School In The Age Of Coronavirus: Adjusting To A ‘New Normal’

BIRMINGHAM, AL — In just a matter of weeks, schools throughout the Birmingham metro will begin the 2020-21 school year, which in any other year would be a normal process, but 2020 has proven to be anything but normal with the COVID-19 pandemic still ongoing.

School systems in the area have had to shift gears multiple times as new information comes out regarding the spread of the virus, and administrators are forced daily to prepare for more change and uncertainty.

Some school systems, such as Trussville, Mountain Brook, Hoover and Vestavia Hills will begin the year with staggered schedules for upper grades. This means that half of the students who elected for the in-school learning option will attend school in person at a time, with other half learning from home. The students will alternate attending classes in the building and at home on a given day.

Jefferson County Schools and Birmingham City Schools have opted to shift to a fully virtual platform to begin the year, due in part to the large number of schools in their respective systems, compared to others in the area.

“Challenging is a good word to describe the upcoming year,” said Philip Holley, the principal at Mountain Brook High School. “One of the biggest things is trying to keep up with the frequent changes from the health departments. We are going to have to be flexible as we adjust things to the changing information regarding the pandemic.”

Mountain Brook was one of the first systems to implement the staggered schedule, after first offering all students the option of a fully online or fully in-person platform. After new cases of COVID-19 started spiking in Jefferson County, Dr. Dicky Barlow, Mountain Brook’s superintendent, made the announcement to shift to the staggered schedule, much to the dismay of many Mountain Brook parents.

“We are chasing a constantly moving target,” Holley told Patch. “It is going to be important to stay positive and make the best of a challenging time.”

What Each System Is Doing

All school systems in the Birmingham metro have delayed the start of the school year to prepare for the adjustments the teachers and administrators need to make to keep a safe environment for their students.

A recent study cited by Jefferson County health director Dr. Mark Wilson revealed that younger children do not spread COVID-19 as easily as teenagers do, which has prompted many systems to allow in-person learning for elementary school kids.

“While children are less likely to become severely ill or suffer major complications or death from COVID-19 than adults, there is concern that children will spread infection to adults who are more vulnerable, including teachers, other school staff, and household members,” Wilson told Patch. “There is emerging evidence that younger children do not spread SARS-CoV-2 as effectively as older persons, although the exact degree of risk is not known. There is also emerging evidence that older children will spread the disease as effectively as adults.”

The local systems have made the following changes:

Birmingham City Schools: School begins August 24, with all students using a virtual learning platform for the first nine weeks.Jefferson County Schools: School starts Sept. 1, with all students using a virtual learning platform for the first nine weeks.Hoover City Schools: School starts August 20, with a staggered schedule for middle and high school the first four weeks for students who chose the in-person learning option —half of the students will attend Mondays and Thursday and the other half attend Tuesdays and Fridays, with students using the online platform the days they are not on campus. Wednesdays will be used as a teacher planning day.Mountain Brook City Schools: School starts August 20, with a staggered schedule for junior high and high school the first four weeks for students who chose the in-person learning option. Group 1 will attend classes on campus Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, with the Group 2 attending classes in person Tuesday and Thursday. The following week, the the groups will swap schedules.Trussville City Schools: Students and teachers will participate in a rehearsal for a staggered start August 12. Students who chose Option A (full on-campus learning) will remain the same, Option B (fully online) will remain the same and Option C (online with on-campus opportunities) will remain the same, but students may also opt for the staggered schedule.Vestavia Hills City Schools: School starts August 20, with the students who chose the in-person learning option shifting to an alternative schedule where half of the middle and high school students will go to school on one day and the other students will stay at home for remote learning.

No Child Left Behind?

The concern echoed by parents in all of the area’s school systems is what the effects of the adjusted learning platforms will have on the educational development of their children. Will the students fall behind? Will students get the same quality of education they would receive if the pandemic were not a factor?

“This school year will obviously be unlike any other any educator has faced,” said David Seale, the principal of Avondale Elementary School. “The initial challenge is to make this unusual circumstance feel as normal as possible, while staying focused on critical standards and essential learning. Add to that the challenge of learning loss from the spring and summer, all against the backdrop of a virus we don’t fully understand.”

He added, “With distance-learning, engagement will be an extra challenge. If students are in the building, health and safety become a much higher priority. In the end, we have to adapt to a new normal.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized the benefits of having children present in the classroom, Wilson said. But they also issued a statement on July 10 saying “schools in areas with high levels of COVID-19 community spread should not be compelled to reopen against the judgment of local experts. A one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate for return to school decisions.”

When she extended her mandatory face-covering order through August, Gov. Kay Ivey said that as a former school teacher, she understands the importance of in-person instruction, and also understands the gap between access to internet and computers among the state’s different school systems.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that 22 percent of Alabama households did not have internet access in 2018, and in urban areas of Birmingham, nearly 50 percent of households don’t have access.

Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Sullivan said teachers in the system began the process of training for virtual learning platforms in March and will continue to be trained throughout the semester. He also addressed the divide between Birmingham City Schools and other school systems in regard to access to digital learning.

“I am committed to working to ensure that our students progress and our employees have the support needed to make this year a success,” Sullivan said. He added that the system’s plan is to provide students with electronic devices and families with internet hot spots if they have no access to internet.

“Obviously there is no better learning platform than face-to-face instruction,” Ivey said when the face coverings order was extended. “We are doing the best we can to get our students back into the classrooms as soon as possible. We want to make sure no child is denied access to the best possible instruction they can get under the circumstances.”

Regardless of what decisions are made by administrators regarding learning adjustments, all of the local school leaders have said the decision-making process is far from easy.

“I realize the decisions we’re making are having an impact on families and their ability to get back to work,” Hoover City School Superintendent Dr. Kathy Murphy said in a statement to the school board this week. “I have not found the perfect solution. I just found the best of no good options.”

School systems throughout the state surveyed parents on what they wanted for the coming school year, and used those results to help make decisions on what adjustments to make. As with any survey of a large group of people, responses were mixed, therefore ensuring that not everyone would end up happy with the decisions.

Superintendent Dr. Walter Gonsoulin of the Jefferson County system said the mixed results of parent surveys certainly made his decision more difficult, as 56 percent of parents asked for online instruction and 44 percent preferred face-to-face instruction.

When Gonsoulin announced this week the delay of the school year and the shift to online learning for the first nine weeks, he addressed the fact that many parents would be unhappy with the decision.

“I know hearing the news is still unsettling,” Gonsoulin said in his address to Jefferson County parents and students. “Some of you may be mad at me right now. I know you have to figure out things like childcare and that this decision might add to your financial strain when times are already tough. I am truly sorry for that burden. However, I cannot justify sending children or employees back to school right now. It would put them in harm’s way.”

An End In Sight?

The question hovering over all of this is when”normal”can be restored — not just in schools, but in every facet of society. This depends, obviously, on if and when a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, when new cases of the virus have reached a consistent decline and other factors.

This week, Alabama saw its daily total of new cases decline, a positive trend in a state where COVID-19 numbers have spiked in the last two months, especially in Jefferson County.

Jefferson County leads the state in total cases of the virus, and has added at least 100 new cases every day over the last eight weeks.

In the last week, total numbers of new COVID-19 cases reported in Jefferson County:

July 31: 255 new casesAugust 1: 271 new casesAugust 2: 185 new casesAugust 3: 209 new casesAugust 4: 180 new casesAugust 5: 147 new casesAugust 6: 300 new cases

While these numbers do not indicate a definite slowing trend — UAB Hospital currently is treating 123 COVID-19 patients, and has seen all-time highs set just about every day over the last 10 days, and the 300 new cases Thursday are not promising — seeing numbers of new cases drop from previous highs in Jefferson County prompt hope, as long as people follow social distancing protocols and obey the face-covering order.

“If we don’t do everything, again we run the risk of the schools not being able to stay open,” Wilson said. “So these extra measures, these extra precautions are to make sure our kids stay in school.”

Editor’s Note: Avondale Elementary School principal David Seale is the writer’s brother.

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