County schools could have staggered start to school year

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Walker County Schools' students may have a staggered start to the school year.

The Walker County Board of Education unanimously approved school "calendar flexibility" at a called meeting on Tuesday afternoon, which will give Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood the flexibility to allow schools to stagger the start of school for the first five days of the school year, beginning Thursday, Aug. 20.  

"I would really like to have that flexibility, given all the changes we're having to make," Hagood said.

He added, "There's a lot being asked of our teachers to learn several different programs at this time. I feel like they may need the extra time," noting the growing number of technology programs that teachers will have to utilize to accommodate virtual learning and the needs of all students.

A staggered start could look different at each school. For example, only 20 percent of the student body may come to school each day before everyone is asked to return all at once, students in particular grade levels may attend school on different days, etc. 

Nearby Shelby County Schools is one school system in the state that approved a staggered start for the first four weeks of school. In that school system, students with last names beginning with A-J will attend school on certain days, while students with last names that begin with K-Z will attend other days, according to WBRC.  

If Hagood does give schools the go-ahead for a staggered start, parents will be notified of their child's individual school plan.

"I'm quite certain it's going to be needed," Hagood said of a staggered start. "We're in very unusual and unprecedented times. Change is difficult under normal circumstances, but especially under these circumstances. It's pretty tough."

District 3 board member Dr. Vonda Beaty voiced her support of the staggered start. 

"Everything we promised our parents, I want to make sure it's in place before the students go back to school," she said, in reference to technology upgrades and other efforts.  

The school board also passed a number of emergency resolutions in preparation for the upcoming school year.

"These resolutions will allow us to forgo the cumbersome advertising process that goes along with the bid process," Hagood said, in regards to purchases.

Emergency resolutions were passed to purchase temperature screening scanners, hotspots, and more Chromebooks.

Recent grant funding is allowing the school system to make the purchases.

The temperature screening scanners will allow the temperatures of multiple students to be checked at once as they enter school buildings. The devices will be necessary to detect fever, a common symptom of COVID-19. 

"It will allow mass temperature checks, so you're not just having to stand there with one individual with a handheld device," Hagood said, although handheld temperature checking devices have been purchased for schools as well.

While the school system has previously invested in hotspots, the new emergency resolution will allow for the purchase or personal hotspots for student Chromebooks.

"We will make a mass purchase that just really enables our kids to have much better connectivity, as some have already chosen to go virtual," Hagood said.

The personal hotspots would be given to students on free and reduced lunch. Students in outlying areas with limited to no Internet connectivity options would also qualify to receive a personal hotspot device.

Gann said a survey of students found that 80 percent do have access to the Internet.

"Every child will have access to a Chromebook, and if they have connectivity, they can use that Chromebook to connect," Gann said. "We've also put out five or six community hotspots in various locations, and also each school's parking lot will be retrofitted with parking lot WiFi."

Hagood said the hotspots will not only benefit virtual learners but will also be helpful if a full shutdown due to COVID-19 were needed at some point throughout the school year. 

The school system previously announced each child attending a Walker County school will have their own Chromebook, but Tuesday's emergency resolution to purchase more Chromebooks will allow for additional inventory.

"We want to have some backups. We know there's going to be breakages, there's going to be problems," Hagood said. "We don't want to get caught in a position where our kids don't have a device or they don't have connectivity if the virtual becomes a reality. Some have already made that choice." 

In other business, the school board:

• recognized its Child Nutrition Program for a number of accomplishments that will be highlighted in a future edition of the Daily Mountain Eagle

• approved volunteer coaches Eric Keeton (Carbon Hill High School, baseball), Ben Wright (Carbon Hill High, baseball and football), and Caroline Gann (Carbon Hill High, volleyball).

• approved a facility use agreement for New Era Wrestling at Lupton Jr. High School. 

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For more education news from the Daily Mountain Eagle, visit http://www.mountaineagle.com/education.