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How Louisiana Schools Are Doing After Hurricane Laura

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

After Hurricane Laura hit southwest Louisiana last month, school administrators were optimistic that a quick pivot to online learning could rescue the start of the school year. But Internet service still has not been restored for most people, and that means a longer wait. Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO reports.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: The school year in Calcasieu Parish was about to begin just as Hurricane Laura smashed into Louisiana as a Category 4 storm.

KARL BRUCHHAUS: It looks like a 50-square-mile tornado just sat over us.

JUHASZ: That's school superintendent Karl Bruchhaus. He says almost all of the district's buildings were damaged by Laura. Right now, he's dealing with $300 million in storm repairs. While it's common for students to miss weeks and sometimes months of classes following a natural disaster, this time around, Bruchhaus thought they had a solution.

BRUCHHAUS: In our preparation we did for COVID, we now feel very comfortable being able to offer a displaced child in New Orleans our virtual program, being able to have a displaced teacher in Dallas who has no home here right now able with Internet to teach that for us.

JUHASZ: That was a few weeks ago. And while families who are still evacuated might be able to access virtual learning, those who have returned home likely cannot. This week, the region's main Internet provider, Suddenlink, said 80% of its customers were without service, including teachers Kelly and Justin Clark.

KELLY CLARK: Can you guys tell me how you're feeling about the situation? (Laughter) We're looking at each other because there is no virtual rollout for next Monday that we're aware of. We are relying on our mostly poor cellphone connections, but we don't have Internet.

JUHASZ: Citing the lack of Internet, the district announced Tuesday that virtual learning would be optional for students. It's been a difficult year for the district in Calcasieu Parish. It went to online classes in March because of the coronavirus and now the storm.

CLARK: These kids have been out of school for seven months due to no fault of our parish. And they really are trying to be optimistic and trying to get kids back as soon as possible because these kids need to learn.

JUHASZ: The district has acknowledged that the best - and in some cases, only - way to serve its 32,000 students is by reopening school buildings. The majority of the student body is low-income and dealt with food insecurity before the storm. Now they're dealing with housing insecurity as well. Here's Superintendent Bruchhaus speaking at the Louisiana state Capitol.

BRUCHHAUS: They need a place to live. They need shelter. They need food. We might be able to offer a little bit of that with the food and the cool air of an air conditioner if we can get them back in the building.

JUHASZ: Individual buildings will be opened as soon as they're repaired, which means some students will return to the classroom sooner than others. Right now, many families are considering whether to stick with the district or transfer out.

GRETTA MASK: Where we live out off of Highway 90 in Lake Charles, our Internet is kind of slow.

JUHASZ: That's Gretta Mask. She hopes to return home soon, but for now, she's one of 10,000 Hurricane Laura evacuees sheltering in New Orleans 200 miles away. Her son Caden is 16 years old and enrolled in a public high school in Calcasieu Parish.

CADEN: Virtual learning would be a challenge to me because I - you know, I got to have a teacher to learn, you know?

JUHASZ: His family doesn't want to transfer because Caden plays football for Iowa High School and hopes to get a college scholarship. Darren Spicer's two kids aren't as tied to their elementary school. He says if virtual learning is lacking, he'll enroll them elsewhere. He knows putting them in a new environment would be disruptive but...

DARREN SPICER: We'll explain it to our kids. You know, it's temporary. I know it may be difficult at the time, but look. You know, we're going back. Just give it a few months, and everything hopefully will be back quote-unquote "normal."

JUHASZ: With an ongoing global pandemic and one of the most active hurricane seasons on record, it may be a while until school and life truly returns to normal.

For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.