Friday, students in Limestone and Jackson County return to the classroom for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic. In the coming weeks schools from the Shoals to Sand Mountain will start back for in person classes.
Many superintendents told WAAY 31 they have a lot of pressure on their shoulders with the start of this new school year. The state did not issue strong guidelines on what to do in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.
The department of public health suggested districts may “likely dismiss students” but left every decision including case count to each individual district. The state department of public health does suggest closing schools if 20 percent of students are out with the flu.
"Typically in a bad weather event you shutdown an entire school system that's not the way we are going to approach this just because this is another one of the unknowns we don't know how difficult this will be once we all get together," said Muscle Shoals City Schools Superintendent Chad Holden.
"It could be that we shutdown a classroom. It could be that we shutdown a school while the rest of the district continues to operate or if the absenteeism is high enough we may shut down an entire district. Because we fully expect there to be covid cases and exposures. I mean there is no way around it."
Muscle Shoals is starting the school year with an alternating schedule cutting the number of students in half. Another 17% have chosen to take virtual only classes. Holden said the district bought sanitizing fog machines, hand sanitizer, and all the other cleaning supplies.
He's preparing his teachers for virtual at the drop of a hat, too.
"We've instructed our teachers to have two week's worth of lessons prepared at any time for if the teacher has to go home because their positive or exposed or if the classroom has to go home because of a positive case or exposure," said Holden.
In the Shoals some school systems have had teachers or staff members test positive for the virus since it started. Florence City Schools told WAAY 31 the last employee who caught the virus tested positive in June. Over in Madison City Schools students there will be virtual learning the first nine weeks.
Madison City Schools said since July 1st they've had 14 employees test positive for the virus. In Jackson County Schools, Superintendent Kevin Dukes told the WAAY31 from June 1st to August 5th they've had 3 coaches test positive.
Holden said they have had some success this summer with the districts four-week camp. Not a single student or staff member got the virus, but it's still something about which he worries.
"One of the greatest concerns I have is staffing because if we don't have enough adults in the building to supervise the kids we can't have school," said Holden. "Every superintendent in the state is going to navigate this challenge at some point but to what level that's going to be the tough part is how widespread does it become?"
In Georgia, the state's largest school district already saw about 300 teachers and staff members test positive. Holden said an outbreak like that would be a nightmare scenario.
"Even with our substitute list we don't have enough on our sub list to staff an entire school and so if we had a widespread outbreak among staff members we would have to look at going virtual just because we don't have enough adults to staff it," said Holden.
Holden said they contract with a local Shoals company to get substitute. You must pass a background check and have a substitute teaching license in the state of Alabama to be a sub.