With the greenlight from state health officials and a new set of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), public and private schools across Alabama are preparing to resume some on-campus activities as early as June 1.
The current school year was previously extended into June to allow seniors time to make up work needed to graduate, but most students in Alabama have completed school already. Like others across the United States, they finished their 2019-20 school year at home due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But heading into the summer months, Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) have laid out a path for those schools to reopen for some in-person activities next month, including summer school, camps and workouts, conditioning and skills training for student athletes.
“K-12 schools are what [State Superintendent] Dr. [Eric] Mackey and his team have been working diligently on, and they continue to work on their plan and issue guidance to school boards around the state, who ultimately will make those decisions about when it is safe for their schools to reopen,” State Health Officer Scott Harris said. “Colleges and universities are working on their own plans related to that.”
The change came down last week in an amendment to Ivey’s “Safer at Home” order and followed recent guidance from the CDC on how schools can be safely reopened to students. The guidelines, which are not mandatory, lay out escalating preventative measures based on the prevalence of the virus in a community.
Regardless of whether an area is seeing “minimal,” “substantial” or “no community transmission” of COVID-19, all schools are encouraged to intensify their regular cleaning and disinfection practices and to provide adequate supplies of soap, hand sanitizer, paper towels and “touchless trash cans,” when feasible.
The CDC also encourages schools to “reinforce the use of face coverings among all staff members” and encourage their use among students, though it acknowledged requiring some younger students to wear face coverings all day could be “challenging” for teachers and administrators.
Some of the other highlights include recommendations to restrict or cancel any gatherings where groups of students are commingled. Schools are also encouraged to incorporate six-foot social distancing practices in classrooms and on busses while closing communal spaces like cafeterias and playgrounds.
The guidance also encourages schools to have plans in place to teach and feed students remotely in case schools have to close — whether they are temporarily shuttered for cleaning and disinfecting or closed for an extended period of time due to the increased prevalence of COVID-19 in certain communities.
Last week, Ivey said she’d spoken with education officials and gotten the impression some things the CDC would like to see “are just impossible to accommodate” given some of the financial challenges and physical capacity issues some schools in Alabama face. In an email to Lagniappe, Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) Director of Communications Dr. Michael Sibley said “the guidance from CDC is just that, guidance.”
“There are some of the recommendations the CDC suggested that we will absolutely adhere to. As much as possible we will follow guidance on cleanliness, suggested face coverings and what we’ve all come to know as social distancing protocol. There were, however, several suggestions from the CDC that are simply not practical for us to follow,” Sibley wrote. “For example, the recommendation for school buses to skip seats and have only one student per seat. We just do not have the ability to do that. Keeping students six feet apart in classrooms is another. We have recommended that, at least for the summer, there be one adult available to supervise for every 12 students at camps, etc. We plan to adhere to whatever we can reasonably do, with the understanding that these are guidelines not rules.”
The reopening of schools in June will mean student-athletes can resume workouts and conditioning, though competitions won’t be allowed to resume until June 15 at the earliest. Under the amended “Safer at Home” order, players, coaches and officials are required to avoid congregating within six feet of one another outside of what is necessary to participate in the athletic activity. It also states players, coaches and spectators should “refrain from high fives, handshakes” and any other unnecessary physical contact.
Athletic activities can start as soon as June 1, but Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) have yet to set a firm date for when student athletes might return to campus. Spokesperson Rena Philips said administrators met with athletic directors and coaches last week and are awaiting individualized plans from each school on how they can adhere to guidelines set by the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA).
Once those plans are submitted and approved, Philips said parent meetings will be held at each school.
“We will continue to work with state officials and our principals to figure out what will work best for our students.” she said. “We are going to do everything to make sure that, when students do return, there are adequate safety measures in place to ensure they’re coming back to the best conditions possible.”
As for other student activities like summer school, Philips said MCPSS was still working on those plans and waiting for further guidance from ALSDE. Whenever classes resume fully, some have already expressed concerns about what the new CDC and ALSDE guidelines will mean for faculty and staff.
Jesse McDaniel with the Alabama Education Association said he agreed with ALSDE that some of the guidelines proposed by the CDC aren’t feasible, and added that some practices previously implemented to cut costs — like the outsourcing custodial positions — may need to be reevaluated.
At the end of the day, McDaniel said teachers, custodians and paraprofessionals working in public schools will “do everything they can to keep students safe,” but will need support from their respective administrations in order to safely adapt to the “new reality” of returning to school amid COVID-19.
“Districts should provide [personal protective equipment] to employees who are in close contact with students, restrict the number of faculty meetings being held and promote social distancing to the extent possible. There is no one-size-fits-all approach in this new reality, but we cannot cut corners when it comes to safety,” McDaniel said. “We frequently hear from employees who say they feel pressured by a superior not to call out sick when they or their child is ill. School leaders must abandon this type of thinking if the goal is safety for everyone.”
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