First to Reopen: Lessons Learned in Saraland City Schools

Saraland City Schools

Saraland City Schools in Mobile County was one of the first school systems in the state to reopen schools for in-person instruction this fall amid COVID-19. With many other districts planning to reopen their doors to students in the coming weeks, we wanted to highlight how one district did it.

Saraland City Schools opened on August 6, 2020 – their original start date – to in-person instruction for their students. We spoke with Superintendent Dr. Aaron Milner along with his Assistant Superintendent of Schools and principals about their decision to reopen, and how school has gone for the first 8 weeks.

Making the Decision to Reopen

We asked Dr. Milner and his team how they settled on the decision to reopen with in-person instruction for students in August. While he explained that it was “doable for Saraland City and may not have been for others,” he noted the four factors that were the most important in helping his team make the decision:

  1. Parents in the community needed to go back to work. Many parents in the community had expressed concerns about being able to support their children in a remote environment while juggling work and other responsibilities.
  2. Loss of student enrollment both short term and long term was a huge concern. Dr. Milner explained that families may have decided to send their children to other schools to receive in-person instruction if the district didn’t provide it.
  3. Parents were concerned about the social and emotional needs of their children. School is a place where kids can interact with people from diverse backgrounds and grow socially, Dr. Milner said.
  4. Most importantly, the well-being of their students and ensuring they have access to social supports and abuse reporting systems was of utmost concern. Dr. Milner wanted to be sure that all children were able to come to a safe environment every day.

Preparing to Reopen

After making the decision, the team got to work on preparing the school district to reopen. The team ran every plan by their teachers who were able to give feedback and help improve them. Their first priority was teacher safety. “We made it a goal to overwhelm our teachers with the amount of precautions we’re taking,” Dr. Milner said. “We also wanted them to know you are not alone.”

The district allocated both federal CARES Act money and local funds to invest in personal protective equipment (PPE) such as face masks, disinfectant, face shields, hand sanitizer, thermometers for every classroom, and more. The team also enlisted the help of their support staff to help teachers keep their classrooms clean and stocked with this equipment.

The team also created contingency plans for schooling should they have to close. Their Phase 2 plan was to shift to a hybrid schedule – known as Red and Silver Days (in the spirit of school colors) – and have students alternate the days they attended in-person school and remote learning.

During the summer, all teachers in the district were trained in Schoology so they could provide virtual instruction to support the 15% of students who chose to start the school year fully remote, as well as to account for any remote learning that might occur during closures. In grades K-4, two teachers in each grade level are dedicated solely to remote learning.

Students who might be quarantined due to exposure can attend school remotely via Schoology until they can return to school. Finally, through CARES Act and local funding, Saraland became a “1:1 district” with devices and internet access available for all students.

How’s it gone so far?

With all of the plans in place, the district felt they were prepared to open on August 6. We asked Dr. Milner and his team some questions about how their plans have gone so far:

Which two or three new protocols are really working well right now? Of those, which protocols will you continue after the pandemic ends?

In Saraland City Schools, protocols aimed to combat the spread of COVID-19 include temperature checks conducted every morning and randomly during the day. All adults on campus and any student over the age of six are expected to wear a mask. Additionally, throughout the day, teachers sanitize and clean high-touch areas in classrooms. “It has been amazing to witness our teachers’ passion as they have embraced the additional responsibility with a great attitude. Returning to school and providing face-to-face instruction, although difficult, has included many positives for students, faculty, and staff.

To address student needs during a pandemic, it was evident revised student management and supervision protocols were necessary. Thankfully, these modifications have proven effective throughout the district. Many of the protocols will be continued by administrators in future years. For example, in the mornings, students now report directly to class, whereas in the past, they would assemble in designated areas (i.e. hallways, gym, etc.) until being directed to class.

Another protocol intended to help students socially distance was to allow students to eat in their classrooms with teachers instead of the cafeteria. Teachers have expressed they appreciate the quiet atmosphere, time to connect with students, and not being restricted to a traditional lunch wave that often feels rushed with just over 20 minutes to eat. Child nutrition staff are also to be commended for their efforts to ensure nutritional meals are prepared and packaged for transport.

Classes are no longer dismissed by a bell and hallways in each school are actively monitored for social distancing. By staggering dismissal using intercoms/walkie-talkies, supervision of movement from class to class is heightened with a smaller number of students in the hall at one time. At Saraland High School, teachers are positioned in the middle of the hall, supervising students and ensuring traffic flows on the right side. Students and teachers have expressed this method for changing classes promotes a more safe, orderly environment that is conducive to learning.

Dismissal at each school is also intermittent to ensure students exit the building in smaller groups. While carline and bus loading have been the most difficult areas to implement physical distancing, the more orderly dismissal has proven to be beneficial for the faculty, staff, and students of Saraland City Schools.

How many positive cases have you had since reopening? What does the process look like when students/teachers test positive?

So far, Saraland City Schools has had 18 students and 5 teachers test positive for COVID-19. To address positive cases and efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, our team devised and implemented a detailed 10-step protocol. The protocol includes close coordination with the school nurse, the Alabama Department of Public Health and procedures such as seating charts, detailed documentation on all positive cases and follow-up. Click here to view our full protocol.

What are the compromises you’ve had to make in classroom instruction to ensure the safety of students and teachers?

When providing instruction during a pandemic, strict guidelines are necessary to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 and allow for in-school instruction to continue. While protecting instructional time remains a priority, the traditionally regimented class schedule was compromised to provide teachers necessary time to sanitize and clean desks.

Saraland City Schools takes pride in providing innovative instruction in technology-rich classrooms with an emphasis on best teaching practices. However, without question, COVID-19 and measures implemented to safely provide face-to-face instruction during the pandemic, impact instructional delivery. These imposed limitations concern teachers, especially with respect to tiered instruction – a challenge they work daily to address.

Table partitions in elementary classrooms is another noticeable difference and comes at the expense of traditional “carpet time.” In middle and high school, desks are lined in straight rows so that if a student coughs, it will be toward the back of the student sitting in front. Aligning desks in this manner also maximizes use of square footage. Collaborative desk groupings and other seating arrangements incompatible with physical distancing are not in use.

Activities such as school assemblies, field trips, and school lunches with family members have been postponed to when physical distancing is no longer necessary. However, as educators, we recognize the importance of students’ social and emotional well-being while typical experiences are modified, postponed, or canceled. As students are being educated in a more regimented setting, unlike any previously experienced in Saraland City Schools, teachers are intentional in identifying opportunities for students to engage socially – to find a balance and achieve a “new normal.”

What’s been the biggest surprise as you’ve implemented this new plan?

Administrators are quick to say their biggest surprise is how smoothly things have gone. Have there been epic challenges? Absolutely! But the outlook of the team helped us overcome adversity. Leaders realized the mindset was not, “If there will be a positive case…” but rather “When there is a positive case, our plan is to…” Beginning the year with this perspective equipped Saraland’s leadership team with an attitude of determination and confidence – anticipating the need to make adjustments as new challenges arise. This level of preparation developed into a sense of pride within the Saraland community coupled with an appreciation for the choice to receive in-school or virtual instruction.

It was also a surprise to witness the ease of which students adjusted to wearing masks. The question was asked nationwide, “How will children tolerate masks?” In Saraland City Schools, thankfully, wearing masks has not been an issue. Students are compliant and seem to have no issue with the science of wearing a mask to stop the spread of the virus. In fact, it has been much easier at athletic events and other extracurricular activities to ensure students are wearing their masks when compared to adult compliance.

It has also been surprising that students are willing to social distance; yet, challenges continue with adults who hesitate to adhere to distancing guidelines. One student leader of the “Spear-It Heads,” Saraland High School’s student spirit group, was recently heard reminding students in the stadium to keep their masks on and stay six feet apart to protect their Friday night games. The emotion behind this student’s pleas showed how desperate students are to regain a sense of normalcy.

What advice would you give to other Alabama school districts contemplating a full-time return to school?

We believe the success of reopening was due to the intentional planning over the summer. The superintendent encouraged feedback from principals and teachers as plans came to fruition. Honest critique was vital as plans were developed.

The greatest advice to any system is to simply acknowledge this is going to be difficult work from a health and public relations perspective. Resign yourself to the fact that positive cases will occur. Be transparent with parents and community members about the challenges your system faces in areas such as social distancing. Be able to tell your community, “We were very clear on our response and follow established protocols developed to support the safety of students and faculty.”

With this understood, we are educators and not medical experts or epidemiologists. It is a new world and one word we have stressed repeatedly to our faculty and staff is “grace.” No educators ever thought they would be responsible for overseeing a school system, school, or classroom during a global pandemic.

Realize the importance of being attuned to students’ and teachers’ emotional well-being. A growing awareness of our populations’ social and emotional needs may be one positive shift we carry forward from this experience. To say these challenges are outside our skill set is an understatement. Understanding we are all learning together, we should all give ourselves much needed “grace.”