Mobile County Public Schools System (MCPSS) Superintendent Chresal Threadgill is asking for the “support and cooperation” of teachers and parents as Alabama’s largest school system prepares to educate 53,000 students at home.
“With each passing day, we are receiving new information as to how [COVID-19] is continuing to change what we considered normal. The number of cases identified is on a dramatic rise, and our hearts truly go out to those whose loved ones have fallen victim to this mind-boggling pandemic,” Threadgill said in a letter to parents. “However, even in the worst of times, we are still forging forward and not losing our momentum at MCPSS with our plan to educate our students beyond spring break.”
Last week, Gov. Kay Ivey ordered all public schools in Alabama to remain closed for the rest of the school year. She temporarily closed them March 13 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 with hopes of having students return after two and a half weeks. However, with cases trending upward daily, Ivey said she and State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey made the difficult choice to keep students home.
Ivey and Mackey both said students will continue to receive instruction in their homes beginning April 6, through plans tailored to the specific needs of their districts and schools.
“Nothing can replace the interaction between a teacher and students in a classroom setting. However, access to high-quality instruction is crucial for our students to maintain their competitive edge academically,” Ivey said. “Certainly, we’ll be dealing with the fallout of COVID-19 in our health and economy, but the one thing we want to prevent is a slide in our students’ educational achievement.”
Alabama has never closed this many schools for this length of time before, but Mackey said the health crisis posed by COVID-19 is unprecedented, as well. While some school systems have the platform to deliver online classes and several already have virtual academies, Mackey acknowledged Alabama has unequal access to broadband internet, which can vary from county to county and family to family.
That could be challenging for some districts, while others can simply move their courses online using existing models for virtual schooling. But even in systems where those capabilities exist, not every family has internet access at home to tap into because of financial and sometimes geographical hurdles.
Ivey has pushed to expand broadband during her administration using millions of dollars from federal grants. As recently as Tuesday, her office awarded $9.5 million in broadband expansion grants for several rural counties, but it’s unclear how fast those dollars may be able to bring those communities online.
Last week, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) released guidance to school systems that included approved options for distance or virtual learning methods (online courses), as well as physical packets and book assignments students can take home. There are also options that combine both.
Mackey said ALSDE is willing to be as flexible as possible so districts can tailor their approach to the specific needs in their schools and communities. He said outside agencies are also willing to help bring students quality instruction and enrichment in their homes and offer resources to struggling parents.
“We’re going to be able to offer online learning through our distance learning platform, but also take-home packets and some other resources as well,” he said. “The Alabama Public Library System has enhanced the hours of its Homework Hotline and has over 3,000 people manning phone lines ready to help students and parents. Alabama Public Television has also stepped up and they’re going to be broadcasting courses at different times during the day, which can get into more homes than the internet.”
Federal education officials have already granted a waiver for all states’ required standardized testing, which usually happens in April. Alabama has seen a rollercoaster of changing tests over the past five years and was set to unveil a new test developed to its own standards next month. However, Mackey said things are still on schedule to use that new exam for the 2020-21 school year.
One of the most frequent questions schools have received has been about what happens to seniors in the Class of 2020. Well, so far, that seems to depend on where they were academically before the break. ALSDE has confirmed that seniors who were on track to graduate and in good standing as of the third nine weeks’ reporting period will be considered “as meeting the graduation requirements” for the state.
Administrators in each school system are currently in the process of developing a plan to make sure those who need to catch up can in time to graduate with their classmates. According to Threadgill, no graduation ceremonies will be held as scheduled, though the district is exploring options for possibly holding them later in the year once public health restrictions have been lifted.
Threadgill said Monday that MCPSS would be conducting a phone survey of all parents in the coming days that will help determine how its plans for at-home learning will take shape. Few details have been released, but Threadgill did indicate MCPSS will use a combination of digital and physical resources to make sure all students are learning.
“We will have other options in place for those who do not have devices and or internet access,” Threadgill wrote in his March 30 letter to parents. “Our team is making plans to ensure that ALL students get the instruction they need to be prepared for the next school year.”
He also noted that, through some business partnerships, MCPSS is able to offer discounted internet hotspots to students for $50 per month and other internet providers have also stepped up to offer discounted plans for families who qualify based on income. More information about those options for parents is available on the district’s website, mcpss.com.
Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler has said their school system will be able to provide free hotspot devices to some students without Wi-Fi access at home through a partnership with AT&T. However, he also noted that there aren’t enough to give them to every student and said the system would be using a mix of online and offline distance learning programs throughout the county.
Tyler said he will be addressing parents later this week with more details on how the system will handle distance learning for the remainder of the year. He also said students’ individual teachers would be soon reaching out with additional information before classes start back on April 6.
“Please continue to do your best to enjoy the time you have with your family. I know you are as concerned as I am about our health, the health of our family members and also our economic circumstances,” Tyler wrote to parents this week. “I’m with you in worrying, but I continue to believe we’re going to come through this stronger than we were before.”
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