Back to school

With the beginning of the 2020 school year in Alabama drawing closer – and cases of COVID-19 still on the rise – The Sun spoke with a number of area teachers, parents and school administrators to get their thoughts on the upcoming school year.

The majority of parents that The Sun spoke with said that they were fully in support of the return to school, while others said they would take advantage of virtual learning, at least to start the year.

New Brockton teacher Ashley (Gibson) Sanders is also a parent of two children in school and she said that she believed in-person learning was very important.

“I think we need to be in school,” Sanders said. “I think the kids need to come back, if just for the routine sake, and them getting to socialize and be with their friends and getting out of the house, but then again I do know there are concerns with that if they have family members that have some kind of (health) condition and they definitely don’t need their child to bring (COVID-19) back.

“When we went back to school in May to give report cards some of the teachers came and gave the report cards out and the look on the kids’ faces when they saw you and haven’t seen you in eight weeks was so special. They need you just like you need them. They need to be back in school.”

Sanders said that connection between students and teachers is something that should not be overlooked.

“You have a relationship and a connection with these kids and they need that,” she emphasized. “They need to see you and to be comforted. It’s hard to explain but teachers really do have a special connection with their students.”

Danielle Henderson is a Pre-K parent in Enterprise and she said she didn’t feel her child would be able to learn at home.

“I think it’s very important that they’re on campus learning and especially with the interaction and stuff with other students and the teachers,” Henderson said. “They’re just not going to learn at home, they’re always going to learn better at school. Even if we had someone else doing it at home it would be better to be in school with other kids.”

Kelli Dooley also has a child attending Pre-K in Enterprise and said that she thinks on-campus learning is probably more important for older children but some parents with full-time jobs struggle to handle virtual learning for their children.

“For Pre-K, I think it’s not as important but with us working all day it’s hard to teach them everything they need to know,” Dooley said. “I think for the older kids it’s very important for them to be in school. I know I don’t learn anything at home.”

New Brockton superintendent Kevin Killingsworth echoed that sentiment about on-campus learning.

“I think the prime environment for a kid to learn, 95 percent of them at least, is in the classroom in front of a teacher and I will always believe that,” Killingsworth said. “That is the best environment for a kid to be able to learn. Others can get it virtually but I think most need to be in front of a teacher with their peers.”

Daleville superintendent Dr. Lisa Stamps said that she wants all Daleville parents to know that the school is doing everything it can to ensure a safe environment for students but emphasizes that virtual learning will remain an option for those not comfortable.

“If they have a concern – like a health concern – then they ultimately have to do what is best for their child’s health and safety,” Stamps said. “I do want to ensure them, though, that we are doing everything in our power and we thought out our plan as specific as we can to make sure that we’ve addressed every location and routine that we have in our buildings to try and make sure that we’re doing the safest things possible to follow CDC guidelines.”

Enterprise Superintendent Greg Faught also said he believes students learn best in person but fully understands why parents would want to keep their children home right now.

“I certainly understand those that want to keep their children at home but the level of instruction is not going to be same,” Faught said. “When you can be in front of your teacher and able to ask questions and be in that environment that’s always a better solution.

“I think most students struggle with distance learning or virtual learning. Ideally the best way is if they are on campus but again I certainly understand those with underlying conditions or who have medically fragile people at home wanting to exercise the option to do (virtual learning).”

Faught also emphasized that virtual learning will be much different than it was in the spring as Enterprise implements Troy University’s Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide (ACCESS) Distance Learning Program, which will be much more strict and involved.

Sanders is also the mother of an autistic child and she said special needs children trying to utilize virtual learning is a big concern.

“My concern with the virtual learning would be how kids with special needs – and even like English language learners – what would be the way to make accommodations for them virtually when they really need that face-to-face person to help them,” Sanders said. “You need to physically be in front of them to keep their focus. They tried doing my son’s occupational therapy virtually and it just didn’t work.

“He has a horrible time focusing anyway, so trying to get him to watch his occupational therapist on a computer screen just didn’t happen no matter how good she was or how hard she tried.”

New Brockton parent Julius Noble said the social interaction that students would miss with virtual learning is something he thinks is a big factor.

“I think it’s very important for these kids socially and academically,” Noble said of why he thinks student’s need to be on campus. “You can look at kids today and they’re already sort of socially awkward a lot of the time because a lot of their communication is text message and social media.

“Now, taking them out of school and not being forced to learn coping mechanisms and how to deal with groups and answering questions in groups and interacting with each other hurts.”

Stephanie (Brooks) Baran – whose son attends EHS – has homeschooled in the past but said the interaction with other students is something that she believes children need.

“Our son is ready to get back because it’s been so long. We’ve done homeschool before and we could do it again but he misses the interaction,” Baran said. “The only thing I’m worried about with that is if everything is going to be so separated that the kids aren’t getting to interact anyway then I’d rather just keep him at home.”

Alonza Sibert has two children that attend Enterprise City Schools and she has decided to keep them home for virtual learning but said a big problem is also that many parents simply can’t take off work or hire someone to help.

“If you have a sickly child you need to keep your child at home but it goes back to the parents that work and don’t have any help and just can’t do that,” Sibert said. “It’s really hard.”

Sibert said that her son has had health problems in the past so it was necessary for her to keep her children at home but hopes that things will improve and they can attend on-campus school the second nine weeks of the year.

“Hopefully things will get better and we can switch over. My son plays football and he won’t even be able to do that right now,” Sibert said. “I just don’t think it’s going to work. The older kids I think can get it but the little kids I just don’t think they will get it. It’s going to be so hard. Some parents even send their children to school when they’re sick. So, it’s just going to be really difficult to do this.”

Zach Kelley is a teacher and coach at Daleville and also has two children in school. He said that his son will attend on-campus school, while his daughter wanted to do virtual learning.

“As a parent, it’s kind of scary because of all the unknowns right now,” Kelley said. “Everything just kind of feels like it’s up in the air right now.

“As a teacher, I think we just have to try and be as safe as possible and I’m going to treat the kids like they’re my own and keep everything as sanitized as possible and safe.”

According to the superintendents, around 80 percent of parents at Daleville, Enterprise and Coffee County Schools have decided to send their children to on-campus school, which State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey said was the state average, as well.

Dr. Danny Whitaker is not only an EHS parent and pediatrician but also formerly served on the Enterprise City Schools Board of Education. Whitaker said he has no qualms at all about kids being in school.

“I’m completely comfortable with it. What we’re seeing – as far as children’s health – is it’s nothing more than a cold at most,” Whitaker said. “The patients we’ve seen that have had it – and that ranges from newborn babies to older kids – have had runny noses, cough, fever, that sort of thing.

“The data says that kids that don’t have any other medical conditions will typically just be like a cold. For children, I think it’s minimal to no risk or about as much risk as the flu.”

Whitaker said that his concern would be with those children that have elderly grandparents or sick parents at home and the possibility of bringing COVID-19 home to them, and said that he would understand fully why those parents would want to keep their children home.

Faught – who also has two sons in school – said that he is entirely comfortable in starting school back after speaking with a number of health professionals.

“I feel very comfortable or I wouldn’t have made that decision (to return to on-campus learning). When you listen to the medical professionals who treat children and pediatric infectious disease experts they’re all in agreement that kids should be back in school,” Faught said. “You have to have good information to make decisions and when you’re getting it from those that treat those patients I just think you have to listen to them. We’ve been out of school for four and a half months and that’s not good for kids.”

A key part of Enterprise’s plan to return to school will be the mask mandate, which will likely remain in the plan even if Gov. Kay Ivey allows her statewide mask mandate to expire. Faught said that students would need to wear masks while inside school buildings, but said they were devising times to give students a break, as well as the potential of having some classes outside.

“If we can get them outside and space them out – even whole classes under a shade or something – we want to do that,” Faught said. “It’s recommended that we get them outside as much as possible. They’ll have to wear the facial coverings pretty much all the time inside but we will give them breaks. It will be very important (to wear facial coverings) in helping hold this thing down.”

Whitaker agreed that masks are going to be important in slowing the spread but one of the more important things, according to him, is a very simple thing.

“Teachers have asked me what they can do and the main thing is to do what I do every winter when flu season comes around and that’s wash your hands, wash your hands and wash your hands,” Whitaker emphasized. “I’ve been taking care of kids for 18 years and have had the flu just one time and that’s without a mask. So, if I’m wearing a mask and washing my hands frequently now I think that will help keep you from getting it.

“The younger the child the more they’re going to be touching things and getting out of their seat and not wanting to wear a mask, but once you get to about that 10-year old range I think they’ll be able to keep their mask on, which will decrease the spread. If those kids will wear their masks it will help a ton.”

Enterprise City Schools returns to school on Aug. 6, while Daleville City Schools return on Aug. 21. Coffee County Schools will return on Aug. 10 and that includes Kinston, New Brockton and Zion Chapel.

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