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School District provides COVID-19 updates ;Parents express frustration at lack of virtual options

LAPLACE — As the Delta variant causes COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations to rocket across Louisiana, several parents expressed their disappointment at the lack of virtual learning options during Thursday’s St. John the Baptist Parish School Board meeting.

One parent, who has not sent her child to campus since the beginning of the pandemic, said, “I’m not willing to risk my life and hers…It’s like me sending my child to school with an active shooter, and the active shooter is COVID.”

Other parents were adamant that they will not allow their children with underlying health conditions or special needs to step foot inside school buildings and gave impassioned pleas to School Board members to reimplement virtual classes.

When discussing the possibility of having to shut down schools if the situation worsens, one parent stated, “It’s not ‘when the event happens’. The event is happening. We’re in it.”

On August 12, Louisiana recorded 5,268 new cases of COVID-19 and 54 new deaths. The Louisiana Department of Health announced that those who were not fully vaccinated accounted for 90% of cases and 91% of hospitalizations from July 29 to August 4. Hospitalizations are at the highest point since the beginning of the pandemic, with 2,901 hospitalized and 386 on ventilators across the state as of Thursday.

East St. John teacher Derron Cook read a letter on behalf of the teacher’s union expressing concerns over social distancing in the classrooms. He said several classes have more than 30 students and some have more than 40.

Cook said virtual options would, “alleviate the health risks with such large numbers in one environment and would also make learning and teaching easier for all parties involved.”

Superintendent Dr. Lynett Hookfin said the School Board wholeheartedly listens to the community’s comments and feedback. However, she said data recorded since the beginning of the pandemic suggests students are more successful in an in-person setting.

“Here in St. John Parish, we are that district that participated in in-person learning, hybrid learning and virtual learning, unlike other school districts. The data proved that scholars who learned in person surpassed those who learned virtually,” Hoofkin said. “Parents, we hear your concerns as we track and monitor data accordingly. If this virus pivots, we will continue to look at the data and make adjustments.”

Hookfin said COVID-19 guidelines were presented to all staff, and efforts are ongoing to regularly clean and sanitize each school site. She noted that, while mask mandates were dropped around the state during the summer, St. John continued requiring masks at the request of parents who participated in a community survey.

“We know that the first line of defense to this virus is wearing a mask, and we need to commend all of our staff members and scholars who wear a mask faithfully every day,” Hookfin said.

The District is additionally providing thermometers, giving bottled water to students, and mandating masks and seating charts on buses. Hookfin admitted that class sizes are not perfect, but added that teachers are looking at the numbers to make adjustments.

School Board member Ali Burl said that unless students are in a gym, it’s impossible to have effective social distancing with 33 to 40 kids in a classroom.

School Board member Patrick Sanders said, “People are concerned. They are looking for options in terms of educating their children. As a district, do we have a plan for if all hell breaks out?”

Hookfin responded that, in the event that the governor shuts down schools, St. John Parish is fortunate to have become a 1:1 school district where every student has access to a laptop to bring home.

However, during technology distribution updates presented by Tanya Faucheux, coordinator of instructional technology, it was shared that several devices were returned damaged or not returned at all at the end of the 2020-2021 school year.

Dr. Stacey Spies, director of special education, presented updated COVID-19 guidelines for the district. According to Spies, contact tracing is dependent on close contact, defined as being within 6 feet of someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes starting 48 hours before the onset of symptoms.

Under the new guidance, a student within 3 to 6 feet of an individual who has tested positive will not be considered in close contact if both parties were properly wearing face masks. According to Spies, vaccinated individuals do not have to quarantine after close contact unless they begin showing symptoms, and the same goes for individuals who have had COVID-19 in the past 90 days.

Detailed COVID-19 guidelines are available on the school website, stjohn.k12.la.us. Those in need of a hard copy of the guidelines should contact their child’s school site leader.