Updated Dec 31, 2020; Posted Dec 31, 2020
The worldwide COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about how we did school this year, impacting everyone from little ones in pre-K to elementary, middle, high school and college students, too.
While coronavirus dominated the education landscape, there were other notable happenings, too. Here’s our list of Alabama’s top 10 education stories of 2020.
COVID shuts down schools
Learning was unexpectedly upended when Alabama health officials shut down all schools, public and private, on March 13, the same day the first coronavirus case in the state was reported. School buildings were shuttered, college students were sent home. With no idea what was next, everybody took a couple of weeks off. Proms were canceled, high school graduations postponed or appropriately socially distanced.
Learning resumed in April. Students connected to classwork remotely, where internet access existed or could be hastily added. Teachers learned how to teach through a computer screen and schools became grab-and-go curbside meal pickup sites all across the state.
Remote learning takes root, many return to classrooms in August
With the pandemic still raging, local school officials made their own decisions about how to do school when the new year started. Between 30% and 50% of Alabama’s K-12 public school students would learn from home, while many others returned to face-to-face instruction, a couple of days each week to start with.
College campuses tested returning students, isolating those who tested positive in COVID-dedicated dorms.
Thousands of kids missing from classrooms
Official enrollment numbers showed 9,800 fewer students on the rolls than in fall 2019. About 3,000 were kindergarteners—their parents presumably red-shirting them till next year—but many just hadn’t registered for school, a trend seen nationwide. Some students were eventually located, registering late, but school officials worry about the impact lower enrollment will have on school funding for next year.
College undergraduate enrollment was down, too, with the two-year community college system taking the biggest hit, losing nearly 13% of its enrollment.
Alabama’s first LGBTQ charter school was approved
After four tries, the state’s first LGBTQ-focused charter school was approved by the Alabama Public Charter School Commission in early November. Magic City Acceptance Academy plans to open in fall 2021 with 250 to 300 students in grades six through 12 in Homewood, a suburb south of Birmingham.
MCAA initially stood out because of its plan to focus on creating a safe space for LGBTQ youth to be educated but placed emphasis on their plan to use trauma-informed instruction to help students who are facing challenges beyond the classroom.
Voters reject Gov. Ivey, Sen. Marsh’s call for appointed state board of education
Alabama voters in March soundly defeated a state constitutional amendment that would have changed the state board of education from an elected to an appointed board. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and then-Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said Alabama needed to try something different to improve K-12 education, but voters disagreed with their solution.
Hurricane Zeta wreaks havoc on south Alabama school districts
Hurricane Zeta struck south Alabama on Oct. 28, snapping power poles and flooding roads, leaving some schools without power. Some schools had to remain closed for more than a week, adding insult to injury during an already-difficult school year. Statewide, Zeta caused an estimated $30 million in damage according to state officials.
Huntsville schools get hacked
Huntsville City Schools were hit with a ransomware attack on Nov. 29, forcing officials to suspend all remote learning and keep computers turned off for at least a week. Cyberattacks on school districts are happening more frequently nationwide, officials say, as schools use virtual learning during the pandemic.
School officials said the 23,000-student system’s financial information was “not affected” by the hack. But some faculty and staff’s Social Security numbers were believed to be exposed to hackers.
In a video posted Dec. 21, the superintendent said the system had not been contacted to pay any ransom and it had made no payments.
Colleges drop admissions test requirements
When schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, ACT and SAT test centers closed, too, and at that time there was no at-home option for either test. As a result, many colleges dropped the requirement for fall 2020 enrollment, and most have dropped it for fall 2021 admissions, too.
Many colleges use ACT and SAT scores to award merit scholarships, and each university has created their own policy about how to award scholarships. Without an ACT or SAT score, officials say, they’ll look at high school GPAs and other criteria for admissions.
Alabama issues $1.5 billion in bonds for school construction
In October, the Alabama Public School and College Authority issued nearly $1.5 billion in bonds for capital projects. It is the state’s first major bond issue for public school buildings, repairs, and renovations since 2007.
The legislation approved by lawmakers in May allocated $912 million to K-12 education, with most of that to be divided among local school districts, $218 million to state universities, and $120 million to Alabama community colleges, according to the fiscal note.
Teacher retirements up during 2020-21 school year
Alabama is already struggling with a teacher shortage in K-12 schools, and some are worried that teacher retirements will rise due to concerns teachers have about getting the coronavirus inside schools. Early indicators show there is some cause for worry.
September saw roughly twice as many retirements as the last two Septembers. Retirements were also up in August compared to the same month in past years. And the number who applied to retire in October is also higher than in previous year. It’s unclear whether the uptick will turn into a trend.
The numbers showed school employees apparently waited out the summer months, though, as retirement numbers in June and July were a lower than in previous years. When teachers retire after the school year starts can make it difficult for school officials to replace them.
The number of retirements for December–traditionally a big month for retirements–should be available soon.
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