With cases of COVID-19 continuing to rise, Superintendent Chresal Threadgill said he doesn’t believe students can safely return to Mobile County schools on Aug. 10 as officials had originally planned.
Staff members at the central office and school level have been working on a “reopening plan” for several weeks now, but Threadgill said Thursday MCPSS had purposefully delayed announcing any plans to resume in-person instruction in order to monitor the spread of the virus in the community.
The past few weeks have seen significant increases, leading state officials to extend restrictions on businesses and implement a face-covering requirement in most public spaces. Given that trajectory, Threadgill said he had to put the health of the students and employees he oversees first.
“We have to do what is right for our children and our employees, and we have to prioritize their health and safety above all else,” Threadgill said in a statement. “I look forward to the day that all of our students and teachers can gather in our buildings again. However, in looking at the data and in talking to health and education experts, now just does not seem like the right time.”
The plan, for the time being, is for online classes to resume Sept. 1 — giving parents a choice between an existing virtual school option and a newly implemented remote learning system for their students. That would be the format through at the least the first quarter (nine weeks) of the fall semester.
The “virtual option” is the existing MCPSS Academy of Virtual Learning, which Threadgill said is more student-driven and allows participants to work at their own pace. The “remote option” is led by teachers, includes video lessons and is designed to capture as much of the classroom experience as possible.
After the first nine weeks, Threadgill said MCPSS administrators would reevaluate the situation and decide what to do for the remainder of the fall semester. So far, MCPSS and Selma City Schools are the only school systems in Alabama to opt to begin the school year entirely online. Many others are offering a blended model that gives parents options between in-person and online instruction.
Though he was unable to put an exact price on it, Threadgill said MCPSS has already purchased thousands of Chromebooks (laptops) and wi-fi hotspots for students who don’t have the digital devices or internet access needed to participate in remote learning at their homes.
He did say federal COVID-19 relief funds from the CARES Act have covered some of those expenses, though not all of them.
In a letter to parents on Thursday, Threadgill acknowledged the challenges that keeping schools closed might present for working parents, but he said school officials have to weigh those difficulties against the health and safety of more than 50,000 students and more than 8,000 employees.
“Nothing about the past four months has been easy. I want you to know that I believe with my whole heart that this is the right thing to do,” Threadgill wrote. “My hope is that if we do our part and not have children and adults congregating in our classrooms that we will flatten the curve and decrease the coronavirus numbers enough so that we can return to school for the second quarter.”
Threadgill also said around 40 percent of parents who participated in a recent MCPSS survey told school officials they’d be more comfortable returning to online classes given the lingering threat of COVD-19.
Several members of the Mobile County School Board flanked Threadgill at the meeting as he made his announcement. President Don Stringfellow told Lagniappe Threadgill spoke with board members before the announcement and all five are standing unanimously behind him.
Stringfellow agreed it was the right thing to do based on the recent growth in COVID-19 cases in the Mobile area and around the state. He noted that MCPSS has many students who live in “multigenerational homes” with several relatives and administrators also have to consider their staff members’ health as well.
“These are extraordinary times and circumstances,” Stringfellow said. “All of us want kids to come back to schools, but it has to be done in a safe manner.”
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