Fort Payne crafting plan for reopening schools

State and local education officials are pressing forward with plans to reopen schools this fall under a “roadmap” provided last week by the Alabama State Department of Education (ALSDE) and local planning.

Local Boards of Education, upon the recommendation of superintendents like Fort Payne’s Jim Cunningham and DeKalb County’s Jason Barnett -- in consultation with the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) and local public health officials -- will be given the lion’s share of responsibility for making tough choices balancing risks with their obligation to educate local schoolchildren.

Requirements such as when and if facial coverings should be worn, for example, will come directly from local school systems. Students may expect to see changes in physical distancing, increased disinfecting and greater emphasis on personal hygiene.

Board members will make determinations about specific changes in campus status throughout the year and decide what is best for students, families and educators. They will need to closely monitor realities on the ground and be prepared to adapt quickly, following the guidance of ALSDE’s “Roadmap to Reopening Schools” announced last week.

That roadmap establishes some essential precautions for all schools to take, including requiring them to designate an area of quarantine for students who become ill while at school.

Cunningham said at last week’s city school board meeting that Fort Payne students are on track to return for daily classroom instruction starting August 12. Preparations are underway to ready campuses and curriculums to resume operations, with notable changes planned. He is meeting with administrators to devise a “concrete, workable plan as fast as we can.”

He said the message he’s received from students, parents and teachers is that most people want to return to school and see full seasons of athletic competitions.

Social distancing will be challenging for sports like volleyball, basketball, wrestling and football, as well as extracurricular activities like band and chorus. Parents should expect stadium seating to be limited to 50 percent capacity with some host communities requiring Fort Payne guests to wear protective facemasks during games. ALSDE will provide “best practices” for off-campus field trips and share the Alabama High School Athletic Association’s guidance for sports.

Cunningham told the school board that among the essential guidance required by governmental order is that schools cannot deviate from the set number of clock hours of instruction (1,080) that must be provided to students in a school year. The schools are scheduled to follow a calendar of 178 school days.

Remote learning will be provided for students whose parents do not yet feel safe about them returning to physical school grounds. Teachers will have regular check-in times and can provide virtual instruction.

Amid concerns of coronavirus clusters and efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, and based on social distancing recommendations from medical professionals, schools across the country began to close their doors and adopt a remote learning model in March 2020. School administrators and educators quickly scrambled to find a workaround to meet children's educational needs. Teachers had to design curriculums and assignments virtually on the fly in an attempt to minimize disruptions that could adversely affect students.

Today, the State has had months to develop remote learning resources through a third-party curriculum developer as well as to expand the high school ACCESS program to all school systems.

Fort Payne Board of Education President Jimmy Durham noted that the city schools were ahead of most school systems in Alabama due to Cunningham’s guidance to invest in online learning infrastructure as a solution for reducing absenteeism caused by the seasonal flu or disruptions from natural disasters like tornadoes, etc.

“[Virtual learners] are still our students,” said Cunningham, referencing the need to make remote students feel like they belong and to be equitable in instruction. Educators must also consider what’s fair to teachers who may need additional training in remote instruction and those who may feel vulnerable due to, for example, having weakened immune systems or sharing a home with an elderly parent who is at a greater risk of complications from COVID-19.

The state advises a “blended” mix of remote classes using a variety of virtual and paper resources with students able to attend classes in a traditional, on-campus setting. Cunningham recommended giving families the option of choosing their preference in nine-week or semester-long increments. His reasoning is concern about the chaos that would be caused if students switched back and forth between in-person and virtual instruction at whim. Locking in for a set period would give more control over the allocation of teaching and transportation resources.

Speaking of transportation, Cunningham recommends parents drive their children to school if possible. Fort Payne does still plan to offer school bus routes as usual. Given the nature of school buses, tightly packing children in confined spaces, wearing facemasks may be advised.

Parents checking children in the morning before school for signs of fever and other symptoms such as a cough or runny nose is always a good practice, but during a pandemic, keeping the child from going to school becomes critical to preventing disease spread and containing outbreaks. Parents are advised to call their child’s school and health-care provider to self-report symptoms of illness.

Inside the city schools, Cunningham said 15 new machines have been acquired to sanitize surfaces. Protocols for cleaning classrooms, rails and doorknobs already existed before COVID-19 due to addressing seasonal flu outbreaks. He said the city schools will be very proactive in sanitizing these places, along with frequent disinfecting of school buses.

Planning will also have to include precautions within child nutrition programs. Cunningham said he would share additional details about local plans after consulting with school administrators.

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