Nearly a month into the spring semester, area school districts are seeing some improvement in the number of COVID-19 cases and quarantines among students and employees since peak levels late last year, and leaders are still taking precautions to stem the spread of the virus.
Students across Morgan County started their spring semester Jan. 5, though Decatur City Schools remained virtual-only until Jan. 13.
The weekly Alabama Department of Public Health's COVID-19 risk assessment, updated Thursday, categorizes Morgan County as "low risk," with both Lawrence and Limestone counties at "moderate risk." No county in the state was assessed as being at more than moderate risk for virus transmission.
Decatur City Schools Deputy Superintendent of Operations Dwight Satterfield reported Friday afternoon that 28 students and 13 employees had tested positive for the new coronavirus, and 378 students and 45 employees were in quarantine.
The district moved to virtual instruction from Dec. 14 until Jan. 13, with Superintendent Michael Douglas explaining that would give students and employees time to recover if they were infected over the holiday.
"We feel that was the right decision," Douglas said.
As of Dec. 14, when the system transitioned to virtual learning, the district reached record numbers of quarantines and cases, with 1,075 students and employees quarantined after exposure and 74 who had recently tested positive for COVID-19.
"Every week we've been back the numbers have gone up a little bit," he said, adding that he remains concerned about February.
Douglas said that "most positives we get occur outside school."
In Morgan County Schools, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases districtwide was 29 — 20 students and nine staff — as of early Friday afternoon.
“We have seen a pretty consistent reduction in the number of positive COVID cases among our students and employees,” said Morgan County Schools Superintendent Robert Elliott Jr. “This seems to be following the trend of Morgan County as a whole.”
The peak levels for Morgan County Schools were almost two months ago.
“Our highest positive rate was on Dec. 3, when we had 64 positive cases systemwide,” said spokeswoman Lisa Screws.
Elliott said school officials are “cautiously optimistic” that the district has avoided a second post-holiday spike similar to what the county experienced just after Thanksgiving.
“We believe we can keep our students and faculty safe by continuing the same safety measures in schools that we've been practicing since the start of the school year,” Elliott said.
Precautions include closing schools on Wednesdays for virtual learning.
“Our numbers are down,” said Dee Dee Jones, superintendent of Hartselle City Schools. “Right now, we’re still fogging, checking temperatures, wearing masks, using hand sanitizer. We’re still doing all the protocols we’ve had in place.”
On Thursday afternoon, Hartselle data showed 17 students and two employees with positive COVID-19 test results, and 160 students and five employees were in quarantine.
“Thankfully we didn’t have a new surge after Christmas,” said Kelli Morton, the school district’s lead nurse.
In Athens City Schools, there were 12 students and three employees with recent positive COVID-19 test results as of Thursday, and 139 students and five employees were in quarantine, according to Lead School Nurse Laura Smith.
The number of positive cases and quarantines “varies day to day but the past two weeks, we are holding about the same,” Smith said.
Smith said that the school district’s numbers were lower on Thursday than they were at the end of fall. At the peak, there were 24 positive cases in the district, she said.
“We are encouraged by a downward trend but still being vigilant in abiding by the (Alabama Department of Public Health) guidelines,” Smith said. “We want to see the numbers continue to decline.”
Limestone County Schools Superintendent Randy Shearouse said the latest numbers in that school system are “certainly encouraging.”
Still, “we have to continually monitor it every day to make sure we’re staying on top of it,” he said.
As of Thursday, 462 students were in quarantine and 36 had recently tested positive, while 34 staff members were in quarantine and 11 had tested positive, according to Shearouse.
“Right before Christmas, we had 1,000 students in quarantine and 75 students who were positive, and 70 staff members were in quarantine and 39 were positive,” he said. “We had to shut down (on Dec. 16) due to staffing issues.
“Even in the community we saw an upsurge.”
The Alabama Department of Public Health announced last month that the length of home quarantine for people with close contacts to those testing positive for COVID-19 can end after the 10th day for individuals without testing if they have experienced no symptoms during the daily required monitoring period and follow additional requirements including daily symptom monitoring through the 14th day.
“ACS is still going by 14 days of quarantine for students,” said Smith, the Athens City Schools lead school nurse.
Hartselle City Schools have adopted the relaxed ADPH quarantine rule.
“We are allowing the 10 days (quarantine period) as long as they don’t have symptoms during the 10-day quarantine period and have no ongoing exposure to anyone who’s positive,” said Hartselle City Schools’ Morton. “They’re asked to monitor for symptoms the four additional days.”
However, some parents prefer the 14-day quarantine period, “and we honor that,” Morton said.
DCS has also shortened the previously required quarantines.
“We started the 10-day quarantine period when we came back in January,” Satterfield said. He said that students must submit the ADPH 10-day COVID-19 quarantine observation log to their school nurse and be screened before coming into the school building.
The state on Friday announced that education employees — along with all people 65 and older — will be eligible for vaccines beginning Feb. 8, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris warned the state does not receive nearly enough doses to vaccinate all those who are eligible.