By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Alabama students will be able to return to in-person teaching in the fall, but should expect to face a learning experience unlike any they have seen before.
State Superintendent Eric Mackey on Friday presented Alabama’s roadmap to reopening schools, which will include a combination of in-person and distance-learning options in response to the coronavirus.
“This is indeed going to be the most difficult school year that we’ve ever faced,” Mackey said. “It will be the most difficult school year to get through but we are absolutely determined to do it.”
The 46-page plan is not a mandate for local school systems, but rather a template meant to help local school districts solve problems concerning reopening and remote learning. When and how individual systems reopen remains up to local leadership.
“It’s designed to help, it is not the answer to everything,” Mackey said.
School instruction will be a mixture of traditional in-person teaching, remote online teaching and a combination of both. Schools systems will decide on how their instruction will be delivered.
According to recent surveying done by the State Department of Education, Mackey says about 15% of parents are not comfortable with sending their children back to schools, in many cases because they have underlying health conditions or because they live in a household with someone at high risk for COVID-19.
The interest in online instruction varies from county to county, Mackey said. One county showed as little as 3% were interested while another showed 80% were interested.
Online learning opportunities will be provided to every child in the state, Mackey said, and a remote learning curriculum to be rolled out to every school before classes start.
Mackey said the status of campuses being open may change as circumstances surrounding the virus change.
“So we could get in a situation where, for a while, a classroom has to be closed for a number of days,” Mackey said. “So those kinds of things may have to happen and those calls are going to be made by the local board of education, again with recommendations from the superintendent and in consultation with the department of public health.”
State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris joined Mackey at the announcement and explained that any decision to close all public schools is left up to Gov. Kay Ivey, but would be in cooperation with the state's education and public health agencies. He did not provide any details of what circumstances would be necessary for schools to be completely closed like they were in March. Students finished the school year at home.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended to any schools reopening that children be kept in small groups with as much distance as possible inside and outside.
But Mackey said he is not requiring every school to follow those guidelines because he understands that just won’t be possible for some.
“We understand that that’s certainly safer, but that’s not practical,” Mackey said.
In order to provide remote learning for every child in the state, Mackey said they are working on ways to bridge technology gaps in broadband access. Department officials will work with local systems to create more community hotspots and send devices home with students.
Ivey announced on Thursday the creation of a broadband working group with the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs to decide on how to best use Alabama’s allocation of CARES Act funding for broadband coverage.
Ivey approved up to $300 million of the $1.9 billion in Coronavirus Relief Aid funds given to Alabama be spent on expanding broadband statewide.
The Alabama Department of Public Health will be responsible for conducting contact tracing in schools and will follow the same protocol they have been following since the beginning of the pandemic.
In order to mitigate the spread of the virus, Alabamians must remain vigilant on social distancing guidelines and wearing masks, Harris said.
“These are decisions that every person has to make several times a day, every day and we will be having to make those decisions for months to come,” Harris said.
Mackey said that the first step in the screening process for students needs to start at home and if parents notice unexplained symptoms, then they need to contact their health care provider and follow their instructions. He did not say testing for COVID-19 will be necessary for students to return to school.
Mackey also said that formative assessments that happen at the beginning of the school year will still be conducted but said a decision on whether to have standardized testing in the spring hasn’t been made.
Extra-curricular activities, including sports, will be able to resume but special precautions and modifications will be developed for each activity.
Ryan Hollingsworth, the executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama, told Alabama Daily News that this plan was flexible enough for individual school systems to make the best decisions for their specific needs. He pointed out that resources vary between systems.
“As Dr. Scott Harris stated, contact tracing is a public health function not a function of school personnel,” Hollingsworth said. “When we have a positive case in school, we must have very accurate and timely contact tracing from the department of public health as we work to have a successful school year.
“In the long term, our state must continue to expand access to high-speed internet to all parts of Alabama as we have many of our students and citizens that do not have that at home. This is a tremendous barrier for remote learning as we saw at the end of last school year.”
Some schools have pushed back their starting dates to later in August in order to make necessary changes.
There are currently over 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alabama, with about 850 deaths reported.