Alabama schools begin reporting COVID-19 cases, forcing masks, remote learning – AL.com

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This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. to clarify that most Cullman City students tested positive before the first day of classes.

This story was updated at 3:54 p.m. with news of a Colbert County school closure.

Alabama schools already are reporting COVID-19 cases among students and staff, sending them home to quarantine. And at least two schools are shifting to remote learning in response to the spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus.

“We know we’ve had hundreds of children sent home already this week. And we’ve had dozens of teachers sent home,” Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey told the state board of education Thursday in Montgomery, though he added that he didn’t think people had contracted the coronavirus at school.

The state department’s COVID case tracker, which reports new cases by district on a weekly level, will be up and running some time after Sept. 10, according to state education officials. In the absence of school-level or district-level case information, districts are communicating with parents individually.

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A Colbert County elementary school said Friday that it would send all students home for 10 days. The district said the school’s COVID policy required closure “when one school’s population reaches over 18% of isolated or positive COVID cases.”

Legacy Prep Charter School in Birmingham, which opened for students on Aug. 4 with all 400 of their kindergarten through fourth grade students learning in-person, is already making plans to shift to a hybrid learning plan in hopes of staving off further community spread.

“We all want and continue to want all of our scholars to be in person five days a week,” Principal Jonta Morris told AL.com, “but we also have to weigh their lives.”

The school will continue to hold in-person school for students who are unable to learn remotely — such as children of essential workers and children who need school meals, among others — but all other students will learn remotely, the plan they followed last year.

Here’s an updated list of Alabama schools requiring masks.

Some students and teachers already are quarantined because of positive COVID cases, but the reason for the shift is because of the high spread of the delta variant, Morris said.

“We’re trying to be responsive to what the data is saying,” Morris said.”We’re also being responsive to the mental, physical and emotional health of our village. Our families are worried and concerned.”

Legacy Prep’s plan will be in place for the first trimester beginning Aug. 30 and they’ll reevaluate in mid-October.

Other districts also are assessing the numbers.

Scottsboro’s Board of Education voted Thursday to end its weeklong mask mandate.

After two days of classes, Cullman City Schools sent a notice to parents announcing that nearly 50 students had tested positive for COVID-19 and 45 were isolating. The district doesn’t currently require masks, but is now reconsidering. In a survey, it asked parents whether they would oppose or support a mask mandate.

Cullman City Schools Superintendent Kyle Kallhoff said many of the students who tested positive did so prior to the first day of school and were not in attendance on campus. He also said that while the district is gauging parent input, they have “no immediate plans” to change masking protocol.

“It’s also worth noting that, over the next few weeks, there are two large outdoor gatherings planned in our area,” Kallhoff told AL.com. “That will make it more difficult to determine if any additional increase of student cases is a result of our mask policies, or general community spread. However, we will watch our data closely and keep our parents and stakeholders informed of any planned changes to our current protocols.”

On Thursday, Madison County Schools announced plans to reverse their mask policy after confirming an outbreak among students and staff. The district will require masks from Friday, Aug. 13 through Sep. 3.

“During this time period, we will reevaluate the level of spread and determine the appropriate level moving forward,” the district said in a statement. “We appreciate your support as we work together to keep our students and staff safe.”

Tim Hall, a spokesman for the district, said less than one percent of a combined 20,000 students and staff tested positive for COVID-19, but he would not give any other details, including the actual number of students or staff who had tested positive or who were under quarantine.

“We are letting the statement speak for itself,” Hall told AL.com after repeated requests for information.

“I trust the local officials and parents working through this issue,” Gov. Kay Ivey said Thursday after the state board meeting. “And whatever they decide, I think it’ll be best because every local area is different from another. People don’t need government telling them what to do. So I’m trusting the parents and the local school officials.”

Mackey said he didn’t know of any COVID-19 hotspots or outbreaks within schools, but for now they’re keeping a close eye on what’s happening statewide.

“We’re certainly worried about community spread,” he said. “We really want people to be focused on getting the vaccination if they’re eligible to get the vaccination, following the public health guidance, and we’re hopeful that this spike will soon start going the other way and we’ll be able to get back to normal.”

Education Lab child health and wellness reporter Savannah Tryens-Fernandes contributed to this report. Tryens-Fernandes and reporter Rebecca Griesbach are supported through Report for America fellowships. Support their work by donating here.

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