By Jason Johnson and Gabriel Tynes
As public, private and parochial schools across the Gulf Coast prepare to resume in-person classes amid increasing COVID-19 cases, the Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) remains an outlier in the region — opting instead to delay its fall semester and open with virtual and remote classes initially.
During a press conference that seemed to be a surprise even to some principals and administrators, MCPSS Superintendent Chresal Threadgill announced last week he did not believe students would be able to safely return to the system’s 89 schools 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 says MCPSS purposefully delayed announcing any plans to resume in-person instruction in order to monitor the spread of the virus in the community.
During that same time period, Mobile County saw a significant increase in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and public health officials have since extended previous restrictions on businesses and implemented new face-covering requirements in most public spaces.
Given the trajectory, Threadgill said he had to put the health of students and employees 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. “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.”
New year, ‘new normal’
The Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) released its “Roadmap to Reopening Schools” in late June, which highlighted the need for increased social distancing and enhanced sanitization, but left larger decisions about face coverings, screening students and closing schools up to local officials.
Because the spread and impact of COVID-19 has varied from county to county, State Superintendent Eric Mackey made it clear there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach when students begin to return next month. In the weeks since the plan was first rolled out, though, Alabama’s COVID-19 numbers have steadily gotten worse — setting records for daily cases and hospitalizations.
“Every school is going to look different, and every school already looks different. What we do in one rural community can’t be the same as how we react in one of our major cities,” Mackey added. “Everything will be based on each community’s needs, resources and the spread of the virus.”
Last week, after legislators and health officials raised concerns before Alabama’s State Board of Education, ALSDE submitted a modified version of its initial reopening plan to Gov. Kay Ivey — one that put more emphasis on hiring school nurses, setting up isolation rooms and screening the temperatures of students and faculty on a daily basis.
However, how those recommendations are implemented is still up to each local school system and the details of what the 2020-21 school year will look like have varied as a result.
As mentioned above, MCPSS has delayed its school year and is one of only three school systems in the state opting to begin the school year entirely online. The majority of school systems are instead offering a “blended model” that gives parents the option between in-person and online instruction.
For the time being, the plan for MCPSS 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 nine weeks of school.
Threadgill said delaying the start of classes until September will give teachers more time to get familiar with the distance learning systems and curriculum and will also give school administrators and public health officials additional time to monitor the levels of COVID-19 in the local community.
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. “Remote classes” will be online as well, but will be led by a teacher and include video lessons designed to recreate the classroom experience.
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.
Though he was unable to put an exact price on it, Threadgill said MCPSS has already purchased thousands of Chromebook 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.
Last semester, MCPSS spent close to $500,000 buying thousands of additional devices using existing funding for textbooks and classroom technology. Threadgill did say federal COVID-19 relief funds from the CARES Act have helped cover some of those expenses heading into the new year, but not all of them.
Threadgill also said MCPSS’s budget appears to be remaining stable so far, and despite delaying the start of classes, the system doesn’t anticipate any impacts to its staffing levels or any kind of “layoffs.”
Making his announcement, Threadgill acknowledged everyone wouldn’t agree with his decision, and indeed the reaction has been mixed among parents, teachers and even students — some of whom have been vocal on social media about the decision to keep schools closed into November.
Threadgill 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 when school resumes.
One particularly concerned group has been the parents of special needs children, many of whom have stated publicly remote learning at home last semester was difficult for children who function better in a school setting or with one-on-one interaction with a teacher. Still, others have praised the decision as the safest path forward for MCPSS, which hasn’t had students on any of its campuses since March.
In a letter to parents last week, Threadgill acknowledged the challenges 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.
“My heart goes out to the parents. I know this is a very difficult time. I am a parent of three students myself, and my wife and I work … So, I understand the hardship that this puts on parents,” Threadgill said. “However, as superintendent, I have to focus on their safety and the well-being not only of our students but of our teachers and the parents and grandparents of these students as well.”
Threadgill said he hopes by preventing children and adults congregating in MCPSS classrooms, the system can help “flatten the curve” and decrease the coronavirus numbers enough so students can return to in-person classes for the second quarter.
Mobile County School Board President Don Stringfellow said Threadgill spoke with the board before the announcement and the members are standing behind him. Stringfellow said he agreed it was the right thing to do based on the recent growth in COVID-19 cases in the area and around the state.
He noted MCPSS has many students who live in “multigenerational homes” with several relatives, and administrators 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 school, but it has to be done in a safe manner.”
However, unlike students, teachers and support staff will be returning to schools when classes resume online, according to an email Threadgill sent to MCPSS employees this week. Threadgill said “teachers and other staff members will be required, unless ill, to return to their classrooms and teach their students remotely from their classrooms.” He said non-teaching staff would be assigned “full schedules” as well.
Across the bay, Baldwin County Public Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler announced last week students will be returning to class Aug. 12, and while he acknowledged there’s an “inherent risk” in bringing students together during a pandemic, his staff is doing everything to make the return as safe as possible.
Anticipating Gov. Kay Ivey’s amended “Safer at Home” order and statewide mask mandate will be extended past July 31, the school system is asking all students and staff to wear face coverings. Alternatives, such as face shields, will be provided for students with medical exemptions or special health needs. Students who do not comply will be encouraged and counseled to wear masks, and parents who oppose it with no valid reason will be recommended to seek virtual school or home school options.
Masks will be provided for students who don’t have one, Tyler said. Students may bring their own personal and creative face masks, but they will be subject to the existing Baldwin County Board of Education uniform policy, allowing no inappropriate imagery, symbols or language. When the governor revises the current state health order, the school system will make changes to the face mask requirement as needed.
Tyler also provided updates on policies regarding transportation, nutrition, sanitation and social distancing. Acknowledging it’s “near impossible” to constantly follow social distancing guidelines in a school environment, Tyler admitted “there is risk involved” in returning to class, but, “I want to assure you parents, our 4,000 employees are doing everything possible to make sure when your students return, we have created the best and safest environment we can.”
Because of space constraints, teachers cannot space desks six feet apart in most classrooms, Tyler said, but have been asked to do “the best they can” to separate students. Cafeterias will provide “grab-and-go” food options, and schools may provide more lunch waves for elementary schools or designated outside eating areas for middle and high schools.
Cafeterias and bathrooms will be sanitized several times a day, while buses will be sanitized after each trip in the morning and afternoon.
Tyler said “buses will be full,” but windows will be open when weather permits, students will be encouraged to wear face masks, drivers will be required to wear face masks and each bus will be equipped with hand sanitizer. Parents with concerns about crowded buses should seek alternative transportation, he added.
Temperature checks will be performed in all schools, and any student or staff member registering a fever of 100.4 degrees and higher will receive a follow-up visit from a nurse to investigate symptoms.
“I believe we have an excellent plan,” he said. “I’m just as certain we will not maintain standards every day and there will be instances where something doesn’t go right. Despite our best efforts, this is going to happen. But I remind you, you have a choice.”
Two weeks ago, Tyler announced all students will have the option of attending the county’s “virtual school” program, a home-based curriculum administered online. Previously, virtual school was only available to students in grades six through 12. While he didn’t provide exact numbers, Tyler said current enrollment in the virtual school program is up 10 percent over last year.
Like Baldwin County, the 2-year-old Gulf Shores City Schools is opening schools and resuming classes Aug. 12, through both traditional instruction and a virtual option. Normal admission requirements for the virtual program have been waived for all students in grades K through 12, but the school board said ideal applicants are “motivated learners who have access to regular adult support at home to ensure a successful learning experience.”
Elementary students enrolled in the virtual program will have the option of participating in weekly face-to-face or virtual enrichment activities at the Gulf Shores Virtual Academy, while students in grades six through 12 can participate in clubs, extracurriculars and athletics at their home school. Tutoring will be available, but students who cannot keep up with attendance or assignments in the virtual classroom may be required to attend traditional school.
Social distancing guidelines in Gulf Shores schools “will be followed as much as possible” using existing space, but pep rallies, assemblies and award ceremonies are postponed. Club activities may be held in accordance with state health guidelines, and athletic events will be scheduled with whatever guidance is provided by the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA). Face masks are encouraged but not required.
At St. Michael’s Catholic High School in Fairhope, the draft plan unveiled July 17 calls for traditional learning to begin Aug. 12, but there are options for full distance learning if necessary or “concurrent classrooms” if parents prefer, or if a student is exposed to the virus. Concurrent classrooms allow students to attend remotely via livestream.
Students who do return to class will enter the building through designated entrances depending on their grade; students may not congregate; and temperature checks and face masks are mandatory.
“Our goal is to protect every member of our community by minimizing virus transmission from student to student,” Principal Faustin Weber said. “We are adopting precautions that are known to reduce the potential for transmission, and we are asking for everyone’s support and good cheer in abiding by these protocols.”
The uncertainty that has plagued multibillion dollar professional sport leagues hasn’t spared high school athletics either, and while many have expressed optimism fall sports will return, there are still a number of state and local decisions to be made before that can happen.
Earlier this week, the high school athletic associations in Georgia and Mississippi — states that have some overlap with Alabama schools — delayed the start of their football seasons until at least September. Those decisions haven’t yet been made in Alabama.
Asked about how beginning the semester online could affect fall sports at MCPSS high schools, Threadgill was a bit cryptic, saying only that administrators had been in “constant communication” with the AHSAA and information would be forthcoming.
The AHSAA Central Board of Control is scheduled to meet this week on the subject of fall sports, and while there’s no rule that specifically prohibits students taking virtual classes from playing high school sports, it’s still unclear how, or if, MCPSS schools will participate this fall.
If MCPSS schools were to forgo fall athletics entirely, it would have impacts on a number of other schools in the district’s region and area as well. In football particularly, many MCPSS high schools typically play teams across the bay and in Mobile’s private and parochial school systems.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).