MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - As we approach the one-year mark of school closures across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the calls for returning to in-person learning are growing more urgent.
A timeline for returning to in-person school remains a fierce topic of debate. The big question is how to bring students back safely.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky caused a stir last week when she said schools can reopen without teachers needing to be vaccinated first.
“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen. And that that safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely,” Walensky said during a White House briefing on Wednesday.
But then on Friday, Walensky turned around and said, “What we need is we need to have the mitigation efforts that have been demonstrated to work. Masking, distancing, low density classrooms, that has demonstrated that we can open schools safely, coupled with teacher vaccination, I hope in the weeks ahead, would suggest that we can open schools safely. But, we need to make sure that we have the funding, the resources in those schools through the American Rescue Plan to make sure that we can get there.”
President Joe Biden has been clear that he wants schools to reopen and has said he will work to reopen most K-12 schools within his first 100 days in office.
“The president wants to not just open schools, he wants them to stay reopened, he wants kids to be back in school learning five days a week, he wants everybody, parents to feel safe, teachers to feel safe,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.
But some teachers and faculty have expressed concerns about returning to school. Montgomery Public Schools have returned exclusively to virtual learning until the school system can receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We understand that we cannot force anyone to take the vaccine, but the option of being able to choose the vaccine, should be made available as soon as possible to our workforce,” Montgomery Public School Superintendent Ann Roy Moore said during a press conference in late January.
Elmore County Superintendent Richard Dennis said the portion of their students learning from home are falling behind academically.
“Even though we’ve got 8,000 (students) here going face to face, the remainder of the group (about 3,000 students) we’re really seeing failure rates at a higher level,” Dennis said.
“The students that we are looking at right now that are at home doing school based virtual, a lot of them do not have the academic support that they need and academically they are falling farther behind and it’s going to be much more difficult to catch them up in the future,” Dennis went on to say.
In early December 2020, Gov. Kay Ivey urged school systems to get back to traditional, in-person learning after the start of the new year.
The governor called on school administrators to move back to in-person learning in 2021, calling virtual and remote instruction “stop-gap measures” that are in place to keep students from regressing during the pandemic. Ivey also said that “we are seeing more and more clear evidence pointing out that our students are safe in the classroom with strong health protocols in place.”
And this week a sign of hope as thousands of essential workers, including some teachers, get vaccinated across the state.
“Starting this week we literally have thousands of people a day getting vaccinations, we feel pretty confident that most teachers that want the vaccine will be able to get the first dose by the end of this month,” State Superintendent Eric Mackey said Friday at the monthly State Board of Education meeting.
The biggest challenge, Mackey said, is getting shots to rural areas. He said ADPH is rolling out some additional clinics to help.
“Jefferson and Shelby counties have also offered some real challenges because there are just so many teachers in those two counties. But UAB, has offered designated clinics for each school district in Jefferson, and Shelby County,” Mackey said.
Mackey also said the state will have “many more people” back in person after spring break.
“We feel pretty good about it, and as we get that second dose, and then full immunization, we hope by the end of spring break, or somewhere thereabouts, we’ll be back to a more normal looking end to the school year.”
Public health guidance for reopening schools is said to be on the way. Andy Slavitt, a COVID-19 adviser to Biden, told MSNBC that the CDC will release it’s detailed guidance on how to safely reopen more schools on Friday.
President Biden’s goal is that more than half of U.S. schools reopen at least one day a week for in-person learning by the end of April