Shane Barnette

Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette is seen during the July 16 board meeting.

Schools around the state and country are seeing lower attendance and more students struggling academically during the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Cullman County Schools Superintendent Shane Barnette said the county’s schools are seeing students who are behind in the usual progress that they see, and said that can mainly be explained by the early closures of schools during the last school year. 

Every school in the state closed in March when the impacts of COVID-19 were first beginning to be felt, so students missed out on the final two months of the school year. 

Students take benchmark tests throughout the school year, and the first ones are usually taken at the beginning of the school year to gauge students’ recollection of the previous year’s subjects, so missing that time meant their scores were not as high as they usually are, Barnette said.

“Some of those scores are lower than years past because they’ve missed a lot of instruction,” he said. 

The next round of testing will take place before Christmas break, and while teachers and students are still working towards making progress on those benchmarks, missing that much school means that it will take some time to do so, Barnette said. 

“It’s not going to be a quick fix,” he said. “It’s going to take a while to get everybody caught up and back on pace to where they need to be.”

There are also students in the county’s virtual school program who are failing to do their work or are struggling in the work that they do complete, Barnette said.

He said some struggling students have already transitioned back from virtual school to traditional in-person learning since the beginning of the year, and the system has also spent CARES Act funding to pay teachers for additional after-school tutoring for students or meetings with parents who need help of their own.

Every school has several teachers who have signed up for the extra hours, and that seems to be going well so far, Barnette said.

To further make sure that students are getting the best education they can during the pandemic, all virtual students who are failing will be required to return to traditional school at the beginning of the next semester unless they have a specific health reason to remain at home, he said.

“A lot of them who were struggling have decided to come back, but for the ones who have decided not to, we’re going to have to say ‘For your kids’ sake, we’re going to need them to come back unless there is a health issue,’” he said.

Barnette said he didn’t have an exact number of those students who are failing, but most students in virtual school are doing their work like they are supposed to and are showing the proper progression as the year continues. 

Of the few who aren’t doing their work or are struggling when they do it, coming back to school and getting face-to-face time with their teacher should help them get back on the right track, he said. 

“Most of them are doing good,” he said. “But there are several who are not staying on pace, so we want to encourage them to come back.”

The Cullman City School System’s principals provided an update on each of the schools in September, and they reported that students’ scores on their benchmark tests were trending lower than usual because of the abrupt end to the last school year.

Cullman City Schools Superintendent Susan Patterson said the city system, like all of the other systems in the state, are still grappling with the early ending of the school year last year and making sure students are catching up to where they need to be.

“Looking at the benchmark tests we conducted at the beginning of this school year, there are indications that some students scored lower than we would have liked, which we attribute to the disruption at the end of last school year,” Patterson said in an email. “But we have a plan in place to address that, and we are already providing extra support for the students that are not meeting benchmarks at this time.”

Patterson said the system is seeing some lower attendance due to precautions surrounding COVID-19, but enrollment has not seen a similar trend.

“Looking at our numbers, daily attendance is slightly lower, which we attribute to the COVID-19 pandemic and students of close contacts sometimes being quarantined as required per state health guidelines,” she said in an email. “However, our overall enrollment for the system this year has actually seen a slight increase.”

There have been a few students who were struggling in the virtual school who transitioned back to traditional school earlier in the year, and the system is surveying parents to determine how many of the virtual students are interested in returning to the classroom for the next semester, Patterson said.

“We’ll of course use all of that information to make adjustments for class schedules to keep students and faculty as safe as possible as students return in January,” she said.

Tyler Hanes can be reached at 256-734-2131 ext. 238.

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