By Savannah Tryens-Fernandes
Alabama schools reported 8,428 positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff this week.
The number marks the first time cases have decreased since the school dashboard started two weeks ago. The highest number of cases in a oneweek period last school year was 3,352.
Jefferson County had the most cases with 506, which is a decrease from last week’s reported 621 cases. All other large districts reported fewer cases this week, including Shelby, Baldwin and Madison counties, which had at least 200 fewer cases this week as compared to last.
There is no statewide mask mandate in Alabama, giving local school districts the authority to determine their own requirements.
The districts that enacted mask mandates last week – Vestavia Hills, Alabaster City, Pickens County and Piedmont City – had varying changes. Vestavia Hills and Pickens saw slight decreases, while Alabaster City reported 12 more cases than the week before. Piedmont City did not report cases for the week of Aug. 30, but listed 28 cases this week.
“There’s never going to be a one to one correlation between masks and cases,” said State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris when asked during a Friday press conference whether mask mandates have impacted case numbers in schools. “They’re just another layer of protection we’re asking schools to add.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health also recommends regular hand washing, ventilation and social distancing as mitigation measures.
While health and safety protocols are constantly evolving, almost all schools now require masks. Only 25 of 143 districts have allowed them to remain optional, although some mandates end this week.
During a State Board of Education meeting on Thursday, State Superintendent Eric Mackey said officials could expect “well over 10,000” cases this week. It is unclear where the disparity is between Mackey’s statement and the dashboard. The vast majority of districts reported cases this week, with only seven not doing so.
The previous high this school year was 83 districts reporting last week for a total of 9,195 cases.
Despite the dip in cases, school personnel are still facing difficult circumstances in trying to manage the spread of the virus. School nurses, who are responsible for contact tracing as well as student care, have been hard to come by.
Mackey shared that “we have plenty of money to hire nurses, but no applicants for open nurse positions,” during a press conference last week. At yesterday’s meeting, he proposed a $60 million increase to pay nurses.
“It’s a struggle right now,” said Mackey. “The only way out of this, longterm, is vaccinations.”
Vaccine clinics are occurring at some Alabama schools, and students can get a shot with parental consent. The current vaccination rate for school aged children remains low, with 7.3% fully vaccinated.
While vaccinations aren’t required, Mackey is urging all staff to get vaccinated.
“I’m struggling to see how there are adults in our schools who aren’t vaccinated,” he said.