Huntsville City requires masks for returning students, offers online option
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Coronavirus schools
Huntsville schools will reopen with increased sanitizing and distancing measures in place. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall) AP

Huntsville City Schools unveiled its plan Thursday night for the 2020-2021 year, which includes two options for schooling and a variety of changes aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff.

“We’re building a ship (while) we’ve been sailing,” said Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Christie Finley. “We’ve been given something and we had to create a whole plan from scratch.”

Families will have two options: an all-online option called Huntsville Virtual Academy, and traditional in-person school.

“We’re in an unprecedented time now,” said Finley. “We’re monitoring (COVID-19 numbers) every day. We take it very seriously.”

School is scheduled to start on Aug. 17.

Traditional option

In school buildings, students and staff will be required to wear masks all day, though exceptions may be made on a case-by-case basis. Breakfast and lunch will be served in classrooms, playgrounds will be closed and social distancing measures will change the look of P.E. and other classes.

The traditional option will be “fluid,” said Finley, and will depend on COVID-19 rates in the community and cases in schools. If the district decides it’s necessary, in-person school could transition to a staggered schedule, with students separated into two groups that attend school on different days. Or schools could close indefinitely and move all instruction online.

Finley encouraged parents who choose in-person school to remain flexible. She said the schools would communicate with parents as soon as possible when decisions are made about closures.

There’s no set criteria that would trigger the closure of a school or all schools, Finley said. The level of closure – a classroom, a school, the district – will depend on the extend of the exposure and spread of COVID-19 cases.

“If we were to start school today, I would have pause,” she said, expressing concern over Madison County’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. She commended local officials for the new county-wide requirement that masks be worn in public.

“We hope the choices people are making today will allow us to go to school in August,” she said.

Virtual option

The deadline to register for Huntsville Virtual Academy is July 20. After that date, students are locked in to participating in either the traditional or virtual school option for the entire semester.

“We want parents to make a decision early on, because that’s a staffing decision,” said Finley. The district has to plan for the needed number of teachers for traditional and virtual schooling, based on enrollment, she said.

Students would have the option to switch between traditional and virtual school at the end of the fall semester.

The virtual academy will be an online curriculum purchased by the state and used in districts across the state. But it would include virtual instruction from HCS teachers, three interactive meetings per week and online small group instruction.

P.E., art, music, band and choir classes are also available to students in the virtual academy.

All students in virtual and traditional options can participate in sports and extracurricular activities at their home schools, according to the new plan.

Health, safety requirements

When it comes to preventing the spread of COVID-19, schools will require face coverings for all students, staff and visitors. Water fountains have been turned off at schools and students are encouraged to bring water bottles. Campuses will be disinfected frequently, according to the new plan.

Nurses will be on campus at each school and equipped with protective equipment like masks, gloves and gowns. School clinics will have separate areas for well and potentially ill students.

Staff will be screened each day for symptoms and will receive training on how to recognize symptoms in students. Social distancing will be practiced at entry and exit points, and school buses will be cleaned between routes and at the end of each day.

Any student or staff member who tests positive for COVID-19 or is exposed to someone who tested positive will have to show a clearance note from a healthcare provider before being allowed back to school.

If a case of COVID-19 is found in the school, said HCS Health Services Coordinator Andrea Penn, the state health department will be notified and the school will follow guidelines from that department and the state education department when considering closure of a classroom or school.

The district is also working on partnerships to provide free or affordable internet access to families who lack it. All schools have been updated with long-range wi-fi available outside the school buildings, and busses have been equipped with wi-fi and will be parked in strategic locations.

Ferrell said parents can submit questions or concerns through the district website, and click on “Contact Us” at the bottom.

A Q&A about the plan is available here and a one-page overview is available here. A 100-page PDF of the detailed plan is available here.

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