Karen Bashay was working in her office Tuesday afternoon with only a handful of administrative assistants and guidance counselors in the entirety of the large, winding halls of Loreauville High School.
As a veteran principal of the school, Bashay is used to spending late summer with a much more relaxed schedule. Orientation, scheduling and school maintenance are usually the main tasks for a Loreauville principal before starting the school year.
But the global COVID-19 pandemic is as much a concern for a village school in south Louisiana as it is for anywhere else in the world, and the work associated with it has forced principals in the area to radically rethink how education works in a pandemic year.
The orientation schedule that Bashay was working on at her desk Thursday, for instance, is a virtual orientation schedule. Like many schools, the principal and staff have opted to hold orientation sessions completely online for the first time in the school’s history.
Despite her aversion to cameras, Bashay said students will be greeted with a recorded message that will be posted to the school’s website and social media. In fact, the only in-person contact will be a drive-thru line for parents to pay fees and receive student schedules.
“Everyone kind of descends on the school at orientation,” Bashay said. “So we’re trying to figure out how to keep the essential things.”
Learning to restructure a school day around the essentials has been a throughline for principals all across the Iberia Parish, and with teachers coming back to school in full force next week administrators are working on the finer details of what this school year is going to look like.
As Louisiana continues to stay in Phase II of reopening due to the COVID-19 virus, educators are looking at how they can improve everyday education to provide a measure of safety while also giving students the education they need.
That experience for principals has varied depending on the particularities of their school as well as the grades that they teach.
High schools and middle schools in the parish, for instance, have opted for a hybrid learning model where students will be placed into two different groups and attend school on separate days of the week. On the days they are home, education will continue virtually.
The decision will essentially cut classes in half, which gives faculty and staff much more leeway in creating a school that abides by the social distancing guidelines that have been recommended by the state and federal government.
The job is still tough though, as Bashay admits. The regulations not only apply to classrooms, but also lunchtime, changing classes and the way that students fundamentally socialize with each other.
“That’s our biggest challenge right now, making sure we have enough accommodations for students while maintaining the Phase II regulations,” Bashay said.
At Loreauville, a normal classroom will consist of students sitting two desks separate from each other, but some of the smaller classrooms in the old Loreauville High building have made space an issue.
For lunchtime, the cafeteria tables have been cut in half so that each table will only seat two students facing in the same direction. Tables have also been placed in the school’s hallways and auditorium, allowing for additional space for students to eat.
Other schools have faced similar problems. At Jefferson Island Elementary, Principal Niles Romero said his staff have had to fundamentally rethink what a normal day looks like in an Iberia Parish elementary school.
The school of about 500 students will still be together other than the students who opt for full virtual learning, and the lack of a hybrid schedule has presented its own challenges for those organizing the new school year.
“We have to rearrange everything,” Romero said. “We have to change how we teach, keep up with social distancing, even rearrange the furniture to keep kids in groups.”
Romero said he and his staff have had meetings that walked through what a school day will look like for the 2020-21 school year, including recess and lunch.
Thanks to “excellent management by the school board,” Romero said Jefferson Elementary has a new cafeteria and new buildings that have made space much less of a problem than other schools, however a new vision was still required to make education workable.
Lunch, for instance, will consist of pre-K and kindergarten students eating at spaced out tables while students in other grades file through the cafeteria at different times, receive their food and then go back to their classrooms to eat.
Elementary education has proven itself much more workable for COVID-19, since the children tend to stay with their teachers throughout the day and students do not mingle at great length with people outside of their class.
In fact, Bashay said adopting an “elementary mindset” has been the plan for her middle and high schools.
“The whole goal is going back to an elementary mindset,” she said. “Once they’re on campus, they’ll be with their teacher throughout the day. Teachers won’t have that idle lunchtime and kids won’t have locker breaks per se.”
Thankfully, chromebook education was ramped up in Iberia Parish during the last school year, and textbooks have been given less importance for students.
Romero said teachers have been going through additional training for computer work in the event that full virtual learning becomes mandatory, as well as refreshing themselves on the virtual work that was fully adopted last year.
“At the beginning of this, we didn’t know how to do virtual learning with a pre-K or kindergarten kid so we were hesitant,” Romero said. Now, my kindergarten teachers are ready to go, and they’re ready to go virtual if they have to.
All of the developments have called for a flexible attitude in a profession that is used to consistency.
“This is definitely the weirdest start to a school year I’ve ever had,” Romero said.