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UPDATED: Anniston pushes in-person school back to Sept. 8

Anniston City Schools won't begin in-person instruction until Sept. 8, Superintendent Ray Hill announced Tuesday in a Facebook post.

Hill said Wednesday that concerns about the spread of COVID-19 are just one factor behind the change of date. The biggest issue, Hill said, is the families who simply haven’t shown up to collect the computer equipment they’ll need for the new school year, which is already underway online.

“The main piece is that we’ve struggled to get parents to come in and pick up the Chromebooks,” Hill said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

School has technically already begun in Anniston, with teachers beginning online-only instruction last week. The initial plan was to bring back some of those students for in-person classes Aug. 17. As that date approached, school officials began warning that they might need more time.

Hill describes multiple gremlins in the reopening plan, but they all trace back to the coronavirus. Yes, Hill said, school administrators are worried that in-person school will spread the virus.

COVID-19 has killed 30 people in Calhoun County so far, according to local officials, and more than 1,800 people in the county have been diagnosed with the illness since the pandemic began. Most of those cases emerged in a surge that took place in July and early August and which only in recent days has seemed to be subsiding.

In his Tuesday Facebook message, Hill said that several members of school staff had contracted the virus. On Wednesday, Hill clarified that statement, saying one staff member tested positive, causing multiple others to go into quarantine because of contact with the infected staffer. The infected worker recovered and had returned to work by Wednesday, Hill said.

School officials have fretted in the past about a potential cascade of teacher absences if COVID-19 does crop up in a school. State rules require school staff to go into quarantine for 10 to 14 days if they’ve been in contact with an infected person, even if they haven’t tested positive for the illness.

Hill said the schools also need more time to rehearse how pandemic-era instruction will work and to sanitize schools. But the biggest issue is finding the families who simply haven’t shown up this year.

“I can tell you that at the middle school, they have 38 or 40 kids they can’t contact,” Hill said. Anniston Middle School has about 360 students enrolled now, Hill said.

In the weeks after the spring school shutdown, school officials said their biggest concern was the students who dropped off the radar completely, turning in no homework even after schools reopened for virtual-only learning. Hill said it’s still not clear how many of those families moved away — possibly due to the economic effects of pandemic — and how many simply stopped interacting with the school system. He said school principals are now organizing at-home visits to track those students down. 

The primary concern is getting those children in school, Hill said, where they can learn. But it’s also hard to plan for social distancing in a school building without a clear picture of how many young people are going to show up for in-person school.

Hill said that despite the delayed school date, parents of children on free and reduced lunch will still be able to pick up lunches at local schools. He said the pickup is organized to be convenient for parents with kids of multiple ages.

“Let’s say you live in the 10th Street area but you also have kids who go to Anniston High,” he said. “You’ll pick up all the lunches at the school close to you.”

The county’s other public school systems are set to begin in-person instruction next week, and there were no indications Wednesday of a plan to change that. 

Attempts today to reach administrators at most local school systems were unsuccessful. Piedmont Superintendent Mike Hayes in an email said that city’s public schools still plan to open on Aug. 19.

Hayes said his system lost contact with only a small number of students during the shutdown, largely due to the fact that the school system had already provided digital devices to every student.

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