As the second week of the fall 2021 semester for public schools is underway, officials for Auburn City Schools and Opelika City Schools say this semester will present some challenges, but they hope to keep students in face-to-face classes safely as they see greater enrollment numbers than those last year.
Daniel Chesser, public relations coordinator for Auburn City Schools, said he witnessed an atmosphere of optimism among the district's students and staff during the first day of school on Aug. 10.
"I actually visited all 13 campuses and talked to students, talked to teachers and talked to principals, and there was just a lot of cheer and a lot of excitement," Chesser said. "[Face-to-face interaction] is so beneficial when it comes to the social and emotional overall wellbeing of our students."
ACS superintendent Cristen Herring echoed these sentiments and noted that the academic environment at the district's schools appeared to be like that of any normal year.
"In the first week of school, students are meeting new friends, teachers are excited to engage students in well prepared lessons, athletic practices are underway and traffic patterns are beginning to settle," Herring said.
Opelika City Schools superintendent Mark Neighbors said he felt teachers and children were overall pleased to be back to face-to-face learning during the first week, given present circumstances.
"When I walked through the schools this week, everyone was happy and excited to be back in school," he said. "The only bumps in the road were a few traffic issues, but that is normal for the first few days."
Auburn City Schools
ACS is still offering some level of virtual learning at elementary schools for families who may prefer that method, but Chesser said this option is not run by the district's own teachers, who have pivoted to fully in-person instruction.
"We are not administrating that at the local level like we did last year," he said. "I think what people really appreciated last year when we offered the virtual learning was that the teachers teaching those courses were the teachers and ACS."
Chesser said the district intends to remain open for the duration of the fall semester and is not currently considering remote options.
ACS is requiring students and staff to wear masks during school operations, and while Chesser said the decision upset some community members, including at a recent July 29 school board meeting, he said the district determined it to be an optimal move to allow in-person classes to continue.
"That's something that we feel is the best way to bring everybody together safely," Chesser said. "Our teachers and students know how to do this. We did it this whole past school year [for 179 days]."
ACS will reassess whether to uphold the mask mandate after the seventh week of class, Chesser said. Herring said other COVID-19 safety measures will be retained during this time as well.
"Through preventative measures that include increased sanitation methods, practical distancing, proper hand hygiene and the use of masks, we hope to keep schools open and safe for all students learning in our buildings," Herring said.
On Sunday, ACS publicly shared on its social media that 12 individuals within the district tested positive for COVID-19 from Aug. 10-13, resulting in a 10-day quarantine for 37 students and staff. There were nine COVID-19 cases and 112 individuals in quarantine during the same period last school year.
The district is not requiring employees to be vaccinated at this time. Chesser said about 70% of staff were vaccinated in February after ACS partnered with East Alabama Medical Center to run an employee vaccine clinic.
While the district doesn't have an exact count of its total students right now, Chesser said ACS began the school year with over 9,100 students — a record enrollment. The district was made up of about 8,900 students during the previous 2020-21 school year.
"We've grown a little bit, but you also have to keep in mind more than 600 [students] graduated in May," Chesser said. "That means around 700-800 new faces in ACS this year."
Chesser said this year's growth wasn't as dramatic as in recent years but said administrators are pleased to see a continued rise in students this year.
"If you're graduating 600-plus in May and then your numbers are still increasing in August ... that's an indication that there's constant growth," Chesser said.
Herring said this growth is reflected in the district's ongoing construction projects at J.F. Drake Middle School, East Samford School and Auburn Junior High School as well as the new Woodland Pines Elementary School being built on Farmville Road.
Chesser said ACS has about 1,180 educators this year, employing over 80 new instructors this year from elementary to high school levels. Other staffing areas like the district's human resources department and its team of bus drivers are always seeing new hires.
"We started the year with 90 bus drivers and we're always accepting applications in that regard," he said.
Niche, an education ranking and review company, currently ranks ACS sixth on its list of best school districts in Alabama. Chesser said ACS' positive reputation, the population growth of Lee County and Auburn and strong financial support from the City could all be cited as reasons the district receives more students and staff each year.
"It's one of those things where, you know, you have a strong sense of community, a strong sense of pride, and Auburn is a city that values education," he said. "The City has been ... an important partner in making our school system successful because they provide us funds when it comes to facilities and maintaining and updating and building new schools."
Opelika City Schools
There are no remote options for students at Opelika City Schools at present, but Mark Neighbors, district superintendent, and Becky Brown, public relations coordinator, said the district is prepared to go remote at the school or district level if necessary.
Masks are mandated for staff and students on OCS campuses, and Neighbors said those on the district's campuses appeared to be adhering to the mandate.
"Our staff and students are familiar with the procedures, so [the mandate] is working well," Neighbors said. "We have continued the COVID procedures that we implemented last year with minor changes."
OCS has not set a deadline to reassess its mask policy, instead waiting until local COVID-19 positivity rates decline.
"We continually track the local conditions and have conversations with our local health professionals to determine a point that masks can become optimal," Neighbors said.
Brown said there is no specific local positivity rate threshold that would lead the district to rescind the mask mandate.
Students who test positive for COVID-19 while at school are sent to school nurses who follow guidance from the Alabama Department of Public Health, according a statement from the district, which includes a mandatory 10-day quarantine for positive individuals and requires school principals and nurses to report suspected and diagnosed cases to the state.
Nurses are not authorized to administer COVID-19 tests to students, the district said. The district declined to share how many individuals within the district tested positive during the first week of classes from Aug. 9-13.
School district employees are not required to be vaccinated, but Neighbors noted OCS had an on-site employee vaccine clinic in January through cooperation with EAMC.
OCS welcomed 4,833 students its first day of fall semester including those at the prekindergarten level, an increase over last year's enrollment of 4,716. A total 264 students graduated from the district in May.
"Enrollment has been steadily growing over the past few years," Neighbors said. "We would attribute it to more families moving to the area."
There were 85 new teachers hired for the 2021-22 school year on OCS campuses, with 25 new positions created in the district's elementary schools. The district said it did not seek out any specific employees for this year but has a consistent need for bus drivers.
"We added lead teachers at each elementary school," Neighbors said. "We are always in need of additional bus drivers."
CORRECTION: Auburn City Schools began its first day of classes on Aug. 10, not Aug. 9, as was stated in a previous version of the story. As such, the district's COVID-19 update on positive cases covered Aug. 10-13, not Aug. 9-13 as previously stated.
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Tim Nail, senior in journalism, is the community editor of The Auburn Plainsman.