Masks for Trumpets, Connections for Internet and Fear of the Unknown as the 2020-21 School Year Opens

Ellen Phillips, a seventh-grade math teacher, doles out a device for online learning during orientation at Fairfield High Preparatory School on 8-11-2020 (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

In any normal year — which is to say, pretty much any year before 2020 — faculty, administrators and staff in more than a dozen metro Birmingham school districts would have worked at a frantic pace to get their facilities ready for another academic year.

That’s all still happening, but in a much different way than in the past, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that looms large over everyday life. Because state officials this year have given districts a lot of latitude, in addition to the usual issues, school systems this year have had to determine when they will open and how children will be educated during the outbreak.

They also are facing decisions about how to provide internet access to children who don’t have it in their homes but are taking classes by computer for at least some of the year. There are issues of how to provide meals to children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches if the schools are not having in-person classes.

A shortage of substitute teachers already has made itself known in systems that have opened, and some teachers still are on the fence about whether they will stay with the school system, retire or ask to teach virtual classes, rather than be in a classroom.

In addition, the schools had to determine whether to go forward with football seasons and when to start, as well as monitoring young athletes and their coaches and responding quickly if anyone tests positive for the coronavirus.

When to Open? In Class or on Computer?

In the past several weeks, school boards had to scramble to decide what classroom methods to use, as well as when to open for the year.

Most systems opened this week, but the area’s two largest systems delayed for a bit. The two largest districts in the Birmingham metro area will feature 100% virtual learning for the first nine weeks. The Jefferson County Schools postponed its first day to Sept. 1, while Birmingham City Schools delayed opening even longer, until Sept. 8.

Fairfield City Schools also chose virtual-only classes, but it opened Aug. 10.

In other systems, students are attending schools two days a week or more; in some, parents had multiple options to choose from.

Nearly all systems surveyed parents and other stakeholders earlier this summer to get a sense of direction, with results varying widely between districts. In general, systems with larger proportions of minority students favored online virtual learning, while those with fewer minority students mostly favored either returning to traditional classes or taking a hybrid approach, in which students attend regular classes two or three days per week and work remotely the other days.

The hybrid method means that half or fewer of the usual number of students are in their buildings, which allows classrooms to be set up with more space between desks for social distancing and reduces crowding in hallways. Classrooms may have about a dozen students plus a teacher in a room designed to hold 30 or more in the hybrid scheme.

JefCoEd Superintendent Walter Gonsoulin received more than 25,000 survey responses, with 56% preferring virtual and 44% wanting hybrid. When Gonsoulin announced that the system would go totally virtual, he caught flack from those who wanted the hybrid option available as well. He addressed the criticism in a board of education meeting, saying that a split method was not practical for their system, the second-largest district in Alabama.

Hewitt-Trussville High School makes its mask rule explicit in a sign marking the entrance. (Photo by Solomon Crenshaw Jr.)

Bessemer City Schools begins Sept. 3 and will teach all classes remotely for the first nine weeks. After that, system officials will make their next move after examining COVID-19 trends in the state. Superintendent Autumn Jeter said her district already has a plan to begin bringing students back to traditional classrooms.

“We surveyed our parents and 70% chose a blended model,” Jeter said. “We’re basing our decisions on the COVID-19 numbers, but parents will have options.”

Across the county, Trussville City School System is taking an approach that can best be described as a bit of everything. Students attended the first day of school on a staggered basis over three days, and then parents chose which method they wanted for their children: full traditional, staggered or all-virtual.

“I’m going one day at a time, and I have no idea what nine weeks from now will look like,” Superintendent Pattie Neal said.

Trussville has installed special shields to allow classes to go on where social distancing might be a problem at times, such as in science labs.

“All students are required to wear masks. We also have Plexiglas shields on our tables, and the teachers also have face shields,” Neal said. “We’ve also made special seating arrangements for bands. They blow through their horns, so we’re putting foot covers over the ends of the horns, like what surgeons and nurses wear (over their shoes) in the operating room.

“I asked parents to have their children wear masks before they came to school, so that the first day wouldn’t be the first time (they) had to wear a mask all day. And they did,” Neal added.

Other special arrangements are made for school choirs, following recommendations from the Alabama Vocal Association. Singing, especially in a performance, moves more air through the lungs, so choir members will either practice outside or use medical-grade N95 masks, which provide greater filtering.

Gladiators of Autumn

The first part of Alabama’s education system to feel both direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 was athletic teams, particularly football. At this year’s Metro Birmingham High School Football Media Days — which was held by video conference rather than the usual gathering of coaches, players and news media — the pandemic and its effects were discussed at least as much as X’s and O’s. Coach after coach detailed the efforts they have taken to keep the virus away from athletes and staff, as well as the shuffling of season schedules when opposing teams had to back out of games.

Even with those efforts, several schools in the Alabama High School Athletic Association have opted to cancel their fall sports seasons entirely. Others have had practices and games shut down for a time because players, coaches or both have tested positive.

In the metro area, the most prominent victim of the virus so far is longtime Vestavia Hills head football coach Buddy Anderson, the winningest coach in AHSAA history. Other players on the Rebels team also were positive, so the program went under quarantine and cancelled its first two games of the season.

Likewise, Neal said, the Trussville system has had some faculty or their relatives test positive for COVID-19 before they began work at schools.

Insecurity Among Teachers

Data from Johns Hopkins University and other health care organizations have shown that young people are much less likely to die from the coronavirus than adults and that symptoms tend to increase by age. That’s why many teachers, especially older ones who are close to retirement age or who may have compromised immune systems, are considering stepping down to avoid contracting COVID-19.

It’s a major concern among the rank and file of teachers’ groups such as the Alabama Education Association, where Tracee Binion represents a group of districts that include Jefferson County and Trussville, where her children attend.

“What I hear teachers being worried about is, for any in-person school systems that are opening right now, they are going to have trouble getting students to comply with social distancing or masks all of the time,” Binion said. “It’s going to be difficult for some students not to get exposure to one another at some time, which, according to the (Alabama Department of Public Health), means within six feet for 15 cumulative minutes. They don’t know who’s supposed to be policing that all of the time. … Teaching and being in a school is such a dynamic setting; it’s like herding cats. You can’t always predict everything that’s going to go on in a hallway or classroom.”

Binion said the Enterprise school district already had 121 students go into quarantine in just one day. As for whether that will happen closer to Birmingham, she said, “I think it’s just a matter of time. It’s not ‘if,’ it’s ‘when.’”

The AEA surveyed more than 41,000 teachers, employees and administrators, and about 65% said they were not comfortable with traditional face-to-face learning at this time. Educators couldn’t simply opt out of a position because they feared the virus, Binion said, but they could apply for virtual-learning positions, in which contact with students is limited or non-existent.

“Most school systems are taking into account age or any pre-existing conditions a teacher might have when they are putting people into these virtual positions. Those teachers still have to go into the buildings, even if they are doing remote learning, but at least they won’t be exposed to potentially hundreds of kids per day,” she said.

About 35% of respondents indicated in the AEA survey that they might leave teaching because of the pandemic, either by retiring or leaving early. Binion said she did not have figures yet on how many teachers have or will follow through on leaving, “but I do know the number of retirements has increased, and the number of teachers who have just resigned their positions or are asking for a year’s leave of absence is increasing in a lot of systems, which is going to create a substitute shortage. … We still have a teacher shortage (from before the pandemic), and COVID has really made that problem worse.”

While temporary-worker agencies such as Kelly Services provides subs for several school districts, Binion said, but some of the workers refuse to work at a school because of the COVID-19 threat. “Let’s say we have a school where 10 teachers have to quarantine because of exposure to a student. It’s very likely that some of those classes have to be cancelled for the day, because I don’t see every school having that kind of sub availability. I know that is a big worry on the minds of a lot of superintendents.”

State school Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said Alabama not only has a significant shortage of substitute teachers, but of nurses and bus drivers, as well.

Arranging Meals

The COVID outbreak also presents new challenges for districts that will start out with only virtual learning. Students must still be fed, even if they are in their homes instead of school buildings, and that’s especially important for systems with high numbers of students eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.

Birmingham city schools announced Thursday that it will be handing out hot lunches and continental breakfasts daily at designated schools.

Meals also a major part of Jeter’s preparations for the new year, as 100% of the students in Bessemer City Schools qualify. But she already had a trial run of sorts when schools shut down in the spring as the outbreak spread.

“We will have weekly feedings every day, with meals already packed out,” Jeter said. “Parents will pick the meals up. It’s not too much of an adjustment.”

The subsidized meals go to a much lower percentage of students in the Trussville system — only about 10%. “The most intricate part of planning lunches was to identify virtual students on free or reduced lunch,” Dean said. “All of them, including full-pay students, can grab-and-go at two different locations in Trussville. They sign up online with their virtual teachers 24 hours before the meal.”

JefCoEd has a similar system, but it is a bit different from meal service provided in the spring, when all students, no matter their subsidy status, received free meals to take home. The service will resume when classes start, but full-pay and reduced-pay students will have to fund a prepaid account from which meal costs are debited. It’s the same online system used in school cafeterias before the shutdown.

Internet Access Needed

Internet access is also an issue, but for different reasons in different systems. For Bessemer, the issue is largely economic; families cannot afford full broadband access. That’s addressed in part by a program Gov. Kay Ivey established using federal coronavirus recovery funds, which provides Wi-Fi hotspots to such families.

For Jefferson County, where a large portion of the district lies in rural areas, the problem is providing internet access where none exists, or where download speeds are too slow to work with video and other bandwidth-intensive needs.

Gonsoulin announced earlier this month a plan to use “smart buses” equipped with hotspots to provide coverage to areas around Corner and Kimberly, but subsequent testing of those devices showed that the data signal was ineffective beyond roughly 300 feet away out in the open. And it was even poorer inside homes near the buses.

JefCoEd now plans to use individual hotspots in homes, with the same subsidies that Bessemer is using.