Jefferson County Schools to Go Virtual-Only for First Nine Weeks; Some Student Athletes and Staff Have Tested Positive for COVID

UPDATED — The Jefferson County Board of Education voted Tuesday to begin the 2020-2021 school year Sept. 1 with nine weeks of online education only and no option for traditional classroom learning, as educators and parents continue to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak.

The recommendation came from Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin after weeks of town hall meetings with parents, faculty, staff and other stakeholders, as well as an online survey in which Gonsoulin said 80% of JefCoEd families responded. In that survey, 56% were in favor of online learning, and 44% wanted traditional face-to-face classroom learning.

The board approved the recommendation by a 4-1 vote in Tuesday’s online meeting.

Gonsoulin in a later press conference said that some student athletes have tested positive for COVID-19, as have some faculty and staff members, as the schools gear up to reopen. The Alabama High School Athletic Association has declared that the football season will go on as scheduled this year with spectators present, though a handful of school districts have already cancelled their sports schedules. Gonsoulin said JefCoEd schools are prepared to take part in AHSAA-sanctioned fall sports, including football.

Board President Ronnie Dixon cast the lone vote against the plan for reopening schools.

“We are not exhibiting the leadership we need given our system’s size,” Dixon said in a discussion before the vote. “Other systems are being more resourceful in bringing kids to school. Everyone has asked for options. I don’t understand why options for remote learning aren’t available.

“I think we are taking for granted the unintended consequences by saying for nine weeks that we are going to take it easy and stay home,” Dixon added.

As for how many students, faculty or staff members have tested positive so far, Gonsoulin could not provide a count during his press conference.

“We don’t have an actual number or percentage at this time to share … but we definitely have faculty and staff that have tested (positive), and our athletic students have tested positive as well,” he said.

The superintendent deflected a question about how the system would deal with families in which parents could not stay home to be with their children during school hours. “The school system’s responsibility is to provide quality education for our students, so that will be our focus,” he said.

Gonsoulin added that no staff members would face loss of jobs as a result of the transition to virtual learning. “This decision will not result in the furlough of any one of our employees. As long as they come to work … they will still be an employee of JefCoEd,” he told reporters in his press conference.

In a written statement sent by the system to parents just after the board meeting, Gonsoulin said, “We have outlined this possibility since we started talking about this coming school year. However, I know hearing the news is still unsettling. Some of you might even be mad at me right now. I know you have to figure out things like childcare and that this decision might add to your financial strain when times are already tough. I am truly sorry for that burden. However, I cannot justify sending children or employees back to school right now. It would put them in harm’s way. The number of COVID-19 cases in our area is simply too high.”

The plan also moves the starting date of the school year a week later, to Sept.1, to give school workers more time to complete preparations for the new year and to complete construction projects, particularly at three middle schools. The delay will not force moving the ending date of the school year, Gonsoulin said, as the Alabama State Department of Education has reduced the required number of teaching days from 175 to 170.

Despite the move to virtual learning, some students will still need to go to school campuses on occasion, and Gonsoulin said JefCoEd is prepared for that. In addition to students who have taken part in practices for fall sports, on-campus visits will be needed for certain special-education requirements, as well as lab environments for career-tech classwork such as learning building trades, all of which the system is preparing for with protection from the virus foremost in mind.

Some rural areas of the system lack reliable high-speed internet access so that teachers can communicate with students, but Gonsoulin said the system will provide “smart buses,” outfitted with high speed wireless internet access points, to mitigate the problem.

District officials will assess the state of the pandemic in Jefferson County near the end of the first nine-week period, with an eye toward eventually returning students to a traditional school setting in classrooms.

JefCoEd, which is the largest district in the metro area and the second largest in the state, is one of a handful to announce a complete switch to virtual education. Birmingham City Schools have announced a similar reopening plan, while Mountain Brook is providing an option to parents of either full-time virtual or a return to traditional classroom settings.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson announced last week that he recommends that education for middle and high school students be done virtually and that contact sports be cancelled or postponed for fall, while students in sixth grade and below would have some options for traditional education if certain measures for protection are implemented.