Is there any school district whose students experienced more disruptions than those in New Orleans?
Between the major storms of Katrina and Ida there have been dozens of hurricanes and tropical storms that have interrupted students’ schooling in that city for extended periods. The New Orleans school board tries to make up lost learning time, but the reality is that the weeks lost can’t simply be restored, and people don’t necessarily heal their traumas along a set schedule.
When schools reopen, students may not be ready to enter them. Flooding, wind damage and power outages may keep individual families out of their homes and away from their own district beyond the official school start date. How can students be prepared to learn when they literally don’t have a roof over their heads? It will take weeks and months for some families to receive homeowners’ insurance payments; that span of time should be a measure of school disruption.
And let’s not overlook the daily economic catastrophes that many Black families face even when the skies are clear. The years-long, manmade disruptions of school reform in the aftermath of Katrina made every year a different one by design. Conversions from traditional to charter schools, closures and takeovers put student learning on a treadmill. School choice brought some benefits, but consistency wasn’t one of them.
In addition, with a 24 percent poverty rate, New Orleans remains one of the poorest large cities in the country. An uncounted number of school days are lost due to high levels of poverty, which limits families’ access to services like healthcare, housing, transportation and broadband. Virtual learning required equipment and internet access that too many families didn’t have. The pandemic exacerbated these issues. The connected issues of inadequate healthcare, housing and job protections had a grim impact.
Students, especially in the Black community, lost many family members to the virus. Although Black people represent 60 percent of the city’s population, Black residents accounted for 77 percent of the 492 people who had died of coronavirus in the city as of June 5, before the current surge, according to reporting by NOLA.com. When deaths in long-term care settings like prisons and nursing homes were excluded, the disparity was even more stark: Black residents accounted for 88 percent of the deaths.
After more than $15 billion was invested in improving the levees and other infrastructure, New Orleans was spared much of the physical devastation breached levees caused during Hurricane Katrina. However, people are no better off than they were after Katrina. At some point we must invest in the people of New Orleans just as we did in the levees.
We should assume disasters like hurricanes, economic crises and pandemics will be permanent features of our future society. However, people will be better able to deal with the inevitable storms if they have access to a living wage, affordable housing, quality healthcare and childcare, as well as well-funded schools.
In March, President Joe Biden introduced the American Jobs Plan, a $2.7 trillion infrastructure bill that endeavored to put people to work by addressing historic discrimination, climate change, broadband access and labor rights — in addition to building and repairing roads and bridges. That proposal included funding to modernize schools and childcare facilities, and to upgrade veterans’ hospitals and federal buildings. The plan was set to invest in the “care economy” by “creating jobs and raising wages and benefits for essential home care workers.” It even appropriated money to ensure “workers have a free and fair choice to organize, join a union, and bargain collectively with their employers.”
That proposal was replaced by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which focuses less on the care economy and more on transportation and water programs, the digital divide, interstate electricity transmission and resilient infrastructure designs, among other things.
In other words, it disregards many of the problems that make people vulnerable, even in fair weather.
New Orleans School Board President Ethan Ashley has called on municipal leaders to center children in the recovery process, specifically calling out the city’s energy company, Entergy. “I have listened to several leaders speak over the last 72 hours, and our youngest New Orleanians have not been prioritized,” Ashley wrote in a statement. “The Superintendent needs to be in conversations with Entergy and Federal leaders about the recovery efforts. 16 years after Katrina, we know that for us to recover well, our children must be prioritized.”
Ashley wants Entergy to consider schools as critical infrastructure, which would have them prioritize power restoration to the facilities. And with good reason.
People will be better able to deal with the inevitable storms if they have access to a living wage, affordable housing, quality healthcare and childcare, as well as well-funded schools.
If we learned anything from the pandemic, it was the crucial role schools play in feeding, sheltering and building our communities. Many children did not receive regular meals when state and city leaders forced districts to move to virtual learning, and students did not receive the kinds of social interactions kids need.
We also learned during the pandemic that we must protect teachers to keep students safe. Investing in vaccinations, training and equipment for teachers minimized the academic damage for students.
Ashley’s request must be broadened. Low-income, Black residents must be prioritized. What good are strong levees if people don’t have secure housing and food? If teachers and other workers have difficulty getting meaningful employment rights, how much say can they really have on their own recovery? If people don’t have the discretionary income to get out of harm’s way, will levees really protect them?
“Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning how to dance in the rain,” a quote attributed to writer Vivian Greene, captures this moment. Storms will come. To weather them, we must invest in people.
This story about investing in the people of New Orleans was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.