Montgomery moves toward virtual school after spate of recent deaths

Updated Jan 26, 2021; Posted Jan 25, 2021

Ann Roy Moore
Montgomery Public Schools Supt. Ann Roy Moore announced a return to virtual learning at a press conference Jan. 25, 2021.

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This story was educated on Jan. 26, 2021, to include an updated number of the educators the Alabama Education Association believes have died from COVID-19 in the state as of Jan. 25, 2021.

One of Alabama’s largest school systems will move back to virtual learning Feb. 1 after several recent staff deaths were linked to COVID-19.

Montgomery Public Schools Superintendent. Ann Roy Moore said concern from staff, particularly after a music teacher and coach died last week after battling the disease, led officials to change course after planning to continue in-person learning during the spring semester. About 7,000 of the district’s approximately 28,000 students will need to transition from face-to-face to remote learning, she said.

Moore said the district will likely remain virtual until teachers and staff members begin receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I think is important to say that we will more than likely remain virtual until we are able to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, as a school system,” Moore said. “We understand that we cannot force anyone to take the vaccine. But the option of being able to choose the vaccine should be made available as soon as possible to our workforce.”

She said local officials, along with the Alabama Education Association, have urged the state to open up vaccinations to teachers, who are currently slotted to receive shots after first responders and state residents over the age of 75.

“I think that what has been upsetting to me and I think a lot of the board and the central office is that our teachers throughout the state of Alabama were not a priority when the vaccines came out,” said Jannah Morgan Bailey, a School Board member and executive director of Child Protect, an advocacy organization. “In my opinion, it should have been that all of the teachers should have been on the first tier. And now that we’re having this influx of COVID infections and COVID deaths, we are now still two weeks before they are even in the tier [to receive vaccinations].”

READ: What went wrong with Alabama’s vaccine rollout

Moore said she hopes her teachers will begin receiving shots in February or March, a timeline also floated by state officials, but acknowledged further delays could complicate the timeline and push a return to in-person learning even further.

In December, Gov. Kay Ivey urged schools to bring students back to physical classrooms as soon as possible, a push already complicated by rates of infections in school districts and communities across the state. Montgomery County last week reported 80 news infections among schools and students; it is unknown whether the disease was caught in the school setting or elsewhere in the community.

Alabama does not require districts to report suspected deaths of staff or teachers due to COVID-19, but a spokeswoman for the AEA said Wednesday it believes 39 teachers, support staff, coaches and administrators have died from the virus as of Jan. 25. Moore said she believes four of her staff have died recently from the disease; the AEA says it has tracked seven Montgomery educators believed to have died from COVID-19.

State Superintendent. Eric Mackey said Monday that any loss of life in a school setting has a deep impact on local communities.

“I do not know the cause of death in any case across the state except what might be publicly reported by the family, but no matter the causes of death, clearly Montgomery is a shaken community because we have lost so many educators in the past few months,” Mackey said. “My heart grieves for each of these families and communities.”

Ebony McKethern-Wilkes, a high school history teacher, has advocated for virtual learning all year and has had family members and colleagues die of the virus. She has been teaching students in-person and virtually and said she is relieved by the district’s decision.

“We have been fighting to go virtual since October, since we found out students were going back,” she said. “We know that this is real.”

Current research about the rates of COVID-19 infections in school is mixed. Children are believed to be less susceptible to the predominant strain of the virus than adults, but may still be asymptomatic carriers. Research suggests that enforcing mask-wearing among adults and children can effectively mitigate spread — but also that in-person schooling can lead to increased infections in places where community spread is high.

McKethern-Wilkes said there may not be a way to know definitively whether staff members caught COVID-19 at work or elsewhere, but believes community spread makes school spread inevitable across the state. She said she also fears that African American students and educators may distrust vaccination efforts, slowing the return to in-person learning further.

“We just have to continue to put pressure,” she said.

Additional pressure on the Montgomery School Board came Friday, after the AEA released a letter calling attention to the recent deaths.

“It is not our intention to point the finger or allege blame, but it is time we identify and push for things that will make a difference,” AEA Associate Executive Director Theron Stokes wrote in the letter.

Lynn Pettway, a local AEA Uniserv director, said the association simply wanted the district to consider changing course in response to rates of death and sickness. Pettway said the association will continue to monitor the situation in Montgomery.

“We’re very satisfied with the decision,” he said. “We want to continue to monitor before they make the decision to bring the teachers and the students back to the school district and make certain that things are being considered in a safe way.”