It’s taken a team effort of students, parents, teachers and school staff, but school leaders say they are beginning to feel comfortable about how the school year is progressing.
As of last week, 1.9 percent of Cullman County School system’s 9,500 students were out for either testing positive for COVID-19, having COVID-19-like symptoms or being in contact with someone who either tested positive or had symptoms. Superintendent Shane Barnette said one adult out of approximately 1,200 full-time employees has tested positive.
Under state guidelines, when a student has COVID-19-like symptoms, they are sent home and anyone within six feet of the individual for more than 15 minutes within the previous 48 hours is also asked to quarantine. Barnette noted that often the suspected coronavirus case is cleared by a doctor as some other illness and the student - and other students they may have come in contact with - return to school in a day or two. “It’s a very fluid situation,” he said.
The Cullman City School district has had 1.2 percent of its 3,265 students either test positive for the virus, shown symptoms of the disease or been quarantined because of contact with a suspected case. Four of the system’s 314 teachers have tested positive for COVID-19.
Barnette said teachers, parents and students are taking precautions so students can stay in school, particularly in sanitizing classrooms and practicing social distancing. “I’m hoping and praying that that’s something that is making an impact,” he said.
While the school year began with some uncertainty as to what would happen next, Barnette said he’s more confident now. “Every week that passes by, especially for the first couple of weeks, I thank God that “hey we’re in school for 10 days’ or “We’ve got two ballgames under our belt, that’s great,’” he said. “Now I think we’re in here for the long haul. I think we’re there. I think we’re in a good place. We know that some people are going to get sick and some are going to have to be quarantined and we’re going to work through those situations and continue on.”
Approximately 14 percent of county students are currently doing virtual school, said Barnette. “That’s a number that’s been coming down because we had so many return from virtual school.”
“I strongly believe face to face instruction with a quality teacher is the best way to learn,” he said. “But we do respect that some families need [virtual] if they’ve got someone in their family that’s at high risk. We’re doing our best to work with those kids.”
Cullman High School Principal Kim Hall said virtual education presents a new challenge for teachers, students and parents, and makes communication even more important. “Communications in a global pandemic is definitely a challenge for everyone, especially communicating while maintaining social distancing,” she said. “We’re making sure we put a lot of effort into communicating” through multiple channels. “So much of a young person’s education depends on their relationship with their teacher and the staff and that is very difficult to develop and foster relationships when you are social distancing,” she added.
After the first two weeks of school, the high school switched from virtual and in person classes to virtual and hybrid in-person. In the hybrid version, students report to school in smaller groups half the week, while working online the other days.
Hall said the decision was warranted because of the number of students in close proximity to each other throughout the day, which was causing more students to have to be quarantined if a classmate showed signs of COVID-19. The typical class size is normally 20-24 people, and while some classes were smaller at the start of the school year because some students choose the virtual option, they were still too large to provide optimal social distancing of about 12 students per class, she said.
“Not that we think hybrid is the best model for education for the future, but we do think it is the best opportunity for their education right now,” said Hall.
“When students and teachers are together, that’s when the magic happens,” she said. “Whether we’re having to do that online, face-to-face or hybrid.”
The main problem students have encountered has been technology. “The students are doing a really good job if they are having trouble,” said Hall. “They are directly emailing me for help and I’m able to get them with the teacher and get them the help they need. They’ve done a really, really good job at becoming advocates for themselves and speaking up and asking for help. I do think we’ve seen some maturity in that area.”
The high school has also provided teachers with additional professional development training around the technology they are all using. While some have had experience with online platforms in the past, they are now all using the same learning management system. There, too, she said there’s been more communication across departments as teachers help each other with the digital tools.
Barnette said he’s had some concerns about extra curricular activities and often stresses to fans the importance of following social distancing guidelines at those events. ““It comes down to personal responsibility and we want to encourage everybody to do that,” he said. “We’ve said multiple times, that if we want to keep having extracurricular activities, we need everybody to follow those protocols and do everything they’re supposed to do.”
While there hasn’t been any evidence of a COVID-19 outbreak tied to school games, Barnette said, “We’ve got to do better at our events. Local high school and middle school events are such a social event, we’ve got to do better at keeping that social distance, and keeping the mask on when we’re supposed to and if we do that, we’ll continue to be able to have them.”
Hall said Cullman High School athletes and coaches are following the lead of the Alabama High School Athletic Association for practice and game conduct, and encouraging fans to also follow recommendations while not mandating them. “We also expect that some people will have some personal responsibility for their own health and the health of others around them,” she said.
Barnette said he sees the students adapting to the school year that has already been like no other. “To begin with, I think it was a little strange, a little different with the mask. But now, I think a lot young people have embraced it. They’re wearing different kinds of masks; they’re having a good time with it. That’s what we’ve got to do. We have to take the hand that we’re dealt and make the best of it, and I think the people of Cullman County are doing that right now. We’re going to get through it, there’s no doubt.”
Hall, too, hopes everyone is learning lessons from this year. “I hope we learn to look back on 2020 and that we became more resilient, that we became better problem solvers,” she said. “That we can look back and say we’re better advocates for ourselves, that we care more and that we have more empathy for each other. That we’re able to look back and say we became better people and a better community because of this.”