‘WHO’S REALLY LEARNING? : ’Alabama schools struggle as 1 in 3 students go virtual amid COVID

By Trisha Powell Crain

A reluctant kindergarten student enters elementary school. (Christian Randolph/Flint Journal)

Keeping Alabama’s schools open in the midst of the omicron surge is a struggle.

Saraland Elementary Principal Stan Stokley told AL.com the waves of variants of COVID-19 have put stress on teachers and staff, but he still believes he needs to do all he can to keep his school open.l

“The first thing I do when I get here in the morning is, there’s an email waiting for me about 6:40 a.m. that tells me exactly how many and exactly who is not going to be at work today,” he said.

“There’s never enough substitutes to cover all of the absences,” he said. “So the very first thing is that we make sure we cover the main classroom teachers who have kids all day. Then you’re trying to take your existing people and you’re trying to plug any holes that you have.”

New reports show Alabama’s total cases of COVID-19 among students, teachers and staff at an all-time high – 26,260 reported statewide – shattering last week’s record of 16,035 cases. Eighty-nine school districts reported record high cases for the current school year, including four large districts – Mobile, Tuscaloosa, Shelby, and Jefferson counties – that each reported more than 1,000 cases. Fourteen school districts and five charter schools did not make a report this week.

According to information from the Alabama State Department of Education and social media posts, 31 districts and one charter school shifted all students to remote learning through the end of this week.

Several other districts, such as Elmore County, shifted only some of their schools into remote learning through the end of this week.

That means 215,000 students in the state, or nearly one in three, are doing remote learning due to staffing shortages.

Marrianne Hayward, the president of the Central Alabama chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, said teachers and administrators are having to make tough choices right now about whether to keep schools open or shift to remote learning.

The shortage of substitutes coupled with the number of teachers and staff out sick or quarantining puts a tremendous strain on the adults who remain at school.

“I don’t see a solution,” she told AL.com Thursday.

When teachers are out, she said, and no other adult in the building is available to supervise classrooms, the students in elementary school classrooms are typically divided between the remaining teachers.

“It sounds okay,” she said, “except that there’s usually not enough desks to do that.”

Kids sit on the floor, and social distancing is all but impossible in a crowded classroom, she added. In high school, teachers are covering each other’s classrooms during their planning period. Instruction on all levels suffers, she said.

“So my question is who’s really learning?”

Elmore County Superintendent Richard Dennis was on his final day of isolation, after testing positive last week, when AL.com spoke with him. Five of the district’s 15 schools had just shifted to remote learning, something Dennis said isn’t ideal, but necessary at least for a short period of time.

“My main goal is to keep students in school face to face,” Dennis said, “where we can at least continue to reach them and keep them in the habit of attending school.”

Dennis said two years of pandemic learning has been hard on students, and that’s showing up in disciplinary problems.

“It’s almost like coping skills are out the window,” he said.

Three sets of adults are most needed to keep a school up and running, officials said: teachers, bus drivers and child nutrition workers. A drastic shortage in one or more of those areas can lead to the decision to go virtual or even close a school.

Stokley, in Saraland, said he considered his school lucky because it has additional personnel, such as paraprofessionals, who can supervise a classroom. Some classrooms in the state are relying on aides, paraprofessionals, student interns and principals to help out.

“But if you got to a point where you pulled every person in the building who had a flexible schedule, then you would have to start going to more dramatic type things like doubling up classes.”

So far, none of the schools in Saraland have been forced to switch to remote learning since the start of the 2020-21 school year.

“I think we’ve been lucky a little bit,” Stokley said. “It’s been a rollover – we have two or three people go out sick and about two or three people come back in from quarantine.”

“It’s like a revolving door.”

Hartselle City Schools is one of more than half a dozen districts in north Alabama to shift to remote learning after a rapid increase in COVID cases among students and teachers. That increase meant too few adults in the building to keep schools open for in-person learning.

“We had tried to manage it for a week and a half,” Superintendent DeeDee Jones said. “And Monday the 10th, I think we started out with 24 positives. By Wednesday, we had quadrupled our numbers. Even during the highest height of COVID we had never had 76, let alone 153 positives. We’re at 398 positives right now, across the district. And we’ve never had that.”

“Over 21% of our staff are out in the district,” Jones said. “And it’s either they have it, their child has it, or they’re quarantining, or they have flu.”

Finding substitute teachers has been hard in Hartselle, as in many school districts. Last week, after being unable to find substitutes for more than half of the teachers who were absent, Jones decided to send the 3,600 students virtual Friday through Tuesday.

But then Tuesday was even worse.

“We hit that 65% cannot fill [rate], and we’re already limited on bus drivers and bus sub drivers.”

That was the tipping point, Jones said, for the decision to move to remote learning through the end of this week.

Elmore County, with around 11,500 students, has been able to maintain enough substitutes, Dennis said. When one school shifts to fully remote learning, it frees up substitutes to work in schools still doing in-person learning.

“We’ve been able to build our substitute rolls,” he said, after struggling through the Delta wave at the start of this school year.

Dennis said he worked with Kelly Services, which oversees placement of substitutes in the district, to improve onboarding. That resulted in more substitutes being able to start working in schools sooner after signing up to do so.

Dennis also said he viewed lowering the number of days of isolation required after a positive COVID test, to five days, as helpful.

“That’s the only thing that’s really saved us,” he said. “If we were on an eight- to 10-day quarantine, we wouldn’t have made it.”

Gadsden City Superintendent Tony Reddick said he’s seeing more student and staff absences with the omicron wave than ever before.

“I don’t know that they’ve all been infected with COVID, or if they’re quarantining, but we only had 29 teachers [out] all of last semester, and we’ve got 100 [teacher absences] just three weeks into the second semester,” he said.

The total number of students and teachers out since school started on Jan. 3, he said, is 431 – up from 290 during the entire first semester of the current school year. The district has just under 5,300 students and staff, he said.

“Those much larger numbers [of absences] are going to come down because after five days, those people are expected to be back at work in schools.”

Reddick, like Dennis, is making decisions on a school-by-school basis, hoping to keep students doing in-person learning as long as possible.

“We’re trying to handle it that way so that we cannot interrupt instruction and learning,” he said.

But balancing the need for in-person instruction and the need to keep students and staff safe is difficult, he added.

“We’re trying to convey to the public and parents in particular that our top priority is the safety of our kids.”

Four of the district’s 12 schools have had at least two days of remote learning since Jan. 3. The district will go fully remote, Reddick said, if the infection rate hits 5% of students and teachers. It currently stands between three and four percent, he said.

Masks, which had been optional prior to the winter break, are again required for staff and students.

Schools being open is important not just for students and teachers, Stokley said, but for the larger community.

“If we close a school, there’s a large percentage of our parents who both work, and they don’t have family here. So they’re gonna have to stay home with their children. We have a lot of people working in the healthcare industry. We’re all interdependent.”

Dennis said he knows doing remote learning on a school-by-school basis can make it even harder for parents with multiple children.

“Whenever I’m having to close an elementary school,” Dennis said, “that’s going to create more of a disadvantage for parents or specifically working parents because they may or may not have somebody to take care of the children.”

“We consider all factors when we do make a decision to close,” Jones said. “I just want parents to know that. And we think about the safety of the students and the teachers. But also, you know, you think about quality instruction for the students when they’re there.”

Jones was proud that her district never shifted entirely to remote last year. She said she believes face-to-face instruction is what her students deserve, and she hopes her schools can return to it next week.

“This hurts. It is a very difficult decision.”

With no good options on the table, Hayward said, teachers are being pushed to their limits.

“Be kind to teachers,” she said. “It breaks their hearts when their students aren’t learning. It’s not ideal, but it’s not ideal for anybody. They’re doing the very best that they can.”