Jefferson County Commission President Jimmie Stephens supports local school boards and superintendents deciding if students in their districts will physically return to school for the start of the academic year.
In a Thursday letter to Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson, Stephens emphasized that these local education leaders must be given balanced, unbiased information to make the best possible decisions for their respective locales.
This comes after Wilson earlier this week sent out a letter to school leaders in the county recommending that they “[s]trongly consider virtual instruction only (no in-person instruction) for middle and high school students throughout the first grading period (typically 9 weeks).”
Wilson further recommended that students from pre-k through middle school be required to wear face coverings while at school if in-person instruction is to be allowed.
Governor Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris this week announced a new state health order that only required students in the second grade and above to wear face coverings while at school.
Another recommendation by Wilson was to cancel or postpone “close contact sports” such as football. This came after the Alabama High School Athletic Association recently announced that fall sports will be allowed to start on schedule this year.
Stephens, in his letter, thanked Wilson for his efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, while encouraging the local health officer to consider education outcomes when speaking about education.
“I truly understand your concern and how your recommendation is consistent with the mission of your office,” Stephens acknowledged. “I can appreciate your thought process and reasoning. I sincerely believe you are doing your best to abate the spread of the virus. … I do not envy the difficult position you are in and the choices you must weigh.”
However, the county commission head noted, “I also share the concerns of many of my constituents that there are several other important factors involved with reopening schools, all equally deserving strong consideration.”
Stephens, who is also on the board of the Jefferson County Department of Health, advised that hundreds of his constituents have contacted him “expressing their confusion and frustration over the mixed messages they are receiving concerning school attendance.”
He underscored that Governor Kay Ivey has voiced her support for resuming in-person instruction wherever it is possible to do so safely.
“I’m telling you we need to do everything we can to get our kids back in the classroom as soon as possible,” said the governor. She warned that the state will experience a backwards “slide” in education if students do not return to in-person instruction this year.
Both Stephens and Ivey are former educators, with the Jefferson County official having 21 years of experience himself.
“Local school administrators, as well as the State Health Officer, Governor Ivey and others, have communicated their plans and expectations to safely reopen schools for in-class instruction in the coming weeks,” Stephens wrote to Wilson. “Your letter, which has been widely publicized, seemingly contradicts this…”
“We should find ways to better coordinate messaging that provides the public with clarity and clear guidance, not to add to the confusion. We must provide the public with safe, effective public health protocols and guidance for combatting this pandemic while understanding and balancing the public right to individual choice,” he added.
Stephens emphasized the “innate benefits” of in-class instruction for students.
“Remote learning cannot compare with in-class instruction to provide focused learning resources, collaborative learning experiences, comprehension assessment, stable environment, social interaction, comprehensive meal programs, improved organizational skills, critical thinking skills and personality and career skills,” he outlined. “All are important.”
Another positive of in-person learning, per Stephens, is teachers being better able to identify abused children. He further explained that remote learning is especially inferior for special needs students.
“I would ask that you offer equal guidance to assist our school boards and superintendents relating to virtual, blended and traditional learning settings,” Stephens said to the county health officer. “These boards best know their communities and the individual needs of their students. Each family unit within each community must decide on their child’s learning setting and each must be afforded options from which to choose. Guidelines for a safe environment for virtual, blended and traditional learning settings would offer each school board options from which to choose.”
“I strongly encourage you to provide sound, effective options for school boards to consider as they work diligently to structure a safe environment while maintaining the highest educational standards,” he continued.
Read Stephens’ entire letter here.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn