• 77°

Public school students return on Monday

“We believe that we are ready.”

That’s how Dr. Mark Bazzell summed up the mood of Pike County Schools faculty and staff as they ready for the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year on Monday.

Heading into an unprecedented school year, Bazzell said he is both proud and appreciative of the efforts “of all our employees, classroom teachers, support staff and administrators.”

They’ve had to learn new virtual teaching platforms; create and implement enhanced safety and cleaning programs; reworked schedules and athletic programs; figured out how to educate more than 2,000 students both virtually and in person and grappled with hundreds of “what if” questions that arose due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“About 60 percent of our students are signed up for virtual learning,” Bazzell said, adding that teachers on campus will be teaching both in-person and virtual classes.

“We’ll have some classrooms in use for virtual learning and others for traditional learning,” he said. “The good thing is, we’ll be able to easily social distance in those (in-person) classrooms with fewer students.”

Of the district’s 2,200 students, some 1,200 will be enrolled in virtual learning platforms for the first nine weeks; approximately 1,000 will return to campuses for in-person classes.

The reduced number of in-person students also provides some benefits in bussing and transportation. “We’ll only be transporting about 700 students, where normally we transport 1,700 to 1,8000,” Bazzell said. “We are going to possibly modify some routes, particularly in the Banks and Brundidge areas … we’re trying to eliminate cross-exposure across the county and basically compartmentalize the schools as much as possible.”

In addition to logistics planning, faculty have been working to learn and master a new virtual learning platform – Schoology – which will be integrated into the curriculum for both traditional and virtual students.

“Every student will have a device and even the traditional students will have virtual assignments each week,” Bazzell said. “We’ve asked that two assignments per week be done online to acclimate the teachers and students to a virtual environment, in case the situation changes and we have to shift to virtual learning.”

The district has hired additional help in its IT department and is working to make sure all parents and students have the information and devices needed.

“Parents in grades pre-K through six should have received a call from the homeroom teacher, whether they’re virtual or traditional, that will include the information they need, including login information and how to get started with the virtual platform.”

Students in grades seven through 12 received a manual with instructions about the virtual platform when they picked up their schedules.

Bazzell said the district also is working to distribute broadband access vouchers and to lease computer devices to students who need them.

“The government program with the vouchers has been helpful,” Bazzell said, referencing a program that provides vouchers for free broadband internet service to parents through Dec. 31. “We’re just going to have to figure out what to do about the funding come December.”

For more remote areas of the county, where no broadband service is available, Bazzell said the district is working individually with students and parents to provide solutions.  “We’ve identified some hotspots for people and pretty soon all our buses will be mobile hotspots,” he said. The district also has upgrade some of its internal internet infrastructure in order to boost capacity to handle the demand of virtual learning.

As for dealing with COVID-19 cases, “this is going to be something we all have to deal with,” Bazzell said. ‘And it’s something we all have to make work here in Pike County. That means wearing masks, social distancing, staying safe.”

Bazzell said the district will do “everything we can to insure a safe place” for students, from distancing to enhanced cleaning and sanitation. The district will follow CDC guidelines when students, faculty or staff have suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Anyone with suspected exposure or who has been tested will report to the school nurse, who will contact the Alabama Department of Public Health, which is responsible for follow-up testing and contract tracing. Seating charts will be used to throughout the system to help identify any students who may be within a six-foot radius for the purposes of tracing and notification.

“The biggest thing is close contact within that six-foot circle,” Bazzell said. “we’re trying to limit that.”

Bazzell said the district would also provide weekly updates if any cases are confirmed among students or faculty and staff, “unless we need to do it more frequently.”