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Calhoun County schools awaiting state guidance as COVID wave swells

Calhoun County school officials want to tell students and parents what sort of COVID-19 restrictions will be in place when school starts Aug. 9 — but they’ll have to wait for guidance from the state.

“We’re making a plan,” said Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Donald Turner. “We’re trying to get ready for whatever comes our way. That’s all we can do right now.”

The county school board held a special called work session and meeting Thursday in Anniston to take on a few end-of-summer items — including a discussion of how the school system will respond to what’s increasingly looking like a new, steep wave of COVID infections.

Across the state, 1,251 people lay in hospital beds with coronavirus on Thursday afternoon, according to numbers from the Alabama Department of Public Health. That’s six times the number hospitalized at the beginning of July, when many felt the pandemic was all but over.

The rise of the highly contagious Delta variant and Alabama’s dismal vaccination rate — only 34 percent of Calhoun countians had gotten their first shot by Thursday — bear most of the blame for the surge.

Turner said the school system’s current position is to encourage masks, but not mandate them.

The school system is set to return to in-person classes five days a week, with desks three feet apart and some pandemic restrictions still in place in lunchrooms and athletic practices.

But school officials are aware that the spread of the virus could change those plans, and fast.

Even without school in session, the virus is spreading. According to Turner and school health director Lesa Cotton, 10 people affiliated with the school system have caught the virus recently, including four people in the central office. Cotton said there are signs the current cases spread faster than past cases.

“The nurse side of me says that if we don’t do something we’re going to have an outbreak, and we’ll be in trouble,” Cotton said.

State law and policy have largely tied school officials’ hands. Cotton on Thursday circulated a message from Attorney General Steve Marshall, reminding government agencies that they’re not allowed to require people to get the COVID vaccine — or even to ask people whether they’ve been vaccinated for coronavirus. The Alabama Legislature passed that law this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week recommended use of masks in schools, as well as masking in indoor public spaces even for people who’ve already been vaccinated.

Anniston City Schools will have a mask mandate in place when school opens, school officials have said. But Turner said a mask mandate would be difficult to enforce if it’s not uniform across the region or the state.

“If we have a mask order, and the governor doesn’t have a mask order, how are you going to be able to enforce it?” he said.

Turner said the school system is awaiting guidance from the Alabama Department of Public Health, which school officials expect will come early next week. Whatever processes are put in place, he said, they can be done administratively and won’t demand a new meeting by the school board.

School officials said they’re prepared for multiple options, including a return to online schooling if that’s required at some point in the coming year.

There are also concerns that weren’t in place last year. Paid leave for people in quarantine, a common thing in 2020, is no longer funded.

Quarantine rules in 2020 led to widespread absences by students and teachers who’d merely been in contact with an infected person; it’s still unclear how that would play out with the faster-spreading delta variant.

School board members on Thursday also voted 5-0 to approve a new salary schedule that reflects the pay increases approved by lawmakers earlier this year. Those pay increases add up to an increase of about 2 percent, according to the board.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.