Parents and teachers fret safety and lack of communication as students return to school

Lafayette Parish school buses
Several Lafayette Parish schools improved letter grades in 2022. Photo by Stacy Conrad

This story was first published on Cypress Lake Wire, an online news service produced by students in UL Lafayette’s journalism program.

Thousands of Lafayette Parish students are back in school this week for the start of a semester delayed and complicated by coronavirus, but parents say they’re still in the dark. For many families, big questions remain about the logistics of the return and how the school system will keep their kids safe on campus while the pandemic is still active.

Around 5,000 students enrolled in virtual classes through Lafayette Online Academy, an unprecedented number. The rest of Lafayette Parish School System’s 32,000 students returned to school in a hybrid plan that includes both online and on-campus instruction (pre-K through 5 began with a blended model but will quickly transition to in-person, five days a week). A return to campus has been a major source of anxiety for parents who say the system’s plan forced them to make tough choices.  

John Paul, a parent in Lafayette Parish, says his family chose to enroll their children in face-to-face classes. While he thinks LPSS won’t be able to enforce effective social distancing guidelines, he wasn’t confident his children would get an adequate education from LOA. Paul says LPSS placed families in an unwinnable situation by reopening schools haphazardly instead of focusing its efforts on creating a high-quality, virtual learning environment.

“I’m terrified about sending them to school,” Paul says. 

LPSS’s reopening plan stated students and faculty will socially distance as much as possible.

“Student seating in classrooms, libraries, and cafeterias will follow social distancing protocol to the greatest extent possible,” the reopening plan reads. “Students will remain six feet apart in lines to the greatest extent possible.”

These guidelines aren’t satisfactory, says Paul, who thinks they will allow schools to operate without fully adhering to social distancing guidelines.

 “It’s not possible,” he says. “If I thought they even were trying to meet the scientific, clinical requirements to sanitize the environment and maintain social distancing that’s needed, I would feel better, but I don’t think they’re even really doing that.”

Broussard Middle School teacher and President of the St. Martin Parish Federation of Teachers Toni Ventroy says she and her coworkers are often struggling to remember social distancing requirements throughout the day, so she thinks many students will likely forget about the guidelines when interacting with their friends at school. However, she says the first day went well, as the majority of the students and faculty obeyed the guidelines throughout the day.

Ventroy says she doesn’t believe elementary schools will be able to ensure young children wear masks at all times when teachers already have trouble getting young children to wear IDs and belts.

Custodians will also be working a lot harder than normal, Ventroy says, noting they aren’t paid enough to meet the extensive sanitation requirements.

Nadine Melancon, a parent in Lafayette Parish, says she saw how intense the cleaning procedures will need to be first-hand when she went to her children’s school to sign some documents. She was handed a cup of pens to sign a form with and, without thinking much about it, put the pen back into the cup when she was done.

“I just automatically put the same pen back into the cup. And she went, ‘Oh, oh well, that’s OK.’ And I could tell I screwed up,” Melancon says. “I’m an adult, and I made that mistake right away. Can you imagine little kids?”

Middle school and high school face-to-face classes will be on an A/B schedule. This means half the students will come in person on some days of the week and learn online on the remaining days, but Ventroy says she is worried this could result in students attending class on the wrong day.

“Then what do you do with those kids?” she says.

Deanie McClelland, a mother of three, says she already encountered a problem with the hybrid schedule, which alternates when kids are on campus by address. 

“I called my son’s bus driver yesterday just to make sure everything was good, and he had Braden listed as being on the A schedule. And I said, ‘Well, no, our house is 202. So that’s even so he’s a B schedule. And he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t even know why I had it down,’” McClelland says. “It’s very small things that all eventually add up and just give people misinformation.”

Renee Box, a mother and a teacher at Louisiana Virtual Charter Academy, agrees that many of the problems parents in Lafayette Parish are facing have to do with poor communication from LPSS.

“It creates its own drama by not communicating. Ask any parent who has signed up for LOA if they know what the hell’s going on and the answer is going to be no,” Box says.

Melancon enrolled her children in LOA this semester, and she received an email only a week before school started telling her to update her email address for LOA and that, once updated, she would receive her login info by Sept. 8. “Sept. 8 is the first day of school. And they’re not even promising that they’re going to have [login] information for me by then. And I have no clue how to log on,” she says.

LPSS didn’t respond for comment on issues with communicating with the public or issues regarding public health concerns.

Despite the problems with communication, McClelland says LPSS is doing the best it can given the circumstances.

“This is something unprecedented. None of us have ever been through this,” she says.

Box and Paul say the staff at their children’s schools did a good job communicating with parents, noting that most of the problems are coming from the central office. 

Ventroy and Paul say they understand why the school system felt the need to reopen classrooms this semester, but both think the decision ultimately placed students and teachers at risk.

“We’ve got to do some compromising, but the area where we compromise is not our children’s lives,” Paul says.