Alabama's schools have a roadmap for reopening, and many of the procedures to keep students safe from COVID-19 will be determined at the local level.
The Alabama State Department of Education released its Roadmap for Reopening Friday morning, and State Superintendent Eric Mackey was joined by State Health Officer Dr. Brian Harris in a press conference to discuss some of its details.
Mackey said the intention is for every school campus in the state to be open in the fall for in-person instruction, but there will also be an option for remote learning for families who may not feel comfortable sending their students back.
"In many cases, it's because the children have severe underlying medical conditions or someone in the family does," he said.
Whether it's in the classroom or online, the state is working to make sure Alabama's educators have the support they need to continue to educate its children, Mackey said.
"There is nothing more important to this process, than a teacher working with children, either in a classroom or in a remote situation."
To aid the students who decide to go to school virtually, Alabama used a portion of its funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to purchase a statewide virtual curriculum that will be used from Pre-K to 12th grade, Mackey said.
He said some students will also test positive for COVID-19 at some point in the school year and have to transition from in-class learning to virtual learning, and they could return once the virus has run its course, so it will be important to make sure students are able to smoothly make that transition.
"There's nobody who should enter this school year thinking 'Oh, it's going to be easy,'" he said. "This is indeed going to be the most difficult school year that we have ever faced."
Every school system in the state shut down at the same time in March when outbreaks of COVID-19 began cropping up, but right now, the roadmap allows local school boards to make those decisions based on their own situation, Mackey said.
He said an outbreak could occur that causes just a few students to get sent home or maybe a classroom is closed for a number of days rather than the entire school, and it will be up to each system to do what's best for their schools.
"Those kinds of things may have to happen, and those calls will be made by the local boards of education with recommendation from the superintendent and in consultation with the Department of Public Health," he said.
Mackey did note that Gov. Kay Ivey does still retain the power to declare a State of Emergency and close every school in the state again if a large outbreak occurs.
Along with the procedures for closing and opening, the roadmap provides further guidance for the state's school systems as they plan to reopen this August, but it is not an exhaustive list of rules that systems are all going to have to follow the same way, Mackey said.
It leaves it to local systems to decide what works best for their schools and set the day-to-day procedures to keep their students as safe as possible from COVID-19.
Some of those day-to-day procedures include the possible requirement of face masks to be worn by students and teachers, implementing social distancing in the classroom and having students eat lunch in classrooms instead of cafeterias.
Those will be determined at the local level, so students in one system will likely have a different experience than students in another, Mackey said.
"Every school is going to look different,” he said.
Mackey said the Department of Education is working with the Alabama High School Athletic Association to make sure athletics and extracurriculars are able to return in the fall, but they will likely look different than people are accustomed to.
With the state's roadmap in hand, Cullman County's two school systems are moving forward with their plans to return to school. The Cullman City School System is set to begin on Aug. 19 and the Cullman County School System will return on Aug. 20.
Cullman City Schools Superintendent Susan Patterson said the city system will be integrating the state's roadmap into the preliminary plans that have been in the works since schools were closed for the first time in the spring, and student and staff safety will come first as the system navigates toward reopening.
"The district and school administrators have been identifying needs, developing instructional plans and identifying resources to make a successful transition back to in-school instruction." she said in an email. "We recognize there are still unknowns and are developing the contingencies within our local plan now that we have the state guidance."
Patterson said more information will be coming over the next few weeks relating to the options students and parents will have so that they can make decisions based on their situation.
"We are excited to have the opportunity to get our children back in the classroom and want to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for all," she said.
Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette could not be reached for comment.