Students at Edna Karr High School prepare to take the LEAP test. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite News

For many Black educators in New Orleans, teaching during the height of the pandemic was overwhelming. 

Black teachers make up more than 50% of teachers in New Orleans. And although most teachers experienced an increased workload as they transitioned to virtual learning during the pandemic, according to a 2020 report from the New Orleans Trauma-Informed Schools Learning Collaborative, Black teachers reported having more personal responsibilities. They were “1.7 to 2.4 times more likely to have to take care of people in the home or take responsibility for teaching their own children than white teachers.”

The collaborative’s report also found that Black teachers “were 2.7 times more likely than white teachers to have a family member or friend become ill from the disease,” and Black teachers were more than “4 times more likely to receive medical treatment for COVID-19 and to experience the death of a family member or close friend from COVID-19.” 

For Thaddeus Delay, who teaches 11th and 12th grade ACT prep, Algebra II and virtual workplace experience at Edna Karr High School, teaching during the pandemic was a huge task and responsibility. When schools closed, he remotely taught a class of 30 to 40 students from home.

“Being an active person who loves the city energy, to see it shut down for so long, it was very strange teaching,” said Delay, who has taught at Edna Karr since 2015.

Thaddeus Delay encourages students at Edna Karr High School before test time. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite News

In a virtual learning environment, classroom engagement was lost. Students lacked in-person communication with their peers and teachers. The unexpected shift raised many challenges, as schools rushed to supply students with laptops and internet access at home.

“I just think we needed more materials, more technology for the kids,” said Shannon Newelle, who teaches fifth-grade science and social studies at Martin Behrman Charter School. “I mean, the only time they get to use a computer sometimes is at school.”

Having autonomy over the class was difficult as students attended school at home from a computer screen, the teachers said. Some students attended every day on time and engaged in their new virtual learning environment, while others failed to show up and were detached from the new mode of education. 

The struggle to get students to collaborate with each other was a major issue that also impacted student performance and success.

As schools reopened, administrators, parents, and education leaders argued over new restrictions including mask and vaccine mandates.

United Teachers of New Orleans, a labor union representing teachers and other educational workers in New Orleans helped educators with some of the challenges they faced. One major concern for educators was being safe at work, said Dave Cash, president of the United Teachers of New Orleans.

When New Orleans public schools created a task force about reopening schools, the union pressed them to include their president at the time, Wanda Richard, to be on the task force. 

“We were focused on things most acute at the time,” said Cash. “Schools wouldn’t retrofit their ventilation systems or make sure masks were available and temperature checks were being done at schools.”

Cash said the union wanted to make sure people had access to high-quality personal protective equipment. Also, teachers wanted to have some say over their working conditions.

Josef Syndicate, “a civil journalism syndication of reporters, photographers, and graphic designers who covered community news and developments on behalf of the understaffed newspapers,” conducted a survey about the impact of COVID-19 on Louisiana educators. They asked 40 Black K-12 educators to describe how they felt since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic until now. Many responded with various emotions from feeling fearful and unsupported to being proud of their adaptability. 

More than 50 percent of educators surveyed said that they, as well as their students, were not offered mental health or social-emotional training during COVID. Thirty-eight percent said it has been “extremely difficult” to educate students since the pandemic started until today.

“Mentally, I was all over the place, I was functioning depressed, but I know how to turn it off when it comes to school,” said Newelle, who has been an educator for more than two decades.

Cash said the pandemic spurred a new wave of departures and burnout for many educators in New Orleans. Many schools had a deficit in teachers as some transitioned to new schools, others never returned to the profession, and some lost their lives amid the pandemic.

“We know that there was resignation,” said Cash, a part-time educator at the Rooted School.  “There are people who’ve left teaching because they were concerned about the virus.”

At Edna Karr High School, it was difficult during the first six months when students returned to school. Staff and students operated from a hybrid learning environment.

It’s testing time for students at Edna Karr High School, who have been playing catch up after being out the classroom for two years because of the pandemic. Credit: Nigell Moses/Verite

But a two-year gap in traditional learning left students falling behind, while educators pushed to reteach basic foundational skills and give their students a normal school year.

Delay said he’s had to adjust his teaching since returning to the classroom.

“I can’t teach with the speed and rigor that I want to teach,” Delay said. “The kids’ knowledge and their retention of information seemed to have regressed tremendously. It was really stark how much they had lost, like basic stuff, things that you would imagine a high school kid would have in their back pocket.”

Resources for teachers are key, said Delay. Sure, basic tools like paper and a printer are important, but so is counseling too. Delay said he and other teachers were supported through appreciation gifts by the school, including massage therapy and teacher-support groups.

Delay and Newelle said they remained in the classroom to support their students. The challenge now is getting students back on track, Newelle said.

“A lot of them don’t even know that they’re behind,” Newelle said. “I have to take care of them because they’re our future.”

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New Orleans native Nigell Moses graduated summa cum laude from Xavier University of Louisiana with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication. She is a published contributing writer, with stories in The...