MONTGOMERY — More of Alabama's largest public school systems are delaying the start of in-person classes, opting to begin instruction online as concerns persist over still-high COVID-19 numbers in the state.

Montgomery Public Schools on Wednesday announced the first nine weeks of its school year will be virtual. Madison County, Madison City and Huntsville City said in a joint news conference they’ll also open virtually next month.

Tuscaloosa City Schools and Mobile County Schools, the state’s largest system, said recently they would not have in-school instruction at the beginning of the academic year.

So far, at least a dozen systems have made similar announcements, including Anniston, Birmingham, Gadsden, Midfield and Selma city and Bullock, Macon and Greene county systems, according to various announcements and media reports.

The Alabama State Department of Education recently contracted with SchoolsPLP to develop a statewide learning portal that is supposed to offer each school's basic coursework online. The platform is supposed to be ready to launch by August.

Lack of access to high-speed broadband internet was a hindrance for some systems during the last school year's COVID-19 closures.

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 1,338 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, the lowest total number of new cases reported in more than 11 days and below the seven-day average of 1,741 new cases.

However, the state on Wednesday also saw its highest death toll to date reporting 57 additional deaths due to COVID-19. A total of 1,325 people in Alabama have died from COVID-19-related causes since the pandemic began.

Many more school systems could follow suit in the coming days and weeks, which will impact not only schoolchildren but parents planning to return to work. One place in particular the impact could be felt is at state agencies and their personnel scattered throughout Alabama.

Asked Wednesday about concerns over consistency and the impact it could have on businesses and state agencies trying to reopen, Gov. Kay Ivey said the state is providing resources and support, but leaving decisions up to local school leaders.

"It's a difficult situation, just plain and simple, and I don't have a magic bullet," Ivey said. "Folks at the local level have got to decide what's best for them, the students, the teachers, the staff, and we'll support them the best we can in every way."

Earlier this week, Ivey announced $170 million in grants from the federal CARES Act to local schools that are meant to pay for efforts to enhance virtual learning and in-school safety. But how to spend those funds and when to open their school doors is still up to each individual system.

"These decisions are going to be made at the local level," Ivey said.

In 2018, there were 29,625 state employees. That number doesn’t include K-12 teachers and staff, higher education employees and judicial branch employees, according to the Alabama Department of Personnel. More than 6,400 of those state employees reside in Montgomery County.

In March, when the coronavirus first impacted Alabama, Ivey encouraged state employees to work from home, if possible.

On Wednesday Mac McArthur, executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, said he’s heard a variety of concerns from members about whether it would be safe for students to return to classrooms and how working parents would manage if they didn’t.

“Our members who are teleworking are now also tasked with providing additional educational support for their children,” McArthur said. “That’s obviously an increased task.”

Some state employees never stopped going to their workplace each day, he said.

“They’re trying to make it work, doing their jobs and looking after their children,” he said.

Hazardous duty pay

State Personnel Director Jackie Graham on Wednesday said that hazardous duty pay has been given to Alabama Department of Transportation employees cleaning and maintaining the rest areas, mental health workers, dorm employees at the Department of Youth Services and Alcoholic Beverage Control Board store cashiers.

Parameters for hazard pay include:

• Work during the COVID-19 state of emergency that is critical to the operations of the agency;

• Employees spend 50% or more of their time in high-risk situations or areas;

• Employees cannot maintain a six-foot social distance requirement from public and/or clients;

• Precautions such as personal protective equipment are insufficient to assure reasonable safety.

Graham said hazardous pay is usually an additional $2 to $2.50 an hour. It’s been up to each state agency to request the additional pay for employees who meet the parameters.

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