If Morgan County stays in the state's "very high risk" category for COVID-19's spread, Decatur City Schools likely will begin its academic year Aug. 12 with only virtual instruction.

The district's reopening plan released Tuesday says it "will likely transition to total virtual learning for most students" when the Alabama Department of Public Health designates the county in the red, or "very high risk," category for COVID-19. Morgan County was elevated to that designation Friday.

“If we started today, we would be full virtual," Superintendent Michael Douglas said Tuesday. "We (would) operate under that premise until Labor Day. ... Obviously, if we drop levels (before Aug. 12), we would be open for traditional."

The district's plan also requires students in grades 3-12 to wear masks except when social distancing is possible, and it allows parents to choose between traditional, blended and online-only instruction. The deadline for choosing virtual or blended options is Monday at noon.

Douglas said the mask requirement was created with safety in mind.

“I can’t have school if I can’t keep my teachers, my bus drivers and my students safe, so that’s the reason we chose the face coverings,” Douglas said. “We are going to find times in the day to take them off.”

Citing concerns from parents regarding the difficulty of keeping a mask on a child 5 or 6 years old, Douglas said students below third grade will be permitted to remove their masks when behind a desk, face shield or other protective barrier.

Deputy Superintendent Dwight Satterfield said the district is using the American Pediatric Society’s guidelines for social distancing, which calls for 3 to 6 feet of distance between students.

The ADPH says the four categories it is using to rate the risk of the coronavirus spreading in a county are determined by using data. Morgan is one of 36 counties in the state currently listed in the "very high risk" category, designated with red. ADPH says the primary metric in determining if a county is considered at very high risk is "if the number of (new daily COVID-19) cases is staying the same or is increasing."

The ADPH revises the risk categories of counties based on additional data every Friday.

Decatur City Schools' reopening plan also has different safety protocols for other risk categories. Counties can also receive a designation of low risk (green), moderate risk (yellow) or high risk (orange).

The district will incorporate four planning phases during the first semester, with the initial phase ending Sept. 4 preceding Labor Day. The phasing system is designed to allow the district to make changes to the plan as the fall semester progresses.

Students who register for virtual classes will be fully online. However, they will still be permitted to participate in athletics and extracurricular programs.

The blended learning option is available for parents who want to be able to transition their children between virtual and traditional school depending on how COVID-19 progresses.

Douglas said students registered for blended learning will be able to attend school in-person and seamlessly transition to online learning should the need arise. Blended learners are expected to learn virtually for a minimum of two weeks, and can transition back to in-person learning after “natural breaks” in the academic schedule, such as midterms or the end of the nine-week grading period.

Douglas said high school students will have some flexibility with regard to how they receive instruction.

“Can my student take a mixture of traditional, or in-person, and virtual courses? Yes. ... You can do that at the secondary level.”

Some teachers will be permitted to work virtually, depending on the number of students who register for virtual and blended learning, and other factors including teacher performance. Douglas said 80% of teachers in the district have said they are willing to teach in-person, and 20% want to teach virtually.

The reopening plan includes a frequently asked questions section, and a link for parents and students to submit specific questions they have about the district’s plan. 

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cassie.kuhn@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @ DD_CassieKuhn.

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