With Alabama cases of COVID-19 increasing at an accelerating rate, Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday ordered an end to public K-12 classroom instruction for the remainder of the school year.

The order has local superintendents working to roll out instructional plans beginning April 6 that rely on online learning where possible, but that also must accommodate students without access to broadband internet.

In a March 19 emergency order, Ivey had closed schools until April 6.

“We had hoped at that time that we were taking these cautious steps and would be able to welcome our students back to the classroom. However, the virus continues to spread," Ivey said. "Folks, this is for real. This is a deadly situation.”

The first cases were confirmed in Alabama on March 13. As of Thursday evening there were 531 confirmed cases in the state and at least one fatality, a resident of Jackson County. Other fatalities in people with COVID-19 are being investigated by the Alabama Department of Public Health to determine whether the virus was the cause of death.

Morgan County had nine cases confirmed in ADPH numbers posted Thursday evening, Lawrence had three and Limestone had 13. Jefferson County continued to have the highest number of positive coronavirus tests in the state with 169, followed by Shelby with 53, Lee with 47, Madison County with 43 and Tuscaloosa County with 20.

About 8% of those infected are hospitalized, State Health Officer Scott Harris said Thursday, but half of those are in an intensive care unit and a third of those hospitalized are on ventilators.

“We really plead with Alabamians to take this serious, to understand the importance of social distancing, to understand that staying at home can really save lives, save lives of you and your family members and the ones that you care about,” Harris said Thursday.

Harris is concerned the increasing number of cases will overwhelm hospitals and available ventilators, resulting in even more deaths. Social distancing is the most effective way to slow the spread of the virus, a fact that prompted Ivey to end in-school instruction for the rest of the year. Sports, band and other extracurricular activities will also end for the rest of the school year.

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Decatur City Schools

Superintendent Michael Douglas of Decatur City Schools said he was saddened by the end of classroom instruction, but “delighted that schools can continue distance learning.”

“We’ve only missed seven actual school days,” he said. “To get our necessary days in, that will put us completing instructional work May 21.”

He said the plan is to continue virtual learning for students in grades 3-12 and offer paper packets to students pre-K through grade 2.

He expects the plan will be in place April 6. He said parents should know more next week.

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Hartselle City Schools

Hartselle Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said her system will also use a combination of digital and non-digital instruction.

“While we’ve been out, we’ve been working on a plan and will roll it out to our parents next week,” she said. “There’s still some logistical issues to take care of. The students’ books are still in the schools. We’ll need to get them to them.”

She said the plan is to have some take digital classes while some will use pencil and paper.

“Some parents might have internet but still favor their children using pencil and paper. We’ll respect that,” she said.

She said an email will go out to the parents by midweek.

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Morgan County Schools

Morgan County Superintendent Bill Hopkins said some rural parts of the county don’t have internet and students will need to pick up paper packets at their schools.

“Not all school systems are created equal,” he said. “We have had a plan ready for weeks. But we realize virtual learning is not going to work for all students because of the rural situation our county possesses. We will work with every parent and student to make sure every child is met at the educational level they need during this time.”

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Lawrence County Schools

Lawrence County Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said the district plans to integrate virtual learning and paper packets.

“Whichever format the student is taught by they will be treated equally,” Smith said.

He said the district had the paper and internet plan on the table before school was closed. He said internet access in rural Lawrence County continues to be a major obstacle for virtual learning.

He said the packets may be available for pickup at the school or may be delivered by bus to the students. Smith said the issue of textbooks and personal effects in lockers and books checked out of the library remains to be addressed.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey on Thursday acknowledged a broad disparity among school districts in their ability to continue instruction through use of the internet.

“We certainly do have different levels of capacity all across the state” he said. “We have school districts that have essentially one-to-one computer capacity and they have pretty good broadband access because of their geographic location in the state. We have other places where we have almost no broadband connectivity.”

He said for those districts and students where online learning is not feasible, schools will rely on take-home packets and other resources. He said Alabama State Department of Education officials will be working with individual superintendents on instructional plans beginning next week.

Ivey stressed that students should not replace classroom interaction with social interaction.

“To stay at home if possible will be the only way we can mitigate the spread of this virus,” she said. “This does not mean you stay at home and invite all your friends to come over for a visit. Stay at home means to limit interaction as much as you can with other people."

Harris said the ages of Alabamians who have contracted COVID-19 range from under 1 to 97 years old. The median age is about 47.

“About three-quarters of those are actually people between the age of 19 and 64. It appears to be affecting people of many different age ranges,” he said.

Ivey said she is not considering a shelter-in-place order, as has been adopted in various forms by 21 states.

“We’ve got to have our businesses operating to provide the materials that our teachers need, that our medical professionals need. We’ve got to have food provided. We’ve got to have all the materials that are needed to keep Alabamians working as much as we can,” she said.

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eric@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2435. Twitter @DD_Fleischauer.

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