The Alabama State Department of Education revealed a Roadmap to Reopening Schools on Friday as a guidance document for educators facing an unprecedented upcoming school year while COVID-19 continues to plague the country.
The nearly 50-page roadmap compiles a list of essential practices for school systems, guidance, and points of consideration.
Alabama State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said in a press conference Friday morning that school systems will ultimately decide what plan is best for each area, including the date students will return to school in each district.
Both Jasper City and Walker County school districts have introduced a later start date of Aug. 20 for students. The Jasper City Board of Education plans to hold a vote on the start date at a meeting next week, while the Walker County Board of Education will make a decision at a regular meeting next month.
Walker County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood and Jasper City Schools Superintendent Dr. Ann Jackson said they are thankful for now having the roadmap's guidance in moving forward.
"Every system is going to have to develop their own plan based on these guidelines, and that's what we will do," Jackson said. "We'll pretty much follow the broad overview roadmap, as well as the guidelines from the health department, and create a plan that will be hybrid of everything he talked about, the possibilities."
"I think now that we know the roadmap and have heard their suggestions on what is essential — what is guidance and what are considerations — now we really go to work on putting our specific plan together for Walker County," Hagood said.
Both school systems will hold meetings in the coming week to discuss specific plans for each district.
"What we want to do now is get more specific. For instance, now we're going to do another survey where we want to know by school and by grade level what parents are thinking," Hagood said. "If we started back to school today, what would you do? Would you choose to send your child to school or would you choose the remote option?"
When the county school system polled parents recently, only 23 percent of parents said they would be in favor of their children learning at home.
Jackson said in a recent survey that 35 percent of parents who have children enrolled in city schools were in favor of homeschool.
In the roadmap for schools, school systems have been encouraged to take a traditional, in-classroom approach to learning while also providing remote learning options. School systems can also opt for a blended learning method that would include time in and out of the classroom.
To prepare for virtual learning, Walker County Schools has purchased 4,600 additional Chromebooks with CARES Act funding, as well as mobile hotspots that will allow children greater access to virtual learning. The city school system is also considering the purchase of hotspots.
Jackson said Jasper City Schools will be accessing a learning management system for students to take advantage of as well.
"We have purchased the program Schoology so that all of our teachers can video, if they want to, every lesson that they teach and upload it to the platform. They could also put their lesson plans or homework on this platform and parents at home could access that," Jackson said. "That's different than remote learning. This is for kids that are maybe going to be quarantined or don't intend to be out of school like our remote distance learners tend to be out of school for the year."
She added, "Every family is different. What works for one may not work for another family, so we anticipate that there will be a couple of different ways of providing quality instruction."
Jackson and Hagood spoke in-depth about keeping each school system clean and the importance of parents not sending their children to school if they are displaying symptoms of COVID-19.
"We're really imploring to our community, to our respective school communities, if they are displaying these symptoms, don't send them to school. That's the first line of defense, mom and dad," Hagood said.
The school systems will also be relying on school bus drivers to recognize students who appear ill while boarding a bus.
"We will continue to assess our bus routes, and like Dr. Mackey said, one of the most practical things we will do is to keep kids facing toward the front of the bus, not being in the aisles," Jackson said. "We'd like the encourage kids to wear a mask, particularly on a bus — anywhere they're going to be in close contact."
Hagood and Jackson said buses will be cleaned regularly and after each bus route.
"If you're displaying these symptoms, please don't ride," Hagood said. "We will keep the windows down when it's feasible. The bus driver will wipe down the handrails and stuff down as much as they possibly can, but at the end of the day, you get on that bus, you obviously know the risk that you are potentially taking."
Each school system has been purchasing more cleaning supplies, and Jasper City Schools is even considering closing school each Wednesday for the first four weeks of school. Wednesday would serve as a deep cleaning day mid-week.
"That would be an e-day where students do their lessons online, and teachers would be in the building providing access if a student needed help and also providing professional development," Jackson said. "The reason we chose Wednesday is so that the kids were never in a building that wasn't deep cleaned every two days."
To further protect students, Jackson said plexiglass dividers may be purchased to provide a protective barrier between students in lower grade levels who would normally be in group seating.
Hagood said county administrators are also going to be discussing how school arrival and dismissal procedures may change, as well as altering recess, lunch and physical education.
"We've got to simplify that and make it most specific to our needs," Hagood said. "We need a practical approach where we are focusing on safety."
School systems are also having to consider adjusting policies at sporting events, all under the guidance of the Alabama High School Athletic Association.
Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said on Friday, "I think it's important for people to manage expectations about the fact that we will see outbreaks associated with those events."
While the city school system has not shared any changes that could occur regarding sports, Hagood said the county school system has invested in Pixellot camera technology to film games in stadiums and gymnasiums.
"It's a camera that follows the action. There is an app for it, so we will give people access to the app and they can watch the game from home," Hagood said. "I've talked to some superintendents, and they said they work great."
Jasper City and Walker County school systems will release individualized plans in the coming weeks.
"This is a marathon. It's not a sprint, and it's unprecedented, so we have to pace ourselves," Hagood said. "Things change so rapidly."
School systems across the state may have to alter plans throughout the school year as cases rise or decline.
Hagood added, "The circumstances are going to dictate some of the things we can and cannot do."
"I think this is going to be a year where flexibility is going to have to be our mantra. As Dr. Mackey said, it's going to be a difficult year because we're dealing in the unknown," Jackson said. "Unfortunately, none of us really have all of the answers. We're going to do the very best we can for our kids and be as considerate as we can of our families and our teachers and try to educate our children."
Mackey said during Friday's press conference, "This is indeed going to be the most difficult school year that we've ever faced. It's going to be the most difficult school year to get through, but we're determined to do it ... because we have students who count on us."