The coming school year will look different from any students have gone through before, but top education officials say public schools across Alabama are planning to resume in-person classes this fall.
Last week, the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) released the “Roadmap to Reopening Schools” — a framework of requirements, guidance and recommendations for local systems to plan for returning students to the classroom for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
According to State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey, it is “absolutely” ALSDE’s intention to resume classroom instruction on every school campus this fall, with some schools returning as early as Aug. 4.
“There will be an opportunity for in-person instruction for every child in the state whose parent chooses to send them to school … all year long,” Mackey said. “We’ll certainly see more distance-learning opportunities, but as far as the day to day and being at school and being a part of a school community, what we’re hearing overwhelmingly from students and parents is they want to be back at school.”
While that’s the goal, Mackey said, ALSDE has continued to invest COVID-19 funding into the expansion of online learning capabilities. The state has already put $18 million into a “remote-learning curriculum” in order to make virtual school models available in districts throughout the state. Individual school districts have also continued to use their own funding to grow their cache of digital devices and Wi-Fi hotspots.
The ALSDE “roadmap” highlights the need for increased physical distance between students and teachers as well as enhanced sanitization and disinfection practices; however, it leaves larger decisions about face coverings, screening students and closing schools up to local boards of education — decisions it says should be made with Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and local public health officials.
Because the spread and impact of COVID-19 has varied from county to county, Mackey said there can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach when students return this fall.
“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,” he added. “Everything will be based on each community’s needs, resources and the spread of the virus.”
The attitudes parents have about what measures are appropriate can also vary depending on how COVID-19 is impacting their respective communities, according to Mackey. Over the last few weeks, ALSDE has been surveying parents and has seen mixed reactions about returning to the classroom.
Statewide, he said 15 percent of parents surveyed aren’t comfortable sending their children back to the classroom, in many cases because the child or a family member has an underlying medical condition that could lead to complications from COVID-19. In some districts with significant outbreaks, 80 percent of parents said they’d like to keep their children home this fall. In others, only 3 percent felt the same.
But whether students are uncomfortable or need to learn remotely because of exposure to COVID-19, Mackey has said local districts are working on creating individualized plans to accommodate them.
He also said, as long as the pandemic persists, it’s reasonable to assume there will be cases of COVID-19 reported among students and staff members in public schools. The planning taking place at the local level now is to help keep those cases from spreading when they do occur.
“[ADPH] will still have the responsibility for contact tracing, and it’s also their responsibility to provide guidance through official public health orders, which we will follow and make sure we are applying in our schools,” Mackey said.
Officials are trying to find a way to resume extracurricular activities as well as athletic competition in the fall as well, though like classroom instruction, Mackey said things may look different this year. He deferred specifics to the Alabama High School Athletics Association (AHSAA), but said he expects to see greater social distancing on sidelines and in stands as well as enhanced cleaning during games.
The increased requirements for schools will no doubt come with additional costs. According to the School Superintendents of Alabama, an average school district in the state would need at least an additional $1.8 million to purchase things like personal protective equipment, sanitation supplies, temperature screening equipment and certified COVID-19 testing kits for those who need them.
Fortunately, Mackey noted, unlike other states impacted by the financial fallout from COVID-19, Alabama has not seen its education budget slashed … yet. The Legislature approved a record-setting $12 billion budget in May, though it is possible that figure could be adjusted as the fiscal year proceeds.
There are some federal funds available to help students return to campus as well. Earlier this week, Gov. Kay Ivey set aside $30 million from Alabama’s share of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act to help facilitate widespread testing at two-year colleges and universities and to launch a broader contact tracing phone application.
Sen. Doug Jones has also joined as a co-sponsor of the bipartisan Reopen Schools Safely Act, which aims to create a new federal grant program to help schools and colleges reopen this fall.
“With school systems and universities across Alabama announcing their plans to bring back in-person learning this fall, we need to make sure schools can keep students, teachers and other education staff safe and healthy,” Jones, a member of the Senate Education Committee, said. “School budgets are already being cut due to the economic impacts of the pandemic, leaving schools with complex changes and adjustments to make without much funding to do it. It’s time for Congress to step up to fill the gap so students can safely get back to the classroom and parents can return to work with some peace of mind.”
The Mobile County Public School System announced this week it plans to resume classes Aug. 10, though Superintendent Chresal Threadgill said details about specific schools and student groups are still being ironed out and should be expected sometime in mid-July. Baldwin County Public Schools have previously given a similar timeline for when more details about their fall semester will be released.
“As you know, things are still changing with each coming day as it relates to COVID-19 and its impact on our community. Therefore, as we make final plans for the start of school, please understand that things are subject to change,” Threadgill said in a statement. “However, it is my intent to communicate our plans by mid-July to allow you as parents to make needed preparations for your student(s).”
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