Fort Payne Superintendent Jim Cunningham gave the city school board an update on virtual classroom instruction and meals distribution at the regular meeting Thursday.

Cunningham admitted that when public schools across Alabama were ordered closed in mid-March, he expected everything to be back to normal by April 6. Now, school officials across the state are hoping students will be able to return to schools in the fall but must prepare contingencies just in case the COVID-19 novel coronavirus still presents a public health threat.

“That would be a worst case scenario,” Cunningham said. “But we will be in better shape the next time we have disruptions due to the weather, for example, because we can have classes virtually during any future interruption. This is a bad situation, but some good things will happen because of this experience. Our virtual delivery of instruction is working, and we have the capability to grow it, if necessary, because we can’t tell exactly when this [shutdown] will end.”

Thursday’s board meeting addressed the need for social distancing with board members spaced at least six feet apart from one another as required by the state health order. Two school board members participated by conference call. Cunningham praised the school board for being forward-thinking enough to support these technologies in the past so the system was ready with the infrastructure to offer internet-based instruction.

“Not every school system in the state can say that. We had the tools before this happened, but we had not yet taken it on at the level we now have,” he said.

Schools switched to a mix of online and printed packet instruction.

Cunningham said 97 percent of Fort Payne students have access to wireless internet connections, either accessing the web at home or using wifi hot spots at locations such as the VFW Fairgrounds, Rotary Pavilion and school campuses where students lacking access at home can sit in a car in the parking lot and complete their assignments on school-issued Chromebooks or iPads. While not as ideal as having face-to-face instruction, this partnership with Farmer’s Telephone allows the school system to keep children from falling behind academically.

“Teachers are instructed to be available online Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. to answer any questions from students or parents,” Cunningham said.

Even physical education teachers are able to offer video instruction to meet that need.

The timing of the shutdown was fortunate because students had completed a good bit of the core subject instruction, with the rest of the school year normally being heavily concentrated on testing.

“Our students will be ready to return in the fall, and we are concentrating on meeting the core academic standards. If someone’s grade point average was good before this happened, they won’t be penalized, but students can still work hard and raise their grades,” Cunningham said.

He praised the system’s technical staff for working to make sure teachers could do their jobs, and Cunningham said many of those teachers are among the volunteers making curbside delivery of breakfasts and lunches possible to students from Fort Payne Middle, Williams Avenue Elementary and Wills Valley Elementary.

Many families depend on school meals to meet their kids’ nutritional needs since 68 percent of the 3,387 students in the city schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to Child Nutrition Director Laran Adkins.

“We aren’t forcing [teachers] to do it, but they’re volunteering because they understand the need,” Cunningham said. “It’s a lot of work, but the Child Nutrition Program staff and managers have all been fantastic. This week, we delivered 17,800 meals. [Adkins] is top-notch, and I am very proud of what we’ve done up to this point. She’s always looking for commodities that other schools are passing on and saying we’ll take them here.”

Despite unprecedented challenges, Fort Payne residents been patient and understanding about inconveniences, remained flexible and offered tremendous support to the city school system, he said.

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