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School systems moving to in-person classes, some earlier than expected

As COVID-19 hospitalization and infection rates continue to drop in Alabama, some school systems are moving forward – and even speeding up – plans to have students back in school.

In the last week, systems in Shelby and Madison County, and the city systems in Tuscaloosa and Hoover, have announced plans to resume five-day-a-week in-person classes.

Huntsville said the decision was made “after witnessing improvements in the public health situation in North Alabama.” The moves come at a time when Alabama is averaging less than 900 new cases a day, seven weeks after the state was averaging more than 1,800 cases a day.

Of course, some systems didn’t wait to begin with in-person classes, and systems that did wait ending up consulting with them to see what issues to look for. Department of Education Communications Director Michael Sibley said the department is providing information on its website about reopening plans as the department receives them from individual systems, but had no comment on whether systems statewide were switching to in-person classes in larger numbers.

In Shelby County, Superintendent Lewis Brooks announced last week that the system would begin transitioning toward on-campus learning by Sept. 14. The decision came because the system had “successfully completed” two weeks of school in its Cautious Together plan, Brooks said in a letter to parents. School officials had anticipated switching to five-day-a-week attendance after about four weeks, so the move should be fully implemented about a month into the school year.

“District leaders have been monitoring the positivity rate of COVID-19 cases in our schools and we feel our mitigation efforts have been working,” Brooks wrote.

Masks will still be required, and remote learning remains an option, with about 25 percent of students taking part so far.

Cindy Warner, the system spokeswoman, said students have been attending in-person classes according to a staggered schedule, and only .002 percent of students have tested positive for COVID-19 – that’s six out of 20,000, she said.

“We feel pretty confident that coming back is the right decision,” she said.

In Hoover, the system plans to transition back to five days of in-person instruction beginning Sept. 21. Hoover has about 4,800 students in full-time virtual learning, and 8,600 in a staggered schedule with two days in-person, three days online.

Jason Gaston, spokesman for the system, said it is paying attention to case rates in both Jefferson and Shelby counties, as Hoover is situated in both. Since the beginning of school, he said, less than one-half of 1 percent of students in the system, which includes more than 13,000, have tested positive.

Tuscaloosa had originally approved a plan for up to nine weeks in remote learning. Lesley Bruinton, system spokeswoman, said school officials this week are expected to review a plan to begin returning students to classes, after consulting with medical and public health experts.

Madison City Schools is relying on a phased-in reopening schedule which will put all students in all grades back in classes by October. The system did not commit to a nine-week virtual schedule, like neighboring Madison County and Huntsville, but had planned to begin virtually and assess the situation around Labor Day, Ed Nichols, Madison City Schools Superintendent, said.

Its reentry plan begins on Tuesday. Elementary students, pre-K through fifth grade, will begin half-day rotations. Then on the 14th, elementary students will begin attending every day. Middle school will follow for the next two weeks on a rotating basis, with all students there attending by the 28th. On Sept. 21, high schools will begin, with all students attending in all schools by Oct. 12.

“We felt that by phasing them back in, our operations team, our cleaning, our maintenance team, could focus on those grades with priority,” Nichols said.

The time in virtual classes allowed the system to increase its supplies of personal protective equipment, such as desk shields and disposable wipes. And the system consulted with about ten different systems around the state that have already re-entered daily classes, he said, and most issues have been in the upper grades.

“We’ve had fewer problems with the virtual platform with our older students,” Nichols said. “We felt like phasing in students in that pattern helped us to control the reentry and look at how it relates to transportation and child nutrition and other things.”

Huntsville City Schools is taking a similar approach – with students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade returning the week of Sept. 14, and high school students coming back the following week. Students who don’t feel comfortable coming back immediately can continue to use remote learning through Oct. 23.

In Madison County, students have until the end of this week to decide if they want to continue virtual learning. Students will transition in through a staggered schedule the week of Sept. 14, and all students will be on campus the following week.

All the systems say they will be keeping an eye on infection rates and hospitalizations in their areas in order to decide if in-person classes need to be switched back to virtual learning. Huntsville said it will continue consulting with local health and city leaders. Gaston said Hoover will also be watching ahead of the Sept. 21 date for resuming. If COVID numbers do change, he said, “we will pivot accordingly.”

Nichols declined to say what kind of conditions might spark switching back to virtual learning. “We are still monitoring. If things were to go in the wrong direction, if we had to pull back out, we feel confident that our staff could do that very quickly because they’ve had three or four weeks in this platform,” he said. “We’re assessing it daily.”


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