As Louisiana officials prepare to reopen schools, football remains in doubt

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Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education was set to consider standards Tuesday for reopening schools that include face coverings and physical distancing, though it will be up to local school boards to work out the details.

Officials overseeing high school sports have not yet considered canceling fall sports, Louisiana High School Athletic Association Executive Director Eddie Bonine said Monday, though the public health picture would have to improve considerably to play football under the current plan. State Sen. Cleo Fields, who chairs his body’s education committee, has called for canceling fall sports, though other lawmakers have pushed back against that idea.

The state Department of Education released “Strong Start 2020” last month, laying out guidelines for safe reopening of school campuses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Though initially a set of recommended best practices, recently approved legislation directed BESE to adopt official standards, state Superintendent Cade Brumley explained to the state House of Representatives Education Committee.

The legislation did not provide money to hire enforcement staff, however. Brumley said the department will set up an online portal for complaints.

Education department recommendations call for face coverings for all adults and all students in grades 3 and up. Maximum group sizes in classrooms and on buses will vary depending on which reopening phase the state is in at the time.

The federal government has provided to state schools more than $300 million through the federal CARES Act, Brumley said. Much of it was spent on electronic devices for students, though some was set aside to buy personal protective equipment, he added.

Once BESE finalizes the rules, school boards will submit their plans to the state education department. Boards have been instructed to prepare for fully remote learning, traditional classroom instruction, and a hybrid of the two.

Though a student or teacher testing positive wouldn’t necessarily lead to closing a school, school leaders should be prepared for “starts and stops,” Brumley said.

“We’ve never done this before,” he said. “We have to be nimble.”

Brumley warned that remote learning almost certainly won’t be as effective as having students physically in the classroom with their teachers. He said diagnostic tests when schools reopen in early August will be crucial, noting that the learning loss that typically happens over the summer likely will be exacerbated by the extended absence from campus. Gov. John Bel Edwards closed schools in mid-March.

Though the LHSAA is an independent body, the association plans to align itself with BESE’s rules, Bonine said. Restrictions apply to different sports based on where the state is in the White House-approved reopening guidelines.

For example, under “phase two,” the state’s current status, only swimmers and cross country runners are allowed to practice and compete. Volleyball teams are fully cleared to compete in the next phase.

But he indicated football would not be played until the state reaches “phase four,” presumably meaning no restrictions, since the White House road map Edwards follows only includes three phases. Bonine said moving football to next semester has been discussed but is not the preferred option. Having games without fans also has been discussed, though that would create a problem for schools that depend on gate revenue to pay officials, he said.