Following a delay due to Hurricane Sally, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) will resume in-person classes for select students next week and continue bringing additional grade levels back into its facilities in planned phases for the next month.
The system decided in July to stick with online classes for the first half of the fall semester because of the elevated number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the area at the time. Since then, the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths have all continued to trend downward in Mobile County and thousands of parents have expressed an interest in an in-person option for their children.
Superintendent Chresal Threadgill sent MCPSS staff a memo last week stating the system would begin a phased reopening plan for schools that would start with special education students on Sept. 14.
However, that plan was pushed back a week when the threat of Hurricane Sally led MCPSS to close all of its schools for several days. The system will continue staggering in additional grade levels over the next several weeks while still maintaining a virtual option for parents and students.
Under its initial plan, all MCPSS students would have only had access to remote learning for two more months. The decision to add an in-person option came just one week after virtual classes went live Sept. 8.
“Is remote learning the best for some students? Absolutely. However, over the past week, it has been determined that it is not best for all students,” Threadgill said. “It is working beautifully for some, others are showing no progress, and some are not capable of learning remotely. Based on numbers in our area and factual student data, I’ve decided we will begin phasing students back into the classrooms.”
According to Threadgill, students will be phased in by grade levels to allow schools, teachers and students to acclimate to the change. Some special education students will return to class Sept. 21, but all students will eventually have the option to do so beginning with pre-K, kindergarten, first, sixth and ninth grades Sept. 28; second, third, fourth, seventh and 11th grades Oct. 5; and fifth, eighth, 10th and 12th grades Oct. 12.
While the resumption of in-person instruction will give all students an option to return to the classroom for in-person learning, they will continue to complete lessons via the online platform Schoology, which is based on a digital curriculum set by the Alabama Department of Public Education earlier this year.
Speaking to Lagniappe, MCPSS spokesperson Rena Philips said using Schoology will help streamline the transition to in-person classes and provide consistency for any students or groups of students who may have to quarantine because of COVID-19 exposure later in the school year.
Things will also be different for the students who opt to return for in-person learning because of new COVID-19 safety protocols. Students and teachers will be required to wear masks and, depending on the layout of each school cafeteria, some may opt to serve students lunch in their respective classrooms. Students’ desks and workstations will also be spread out at least six feet apart.
In a letter to parents last week, Threadgill said MCPSS staff and principals will be doing everything to ensure its facilities are as safe as possible for students, teachers and administrators.
“We have put measures in place for our face-to-face learning, such as social distancing, wearing of masks, adjustments to our arrival and dismissal routines, as well as our breakfast/lunch program procedures to protect our students and employees,” Threadgill said. “We will be vigilant in our efforts, knowing that we will still have cases of COVID-19. We will also continue to enact quarantines as recommended by the CDC and the Mobile County Health Department (MCHD)”
According to Dr. Scott Chavers, an epidemiologist at MCHD, MCPSS’s evolving plans for the fall semester are an example of what can happen when decisions “aren’t made in a vacuum.” He said local health officials and school system administrators have continued to work together to make sure the health and safety of students and teachers are being balanced with what is best for public education.
“Although there are very serious consequences to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also had an effect on people having to watch their children and many of those people need to be in a position to put their children back in the classroom,” Chavers said. “Additionally, there are several reports in terms of what is needed for children and access to healthy food, socialization and all of that is critical for development.”
Chavers said the decision about whether to send a student back to school for in-person classes should ultimately be a personal decision based on the risks and benefits for each family. He said MCPSS’s plan will give parents options while making sure measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 are in place.
But more than public health officials, many parents and students have been quite happy with the decision.
Last week, Lagniappe spoke to parent Hannah White, whose daughters have been making the best of online classes despite wanting to return to school. White said her eldest, a high school freshman, was “ecstatic” to get the news about schools reopening last week, and her kindergartener is also excited to start school.
“Provided nothing gets postponed, they both will be returning [Sept. 28], and they’re both very excited,” White said. “My oldest felt very disconnected using the virtual platform and my kindergartener, she really wants to get to school and actually start making friends with those faces that she’s been seeing on the screen.”
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