16.5% of NOLA Public School Students Miss School Each Day but Teachers Still Fear In-Person Classes

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, school attendance at New Orleans Public Schools was an issue, but the problem has gotten worse as classes have continued to be held online. 

Last year, the daily attendance rate was 90% but this year it has fallen to 83.5%. School leaders fear that if the attendance rate continues to stay that low, the drop-out rate will increase and schools will lose funding. 

The 83.5% attendance rate means that of the 45,000 New Orleans Public School students, 7,400 are absent. To address the high absentee rate, New Orleans official gathered on Tuesday. 

“It’s going to take our village coming together and recognizing that our students and our families are hurting and they need that additional support to make sure that our students are engaged with their education,” says Superintendent Dr. Henderson Lewis.

“The root causes behind habitual absenteeism — it’s no secret. We know it’s poverty, we know it’s unemployment, violence, homelessness and even literacy,” Lewis said. “All of these things I just mentioned, were all here before the pandemic, but I know they are certainly compounded by COVID-19.”

It was only on Monday that elementary and middle schoolers returned to classrooms after nearly a month of online instruction due to a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in New Orleans around the holidays. High school students will continue to learn virtually until after Mardi Gras break. 

Absenteeism not only affects enrollment but also school funding. If students have more than 10 unexcused absences then they are no longer registered as “actively enrolled.” The fewer students a school has that are actively enrolled, the less funding it will receive. 

An October 2020 count of students in kindergarten through12th grade found that enrollment had dropped 3.3% in Orleans Parish compared to 2.3% statewide. 

Mayor Cantrell explained that her concern lies less with the money than with students’ well-being, explaining “I think the primary issue is not about the MFP, about the dollar,” Cantrell said. “It’s about the impact it will have on our children, which in turn will have an impact on all of us — our economic and social mobility within the city, and our families and our people.”

However, while it’s clear in-person learning is better for students, without a doubt, online learning is safer for teachers. 

“For myself, I am nervous. Having spoken to a few teachers, the mood is fear,” Eric Schroeder a middle school social studies teacher in New Orleans said. “Teachers, in general, don’t understand the decisions that are being made or how they’re being made.”

Much of Schroeder’s fear is rooted in the fact that the more contagious UK variant of COVID-19 is now in Louisiana. It has become clear that the variant will spread much more quickly in classrooms. 

“It’s really tough when education funds have been neglected for so long in face of other priorities and suddenly education is the biggest priority and we’re willing to risk lives for it,” Shroeder said. 

Louisiana has not yet offered vaccines to teachers, although as essential workers they are next in line to receive them. With the possibility that all teachers will be back to in-person teaching within the next couple weeks, and no date set yet for when they’ll be vaccinated, it seems like New Orleans has made the difficult decision to protect students over teachers.

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