School plans include masks, but risks remain

Social distancing not always possible on buses and in classrooms

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ROBERTSDALE – While some school systems have announced plans to wait on opening schools, Baldwin County classes will open on schedule next month, but changes will include masks, social distancing and other precautions, Superintendent Eddie Tyler said.

“We’re taking a position that until the lawmakers say you will not go back to school, our bells are going to ring and our buses are going to run on Aug. 12,” Tyler said during Thursday, July 16, press conference to discuss plans to reopen schools, which have been closed since March due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We’re going to face challenges,” Tyler said. “I believe we have an excellent plan. I am just as certain that we will not maintain these standards every day and there will be instances where there something doesn’t go right. There will be instances where a student doesn’t wear a mask. A child gets sick at a lunch table. A parent gives their child Tylenol and sends them to school. Children sit together and socialize without social distancing during lunch breaks. Despite our best efforts, this is going to happen.”

Tyler said that while Gov. Kay Ivey’s order to require everyone in Alabama older than 6 to wear a mask in public is now scheduled to expire on July 31, school officials expect that mandate to be renewed and plan to require all students and employees to wear masks on school grounds and buses.

Tyler said students who do not wear a mask to school will not be punished but will be asked to put on facial coverings.

“We will not impose discipline, but as the school system we do expect these orders to be carried out and for your child to comply with the wearing of masks” Tyler said. “If your child comes to school and they do not have a mask, a mask will be provided. We’ll have a conference with that child. We might even call you to let you know your child doesn’t have a mask or maybe you sent them to school with a mask and they don’t have it on. I think you would want to know that.”

Masks will also fall under the school system uniform code and may not carry inappropriate language, messages or symbols.

Tyler said schools will also require social distancing when possible, but with an overall enrollment of 31,000 and some schools having more than 1,000 students on campus, space is limited.

“As much as I wish we could space desks six feet apart, that is just not doable,” Tyler said. “It’s just not practical. It can’t happen. But, based on the school and the size of the school, we’ve asked our principals to do their best to space out in their classrooms the best they can.”

One area where social distancing will not be possible in on buses. The county does not have enough vehicles to space passengers six feet apart.

“Buses are crowded at the start of the school year and they remain crowded,” Tyler said. “We don’t have the means to go out and buy buses right now with the capacity to put children one or two to a seat. You’re going to see crowded buses.”

Buses will be cleaned and sanitized after students are taken to school in the morning and again after they are carried home in the afternoon.

Cafeteria plans will also be adjusted. More breakfasts will be served as “grab and go.” In some schools, particularly in older grades, more areas will be available for dining, including outside locations and, in some cases, halls, in order to allow social distancing, Tyler said.

Tyler said all assemblies, including pep rallies, will be canceled during the pandemic.

He said an alternative to brick and mortar schools will be the expanded Virtual School program. The program is being expanded to allow students in all grades, from kindergarten through high school, to take part in on-line instruction.

The Virtual School was established in 2013 with 19 students. In 2019, the school had more than 300 students in seventh through 12th grade.

Tyler said Thursday, July 16, that more than 2,000 students have signed up for Virtual School in the upcoming term with about half enrolling in the new kindergarten through sixth grade program.