In Louisiana we have been through disasters before, but the threat of the COVID-19 virus is unlike any we have ever seen. The disruptions it’s beginning to bring to lives, businesses, and the overall fabric of our state is unprecedented in its scope.
In some ways it’s strangely unsurprising that on a per capita basis, Louisiana has one of the highest rates of confirmed cases of the virus in the country and the fifth highest number of total cases in absolute terms. As of this morning, Mississippi had 21 cases, Arkansas 22, Alabama 39, Texas 110, and Louisiana 196. Of course, those are just the confirmed cases, but the numbers are sobering.
It seems almost every facet of life is being impacted one way or another right now. Restaurants, bars, fitness centers, movie theaters, and casinos have all seen significant restrictions placed on their operations. In many cases they represent small, local businesses that might not have the resources to survive for a long time. In all cases they employee Louisiana workers who will be adversely affected.
Another sector that’s been turned upside down is education.
All of the state’s colleges and universities are closed to classroom instruction through the end of the spring semester. The good news there is that, for the most part, universities are somewhat suited to providing online instruction, and students should be able to finish their course work and earn their credits as planned.
For the more than 800,000 kids in Louisiana’s public and private K-12 schools, the situation is much different. Right now, schools are officially closed until April 13, but in his most recent news briefing Governor John Bel Edwards made it pretty clear that school closures would likely be extended another month.
That causes big problems in a number of ways. One is the simple fact that for parents of school-age kids it creates a scramble to figure out how to take care of their children during the day. While some have jobs that will allow them to work from home, in Louisiana’s industrial and manufacturing-based economy, that’s all too often not the case.
Adding to that is the fact that two-thirds of all public school students qualify as economically-disadvantaged and that means they are getting one or more of their daily meals at school for free. In many cases they might be the only nutritious meals kids are getting. Schools are responding by setting up food sites on their campuses that allow students’ families to drop by and pick up a meal. So far just over 20 districts are set up to provide meals, although the governor expects all districts to be up and running shortly.
But one of the biggest disruptions will involve the state’s testing program. Each year in the spring the state administers various end-of-year tests to monitor how students are performing. These assessments are a critical cog in Louisiana’s education system. Not only do they give us a snapshot of the progress students, schools, and districts are making, but they impact the mechanics of our accountability system, charter schools, teacher evaluations, and how state and federal dollars are targeted to students with the greatest needs.
The ACT tests given to high school students in April have been rescheduled for June 13, but at this point it appears the other tests will be canceled for this year and education officials are still trying to figure out the consequences of that.
In the meantime, students have come home with a boat load of textbooks and other resources and parents are being asked to work with their kids to help them continue their learning experience with the guidance of their teachers. Though online materials will likely be available for some students, for others, particularly younger students, that’s not a viable option.
The state Department of Education has information on its website to help parents during this time and a Home Learning Toolkit is coming soon. In the meantime, Louisiana Public Broadcasting has stepped up to provide a host of educational programming through its website to assist parents with children of all ages.
With the legislative session on hiatus for the time being, it’s unclear how much lawmakers will be able to do this year on issues outside the constitutional requirements of passing a budget and dealing with various other money issues. As part of CABL’s RESET Louisiana partnership with the Public Affairs Research Council and the Committee of 100 for Economic Development, we were prepared to engage in a variety of legislative activities in support of our four major issue areas: education, state fiscal policies, transportation, and criminal justice reform.
It remains to be seen how much can be accomplished in those areas this year, but we remain committed to the goal of addressing these and other critical issues with a singular focus on moving Louisiana forward.
Finally, as our entire state settles in for an extended period of uncertainty, it is our wish that everyone remains safe and that our friends, families, and neighbors remain untouched by the corona virus. Many of us will still be impacted, but we urge all of our citizens to follow the directives of our state leaders and health officials, take this pandemic seriously, and stay up to date on the latest information for Louisiana and your community.
We know Louisiana and its people are resilient. For a small state, we have been through more than most over the years. So it’s with some confidence that we believe that if we all do our part we can mitigate the impacts of this disease, protect those who are must vulnerable, and hasten our return to the joie de vivre that characterizes both our state and its people.