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How schools will reopen: Calhoun school board discusses details of new year

Calhoun County Schools teaser

A Calhoun County Schools bus.

Longer lines of cars at the drop-off. Moms and dads doing temperature checks before kids head out for the bus. Lunch in the classroom, but with no chance to choose between pizza and a chicken sandwich.

That's what school will look like in August for students in Calhoun County's largest school system.

Or maybe not. In the era of COVID-19, all school plans are tentative and every student’s experience — except, perhaps, lunch — is customized. 

“We're trying to make plans,” said Calhoun County Schools Superintendent Donald Turner. “We're trying to make the best schedules. But we really don't know anything for sure until we see who shows up for the first day of school.”

Turner and the Calhoun County Board of Education met Thursday morning for what was originally scheduled as a one-hour work session followed by a regular meeting. Three hours later, the work session was still going on, as board members and administrators discussed the details of reopening schools on Aug. 11. 

Parents across the county already know the broad outlines of the coming school year. All five of the county's public school systems plan to open for in-person instruction some time in August. All have offered students the option of attending school in person or studying online.

But with the start of school less than three weeks away, teachers have a growing number of questions about how school will actually play out. Angela Morgan, a representative for the Alabama Education Association, said many teachers are concerned about their own health — and many are unsure whether current school plans will actually allow social distancing. A classroom with 20 students, even if that's less than normal, can't be socially distanced, she said. At least one teacher, she said, is building cubicles out of PVC and shower curtains to keep students separated.

“It's coming down to where you are, and what your specific classroom looks like,” she said. 

Some details of the new school normal are clear. There won't be water fountains. School system staff on Thursday said fountains were covered up and shut off to avoid spreading the virus. 

Buses will run, staffers said. Kids won't be allowed on the bus if they have a high temperature. Because bus drivers are too busy to do that temperature-taking, schools will send a note home urging parents to keep tabs on their kids' temperature. 

Social distancing on the bus will depend on how many are on board. Turner said the school system is urging parents to drive their kids to school, and he said the use of online options should also bring the numbers down. 

In school buildings, too, social distancing will depend on how many students show up in person. Even in pre-pandemic school years, last-minute arrivals and departures make enrollment numbers tough to predict. The online option complicates that. 

“It's just wait and see,” Turner said. “We'll have to wait and see who shows up.”

Lunches could be served in the classroom to prevent cafeteria crowds, said Mary Stonebraker, director of the school system's child nutrition program. That's likely to vary from school to school, Stonebraker said. To make serving in-class lunch easier, lunchrooms will likely eliminate lunch choices and serve just one dish to all, Stonebraker said. 

Even boo-boos will be handled differently. Lesa Cotton, health director for Calhoun County Schools, said schools will distribute Band-Aid bags to teachers: If minor scrapes can be handled in the classroom, fewer healthy kids will be in the nurses’ offices, where they might come into contact with sick kids. 

People who've tested positive for the virus and have symptoms, Cotton said, will have to sit out at least 10 school days after the onset of symptoms. Someone with a fever after 10 days has to wait one day after their temperature returns to normal. People with a positive test and no symptoms can return 10 school days after the test. 

School officials said sports will go on, but with the stands filled to no more than 50 percent of their normal capacity. 

With 19 days until school starts, teachers and administrators have one eye on the state's rate of new infection, and the numbers are not good. Calhoun County has seen 908 residents infected with the virus since the pandemic began, and around half of those infections emerged in the past two weeks. The spread of the virus was slower in March, when schools first shut down to avoid spreading COVID-19. 

School officials were quick to point out that every plan they've made could change as the public health situation changes. Still, there has to be some sort of plan, Turner said. 

“If we keep stopping and starting and stopping and starting, we're never going to start,” he said.

Morgan, the teachers association representative, said she saw mixed messages in the reopening plan. She wasn't in the meeting; like reporters and other observers, she watched a televised version of the socially distanced session from an overflow room at the school board's central office. 

Morgan said school officials are claiming to reopen in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, even though they acknowledge that there's no way to keep all kids socially distanced. She said some older teachers have chosen to retire this year rather than risk their health.

“This is why they're afraid,” she said. “Because of the contradictions.”

School board members peppered staff with questions about disinfection, use of school-issued laptops and other details of the reopening plan. And school board president Tobi Burt asked if reopening was safe. 

“Are we prepared? Do we have our needs met?” he asked Cotton, the health director. 

“We are doing the best we can with what we have,” Cotton said. “And that's all we can do.”

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