Updated Dec 31, 2020; Posted Dec 31, 2020
Coronavirus was still new to most when state officials made the announcement on March 13 that all schools would shut down to keep the virus from spreading. Alabamians had just voted overwhelmingly to keep their elected state school board, the biggest story of the year up until then.
Alabama was one of the first states to close schools, and without clear direction, everybody just took two weeks off. Learning shortly cranked back up, virtually of course, but it looked very different from school to school.
Folks hunkered down, wondering how to help kids learn remotely when hundreds of thousands of families had no reliable internet access. Some printed old-fashioned paper packets, leaving them unmanned in plastic bins for students to pick up and complete on their own.
Others issued laptops and Chromebooks to students to do schoolwork at home, turning school buses into wi-fi hotspots to get kids connected.
Annual standardized tests were canceled, seniors were given a pass, deemed ready to graduate, grades for many became optional.
Schools stepped up and fed hungry children even with school buildings closed, serving thousands of meals every week in a curbside grab and go style. A week’s worth of food at a time was available for most: Gallons of milk, loaves of bread, frozen pizza, and even beloved taquitos, lovingly packed by lunch ladies who care deeply about making sure hungry children are fed.
School buildings stayed shut, learning ended in early June.
So many questions arose: What if schools can’t reopen in August? How can teachers and parents get up to speed with remote learning? If schools reopen, how can they follow CDC guidelines? Is it safe to cram children and teachers into already Alabama’s over-crowded classrooms? What about teachers in the high-risk category?
Nearly half a billion dollars in federal aid was made available to help pay for unexpected costs, but school officials were almost too busy to spend it.
As the calendar crept toward August, the traditional start date for Alabama students, state education officials asked for a plan. Each district, each board of education was on its own—the tightly-held reins of local control firmly intact—with only a rough framework to follow from state officials.
When coronavirus cases spiked in the weeks following July 4, school officials began to question whether schools could reopen safely. Choice soon became a thing: parents would choose face-to-face or remote learning, officials said.
Nobody really knew what remote learning might look like, but the thought of children in masks, sitting behind plexiglass dividers, eating lunch in classrooms, and having to stay six feet away from friends, wasn’t appealing.
Some teachers pushed back against opening school buildings. What about us, they asked. Does anybody care if teachers get sick?
The decision to delay reopening schools ricocheted across the state, pushing start dates all the way back to Labor Day for some. Other would reopen for remote learning only for the first few weeks or months.
Overall about 50% of students would start the school year remote-only. Getting students connected to the internet became a near emergency, and Gov. Kay Ivey authorized $100 million of the state’s $1.8 billion in federal coronavirus relief to go for vouchers for free internet for children in low-income families.
A few districts opened in early August, following the school calendar their local boards approved before anyone knew what COVID-19 could do.
Saraland City School Superintendent Aaron Milner was one of the first to reopen, telling AL.com they were taking it day by day. By day three, students were already being sent home to quarantine, something Milner and state health officials said they fully expected.
Parents got loud, demanding schools reopen for more face-to-face instruction, showing pictures of their children crying before and after Zoom classroom lessons, older students frustrated because they worry they’re falling behind.
Better to be alive than miss a few months of learning, some said. But some worried about the mental health of children who were cooped up and isolated. Some worried about children stuck in homes with abusive parents—who would check on them to be sure they’re safe?
Elected officials alternately pleaded and demanded that schools reopen, recognizing the essential role schools play in keeping the economy up and running and the importance of face-to-face instruction.
Most schools eventually reopened. Things would go well for a few days, a few weeks, and then the barrage of quarantines and isolations kicked in, sending whole grade levels of students and teachers home for two weeks at a time.
Substitute teachers were in scant supply, and some schools were forced to shift to days and even weeks of remote learning because they couldn’t find enough staff to keep classrooms open.
The holiday season prompted some districts to shift to remote learning to mitigate the possibility of spread after family gatherings.
Nobody really knows if remote learning is working well, for all students. Or whether children bouncing from classroom to quarantine and back again are learning much along the way. Failure rates are up, state education officials said, but by how much or how many just isn’t yet known.
But dead children can’t learn and dead teachers can’t teach, others say. They’ll take the learning loss over the loss of a loved one.
While some are still understandably worried about their personal safety, the fear that schools would be super-spreaders, with asymptomatic children infecting their teachers, seems to have faded, as the number of cases of COVID-19 in schools, reported on a public dashboard, still appears to be a small fraction of the total student and teacher population.
When enrollment numbers were released, it became clear that thousands of kindergarteners were being red-shirted, and another 7,000 were just not registered for school. State education officials tell us many of those students are back in school, but nobody still knows what will happen to those missing kindergarteners next year.
Weighing all of the interests—teacher safety, children’s mental health, parents’ need to work outside the home—doesn’t lend itself to clear solutions for the second half of this school year.
Should this year just be a do-over? Will schools allow parents to choose for their child to repeat a grade? Will summer school be required? What about weekend school? Night school? How will learning losses be recovered?
And if few are learning, does the loss really matter? Some see the opportunity gap widening, with the haves getting what they need and the have-nots being left further behind.
If there is any good to find in this frantic, fraught-filled year, it’s that sending children to school every day serves a lot of purposes, it turns out. And most now understand what an important hub schools are in their communities.
It’s more than childcare, we’ve learned. Not only are parents able to go to work and earn a living to pay bills and eat while children attend school, but children accrue benefits from the social aspects of school, beyond academics.
Others forced to go remote-only have found solace away from those same social aspects, experiencing less anxiety and more ability to concentrate on their studies.
Parents have learned how they need teachers to help their children, and teachers have learned they need parents pushing children toward educational success. They really can’t do it without each other, it turns out.
Schools now increasingly turn to social media to share not just the good news but also important information about where to get food, how many cases of COVID have been reported, school closures and examples of everything from how to sign into their child’s classroom to videos of holiday concerts and science experiments.
In a roundabout way, shutting down made schools more open to the community that has now learned how badly it needs them. Here’s hoping we can give each other grace and accept our collective responsibility for educating Alabama’s children in the new year.
JOIN THE MOVEMENT! #iBELIEVE