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Mackey: Some schools experience ‘glitches’ in virtual learning as school starts

MONTGOMERY As more Alabama schools start classes in person, online or a combination of the two, state Superintendent Eric Mackey said the unprecedented new instruction model is mostly working well but hasn't been without problems.

Mackey updated members of the Alabama State Board of Education about the latest with school reopening at its meeting in Montgomery Thursday.

He said the state’s new online learning portal is working fine for most school systems, but some have experienced some “glitches.”

“Part of that is school systems that have started early are a little bit ahead," Mackey said. "As you know, we recommended that systems not start before Aug. 20, but that is completely a local decision and we respect that, but that means they’re starting before really all the content is uploaded and ready."

He said he hopes to have those issues worked out in the next few days.

Gov. Kay Ivey said at Thursday’s meeting that the ultimate goal is to get every student back into a normal classroom setting, but added that the safety of students and teachers must be a top priority.

“There are a lot of reasons children need to be in school under the supervision of qualified teachers, but we’ve got to be safe and do what’s necessary to keep our people safe and if that’s starting or using a combination of virtual learning then so be it,” Ivey said.

Mackey said teachers have been learning how to better evaluate a child’s needs through a virtual setting, and that familiarity will increase as the school year goes on.

“We all are longing for the day when we can get every student into a traditional classroom,” Mackey said.

So far, at least 20 school systems have said they would begin the school year virtually, including Anniston, Birmingham, Gadsden, Montgomery, Mobile, Huntsville and Tuscaloosa city schools.

The Alabama State Department of Education on Thursday released its District Reopening Information viewing portal that displays each school district’s plans for reopening. It includes start dates and whether it will start virtually, in-person or blended.

Mackey told board members the list is a work in progress and some links to plans still need to be uploaded as specific reopening information becomes available. The list has been separated into four, nine-week terms, and will be updated with each district’s plans for instruction.

Mackey also said he continues to hear from teachers and administrators about contact tracing issues, which he noted as his biggest concern at the moment.

“[The goal is] making sure that, if there is a positive case in schools, whether that’s among a child or an adult, that we do the contact tracing quickly so we mitigate any spread of the virus,” he said.

The Alabama Department of Public Health oversees contact tracing in schools and lists how that process works, along with how long the quarantine processes should work, in their back to school “toolkit” that was released last week.

Alabama's teacher shortage, which existed before the outbreak, is an ongoing concern, Mackey said.  School systems have not yet seen an increase in teacher retirement in recent weeks due to COVID-19 concerns, but some are seeing a shortage of substitute teachers, which will cause problems through the school year, he said.

Mackey said he has also been having weekly meetings with the High School Athletic Association and that most conversations have been surrounding what to do for practices.

He said all athletic coaches are being told to follow ADPH guidelines and discussions on what to do for games are ongoing. There have been scattered reports throughout the state of football players and coaches testing positive for COVID-19.

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