Road map to reopening Alabama's public schools

State Superintendent Eric Mackey discusses the roadmap to reopen Alabama's public schools as an interpreter communicate his message to the hearing impaired. [CAROLINE BECK/ALABAMA DAILY NEWS]

Students and parents will have 3 instructional options to choose from when schools in the Shoals area open in the fall.

Those options include face to face traditional school, virtual learning from home, or a combination of the two.

Tuscumbia and Florence school systems have chosen to push their start time back from early August to Aug. 20. Sheffield schools will return Aug. 17.

Other school systems are sticking to their original startup schedules with Muscle Shoals students returning Aug. 6, and Colbert and Lauderdale students returning Aug. 7.

The dynamics of the blended option will be determined by the individual school systems, but will allow students to go from a traditional to a remote setting as coursework dictates.

The state's ACCESS (distance learning) labs will also be utilized where available. Students may take classes in the labs or via internet with some classes being taught by teachers in other regions of the state.

Decision-making lies with the local school district, state Superintenden Eric Mackey said, including determining when a campus should be closed due to a COVID-19 outbreak.

Area superintendents say getting school back in session will be involved and tricky, but keeping schools open even more so.

"We won't close school for one (coronavirus) case, but an outbreak is a different story," said Muscle Shoals Superintendent Chad Holden. "It's going to be a constant juggling act, the most difficult year we've ever had, and we expect plenty of absenteeism.

"The bottom line is we have to do whatever is necessary to educate our kids, while keeping them safe," Holden said. "We know we're going to have cases. We can't overreact and we can't underreact. We've got to keep cool heads and apply good, common sense in dealing with this."

Holden said families in his district are being surveyed now to determine their preferred instruction option.

Muscle Shoals is offering in-school instruction or virtual instruction. There won't be a blended option offered, and students will be expected to stick with their choice for the entire semester unless change is justified, and then it will likely be made only at the end of the nine-weeks grading period.

Tuscumbia Superintendent Darryl Aikerson said students will have the option of a traditional, virtual, or blended educational format. If a student decides to change options, a recommendation must be made by the principal. 

Russ Tate, Tuscumbia's director of Curriculum and Instruction, said the system's stakeholders must be patient, realizing these are uncharted waters.

"We'll have informational meetings in early August for parents and students," he said. "Many people's concerns are centered on lack of internet access and devices. As a state, we've got to make a push now for rural broadband."

Mackey said his department is working on that, and it has invested in a statewide digital curriculum as well as devices for schools and mobile hotspots, even on buses.

Sheffield Superintendent Keith Davis said his district's blended instruction won't include alternating days for students to come to school and stay home, but instruction will be "blended" in the classroom using face to-face and digital resources. 

"We're also preparing protocols for short-time closures and quarantine scenarios in case they're needed," he said.

The Florence district will offer virtual classes in August as well as its traditional on-site instruction.

Also, the seventh through 12th grade virtual school will continue using its same protocols, which is a more blended approach with students working virtually and coming to campus.

The virtual school program for students in kindergarten through sixth grade will offer tailored programs for a child's specific needs ranging from independent virtual learning to on-site classes.

Lauderdale County and Colbert County schools will offer traditional, virtual and blended options.

Lauderdale Assistant Superintendent Tim Tubbs said curriculum officials are developing those plans now. 

In Colbert County, Superintendent Gale Satchel said students will be expected to commit to at least one semester of the option they prefer — traditional, remote or blended.

"Our families will pick the option that works best for them," Satchel said. "The students working remotely will check out devices. We're still working through everything, and we know it's going to be challenging for our teachers but they're up for it."

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