The Cullman County School System has released its plans for the upcoming school year, and applications for students who want to take the system's virtual option are open for the next week.
Documents about the system's preparation for the upcoming school year are available on the system's website, ccboe.org, along with a look at some of the preventative measures that will be taken in the coming year — including new procedures for buses, cafeterias and classrooms.
While wearing a mask will not be required for students, they can wear appropriate face masks/coverings, and other appropriate PPE as desired, as long as they are free of inappropriate or offensive messages/images. Teachers and staff are also welcome to wear masks at their discretion for their safety during the school day, but any required use of masks will be governed by the Alabama Health Order as directed by Gov. Kay Ivey.
Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette said each school will provide students, teachers and staffs with masks, and it will be highly recommended for students to wear as they change classes, ride the bus, or do anything else that brings them in close proximity with other students, but wearing a mask will not be required and will not be expected in the classroom.
"A kid's not going to be punished if they don't wear a mask," he said. "We're not going to leave a kid on the side of the road and not pick them up if they don't have a mask on."
Barnette also clarified a point that may have been unclear in the released documents, and said schools will let families know about potential exposure to the virus, but they will not use any personal information that could identify the child who tested positive.
“If little Johnny tests positive, and he is in a small group with another child or in a classroom with another child, we’ll let them know that somebody in their vicinity tested positive,” he said. “We just can’t tell them their name or anything like that.”
Following along with the state's Roadmap for Reopening, the county school system will be offering traditional in-class learning and a virtual learning option for students who are uncomfortable returning to the classroom.
POLL | How will your child be learning this year?
With school beginning next month, students in the Cullman City and Cullman County School Systems will have the option for traditional in-class learning or virtual learning for those who are uncomfortable returning to the classroom. How will your child be attending school this year?
The virtual option, called the Cullman County Virtual Academy, has an application that is available on the system's website, ccboe.org, along with guides for parents to answer any questions they may have. Applications will be accepted July 13-21.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenging nature of the program, a trial period will be offered to first-time CCVA students. Any newly enrolled CCVA student will have until Sept. 3 to decide if CCVA is right for them or if they should return to traditional instruction. After that date, students enrolled in CCVA will be required to complete the program for a minimum of one semester.
In the event that schools are closed due to COVID-19, traditional students will transition to a remote learning model or a hybrid that includes some in-class learning and some remote learning.
During hybrid learning, the system will utilize a schedule modification of A/B rotations. Students with the last name beginning with the letters A-K will be Group A. Students with a last name beginning with the letters L-Z will be Group B. Households with multiple last names will follow the last name of the oldest child. Group A will attend school on Monday and Tuesday. Group B will attend school on Thursday and Friday. Teachers and staff will still attend school Monday through Friday.
There will not be a specific number of cases that will determine whether a school moves to the hybrid or remote model, but the system will keep an eye on each school to determine if that switch needs to be made. There could also be some schools who have to move to remote learning while others can still remain open to traditional learning if they don't have a similar number of cases, Barnette said.
Buses will still be running as usual, but parents are encouraged to transport their children to and from school as much as possible. Buses will be cleaned and sanitized before each trip and frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, arm rest, grab handles, etc. will be cleaned as necessary.
Face coverings are not required for students to wear on the bus, but they are recommended to be worn while riding the bus and all instances of transitions. Bus drivers may provide hand sanitizer for students or students may bring hand sanitizer from home, and students from the same household will sit together in assigned seats when it is possible to do so.
Breakfast and lunch will still take place in the cafeteria with new procedures and guidelines in place to ensure safety and promote social distancing to the extent possible. Meals will be pre-portioned and grab-and-go, and visitors to the cafeteria will not be allowed for the year to minimize risks to students and workers.
In the classroom, teachers will allow for as much space as possible between desks and they will all face forward. Teachers will utilize table dividers in situations where students are face-to-face at tables.
Teachers will also teach and reinforce good hygiene measures such as hand washing, covering coughs, and face coverings. Teachers and staff will receive training on proper cleaning procedures. Signs will be posted in classrooms, hallways, and entrances to communicate about COVID-19 symptoms, preventative measures (including staying home when sick), good hygiene, and school/district specific protocols.
Restrooms will be sanitized multiple times daily. Soap and/or sanitizer will be available in the bathroom and throughout the school buildings. Students and staff will be allowed to bring hand sanitizer from home. Drinking fountains will be disabled and students will be allowed to bring water bottles from home.
Barnette said all of the hand sanitizers and cleaning supplies for classrooms will be provided for each teacher, and the system has already purchased pallets of supplies and new Clorox 360 cleaning units in preparation for the coming year.
The Cullman County School Board voted earlier in the spring to delay the beginning of the school year from Thursday, Aug. 6 to Thursday, Aug. 20, and that will allow for more professional development and opportunities for teachers to familiarize themselves with the cleaning materials and procedures that will be in place for the year, he said.
While teachers and school staff members will be cleaning more and making sure students are distanced as much as possible, it is also up to parents to keep a close eye on their children to make sure they don't have a fever and aren't showing any symptoms before sending them to school, Barnette said.
"That responsibility comes with the parents," he said. "And if everybody does that, it will keep all of us safe."
Students should be kept home if they have a temperature of 100.4 or greater, or show any symptoms like cough, congestion, shortness of breath or gastrointestinal symptoms.
Barnette said the system released its plan now to let families get a sense of what to expect in the coming school year, but things can change very rapidly when it comes to COVID-19, and there will likely be multiple updates to the plan leading up to the beginning of school on Aug. 20.
He said that the system will continue to monitor the trends in the virus to make sure students are in the safest environment possible, and the continued increase in the number in cases is a cause for concern.
The plan right now is for face-to-face learning when school starts back, but if schools started tomorrow, they would likely be in a hybrid model, he said.
"I'm excited that we have the opportunity to have face-to-face classes on Aug. 20, but the realist part of me knows that if things continue to worsen, we may start off in a hybrid model or even in a remote model," he said. "I'm an extreme optimist, so I'm going to plan for the best case scenario, but we are planning for Plan B and Plan C, just in case."