, refuses to wear it, takes it off, shoots it across the room, wears a bra cup on his face instead of a mask, etc. Are we to be mask police, too?

11. What will be done to improve ventilation in classrooms with windows sealed shut?

12. How do we ensure students are washing hands every two hours as the CDC guidelines, and the Louisiana Strong Start guidelines suggest? Will there be handwashing stations throughout the schools? Hand sanitizer stations?

13.  Will schools be provided extra personnel to manage all of this?

I feel like I work at the absolute best high school in the world and I work for the best administrators ever born — no doubt. And our students? They are solid gold; they are loving, kind, wonderful kids and we all feel like family. I want normal school. Don’t be confused. I want normal school. I want to look my students in the eyes, I want to be able to tell if they are okay, and I want to help them when they need me to. I want to keep that crate of snacks for the hungry ones, and I want explain a concept in class so that everyone understands what we are learning and why. I love my kids. I love the hugs in the hall, the high-fives, the ones that come stop in on their way to the bathroom or office just to say hi.

School gives me joy. But how can we have that if we are worried about dying from a pencil?

How?

Here is a short list of some of the things I’ve been reading this week; it’s not homework, you don’t have to read them. But I decided I wanted to collect them in one place, so here they are.

Further Reading:

I Don’t Want to go Back: Many Teachers Are Fearful and Angry over Pressure to Return. (New York Times, 7/11/2020).

“Teachers say crucial questions about how schools will stay clean, keep students physically distanced and prevent further spread of the virus have not been answered. And they feel that their own lives, and those of the family members they come home to, are at stake.”

E-Learning is Inevitable for US High Schools Next Year (Medium, 7/10/2020)

“However, the only way to eliminate the risk of transmission during in-person school would be to know with certainty that no one who enters the building is COVID-19 positive. Unless schools can accurately test every person who enters the building every day with real-time results, the spread of COVID-19 in schools will occur and that type of real-time accurate testing capacity will not be possible by this fall for any school let alone all schools.”

Epidemiologist: Schools Can Open Safely, and Here’s How. (Sherman, TX Herald Democrat, 7/11/2020)

“The focus should be on protecting teachers. It begins with a robust testing program, so they feel safe in the classroom. We know that uncertainty about one’s health and the health of others makes it difficult to feel confident enough to return to work.”

No One Wins, but No One Dies: What School Must Look Like… (The Suitcase Scholar, 7/9/2020)

Because no matter how much you want this school year to look like any other school year, it can not and it will not. If we want to accomplish all three of these goals, here’s how it can be done…

How to Reopen Schools: What Science and Other Countries Teach Us (New York Times, 7/11/2020)

“As school districts across the United States consider whether and how to restart in-person classes, their challenge is complicated by a pair of fundamental uncertainties: No nation has tried to send children back to school with the virus raging at levels like America’s, and the scientific research about transmission in classrooms is limited.”

Nobody Asked Me: A Teacher’s Opinion on School Reopening (Teacher Life Blog, 7/9/2020)

“Remote learning isn’t most people’s first choice, but it is a safer solution in the meantime, while we figure out this global health crisis. It is also hard to imagine how much learning would be taking place in the classroom anyway after they wait in their 75 foot long lines to wash their hands for 20 seconds multiple times a day. School days are already crammed full and now we will be adding in disinfecting constantly, monitoring for symptoms, sending kids to “quarantine”, trying to get ahold of parents, dealing with masks, giving “mask breaks”, etc.”

Study of School Reopening Models and Implementation Approaches During the Covid-19 Pandemic (Covid-19 Literature Report Team whitepaper PDF, 7/6/2020)

“This document is a brief summary of the models and implementation approaches to re-opening schools that focuses on the approaches used in 15 countries for which we were able to identify data.”

One in Four Teachers at Greater Risk from Coronavirus (CNN, 7/10/2020)

“Nearly 1.5 million teachers are at higher risk of serious illness if they contract coronavirus, according to an analysis released Friday evening. These teachers and instructors, about 24% of the total, suffer from health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease or obesity, or are older than age 65, which make them more vulnerable, the Kaiser Family Foundation report found.”

These Arizona Teachers Shared a Classroom for Summer School: All 3 contracted Covid-19, 1 died. (USA Today, 7/10/2020)

“The educators decided to teach virtually while together in the same classroom, but took what they thought were extensive measures: They wore masks, they disinfected equipment and kept distance between each other.”

The Case Against Reopening Schools During the Pandemic: by a Fifth Grade Teacher (Washington Post, 7/10/2020)

“Safety is the prerequisite for all learning. Ordinarily, we offer hugs and reassurance when a child is upset. We encourage students to walk their peers to the nurse’s office when they get injured on the playing field. We give high-fives and pats on the back when students achieve their goals. We provide private spaces for students to share confidential information, or to de-escalate from distress. In a social-distancing school setting, everything is inverted. Closeness and warmth are now dangerous. Students and teachers must remain hypervigilant, watching for face mask violations, friends too near, an uncovered cough, unwashed hands, and unsanitized surfaces.”

Nation’s Pediatricians Walk Back Support for In-Person School (NPR, 7/10/2020)

“The American Academy of Pediatrics once again plunged into the growing debate over school reopening with a strong new statement Friday, making clear that while in-person school provides crucial benefits to children, “Public health agencies must make recommendations based on evidence, not politics.” The statement also said that “science and community circumstances must guide decision-making.”

Covid-19 is as Deadly and Dangerous as Ever. (Medium, 7/8/2020)

“The idea that Covid-19 is becoming less dangerous or deadly is false, the latest data reveals. “The virus is as lethal as ever,” researchers at the Harvard Global Health Institute said in a statement. “Deaths and hospitalizations are rising in hot spots around the country. Exactly as public health experts feared.”

Mounting Evidence Suggests Coronavirus is Airborne–but Health Advice has not Caught Up. (Scientific American, 7/8/2020)

“Converging lines of evidence indicate that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic, can pass from person to person in tiny droplets called aerosols that waft through the air and accumulate over time. After months of debate about whether people can transmit the virus through exhaled air, there is growing concern among scientists about this transmission route.”

Large Antibody Study Adds to Evidence Herd Immunity to Covid-19 is Unachievable (FOX-17, “Nashville, 7/6/2020)

To achieve what epidemiologists call herd immunity, mathematical modelers suggest at least between 60% and 70% of people would need to be immune to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. According to the Mayo Clinic, there are two paths to herd immunity for COVID-19: vaccines and infection. Vaccines would be the ideal approach, though experts say its effects can wane over time. Another path would be infection, but there’s much still unknown about COVID-19, including if having the virus makes a person immune to future infection.”

Spike in Cornavirus Cases Means some Schools Won’t Open at all this Fall (EdSource, 7/10/2020)

“As coronavirus cases spike across California, some school districts are making the decision to keep campuses closed to most students and to educate them online next school year. Districts in Los Angeles County, which has more coronavirus cases than any county in the state, are preparing for the possibility of classes being completely online at the start of the school year. In neighboring San Bernardino County, its school district this week announced classes would resume next month online.”

I’m an Epidemiologist and a dad: Here’s Why I think schools should Reopen (Vox, 7/9/2020)

The same will likely be true in schools. The potential risk to teachers, therefore, goes beyond the classroom. Staff risk in schools likely looks similar to the risk of any adult working in a crowded indoor environment during the pandemic. School opening plans must consider teacher safety in addition to the well-being of students.

Report from Louisiana: Opening School

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – We are about five weeks from opening school in Louisiana, and teachers are beginning to get anxious. Certainly parents and students are as well, but teachers are natural planners and we like to know the lay of the land with as much advance notice as possible.

Districts across the nation have started releasing tentative plans, but we all know that could change on a dime. Most look like hybrid plans – part virtual school, part in-person. There are also all-virtual options for parents who don’t feel comfortable sending their kids back to school just yet.

I see a lot of concern about masks; both teachers and students are generally going to be expected to wear masks to school. I see lots of concern about social distancing, about number of students in a classroom, and about spacing kids out on the bus.

What I don’t see a lot of is concern for the teacher. In discussion threads I’ve been reading, many parents can’t wait to get their kids back to school, for a variety of reasons, and many seem comfortable that their kids will be safe. After all, it’s older folks who are mostly catching COVID-19, not young kids. We haven’t seen a lot of outbreaks in day care centers, I’m told.

Teachers across the country have a great deal of anxiety about returning to the classroom. There are a great many teachers near retirement age, or that are currently eligible to retire but just haven’t wanted to. These are the teachers expressing the most concern right now; many of us are caring for elderly family members or are in an at-risk group ourselves. Some of us live with immunocompromised people. So yes, we are invested in being certain that school opens safely.

From ABC News:

Some teachers around the country say they are nervous about returning because of underlying health conditions or concerns about infecting family members. Others say they are frustrated by the lack of clear guidance from officials about what’s safe. And for some, it’s about child care if their own kids are only back at school for a handful of days during the week.

The result is an inevitable clash between leaders pushing aggressive reopening policies in states like Texas and Florida and teachers, some of whom say local officials need to think more about what they are asking teachers to do.

There is so much conflicting information, it is difficult to believe anything or to truly know what is safe and what isn’t. After months of social distancing and stay at home orders, how can we just return to school with any degree of certainty that things will be safe?

Overall, a combined 54 percent of American voters said they are somewhat uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with reopening K-12 schools for the beginning of the coming school year, according to the latest POLITICO/Morning Consult poll that assessed the nation’s mood about students returning to day cares and schools shut down by the pandemic.

Some districts are offering either virtual learning or in-person learning that “almost totally” disregards CDC guidelines because social distancing won’t be possible and students might not be wearing masks, said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of a school superintendents association.

“A lot of states along the Southern belt are just planning to move ahead with, all students, all come, and to me, that is going to be a horror,” he said.

And on the issue of masks, many school districts are recommending them but can’t mandate them unless they supply them. Or can they? How is it different than a mandated dress code? And what if a student refuses? What about students with asthma or other concerns?

So many unknowns.

And yes, we still have a few weeks. Things can change very quickly as we all know.

But I worry.

I worry about bring this virus into my home. I worry about getting sick, myself. I worry about exposing so many more people to the virus by opening schools and all that brings.  So many surfaces to clean! Where will all those Lysol wipes come from!? This is certainly a logistical nightmare for district decision-makers on so many levels.

What are your thoughts on the new school year? Would you be comfortable sending your kids into a public school in five weeks?

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.

Report from Louisiana: Protests

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Are people protesting where you live?  I know many cities across the nation are dealing with protests, some peaceful, some not so much.

In Shreveport, there have been protests and marches every weekend since the George Floyd incident exploded in the media. The focus of the protest this weekend seemed to center around the Confederate monument which stands in front of the courthouse. This is not news. The monument has been in litigation between the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the parish administration for years now. There is, in fact, another court date tomorrow. The protesters are angry that the monument is still there and want to see it moved to another location. Plenty of them want it simply destroyed.

I have not seen my city more racially divided since 1988 when riots erupted across Shreveport which drew national attention at the time.

Protesters gathered on the courthouse lawn Saturday and paced back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse bearing large, heavy guns.  Counter-protesters in support of the monument gathered on the sidewalk across the street, also heavily armed. No weapons are allowed on courthouse grounds, of course, and so those with the weapons stayed on the sidewalk while others took turns taking the microphone to speak or share their latest musical endeavor. Club music played over the PA between speakers. For the most part, it was a peaceful demonstration although there were reportedly a couple of arrests and verbal altercations between the two sides.

As photographs of the day, and live video streaming, began to filter onto social media, people expressed outrage and concern at the large number of heavy weapons on both sides.

One car backfire on Texas Street could have turned the whole thing into a very ugly scene.

On the other hand, Louisiana is an open carry state and so as long as your AR15 is visible, it’s just fine to carry it around in public.

The BLM group has vowed to be on the courthouse lawn every Saturday until the monument is removed. As long as they have a permit, they have the right to do this.

All eyes right now will be on the court action tomorrow. The case on the Confederate monument has been in litigation for years, even up to the US Supreme Court (which declined to hear the case); the UDC and the parish are currently using different legal angles and paths to continue fighting in the courts.

Both sides of the issue vow to be in the courtroom tomorrow – this time without the weaponry.

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.

Report from Louisiana: More Protests

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Everyone is talking about statues again, and not just Confederate ones.

Now the Theodore Roosevelt statue will be removed from the Museum of Natural History:

The bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt, on horseback and flanked by a Native American man and an African man, which has presided over the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York since 1940, is coming down.

The decision, proposed by the museum and agreed to by New York City, which owns the building and property, came after years of objections from activists and at a time when the killing of George Floyd has initiated an urgent nationwide conversation about racism.

For many, the equestrian statue at the museum’s Central Park West entrance has come to symbolize a painful legacy of colonial expansion and racial discrimination.

This is becoming epidemic.

They aren’t stopping at just monuments. At LSU in Baton Rouge, the Middleton Library is being renamed, and Troy Middleton’s name removed from the exterior of the building after a dig through archives determined Middleton held segregationist views in the 1950s.

Lee High School is Baton Rouge is going to be renamed. The school board member who opposed the motion is being targeted as a racist.

Activist Gary Chambers is also calling for street names with Confederate names to be changed:

Chambers, who is publisher of The Rouge Collection, also repeated his call that streets near Lee High, several of them named after Confederate generals, be renamed. “There’s even a street named Whitehaven,” he said.

One of the groups behind the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans, Take ‘Em Down NOLA, has a list of sites they want renamed which they published in 2017. Their website now also calls for abolishing the police:

In this moment of global reconciliation with age old truths around systemic racism, Take Em Down NOLA demands that the city government finally begin the real work of reckoning with the WHOLE truth of white supremacy in New Orleans. They can start with the immediate removal of ALL symbols to white supremacy, including those that represent figures both before and after the Civil War. And they can move further by taking steps towards the abolition of the NOPD by DEFUNDING them (as they currently expropriate some two-thirds of taxpayers’ money) and PROACTIVELY reallocating those funds to children and families and the development of jobs that pay a LIVING wage. Minimum wage has never been sufficient, and it certainly isn’t now. 

There is apparently no compromise and no room for discussion with radical extreme points of view – from either direction.

In Shreveport this past weekend, we have seen one demonstration after another; they have been peaceful, but have not been without conflict. Shreveport’s Confederate monument is still standing in front of the courthouse; the monument stands within a fence on a tiny parcel of land owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy – although this is still in litigation. During the protest this weekend, one of the participants climbed over the iron fence with a sledgehammer and posed for photos with the caption “Move it or Lose It!” 

No harm was actually done, but the threat was made, and the person was trespassing on private property. Whether that land is actually owned by the UDC or not, the monument certainly is, and so: trespassing.

The Dallas, Texas Confederate monument is being dismantled as I type this.

At any rate, there is no end to this, and when all the monuments are gone, when all the school names and street names have been changed, when every single symbol is erased, will people then stop having racial bias? Will that do it?

When does it end? What does it take?

I don’t think anyone has the answer to that.

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.

Report from Louisiana: Into the Mighty Mississippi

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – The issue of monuments persists.

John Ruberry asked in this space, “Where does it all end?”  I’ve been asking myself this question for several years now as we fight in Shreveport to save our Confederate monument. Perceived symbolism aside, our monument is a beautiful work of sculpture in its own right, and fairly unique among other Confederate monuments.

The unhinged left continues to destroy and deface monuments and it seems that logic and reason has gone further and further out the window. All that matters now is that the target is a monument, never mind what it stands for.

In New Orleans this weekend, protesters attacked a bust of John McDonough (1779-1850) in front of City Hall. Armed with a chisel and a skateboard, they tore the bust off its pedestal and tossed it into the Mississippi River:

A group of protesters used a chisel, rope and a skateboard to tear down the bust of John McDonough in Duncan Plaza, doused it in brightly colored paint and rolled it into the Mississippi River on Saturday.

The New Orleans Police Department said at 5:30 p.m. that two people who drove the bust to Jax Brewery to dump it in the river were “apprehended and transported to NOPD headquarters.” Protesters began gathering at the jail near Tulane Avenue and South Broad Street known as the Orleans Justice Center and there were roughly 200 there by 7 p.m.

Their grievance seems to be that McDonough owned slaves.

While McDonough wasn’t a saint, he did leave his fortune to Baltimore and New Orleans for the purpose of forming schools for poor black and white children.

Two of those who attacked the monument have been arrested.

In Kentucky, armed residents formed a line of protection around their Confederate monument against potential attackers.

Nancy Pelosi has called for the removal of eleven statues from Statuary Hall at the Capitol Building. While her letter does no specify which eleven statues, she does specifically mention Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens who served as President and Vice-President of the Confederacy.

Louisiana’s two statues there include Huey P. Long and Edward Douglas White. White was a U.S. Senator and a Chief Justice of the United States, but he also served as a soldier in the Confederacy. Is she targeting this statue as well? It’s not clear.

But again, you see the problem? Where does this end? We can remove monuments, relocate statues, throw busts into the Mississippi, but where does it end? Who gets to decide which ones go? Under whose sensibilities are we all to live? Whose rights take precedence over any others?

Honestly it makes me crazy. I want to wash my hands of all of it and live on a houseboat in the Atchafalaya Basin.

We need to find our way back to reason and learn to get along. Mind our own business. Find a balance. Enough.

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.

Report from Louisiana: Six Feet

By: Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – It does seem like COVID-19 is on the back burner now; with the riots and the protests, nobody is really worried about catching a virus anymore. That whole thing about “groups smaller than ten” and “groups smaller than fifty” sort of vanished.

Here, in Shreveport, we have seen several protests downtown, but they have been peaceful. Saturday, hundreds, maybe over a thousand people, marched through downtown while at the same time the ladies from the United Daughters of the Confederacy held their annual observation of Confederate Memorial Day at the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse. No words were exchanged at all, just everyone practicing their own Constitutional rights.

From a “man on the street” level, it seems that people are just “over” this virus business. Very few of the protesters wore masks and they were by far closer than six feet from each other.

Meanwhile, Governor John Bel Edwards (D) is doing his best to keep his thumb on his people. His restrictions for Phase Two reopening have raised a few eyebrows.

While he has allowed restaurants to reopen, for example, they have moved from 25% occupancy in Phase One to 50% occupancy in Phase Two. Live music is not authorized and dancing is forbidden. (But protests with hundreds of people are okay).

Casinos can reopen, although one of our casinos closed for good during the quarantine. Employees must wear masks but patrons don’t have to. What? One of our casinos has already reported a small Covid outbreak among employees.

Swimming pools can reopen as long as people remain six feet apart.

Apparently the only place that six feet apart rule does not apply is a mass protest in city streets.

There is no guidance whatsoever on the opening of school in August at this time. It is as if nobody needs to make plans or adjustments for this kind of thing. While the CDC has released some initial guidelines for schools, it is unclear whether this applies to schools currently open or if those guidelines are meant for schools opening in the fall. Either way, the guidelines are ridiculously impossible for the most part.

One of those guidelines includes students keeping six feet apart from each other in class and in hallways, which should all be one direction only.

I fail to see the logic in any of it.

If we are so worried about keeping people protected, how are we condoning these protests where all rules, ALL rules, are excluded?

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.

Report from Louisiana: Phase 2

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – Louisiana is expecting news today from Governor John Bel Edwards regarding moving into Phase 2 and reopening the state.

Whatever else this pandemic has been, it has certainly been the cause for many businesses and restaurants to close permanently. Maybe they were already on the brink of closure and Covid just pushed them over the edge—I don’t know. It seems now that people are just “over it.” I’m seeing fewer people wearing masks than I did a week or two ago. The rioters and looters on my television aren’t wearing masks, either, for the most part.

Louisiana State University has released their plans for reopening the college for the fall semester; plans include social distancing, increased sanitation measures, and random testing of the campus population:

Random testing between 10 and 16 percent of the populations of all LSU System campuses statewide for COVID-19 this fall. Participants would be selected randomly from lists of students and employees, and those selected would be encouraged to participate in the testing, although, not required. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 would be interviewed in an effort to determine who they have been with recently so that accurate contact tracing can be achieved. Every effort would be made to locate and test anyone believed to have been exposed. The goal of this plan is to determine the incidence of the virus on LSU’s campuses and to locate and mitigate any possible clusters of the virus.

The public school system in which I work has not yet released any specific plans, but the discussions sound much like everything else with social distancing and increased sanitation. I’m having a hard time envisioning my 15 and 16 year old students practicing social distancing in the hallways and the very small classrooms. On our campus there is just not a lot of room to spread out classes to keep kids six feet apart or have smaller classes.

Will they have to wear masks? Will I have to teach theme, symbolism, and literary analysis through a mask?

It is hard to imagine.

I have seen discussion in neighborhood social media groups with parents who will opt to home school rather than send kids back to “an environment of fear.” So be it.  That, too, will be interesting to monitor. For example, mine is a Title 1 school in a high poverty neighborhood and not many parents are interested in home schooling their kids. That is not to say none will or that all of our kids are in poverty; that’s not the case. There is a high percentage that are and many struggle just to have regular meals.

The virus numbers do seem to be leveling off, but our challenges are not.

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.

Report from Louisiana: Closing the Classroom

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – I went up to do my end-of-the-year cleanout in my classroom this week.  It was incredibly sad.

On a Friday morning at 10:30, second block should have been winding to a close and kids should have been anxiously waiting for the lunch bell at 10:40. The mid-day announcements would be coming over the intercom.

By the time I left, about 11:00, there should have been kids in the halls, duty teachers monitoring those kids, microwaves across campus warming up teacher lunches. The office should have been bustling, Mrs. Kiper, the secretary, laughing and lobbing wise cracks with kids and administrators. The library should have been filled with kids using the computers or playing board games at the tables. The courtyard should have been filled with kids burning off a little energy before third block. Teachers should have been making that last dash to the restroom before the long afternoon classes start.

None of that was happening.

The parking lot was empty.

There were ZERO students on campus.  My room was quiet as a tomb.

My room would have normally had a couple of kids in there eating lunch about that time of the day.

Instead, I found empty desks, library books abandoned in the baskets underneath.

I sighed, looked around, and went to get my things that I needed to work from home.

I missed the sound of kids, and the notes they would leave for me if they came by while I was out.

Every single kid was important to me, is important to me, and it just feels like we didn’t get to finish what we started. It feels tragic and sad…unfinished.

Their journals were still on my desk, graded, ready to return.

We left school on the Friday before Spring Break: March 6. My assignments from that day are still written on the board.

We all expected to come back to school when we left that day. Kids took library books home, textbooks, projects to finish, uniforms to wash, schedules to fill out for next year, and plans. They had plans for their graduation, prom, ring ceremonies, sporting events, and yes, academics. None of that happened.

So yes, all of that literally hangs in the air when you walk in the halls now. It’s a tangible thing.

I cleaned out the snacks I kept in my desk for kids that needed something to eat; that won’t keep until August. I took home my coffee cup, emptied the water in the Keurig. I looked through projects that weren’t finished, some that were, and I scored a bottle of GermX from my supply closet. I erased my board, bagged up things I needed to take home, and I turned out the light.

I am very curious, and perhaps nervous, about what school will look like when we return in August. While the Moderna coronavirus vaccine shows some early promise, there is still a long way to go before we have that option. A larger trial is expected this summer, but obviously won’t be ready before fall.

So, what will opening of school look like this fall? Smaller classes?  Online options? The typical high school classroom is not overly large and is usually filled with thirty or more students. Crowded lunchrooms, auditoriums, and even at university level, think of the crowded lecture halls. How are we going to manage these things?

Schools in Denmark opened several weeks ago with new distancing and hygiene measures in place and restrictions all across Europe are easing. Things such as staggered classes, sectioning off parts of campus, and no large gatherings are all options to consider. What of transportation? School busses filled with kids could also be a danger zone.

What are we to do? Hide from this virus? Wait for a vaccine? Or ignore it and get back to life as usual?

I don’t have the answers. All I know for certain is my own little world, my own small classroom, where sixty-five kids were upended in the middle of their academic year.

So much unfinished business.

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.

Report from Louisiana: Contact tracing the new normal?

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – I was quite interested to read John Ruberry’s post on this blog this weekend in which he discusses the impact of Covid-19 in Illinois under the leadership of Governor J.B. Pritzker.  It all sounds so very familiar.

In Louisiana, we are waiting once again for Governor John Bel Edwards to move Louisiana to Phase One and reopen businesses. We expected this announcement two weeks ago, but Edwards surprised us all by extending our stay at home order until May 16, infuriating business owners, citizens, and a large number of Republican lawmakers.

As of last week, Louisiana’s unemployment rate was around 22%.

One of the components for reopening the state that Edwards will discuss today will be Contact Tracing.  Right now, Louisiana has 70 people trained for contact tracing which does NOT meet suggested guidelines, but Edwards plans to hire hundreds more.

Many are obviously suspicious about the concept of contact tracing and what information will be gathered, not to mention who will be gathering it. According to Governor Edwards:

The state’s plan considers people who have been in close contact with someone if they are:

Household members of the person who tested positive.

Intimate partners of the person who tested positive.

People who have provided care to you in the household or outside.

Anyone who has been in close contact – that is defined as someone who has been within six feet or closer for a time period greater than 15 minutes.

In New Orleans, Mayor LaToya Cantrell is taking this a step further by requiring shopkeepers to keep records of everyone who shops, or comes into, their stores.

It is all very “Big Brother” and many are suspicious of giving information to a contact tracer. One new contact tracer described her first day this way:

Some people are a little suspicious. Some people hang up after I ask for their date of birth and address. I understand that, the mistrust of the government, having grown up under communism. But it’s too bad. I feel like they can benefit from this information: how to quarantine themselves, how they can protect their families, and what kind of support is available. Probably 50%, maybe 60%, of the contacts that I call on my shift don’t answer. Some don’t have voicemail set up. But I leave a message when I can, and several people called me back yesterday.

NPR details how contact tracing works and how it has been used in other countries:

The idea behind this public health strategy is simple: Keep the virus in check by having teams of public health workers — epidemiologists, nurses, trained citizens — identify each new positive case, track down their contacts and help both the sick person and those who were exposed isolate themselves.

This is the strategy that’s been proven to work in other countries, including China, South Korea, and Germany. For it to work in the U.S., states and local communities will need ample testing and they’ll need to expand their public health workforce. By a lot.

And while Google and Apple would love to jump in and get a piece of this governmental financial pie, high tech is not really what works in this case:

It’s not super complicated to understand why technologists are having a hard time getting traction. Traditional contact tracing has been honed over decades of response to disease outbreaks. Officials ask patients where they’ve been and whom they’ve been near; they then suggest those people get tested for the disease and make sure they quarantine, if necessary. Quickly identifying and segregating people carrying the virus can slow the spread of a communicable disease. “It works by building a human bond between two people,” the patient and the contact tracer, says Tom Frieden, the former head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Department of of Health and Mental Hygiene. “It means actually talking to someone and answering their questions, addressing their needs and concerns, and building, earning, and maintaining their trust and confidentiality.”

Contact tracing is not a new concept and has been used widely in many other outbreaks, but perhaps never to this extent.

At this point, we are all ready to get back to normal, or new normal, whatever that is. We broke out of quarantine as soon as Texas opened their border to Louisiana again and went to eat in a restaurant. We had to wait outside (in a crowd) for an hour to get in because they can only operate at 25% capacity. There were no salt or pepper shakers on the tables, nothing that has to be repeatedly sanitized. Menus are all paper and disposable. There were a lot of obvious changes.

The new normal will include a lot of changes that make us uncomfortable and perhaps suspicious. But by and large, America is ready to go back to work.

Let’s do this.

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.

Report from Louisiana: Reopening Discontent

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – We broke quarantine yesterday and crossed the border into Texas.  With Louisiana still shut down and under stay-at-home orders for another two weeks, Texas looks pretty good right now.

For weeks the border has been closed to Louisiana residents, but now that has been lifted and Texas shops and restaurants are open, so we headed west.

We headed to Jefferson, Texas, a small, historic town in East Texas. Residents of Marion County supported Trump heavily in the last presidential election with a 71% strong vote over Hilary Clinton (27%).  Many of the people there are thrilled to see Louisiana customers back in Jefferson; the town has a quaint historic district filled with antique shops, specialty fudge shops, and eateries that have suffered financially since the closure. There are a couple of old, historic hotels and at less than an hour away from Shreveport, Jefferson is a popular day trip destination. People in Louisiana spend a lot of tourist dollars in Jefferson, so opening the state back up to travelers was a welcome move. They have been hit hard by the COVID closure.

Shopkeepers, bartenders, servers, residents, literally everyone we talked to, was thrilled that the state is open and people are coming back to spend money and browse the shops. We talked with several people who praised Trump’s COVID response and others who were firmly rooted in the belief that Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards is keeping Louisiana closed only for federal dollars.

The rhetoric in Louisiana circles is becoming more and more divided over the Edwards response. As it turns out, his stay-at-home order was very non-specific and would have allowed many businesses to stay open in some capacity, significantly reducing the large numbers of people forced into unemployment. The original stay-at-home order, issued March 22, specifically closed salons, gyms, tattoo shops, among others. Businesses not specified could stay open with restrictions, however that was never clear. As a result, places like Barnes and Noble, Ulta Beauty, sporting goods stores, craft stores, among others, closed when all along they could have stayed open with restrictions.

It has all been very murky and now the discontent is rising:

The catalyst is Gov. John Bel Edwards’ decision to extend Louisiana’s statewide stay-at-home order through May 15. The Democratic governor said the move is rooted in science and public safety. Republicans are bristling, preferring a parish-by-parish approach to loosening restrictions that have shuttered businesses and forced hundreds of thousands into unemployment.

At stake is “hundreds of millions of federal dollars in disaster aid for businesses and the state.”

Is Edwards playing it safe and only looking out for the health of Louisiana residents? Or is he parlaying the entire situation into a federal dollar windfall for the state? Has he been intentionally vague about his stay at home order? The answers depend on who you ask.

The bottom line is that the longer Louisiana stays closed, and with neighboring states returning to normal, the pressure on Edwards to reopen the state will increase. Louisiana dollars will be spent in the shops, restaurants, and hotels of other states.

Louisiana legislators return to Baton Rouge today, reconvening their session after a COVID hiatus and even the timing of the legislative return has been contentious.

Looks like the new normal in Louisiana is a lot like the old normal.

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.