Parents will have the decision on whether or not to send their children to campuses for schools in August according to the state superintendent.
During a Friday morning press conference, state superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey explained the roadmap for how students will be able to learn on campus or from home.
All public-school campuses will reopen for the 2020-2021 academic year, though starting dates have mostly been pushed back towards the end of August, Mackey said. Local boards of education will be tasked with closing individual classrooms and schools as necessary due to outbreak, but the governor has the authority to close all public schools in a state emergency.
Local polling by the Alabama State Department of Education shows that, on average, about 15 % of parents are currently uncomfortable with sending their children back to a physical classroom, Mackey said. Some counties polled as low as 3 % or as high as 80 %.
The ALSDE has spent millions of dollars on cloud-based systems for all K-12 schools to provide class materials to teachers and students, Mackey said. Wi-Fi and hotspots are being added to school buses and public libraries for students to access coursework.
“Technology has become […] integrally linked to modern instruction,” Mackey said.
Unlike many other states, Alabama will not have significant financial cutbacks to the school system, Mackey said. Over $200 million has been spent in local school systems.
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Teachers will go through professional development courses to help them better teach online, Mackey said. Schools will be prepared for blended instruction, with students transitioning between in-class and online learning throughout the year.
ALSDE is working on formulative assessments for students, though they will be mostly online, Mackey said. The state’s standardized test was not given at the end of the 2020 academic year and ALSDE has not made a decision yet for the end of the 2021 academic year.
“We know there will be times this year where a student has to go home,” Mackey said. “[We must know] how we transition students in and out of schools.”
ALSDE will provide recommendations for health and safety practices to schools, divided between essential, guidance and consideration practices, Mackey said. Every school will implement practices differently depending on the situation and community needs.
On-campus and extracurricular activities will be different, Mackey said. On-campus meals and choir will be different. Teachers will be asked to inventory their classrooms and spread out desks.
Sports competitions will continue, Mackey said, and balls will be cleaned during every break during games. Crowds will most likely be distanced like at recent graduation ceremonies, with individual families distancing themselves from other families. There will be fewer nonessential people on the sidelines of games, including superintendents and mayors.
“If you’re not coaching, you need to be distancing,” Mackey said.
Screening for sickness must begin at home, Mackey said. Parents should not send students to school with unexplained symptoms. Parents are asked to contact their healthcare provider, discuss symptoms and have their child take a COVID-19 test if necessary.
Roughly half of public-school students require the bus to get to school, Mackey said. Students must sit in their seats and face forward instead of leaning over or turning around to talk to classmates. Busses, especially the handrail by the door, will be sanitized.
Schools will use contact tracing to alert students who were within six feet for 15 minutes or more of someone who tests positive for COVID-19, said state health officer Dr. Scott Harris.
“Contact tracing is a fundamental aspect of public health,” Harris said.
Rules related to COVID-19 practices are not binary, Harris said. Schools and students must take their current situation into account when making decisions.
“It is hard to have hard-and-fast rules for every scenario,” Harris said.
Harris expects to see outbreaks related to school events. Contact between people must be reasonably limited while allowing for classes and extracurriculars to continue.
“There is increased risk as we increase activity,” Harris said. “Yet, we recognize the importance of returning to normal activity.”
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