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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. – Nearly five months have passed since the Tennessee Valley’s students last attended school. In those weeks, parents, guardians, teachers and school staff have been inundated with a dizzying amount of options, procedures and guidance on how to best manage education during the pandemic.

As 28 public school districts and roughly three dozen private schools throughout the Tennessee Valley get ready to start the 2020-21 school year, educators and school leaders are faced with the ultimate test of their problem-solving skills, with minimal instruction from the state.

“Our students, they only get one shot at getting a K-12 education,” said DeKalb County Schools Superintendent Jason Barnett. “We want to welcome our faculty, our staff, our students and everyone back, but we have to do it safely.”

The Struggle

For traditional learning, students will be faced with temperature checks, staggered start times, regular sanitization, socially-distanced classrooms, assigned seating and face masks in order to keep both educators and children healthy.

“Our goal is to be able to identify, in the event of a positive case or a student exhibiting symptoms, not only who was the initial student but any close contacts of that student,” said Pisgah Principal Dr. John Prestridge. “Despite what you think of the guidelines, we have the opportunity now to continue the education of our kids, to reconnect with those kids, to be a blessing to our families and that’s what I’m focused on doing.”

For families choosing virtual learning options, many are learning how to essentially home-school their children for the first time. Veteran at-home educators, like Tiffany Jefferson, are providing some advice to help these caregivers embrace their newfound freedom.

“Parents are looking for some kind of handrail, like, ‘am I doing this right?’ So I just want to say loud and clear that if you are doing what works best for your child and your family, you are doing what is necessary,” said Jefferson. “Being a home educator doesn’t mean that I know all of the answers because I do not. It means I have the ability and the opportunity to learn alongside my children.”

Throughout this back-to-school process, individual families have been faced with difficult decisions about what is best for both their children and their household.

“There are a lot of opinions around, but ultimately, I would just give parents the grace to know that you just make the best decision for your child and your personal situation and rest with the results of that,” said Shoals Christian School Board of Directors member Chad Hess.

Experts say these choices feel so heavy because schools make it possible for both our economy and our communities to function.

“We are all dramatically affected by this,” said Dr. Wafa Orman, economist and Associate Dean of the College of Business at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Schools provide more than just an education, they also provide socialization, security and nutritional opportunities for countless students.

“For families that qualify for the free reduced lunch, they rely on school for meals,” said Orman. “If you have children in special education, you rely on the schools for services they get through that.”

If you are staying home from your job for virtual school, click here to learn more about the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act.

The People

Following weeks of studying and homework, teachers and staff are truly being put to the test this school year.

From enforcing new mandates to evaluating the “COVID slide,” educators are certainly earning some extra credit. They will need to diagnose lost instructional time and prescribe how to best get students back on track. They will also be tasked with more than just taking students’ physical temperatures. Teachers will have to take the temperature of their social, emotional and mental health needs.

“If you’re not in school, teachers have all the specialized training, so when they find developmental problems or something going on, they have the HEALS available to be able to see the physicians to be able to intervene for some of those developmental problems,” said HEALS Clinic lead registered nurse Cathy Nall. “That’s a really big deal why they should make sure that they’re seeing their providers during this time while they’re not in school. Because you’re really not going to have a lot of people to be able to identify those problems. So if you come to the doctor’s office, we can identify it.”

HEALS, Inc., provides on-site medical, dental and optometry care for eligible, economically disadvantaged children in Huntsville City and Madison County schools. Although those school systems are starting the year virtually, HEALS Clinics are still accepting patients.

“This, for a lot of families, is a crisis,” said Nall, “and there is help available for families to help cope with this.”

Many educators are worried about their own health, too. According to an Alabama Education Association survey, 65 percent of faculty and staff are very uncomfortable returning to their classrooms, 36 percent considered leaving the profession because of the pandemic and 43 percent have underlying health issues that put them more at risk of contracting COVID-19.

“We have some that are taking chemotherapy right now or have a spouse taking chemotherapy,” said AEA District Director Beverly Sims. “We have teachers that are pregnant. We have bus drivers that a lot of them are retirement age. They only do this for the health insurance.”

It’s more than just educators who are edge. For today’s students, especially the Class of 2021, they are potentially missing out on some of the most defining customs of our formative years.

“I want [people] to understand how frustrating it is to not know if we’re going to get to do all of the things all the other seniors before us got to do,” said Lauderdale County High School Senior Emily Harbin. “Because this is the year we have looked forward to for years, since we were in Kindergarten. Seniors are the big dogs on campus and we’re just not getting to experience that the same way everybody else did.”

The new protocols are impacting more than just their time in the classroom, they’re impacting students’ extracurricular activities, as well.

“I’m involved with theater and as of right now, all of our fall shows have been canceled and all of our competitions have been turned online,” said James Clemens High School Senior Joe Dobbs. “I know me and all my friends are ready to get back on stage.”

“I play volleyball and we are still, luckily, able to go to practice,” said Arab High School Senior Alyssa Jones, “but it’s a lot different just because we’re having to wear masks and having to distance and everything.”

Despite the possible health risks, many seniors are choosing to attend school traditionally to soak in those last few moments with their classmates.

“I just thought, it’s my last year, I just want to be there,” said Brewer High School Senior Michael Cloud McLemore, “to just be on campus and be with the people I went to school with all these years.”

The Help

So, in what feels like a no-win situation, how do we keep from losing our minds? Despite overwhelming amounts of information and guidance, try not to lose sight of your physical, mental and spiritual health.

From checking in with friends to checking in with healthcare providers, it is crucial to take the time to manage your health and your children’s. They may not say they’re stressed, but they will show it.

“Any type of change in a student’s regular behavior,” said WellStone School-Based Therapy Program Manager Brittany Scott, “whether it’s an increase in worry or decrease and they really don’t want to be around other people, whether it’s more irritability, whether it’s they’re having trouble sleeping or they’re sleeping too much. I would probably say also a change in their school performance or just avoiding school performance in general.”

WellStone provides school-based counseling and behavioral health services to students in Huntsville City, Madison City and Madison County. Despite these school systems starting the year away from their campuses, WellStone will continue to provide these services through teletherapy.

“Make sure you advocate for your child,” said Scott. “Speak with the school counselors, speak with the collaborators that are there. And just make sure that whatever needs that you need for your child is communicated to the school and any other additional resources within the school.”

The CDC also provides warning signs and ways to manage that stress for both children and teenagers.

“Everyone is going through this,” said Scott. “Everyone kind of responds differently. Just because you’re feeling this way doesn’t mean no one else is feeling that way. It’s just important for all of us to come together and support each other.”

The Resources