On Friday, Alabamians got their first glance at what the in-person school experience will look like as the COVID-19 novel coronavirus epidemic continues to spread into the next school year. The bottom line from State Superintendent Eric Mackey is that there’s no way to completely remove risk of contagion, but students and parents have made it clear they want school to return in August. 

“We aren’t back to normal so things will look different,” Mackey said. “No one should think this is going to be easy. This will be the most difficult school year we’ve ever faced and the toughest for us to get through, but the students are counting on us, so we will return.”

Among the sights to expect:

• Intensified and more frequent disinfecting of school facilities and school buses. 

• Social distancing as much as possible in classrooms, congested hallways, in school cafeterias and on school buses.

• Improvements to distance learning (many systems were suddenly thrust unexpected into virtual learning when schools shut down in the spring, but investments have been made in improving the curriculum and expanding the distribution of tablet computers), which will still be an option available for any parents who still have concerns about the safety of in-person instruction. 

• Expansion of wifi on school buses to accommodate children who do not have access to the Internet available at home and increasing the number of hot spots in rural areas of the state, including at public libraries.

• Cleaning of footballs, basketballs and volleyballs as frequently as is plausible for contact sports, along with players and parents distancing farther from one another on sidelines and in stadiums (similar to what was done at the recent graduation ceremonies). 

• At competitive sporting events, schools may be subject to the rules 

the host school’s jurisdiction. For example, a requirement to wear a protective face mask to gain entry into the game. He said, “It’s not possible to have athletics without physical contact, but we will minimize the risk as much as we can.” Mackey also recommended fewer people allowed on the field during football games, adding, “We don’t need mayors or county commissioners watching from the sidelines.”

• Reorganizing of some elementary classrooms where teachers had changed to small groups gathered around U-shaped tables as recommended by early childhood education best practices and returning to individual desks, all facing forward, with teachers at the front of the room. Mackey said some recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – such as spacing desks six-feet apart and placing plexiglass dividers between students – just aren’t practical. 

• The state is following Georgia’s negotiations with federal education officials seeking a waiver on standardized testing. Students will be immediately assessed at the start of this school year to determine where they are academically and what resources may be needed to catch up. 

• Students in close-contact extracurriculars like chorus may socially distance or find ways to rehearse through face masks. 

• Students who test positive for the coronavirus will shift from in-person instruction to remote learning and back to classrooms once they are confirmed to no longer be infectious. 

• If a local government adopts ordinances, such as making face masks mandatory, the schools will be subject to the rules of that community. 

Local school systems will have broad authority to take action based on the conditions on the ground, he said, and situations will be different in rural as opposed to urban school districts, both in terms of student population congestion and convenient availability of resources. 

“Every school is going to look different, and what’s done in rural communities like DeKalb County won’t look the same as urban districts,” Mackey said. 

ALSDE is providing a short guide for parents on its website, alsde.edu, to accompany the 50-page comprehensive plan intended for educators. 

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris called the plan released by the Alabama State Department of Education a “good framework” to make sure kids get the education they need while keeping people safe. 

“People want really specific black and white guidance because that’s comforting, but it’s very difficult to look into the future, and many things we be unanticipated,” he said. “There’s all sorts of events to think through and varying levels of risk for different activities. Local school systems can make these individualized decisions if they keep the basic tenets in this document in mind.”

The guidelines represent an attempt to find balance between taking precautions to reduce risks and starting a return back to normalcy after six months of unprecedented disruptions to life as usual. Presently, there is no treatment or vaccine for the coronavirus, so no one can say exactly how long the dangers will remain. 

Harris said Gov. Kay Ivey will retain the authority to shut down schools again if conditions require dramatic action, but he said individual communities may be affected rather than the whole state and such a call wouldn’t happen without first consulting the impacted agencies. 

“Our decisions we make daily will determine how this turns out,” Harris said. “Every person has to make decisions [on how to protect themselves and others]. It doesn’t work if you take precautions in the morning, but stop doing them by the afternoon. You have to do it every day, several times a day, all day long, and we’ll have to do these things for probably months to come.”

Harris told parents to expect there will be instances when an outbreak happens at a school, similar to seasonal flu outbreaks. When that happens, the role of the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) will be to perform contract tracing to investigate and inform those who’ve potentially been exposed so they can get tested. 

“When that happens, we will do everything we can within what’s reasonable to do to minimize risks to every extent that we can,” Harris said. 

Because COVID-19 is so contagious and appears to affect vulnerable populations such as the elderly or those with compromised immune systems with a higher risk of complications, families will also have to factor in the ramifications of a student who tests positive being around others in the home. 

Mackey said parents are the front line of defense against outbreaks.

“The screening process has to begin at home,” he said. “Check the child’s temperature to make sure it is below 100.4 degrees and look for common symptoms. Don’t put that child on a school bus or drop him or her off if they’re sick. Contact your health provider and discuss with them what steps need to be taken.” 

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