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Plan unveiled for schools to return in August

All Alabama public schools are set to reopen on time unless local school boards or the governor chooses otherwise, State Superintendent Eric Mackey announced during a press conference Friday morning.

During the conference, Mackey unveiled a 50-page document detailing operational guidance, not mandates. He repeatedly stressed that districts have the final say on what to do or not to do.

“We are studying the roadmap that the state superintendent has released early next week,” Covington County School’s superintendent Shannon Driver said. “We will be meeting with all of our supervisors and developing some ideas and steps that we are going to be taking and we should have more information next week. We are working hard to learn everything we can. We are studying the plan and getting all of the information we can for the best plan possible. We will have more information to share by the middle of next week.”

Despite reopening, Mackey said all districts will need to provide remote learning opportunities for children who don’t return to school. In a statewide survey, Mackey said about 15 percent of parents said they are not comfortable sending their children back to school. But that percentage differed county to county, dropping to about 3 percent in some places and rising to 80 percent in others, he said.

“Based on the information we have right now our plan is to open schools August 18,” Opp City School’s superintendent Michael Smithart said. “We will provide both virtual and brick and mortar opportunities. We know there will be challenges but we will be ready for them. We don’t have the specifics yet but we hope to soon.”

Those who don’t return will still be enrolled in their local school district. While the state department has encouraged districts to move their start date to later in August, some districts are set to open as early as Aug. 4.

“Remote learning will be the key to all of this,” Mackey said.

With that in mind, districts have been provided with a digital curriculum and the majority of the $18 million provided to the state department by the federal government for education during the pandemic was spent on providing remote learning opportunities throughout the state, Mackey said.

Additionally, Mackey said the governor has created a task force focused on expanding broadband access to all parts of the state.

“This will absolutely be the most difficult school year we have ever faced,” he said.

With an aging population, poor to non-existent broadband access in portions of the state, high poverty rates, very low educational proficiency rates and school systems drastically underfunded compared to other parts of the country, Alabama has faced great barriers in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

When asked what options teachers have in whether or not they return, Mackey again pointed to local control and said each situation would need to be addressed individually.

In a May survey, 1 in 5 teachers said they are unlikely to go back to school if their classrooms reopen in the fall, a potential massive wave of resignations. Though most teachers report working more than usual, nearly two-thirds say they haven’t been able to properly do their jobs in an educational system upended by the coronavirus.

About 60 people, from throughout Alabama and the country, contributed to the guidance that was provided to districts, he said. The suggestions include limiting the number of entrances into the school, having hand sanitizer available, encouraging students to wash their hands, limiting the sharing of school supplies and cleaning schools daily.

Mackey was joined by State Health Officer Scott Harris, who acknowledged the lack of a clear cut mandates. He asked the public to be less binary and to manage their expectations during these times as the state of the pandemic continues to change.

“Every single situation is going to be a little bit different,” Harris said.

As with each development in returning to traditional operations in Alabama, this news comes as the rate of coronavirus cases continues to increase.

In May, Gov. Kay Ivey announced districts could reopen campuses for summer school for older students starting in June, as well as resume sport practices and competitions.

At that time, despite the state’s increase in coronavirus cases, Mackey said the community was in a stronger position to deal with the virus than when schools were closed.

“We are certainly in a better position now to understand what we need to do to sanitize, to maintain social distancing, to do other precautionary things like wearing facial coverings,” he said. “However, it is extremely important that students and teachers and coaches and other staff members practice the social distancing requirements.”

Statewide, there are more than 30,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with about 850 deaths in the past three months