In New Orleans, students try to bounce back from both COVID-19 and Hurricane Ida
A high school quarterback’s experience captures the hardship of what was supposed to be a comeback year
NEW ORLEANS — For quarterback Raphael Reed, this school year has been one step forward, then two steps back. But during a Thursday night football game in October, he felt nothing but forward momentum.
As the clock ran out that night, Reed, 16, tossed a perfect touchdown pass, winning the game. In the stands, Frederick A. Douglass High School fans dressed in blue and gray screamed themselves hoarse.
It was a rare moment of pure triumph, in an exhausting school year that has brought one disaster after another, from COVID-19 surges to bus driver shortages to hurricane blackouts — with barely time to recover and breathe in between. It’s a sharp contrast to how the year was framed as a return to relative normalcy. As a comeback year.
Reed knows comebacks. Last fall — his freshman year at Douglass — he rarely showed up on Zoom screens.
“Teachers knew him as a kid on their roster who didn’t come to class,” said Kerry Taylor, 26, Reed’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach.
Like other New Orleans students, Reed spent spring 2020 at home, as the coronavirus plowed through this early national hotspot. At one point, New Orleans had the nation’s highest per capita COVID-19 death rate, by far — twice as high as any other city. Within the public school system here, one teacher described “unrelenting grief.” Tragedy struck nearly every week, as staff received news that yet another student or teacher had lost someone close to them.
Last year, most Douglass students spent the fall semester at home again, before switching to hybrid classes, in which half the student body attended school in alternating weeks. By spring 2021, the school held a near-normal graduation ceremony. It was a step forward.
Then came two steps back. In late July, just before the 2021-22 school year kicked off, the delta variant slammed into New Orleans, filling hospitals to 2020 levels.
Douglass students reacted by showing up for vaccine drives in unexpectedly long lines that wound through the schoolyard. Reed, his mom and his younger brother Skylar joined the lines so he would be eligible for football, since Douglass, like the city’s other public high schools, required vaccinations this year for students participating in extracurricular activities.
Roughly 75% of Douglass students are now vaccinated. Health officials observed that, at before-school vaccination drives, Douglass students were more likely than kids at other schools to arrive with their families to be vaccinated — perhaps because the school has long prioritized its role in the surrounding 9th Ward neighborhood.
“We talked about doing this for ourselves and for our community,” said principal Towana Pierre-Floyd, a 9th Ward native who has led the school for four years. “Plus, we all wanted dances and pep rallies, things that were pretty risky, even with masking, if our vaccination rate wasn’t higher. So we told them, ‘If we have this extra layer of protection, we can do these things. We need your help.’ ”
Reed was eager to put the entire pandemic behind him, and determined to make up for lost time. “He is, like, over it,” said his mom, Jovan Reed.
He earned a 3.6 GPA by late August. Every afternoon, he jogged from his last class over to the practice field and worked intently. “He was killing it,” said Taylor, who sees Reed developing into a star, “a pocket passer with a big arm.”
In the Douglass hallways, teachers seemed determined to successfully pull off the return to in-person learning, while classmates who had been strangers during their virtual freshman year were becoming friends. “We were coming together,” Reed said.
“It’s been fascinating to watch,” said Pierre-Floyd. “I believe that our 10th graders have the highest attendance rate of any class, for that reason. They are hungry for relationships with peers and adults. They can have real friendships, socialize and get dates to homecoming. These moments where they can connect in person are more precious to them.”
Then, on Aug. 29, less than a month into the school year, disaster struck again, as Hurricane Ida hit Louisiana as a Category 4 storm. The entire city lost power in an unprecedented, extended outage. Schoolchildren missed three weeks of classes.
“They lost the pandemic year. Then they went back to school, but then the hurricane came. What I’m expecting next is the locusts,” said Kathleen Whalen, project director of Safe Schools NOLA, which responds to the needs of trauma-exposed youth.
Even when students returned, they couldn’t seem to settle down. “It’s just hard,” Whalen said. “When there’s so much uncertainty, everyone gets on edge, wondering what will come next. You can’t settle down into a learning framework.”
It was supposed to be easier.
“We’re all saying the same thing: ‘Why is this year so hard?’ ” said Joey LaRoche, 35, who was principal at Douglass — which was briefly renamed KIPP Renaissance High School — until 2018, when he became chief strategy officer for the school’s charter management organization, KIPP New Orleans.
Whenever LaRoche has a call with educators from other cities, he hears a common sentiment. “No matter who I talk to, they tell me: ‘This is the hardest year that I’ve ever had in education,’ ” he said.
Douglass students have experienced some of the worst of it. After making it through the beginning of the semester with relatively few COVID-19-related quarantines, the hurricane hit hard. While most New Orleans schools made it through the storm with minimal damage, their Gothic 9th Ward building was left waterlogged. Winds popped out upper windows. The building was inundated by Hurricane Ida’s intense rain bands.
Federal Emergency Management Agency-funded crews parked sedan-sized generators on the street outside. The generators powered hundreds of dehumidifiers to dry out the flooded interior while massive ducts were threaded through the building’s doorways and windows, carrying fresh air into the structure to curtail the spread of mold. Mitigation specialists estimated that it would take at least three months to repair.
Reed and his classmates were again forced apart, logging onto virtual classes from home while Douglass administrators scrambled to prepare a temporary location in a former school. Across harder-hit parts of southeast Louisiana, 70,000 schoolchildren were similarly delayed, often in rural areas where Internet services had been demolished, making virtual learning difficult.
In New Orleans, roofs were dotted with FEMA-blue tarps. But by early October, crews were starting to hammer on roofs across town, and Douglass returned to in-person learning on its temporary campus in Uptown.
Because of a bus driver shortage, about half of the school’s 660 students — many live near the Douglass building downtown and usually walked to school — continued to study virtually. The shortage, caused by the pandemic, became even more severe after the hurricane. A group of heavily recruited out-of-town hires evacuated ahead of the storm and chose not to return, LaRoche said.
Back studying online, Reed’s grades slipped.
“That virtual messed me up again,” he said.
It’s a now-familiar refrain from students stymied by the Zoom class year.
Reed said he couldn’t relate to virtual classes last year. “Usually, it was just the teacher talking.”
Back then, in the pandemic’s first year, Reed’s mom left for her grocery store job early in the morning. Without her there, Reed and his younger brother would often sleep through their morning alarms or else focus their cameras on their foreheads — which would show they were “present” — so that they could play video games while in class.
Reed also lost a key lifeline to school — athletics — because there were no buses to afternoon football practice. At first, by taking midday work breaks, his mom was able to get him to the practice field a few times. But those breaks got harder to take.
“Then he just stopped coming,” Taylor said.
Given his attendance record, Reed could be considered the archetypal lost student of the pandemic. Soon after schools were shuttered across the nation to curb the spread of COVID-19, parents, educators and policymakers began worrying that students like Reed would experience learning loss. A July 2021 study by McKinsey & Company estimated that, on average, U.S. students had built up a sizable learning lag: five months in mathematics and four months in reading.
Lagging test scores raised questions about long-term trajectories. Will the educational losses suffered over the past year put a permanent dent into each child’s future? The McKinsey study suggested it could: The average loss of wages could be between $49,000 and $61,000 over a lifetime for pandemic-era students. In New Orleans, fears that disruption will become part of the regular rhythm of schooling have heightened concerns. Climate-change experts predict more hurricanes like Ida. Beyond the academic losses, experts are sounding the alarm about children suffering from anxiety or feeling socially isolated, even as schools search for ways to address higher levels of need, with staffs stretched and stressed due to teacher and counselor shortages.
“Our students who had attendance issues pre-pandemic, they’re really having attendance problems now. Those with depression and anxiety, they’re really having those issues now. All of those basic concerns have widened,” said Stephen Sharp, president of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association, who has been studying the recovery from Hurricane Katrina to understand how long it may take pandemic-era students to regain their footing, mentally and academically.
To Pierre-Floyd, the larger lesson is that the pandemic has pushed education to the point that the very definition of schools has broadened. “School has often been defined as a building,” she said. “But it’s now clear, more than ever, that school is the community you’re around. School is the people who help make up your day. School has to go beyond a building.”
It’s easy to spin the pandemic learning-loss and climate change together into a whirling mess of worry. But that may misunderstand the basics of what makes children tick, said Whalen, the trauma expert. “It’s not all gloom and doom.”
At Douglass — despite everything — many students seem to be coping with the year’s ups and downs. “They’re rolling with it,” said Coach Taylor.
Whalen explained that children need “relationships and [emotional] regulation” to get through trauma. Athletes who form strong relationships with coaches can likely check both boxes, because they learn emotional regulation every time they take the field. “As you go through winning and losing, you learn to regulate emotions,” she said.
LaRoche sees educators working to shield students from this year’s roller coaster. “It’s like, ‘You don’t have to worry about the problems of the world, let us handle that part,’ ” he said. For example, he said, Douglass and other KIPP schools hosted elaborate homecoming celebrations this fall. “But behind those homecomings, some adults wore themselves out to make them happen in the most normal way possible.”
In the classroom, relationships with adults and other students are also key, Whalen said. “And that is why systems need to support the adults. So the adults can support the children.”
Part of what skilled adults do is cultivate resilience in children, said Whalen, who worked with New Orleans families in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. At Douglass, Pierre-Floyd sees that inner resilience and achievement in students like Reed. “Raphael is a brilliant person,” she said. “And his mom, in particular, pushes him to succeed. But he is not a stark outlier. Schoolwide, our reading levels are going up in crazy ways — our growth data day to day is actually better than previous years.”
Sharp, the Pennsylvania school counselor, has studied the pace of disaster recovery in an attempt to understand what it will take to help students and their teachers recover from the pandemic. “We know recovery is possible,” he said. “But it’s not going to happen in the next year. And it’s not going to be seamless.”
This year seems to prove that point: Progress is possible, even if it’s often followed by setbacks.
When the hurricane forced Douglass classes into exile in a temporary building, it also forced the coaches to curtail football practices. Football players who used to walk out the door and onto the practice field now left the temporary location Uptown and spent 30 or 40 minutes on a bus after school to get to the field.
It meant less time spent on the weight room training that protects against soft-tissue injuries to muscles, tendons and ligaments. Coaches also saw less speed and endurance in players studying virtually, who were more likely to be sedentary.
The Bobcats’ first three losses were against tougher, out-of-district opponents, but Reed’s winning pass during the fourth game gave the team a good shot at a district championship — partly because the district team they’d beaten, McDonogh 35, had a much higher ranking than they did. So, when the Bobcats played their fifth game, Reed jogged into his team’s first possession with a high dose of confidence.
“Our rhythm is so high, our morale so high,” he said. Yeah, they had started out the year on a losing streak. But Reed had seen his team begin to gel. He felt that they had something special. To him, triumph seemed almost inevitable.
Then, as he was tackled, he felt something pop.
The tendon that attaches his kneecap to his shinbone tore completely.
He had made it through so many obstacles — the hurricane, the temporary building, months of remote learning. “That was a little rough,” he said. But the roughest blow of all was his season-ending injury, just as he was getting back into in-person classes.
As Douglass celebrated homecoming week, Reed was in surgery. His doctors told him they expect him to make a full recovery in time for next season. But he spent most of the rest of November at home, back in virtual classes yet again.
This time, however, his phone was flooded with text messages from school. His classmates — many of whom he had barely known until they arrived at Douglass as sophomores this fall — made banners for the homecoming pep rally that read: “Get Well, Raphael,” and decorated them with hearts and footballs.
He was physically immobile, watching Zoom classes on his computer. It was a definite setback. But it felt different this time. “I got some good classmates — caring,” he said.
He was sitting still. But he felt forward momentum.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.