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Pell City, St. Clair system bosses preparing for challenges of finishing school year at home

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Pell City Schools Superintendent Dr. James Martin (left) and St. Clair County Schools Superintendent Mike Howard.

PELL CITY -- St. Clair County school systems are going through a transformation in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and state Superintendent Eric Mackey announced Thursday that Alabama schools would continue online for the remainder of the academic year due to the virus.

Pell City Superintendent Dr. James Martin said this is a massive change for the system in its final nine weeks of instruction.

“This has kinda created a paradigm shift for us,” he said.

Martin said the system already uses digital components, such as Google Classroom, as part of normal instruction.

He said Google Classroom allows teachers to post class materials and for students to turn in work. He compared this to Blackboard or Canvas, which are services used by universities to hold online and mix-instruction classes.

Martin said the system is also looking into using a Web seminar service, like Webex, to allow for instruction to take place like it normally would, between a teacher and students. 

Martin said the system had accepted the possibility schools would not open again and were already taking steps to explore solutions.

“What we have done in the last few days, we have been gathering information on which students have internet and which do not,” he said. “We want to educate all our students.”

Martin said students without access to the internet could be provided packets of instructional materials that would match the material provided online by Google Classroom.

He said he was not completely sure how every aspect of this transition would take place, and he was waiting on guidance from the Alabama Department of Education. 

St. Clair County Superintendent Mike Howard said finishing the academic year at home is a complicated issue, but the system would know more after getting the chance to talk to staff next week. 

“It’s a lot of moving parts, but we will get through it,” Howard said. 

Howard said the St. Clair system uses technology in the classroom regularly. The system uses Microsoft platforms, including Skype. 

He said the system would likely be using a similar approach to what it has used during the school shutdown so far.

“Right now, we are using a blended environment,” he said. 

Howard said the system had previously allowed students to use online resources or to pick up packets that are left outside of school that can be picked up at any time. He said the system was likely to use these same measures moving forward, but he could not say what those measures will look like in specific at this time. 

One aspect Martin and Howard were not sure about was how the change will affect Individual Education Plans or IEPs, which are used for students with special needs. 

Ivey mentioned such plans in her press conference Thursday, saying they would still be utilized. 

“We are also doing everything possible to ensure that those with special needs, that have an IEP-5O plan, receive accommodations, and that these accommodations most closely approximate the therapy and special services they would receive in a normal school day,” Ivey said.

Martin said he was unsure exactly how Pell City schools would meet this need, but added he would follow any guidance put forward by the state. 

Howard said St. Clair would do the best it can to provide services, adding the county system would follow all requirements from the state and federal departments of education.

Despite the unprecedented situation, both superintendents were confident their staffs could handle the challenges ahead. 

Martin specifically thanked teachers for the work they’ve already done.

“Our teachers have been willing to jump in and go the extra mile,” he said, adding many had already been in contact with students.

Taylor Mitchell, Daily Home reporter covering Pell City.