Alabama roadmap to open K-12 schools nearly ready, state chief says

June 11, 2020

Alabama school bus parked during closures
An Alabama school bus parked during the closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.

By Trisha Powell Crain

Alabama’s roadmap for reopening K-12 public schools in August will be a multi-tiered plan and will include a virtual option for parents uncomfortable sending their children back inside school buildings, according state superintendent Eric Mackey.

Tiers in the plan will be based on the spread of coronavirus in the community, he said, and safety is the top priority.

“There’s no question,” Mackey said, “that our students will be as safe as we can make them in the fall.”

Mackey previously said the roadmap will be ready by June 19.

One of the plan’s missing components right now, he said, is what exactly would trigger a school to move from one tier to the next, and whether the Alabama Department of Public Health or some other agency would make that call.

While the task force for reopening schools is looking at plans from other states like Georgia and North Carolina, he said, those plans aren’t clear about those triggers, either.

Beyond what those tiers look like is determining who will return to school buildings when the new school year starts.

Some Alabama schools are starting back the first half of August, he said, and the biggest problem school officials are sorting through right now is exactly which students are coming back into school buildings.

“When you’re deciding how many teachers you need doing traditional (school) versus how many teachers you need doing virtual, how many devices you’re going to need, whether you’re going to need any mobile hotspots,” Mackey said, “you’ve got to know a pretty good estimate.”

Local superintendents are currently surveying their communities to gather those numbers. Some have found up to 20% of their students want to do virtual school, he said.

Not all school districts have the capability to serve that many students virtually, so the state department is creating a statewide virtual learning platform that schools can use to serve their students. The state department of education opened proposals on Monday from nine vendors who want to provide components of virtual instruction that can be used statewide, he said.

The vendors include Fuel Education/K12, Edgenuity, Edmentum, Defined Learning, Acellus Academy, eDynamic, Schools PLO, Grade Results and Discovery Education. The exact cost isn’t known yet, he said. “It’ll be in the millions, but we don’t think it will be astronomical.”

Mackey said the committee charged with deciding on a vendor is in a “very fast track” and should make a decision within the next few days.

Related: Alabama prepares for more students to choose online school next year

Some districts already are operating virtual programs, he said, but a statewide provider is needed to help those school systems without a current virtual program in all grades.

Hoover City Schools on Monday released results from a survey they recently conducted showing less than half of parents and teachers are comfortable returning to school buildings when school starts this year.

Not knowing exactly what classrooms will look like is likely making it difficult for parents to choose.

Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that if schools open, they may want to keep children in small groups throughout the school day, forego recess, and eat meals inside the classroom rather than the cafeteria.

Mackey said CDC guidelines are being considered, as are those from the World Health Organization and the Alabama Department of Public Health.

Related: Teachers in masks, lunches in classrooms, CDC guidelines envision stark new year for schools

Local school officials will have final say over which guidelines they implement, he said, and school could look very different in one part of the state versus another.

The second biggest struggle schools are facing, he said, is where the best place is to educate students who may have disabilities or medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Teachers are another concern. “We know the vast majority of students want to come back to school, and we’re going to have to have teachers to teach them,” Mackey said. “At some point, the vast majority of teachers will have to come back to school, too.”

Teachers with underlying health conditions might become virtual teachers, he said, but those will be local decisions by individual school districts.

“The fact is,” he said, “we don’t know exactly what every classroom in the state is going to look like two months from now because we don’t know what every community is going to look like two months from now.”

“It’s difficult on everybody. There’s no question about that.”

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