CCBOE discusses plans for returning to class

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Cullman County School Board members are seen at Thursday night’s meeting. (Heather Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – The Cullman County Board of Education (CCBOE) at its monthly work session and meeting Thursday night discussed plans for the return to school, including a possible stipend for teachers to conduct virtual classes outside school hours, protocols for school buses and cafeterias and what may happen if the number of COVID-19 cases continue to increase.

Superintendent Dr. Shane Barnette said there are currently about 360 students, a little less than 4% of the student population, enrolled for virtual instruction, though more may sign up before the deadline July 21. The board considered a proposal to pay stipends to current teachers to conduct virtual classes after the regular school day ends so the system will not have to hire additional teachers. This would allow funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) to be used for that purpose if they were needed. However, if the virtual enrollment numbers become high enough, teachers may be asked to conduct virtual classes for those students during the regular school day.

If the number of COVID-19 cases increases to the point where traditional learning is not recommended, the next option is to switch traditional students to a hybrid model. In this system, half of the students would attend in-person classes Monday and Tuesday and finish the week remotely, and the other half would start the week remotely and finish in school Thursday and Friday. Wednesday would be used as a day for schools to do a deep clean between the groups and for teachers to send out their digital materials. If the number of cases increases to the point where not even hybrid learning is recommended, the schools would move to virtual learning. 

Many teachers and families, as well as some of the board members, have expressed concern about virtual learning due to the lack of reliable internet access that affects many Cullman County residents. Barnette said that although the Cullman Electric Cooperative has announced Sprout Fiber Internet for the county, access to the first community will take two or three months to complete, and the entire project may not be finished until August 2021. Because schools could transition to virtual learning sooner than that, and many mobile hotspots vary in effectiveness based on brand and location, Barnette talked about a project called Operation Roundup.

“Working in conjunction with the Co-Op, we are gonna be installing devices on every main high school campus – we’re gonna be picking a parking lot that’s well-lit and that has cameras covering the area, and we’re gonna be installing a device outside that they can drive up to once or twice a week and download their work and additional content. They could get internet access from those hotspots,” he described.

Each main hotspot will accommodate up to 50 users at a time. School buses have also been approved to carry hotspots; this means that students may also drive up to elementary and middle schools or local churches where buses are parked to gain Wi-Fi access.

Another point regarding school buses is the sanitation and distancing protocols. Barnette said funding from the CARES Act has allowed the system to purchase handheld devices that spray a fog of disinfectant around an area, and the current plan is to have one or two bus drivers at each school spray every bus after students are brought to campus so the chemical has time to dry and sanitize before students ride home. As of right now, students are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks on the buses, but students from one family will be required to sit close together and make some space between each family unit. Some, but not all, buses will also operate at reduced capacity. Barnette advised that if parents are highly concerned about their children’s health, they should consider driving to the school instead of putting the child on the bus.

Another point of concern is school cafeterias, which are often packed full from 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m. In the board’s current plan, all school meals will be grab-and-go prepackaged meals instead of students serving themselves. Additionally, cafeterias will operate at 50% capacity – the students who cannot sit in the cafeteria will be allowed to take their meals and eat in their classrooms or school common areas. Given the large number of schools in the county system, these plans have largely been left to individual schools and their principals to decide the best course of action.

Barnette commented on the entire situation by saying, “Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be having this conversation. But I’ll tell you, I need to brag on my team. They’ve come together and we’ve thought up a lot of small, intricate details trying to handle everything we can think of, but as soon as we get something typed up another challenge comes up. A lot of people in the community and our educators have questions, but there’s a lot of things we just don’t have the answers to right now.”

The board voted approved the following items:

  • Summer 2020 contract extensions for Amanda Swann from Good Hope Elementary and Jacklyn Keller from the Child Development Center
  • 2020-2021 list of Non-Faculty Coaches (NFCs)
  • Request from Good Hope High School to pay summer workout helpers
  • Request from West Point Middle School to pay NFC Steven Sutter for coaching archery during the 2019-2020 year
  • Request from West Point High School to pay three workers for summer field maintenance and mowing
  • Extension of the Child Nutrition Program’s summer feeding program through August 1
  • Permission for the transportation director to hire Phyllis Jo Harris, bus driver at Fairview and Parkside School, for temporary office clerical work in the Transportation Department until school starts
  • Proposal to pay stipends to teachers for virtual instruction outside regular contract hours (only on an as-needed basis)

The next regular work session will take place Aug. 13 in the central office board room at 5:30 p.m., with the meeting immediately following.

The CCBOE’s “Better Together” back to school plan and FAQs can be found at www.ccboe.org/.

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Heather Mann

heather@cullmantribune.com