Some fear low COVID cases in Alabama schools will reverse without masks

By Trisha Crain

The number of new cases of coronavirus in Alabama’s K-12 schools are at low levels, but officials warn cases will likely tick up as the state and many school districts make face coverings optional.

Alabama schools reported 257 new cases of COVID-19 among students and staff in the most recent week tallied, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health dashboard. That’s a bit higher than previous weeks, but many districts were on spring break during each of those two weeks.

“Things are looking good,” Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey said Thursday. “Our positivity rate in schools continues to drop.”

While he acknowledged that numbers might be low due to many schools being on spring break for the past two weeks, this week’s numbers reflect most all schools being back in session.

Only four of Alabama’s 138 school districts reported cases in double-digits, but half a dozen districts — including two of the state’s largest in Baldwin and Mobile counties –were out for spring break.

On the other end of the scale, 59 school districts and three public charter schools reported zero cases — the largest number reporting goose eggs since cases were first publicly reported on Oct. 30.

Read more: Alabama schools could get $147 million for COVID testing

While the numbers look good for now, Mackey said some are concerned about what might happen in the days and weeks following spring break.

“We’re a little worried (cases) might tick up in April,” Mackey said.

In recent days and weeks, school boards have decided whether to continue requiring masks.

Of the 70 school districts for which could locate public announcements about mask-wearing, 25 school districts dropped the mandate, 40 are continuing the mandate either through the next couple of weeks or through the end of the school year, and remaining districts have said they will requiring students to wear a mask indoors or where three feet of distance cannot be maintained.

“I think there is some concern about students returning from spring break or not wanting to quarantine large numbers of students during ACAP (standardized) testing, which is why you see some districts extending their mask order,” School Superintendents of Alabama Executive Director Ryan Hollingsworth said.

“Some have gone on and extended it through the end of the year simply because things are working very well and they seem to be accustomed to that,” Hollingsworth continued. “Our numbers are good, and let’s not rock the boat through the end of the year.”

“Others have had a push from their community that they’re tired of masks and now with the health order gone, there’s tremendous local pressure to remove the requirement.”

Hollingsworth expects some teachers and children will still wear masks even in districts that have made it optional.

“It’s going to be an interesting time in the next few weeks with some of our districts removing their mask orders to look at our numbers and see where they are,” he said.

Here are the districts for which could locate a public announcement or news report regarding their mask policy after the Apr. 9 mandate ended.