DOTHAN, Ala. (WDHN) — Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Edwards said planning to reopen Dothan City Schools has been one of the hardest things she’s seen in her career in a press conference Wednesday.
According to Edwards, part of the problem lies with the fact that schools are not designed for a hospital-like setting, with students requiring some social interaction.
“These children are going to connect with one another one way or another so I don’t think that anybody wants to have school be a place where, you know, you come in, you sit in your desk, and you do not leave that desk for the five hours,” she said. “That would just be terrible. I think our children have been through enough.”
To mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks and prepare for both in-person and virtual instruction, Dothan City Schools has made plans to track the virus and ensure that students get the most effective education as possible.
Tracking COVID-19 in schools
One way Dothan City Schools will help detect potential COVID-19 cases on campus will be the use of thermal imaging cameras at every school.
These cameras will help detect when a student shows signs of a fever, one of the chief symptoms of COVID-19 infection. If students are highlighted by these cameras, Edwards said a runner may be needed to take the children to isolation.
“Several weeks ago, probably even a month ago, our people from central office, our nurse, maintenance and operations walked the school with each principal and designated the area for isolation in the nurse’s area,” Edwards said.
In the meanwhile, a nurse will check their fever again and check for other symptoms. After this, the parents will be contacted.
In addition to this, a dashboard similar to one maintained by the Alabama Department of Public Health will be maintained to let the public know of any confirmed COVID-19 cases among students and adult staff members.
While the school system cannot request information on someone getting a COVID-19 test or what results they got, Edwards said teachers and staff members have been good about self-reporting their diagnoses.
“So if it’s confirmed, it will stay confirmed,” she said. “If you were in close contact, for instance, we all know the football team had a couple of, you know, students and then it wasn’t just the students that got it, but then we had to look at the rest of the group so that will come under the heading of close contact.”
The dashboard would be updated weekly with new data.
Maintaining social distancing
As for maintaining social distancing, Edwards said this would be determined by each principal’s school plan.
Some solutions were one-way hallways, designated footprint spacing, and, in the case of younger students, using their arms to maintain distance from one another.
As for eating, cafeterias will be able to serve students at a 25 percent capacity rate while most students will eat in their classrooms.
Edwards also said social distancing at drop-off and pickup locations will be assisted by the fact that most schools are “down substantially” when it comes to the number of students who are actually going to school in person. She said that in each secondary level, around 500 to 600 students will not be there in person, which is around a third of the student body.
“It should present a much more manageable situation,” she said.
Edwards did say a problem may arise with young students that may be scared and want to walk in with their parents. The district is working on acclimating the students at this level.
Students will be able to go outside for recess and outdoor breaks. Playgrounds will be cleaned for students to play on.
“There have been many reports that have said that, you know, if you’re outside, it’s far better than being inside so you know, we feel that for students coming to school, you know, we want to make it as normal as possible,” she said. “I think whenever we can find a way to have our children get outside in the fresh air, we need to do that.”
However, with guidelines like seating charts and other measures, Edwards said staying fluid while dealing with adolescents and children will be difficult.
What about students with special needs?
Edwards said that exceptional education instructors have contacted the parents about providing services for this group of students.
“Anything that’s in the IEP (individualized education program), we will do must be delivered,” she said.
Edwards said having a child present for any type of physical instruction will be different, so the system will have to be careful when accommodating their needs.
“A lot of our children that are medically fragile are going to come to school so there’s all different levels of how parents feel and what they want to do,” she said.
Taking education to the virtual level
With 3,000 students electing to continue their education online, DCS had to make accommodations for students and families who need tech support to take class remotely.
Chromebooks with hotspots built into them have been ordered, but the order for those computers built into them are expected to arrive in mid-September.
However, the district is ready to distribute the computers and hotspots they have already. These were already in DCS possession and are planned to be swapped for the newer computers once they arrive.
Edwards said once the students begin their lessons, teachers will monitor their progress to see who needs additional help. On the elementary level, students will get small group instruction from a teacher.
Secondary level students will take courses through Edgenuity, and teachers will monitor them to see if they need small group instruction as well. The timetable is not known since schedules have to be finalized.
Whether a student is going to school in person or online, Edwards said the system is working to keep class sizes small enough to manage.
More than 250 teachers have been trained to do virtual instruction, although they will not be on a different payscale for “brick and mortar” teachers. These may handle case loads from different student populations in different grade levels.
As for courses like physical education or other electives, some online options may be put in place to fulfill the requirement.
“While it might not be the typical P.E. course as you would do if you were there, if you were outside, (it) may be something like, you know, ‘this is what you need to do. We need to complete 10 pushes or we’re gonna do jumping jacks. You need to keep a log,” Edwards said. “We kind of have to adapt every single thing.”
Students may also choose to come on campus for a particular course.
Obstacles in preparation
Edwards said that in all her years as an educator, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the toughest thing to plan for.
One issue is the staffing, as it has been difficult to find qualified educators and new nurses.
“It’s been difficult to find teachers,” she said. “It’s been difficult to find exceptional ed teachers.”
She also said the district has been looking to retirees or education students about to graduate as candidates.
To add to the issues, there was the evolving information on how the novel coronavirus works, which has changed since spring.
“There’s been so much advice, and there’s been so much said,” she said. “First it was don’t wear a mask. Then, wear a mask.”
With the conflicting information, she said it has been difficult to know what to do, but everyone has been doing their best to find a solution.
However, the worst-case scenario is having to shut down schools and events entirely. If so, this would bring the number of virtual students to 9000, forcing DCS to accommodate a large number of students on short notice.
There is also the fact that outside of school, the schools have no control over people’s conduct or environment, where they could become infected.
Edwards said that no matter the solution, someone may be upset.
“It’s kind of a no-win situation,” Edwards said. “You know, no matter what you do, there will be people that think you made the right call and people that will be mad at you.”