For some Alabama schools, it’s home before and after the holidays as COVID cases surge

Updated Dec 10, 9:33 AM; Posted Dec 10, 8:00 AM

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey
Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey speaks to superintendents at meeting on Aug. 28, 2019, in Montgomery, Ala. Mackey has deferred to local school systems when it comes to making decisions on whether to host in-person school or remote education during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Baldwin, Shelby, and Montgomery county schools are planning to delay in-person classroom learning by one week when the second semester begins next month.

But for Mobile and Jefferson counties, the schedule remains the same.

Other districts, such as Hoover and Tuscaloosa city schools, will return with staggered scheduling in which some students return to in-class instruction before others. Other school districts, such as Calhoun County Schools, will be going to a virtual-only schedule next week. And in Scottsboro — where a New York Times piece recently listed the Jackson County community as among the highest for week-to-week growth in coronavirus infections — the city school system is transitioning to virtual-only education starting Thursday at some schools and extending to others next week.

As COVID-19 continues to surge and break records in Alabama, it’s been an uneven approach statewide as to how schools are handling the completion of the fall semester and beginning of the spring semester following New Year’s Day.

But the hyper-localized approach over administering school schedules should not come as a surprise: For months, Alabama education leaders have deferred to local superintendents and school boards when making decisions about whether to have school in a traditional in-person classroom setting, whether to go remote, or to have a blended/hybrid approach.

“The decision to close a campus and/or change the instructional delivery method remains at the local level,” said Eric Mackey, the state superintendent. “We trust local school system leaders to make the best choice with the information available.”

For some school districts, that means waiting at least 10 days after New Year’s Day to bring students back together for in-classroom learning. The 10 days is the time frame given by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in which someone with mild to moderate COVID-19 symptoms remains infectious with the virus.

“By returning students to campus on January 11, we have given more than 10 days from New Year’s Day and more than two weeks from Christmas,” Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler wrote in an email to parents on Monday. “We believe this is ample time to allow the virus to run its course through anyone who may get sick during the break.”

Said Lewis Brooks, superintendent in Shelby County: “We are concerned that positive cases will manifest before returning to school. By allowing additional time, we hope to reduce the chance of further spread.”

Indeed, the concerns from public health officials nationwide is how holiday gatherings will cause further explosions in coronavirus spread in early January. The CDC is advising anyone who goes against its advice to avoid travel during the winter holidays to get tested for COVID-19 twice before departing on their trips. Alabama has adding over 3,300 cases over a seven-day average, according to a New York Times database.

The surge, according to national health experts, is attributed to Thanksgiving week gatherings.

“The predictions of the increase in cases we would see after Thanksgiving appear to have been very accurate,” said Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director with the School Superintendents of Alabama. “As we look back at other holidays where people traditionally gather with family and friends, we have seen a similar increase in cases. Based upon this summer and fall, I would say we can expect the same thing after the Christmas holidays.”

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson