Updated Nov 22, 2020; Posted Nov 22, 2020
Despite widespread rumors, only a handful of Alabama school districts have opted to go virtual between Thanksgiving and the end of winter break as COVID cases rise in the state.
Superintendents in several large districts have taken to social media to put those rumors to rest. Instead of a full three-week shutdown, most districts affected by COVID have chosen shorter closures or temporary changes to hybrid schedules.
Two north Alabama districts, Marshall County and Colbert County, have switched to virtual learning for the three weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break. Schools in Hoover and Huntsville announced a switch to staggered schedules for the weeks between the breaks. Other districts, such as Boaz City, have announced shorter switches to virtual learning.
Marshall County Superintendent Cindy Wigley tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 11 after cases in the district more than doubled in the first two weeks of November.
A bus driver in Colbert County died from coronavirus on Nov. 8, prompting Superintendent Gale Satchel to stop in-person school until January. “I don’t want anyone else under my supervision to die from this disease,” Satchel said.
Colbert County will provide in-person school for special needs students unable to learn virtually, Satchel said. Other students will switch to virtual for the three weeks between the holidays with a plan to return in January.
“At the end of the day, COVID kills, death is real, and we want to make sure that it doesn’t occur on our watch,” Satchel said. “I have kids who don’t have a bus driver. I have a wife who doesn’t have a husband and I have children who do not have a father.”
The rising number of COVID-19 cases in Colbert County schools also caused staffing shortages, Satchel said. Most schools that have closed temporarily have cited staffing as the reason. Substitutes are in short supply, and long quarantine periods for all exposed staff members have left many schools unable to operate.
So far, districts are handling those decisions on a case-by-case basis. The Alabama State Department of Education will not ask schools to close in December, said Michael Sibley, spokesman for the Alabama State Department of Education.
“I can absolutely confirm there are no statewide mandates to close schools after Thanksgiving,” Sibley said. “That’s a rumor that has gotten out but is not true. Individual systems have the authority to close if their superintendent/board sees fit.”
The number of COVID-19 cases in Alabama schools jumped significantly this week, reflecting a statewide increase. The 7-day average of new cases in the state reached its highest level this week. Hospitalizations have been rising for weeks.
Closing schools may not have as big of an impact on case numbers as limiting other social activities. Research on COVID transmission found that churches, bars, restaurants and hotels have been linked to the largest number of cases. Cases in schools often come from the community, according to research from Brown University, although doctors in Alabama said they have seen transmission from children to family members.
Other communities have closed schools in response to increases in COVID-19. New York City Schools closed eight weeks after they reopened when the city’s test positivity rate topped 3 percent.
Most European countries experiencing a fall wave have taken a different approach. France, Spain and Germany shut down some businesses, including bars and restaurants, but kept schools open for younger children.
Most school districts in Alabama offer in-person and virtual options for students. A handful of districts have not reopened schools for classes this year.
At a November meeting of the Alabama State Board of Education, State Superintendent Eric Mackey said COVID had made it difficult for schools to operate at full capacity.
“They don’t have enough adults to continue to operate schools,” Mackey said. “What I hear over and over and over from school superintendents is they just don’t have any choice but to close down schools for a few days.”
The number of temporary school closures has increased in recent weeks. Mackey told board members to expect more closures during the winter.
“I’ll be very blunt with you, we think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better,” Mackey said.
The virus has mostly affected adults in schools, Mackey said. Few serious cases have been reported in students, he said. He said the department did not want to mandate statewide closures because some schools remain mostly unaffected by the virus.
“We do have places where the issue’s not there,” Mackey said. “I was able to go this week and make a last-minute drop in on some schools where their attendance rate is really high and they have very little virus outbreak. So why tell them they cannot go to school when they are not having issues?”
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