MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - The Alabama State Department of Education estimates around half of the state’s public school students will begin the school year with remote learning. Around a quarter of those students are in districts that are only offering virtual classes at the beginning of the school year.
Between 15 and 30 percent of those students had the choice to return to the classroom but elected to participate in virtual learning instead.
“People are worried sick about this right now,” Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said during a news conference Friday. “I am hearing from folks all over the state: grandparents, parents, and especially teachers.”
Jones announced ongoing efforts to send more resources to Alabama’s schools by way of new legislation that will likely be taken up in the coming weeks, highlighting that schools need resources to make this school year as safe as possible.
Gov. Kay Ivey dedicated her GEER allocation, which was $48 million, to the education department to prepare for this unprecedented start to the school year. A large sum of funds from the CARES Act is being dedicated to strengthen access to broadband internet for students, electronic devices for remote learning, and funds to hire additional school nurses and substitute teachers.
School districts across the state have the autonomy to determine when to start the school year, and how to meet the required 1080 hours or 180 days of mandatory instruction. Some districts are opting for fewer days with longer hours to give teachers more time to prepare.
“I requested they start August 20 or later so the teachers will have more planning time”, stated Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama Superintendent of Education. “We saw this coming eight weeks ago, only about 20 [districts] took me up on that. Since then, more have. In fact, this week we have had 3 more districts who’ve told us they want to push it off.”
Mackey said there’s no specific trigger to determine when to close a school if someone tests positive, partial quarantines for those exposed will likely be used. Mackey gave the example of quarantining an athletic team after a team member tested positive rather than closing the school.
“In the past when we have dealt with influenza, we have an unwritten rule that if you approach 20 percent of the students affected by the flu, you shut the school down for three or four days,” Mackey explained. “I don’t think anyone believes we can get to 20 percent with COVID-19 and not already be shut down. We don’t have a number, that’s frustrating because people want to know.”
The ALSDE continues to receive questions regarding athletic eligibility for students who are attending virtual classes. Mackey explained that as long as school is open, virtually or in-person learning, extra-curricular activities are allowed.
“When schools were closed, they were closed,” Mackey said, referencing the spring when schools closed down for the remainder of the year. “There’s a very specific rule that you cannot be having extra-curricular activities when schools are closed. But in this case in the fall, schools will be open.”
As the school year begins, the traditional feeding program will be reinstated. Students who are virtual learning and qualify for a free or reduced lunch will be able to pick up a week’s worth of meals at a time. The summer feeding program which allowed any child to have a free meal, even if they were not enrolled in public schools, will end on Aug. 31 or the start of the school year for a child’s respective district. Unlike the summer feeding program, bulk items will not be distributed and delivery won’t be available.