HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) — Most Alabama students are now starting their first full week of school, and, in this era, that means renewed concern about COVID-19 exposure.

Most of Alabama is at a high community transmission level, including all of North Alabama, but the state’s hospitals currently have far fewer COVID patients than a year ago, and fewer severely ill people.

However, with Madison County and much of North Alabama showing high transmission rates of COVID-19, health officials worry a return to school could mean a return to more covid cases.

News 19 asked the school systems in Huntsville, Madison and Madison County for their COVID-19 guidelines for students. You can find the guidelines for each school system here: Madison County Schools, Madison City Schools and Huntsville City Schools (21-22 edition)

Some similarities include:

  • Masks are optional
  • No quarantine is required if a student is exposed
  • If a student tests positive – they must be out a minimum of five days
  • If symptoms improve – and the fever is below 100, no vomiting or diarrhea for 24 hours, the student can return to school on day 6.           

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the B.A. 5 variant is now responsible for at least 85 percent of U.S. covid cases.

Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, UAB’s Director of its Division of Infectious Diseases, said the variant appears to be the most contagious COVID-19 strain to date.

“The bar to prevent transmission of B.A. 5 is just much higher,” Dr. Marrazzo said. “There’s no question you can prevent it with very good masks, N-95, KN-95, but the diligence, the persistence, and the consistency of mask-wearing, and probably also being thoughtful about how you are in a closed space, what’s the ventilation like, all those things have come into play when considering the risks for B.A. 5.

Huntsville Hospital President Tracy Doughty says the health impact after the return to school is something they are keeping an eye on. But, he said, they are seeing less serious illness than a year ago. There were six patients on ventilators at Huntsville Hospital on Monday, that figure was in the forties a year ago, Doughty said.

“The concern is that children will go to school, and not know they have COVID-19 or have very mild symptoms, and kind of spread it around unknowingly, is what we’re worried about,” Doughty said. “In the summertime, they’re usually with a close-knit group of friends that they hang around the neighborhood with or close social networks, but those go away once we traveled to go back to school and off to college as well.”

Doughty said he has confidence local school systems are using good judgment in navigating COVID protocols for students. He said while COVID cases in the community are lower than a year ago, there is still a reason for concern.

“I would definitely recommend a couple of things, make sure you get vaccinated and boosted,” he said. “Especially if you’re immuno-compromised or you’re elderly, please do those things. Make sure when you’re in a tight environment and you think you need to wear a mask, please do so. Don’t look weird at people who do wear a mask, that’s their personal opinion, and please don’t make them feel uncomfortable. And, if you’re sick, if you have sniffles or you think you have allergies, make sure you stay away from people and get tested. Whether it’s a home test or you go to one of the local agencies to get tested. If you do test positive please follow the recommendations of the professionals.”

The CDC says if community levels, which measure things like new hospitalizations and percent of staffed hospital beds used by covid patients, are high, indoor masking is recommended in schools.

Dr. David Kimberlin, UAB Co-Director Division Pediatric Infectious Diseases, said a new school year usually brings new ailments.

“You take children who’ve kind of been spread out over the summer and put them in one or two locations and somebody with a cold is going to spread the cold, somebody with strep throat is going to spread strep throat, that’s just the nature of it, covid will be the same,” he said.

Kimberlin said the consequences for ignoring CDC guidelines are clear

“I am concerned when school districts don’t follow the CDC recommendations,” he said. “I see no reason not to. Just as I see no reason for grocery stores not to follow the CDC recommendations or banks not to follow CDC recommendations. We should all be doing this. If we don’t, then we get what we get, we get more virus in our communities for longer periods of time.”

The Huntsville City Schools and Madison City Schools both told News 19 that they are monitoring the public health situation — and their systems have policies giving their superintendents to power to change covid rules as needed.

The Madison City Schools told News 19, “There is no requirement from the State Health Department nor Alabama Department of Education to mandate masks. Madison City Schools remains masks optional at this time.”

The Madison County Schools told News 19 today, “At this time, the Madison County School System does not require students to wear masks on school grounds or at school-related events. Our goal is to keep this academic year as normal as possible while being safe. We will continue to evaluate the health status of our schools and make any adjustments to our current plan as we deem necessary.”