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Eiland discusses school re-opening process

Butler County School System Superintendent Joe Eiland is busy these days trying to figure out what the return to school will look like in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eiland was on hand with other superintendents from across the state last week as they worked with Alabama State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey on implementing the plans for fall. Eiland said the meetings began Sunday, June 21 and continued through last Wednesday. By last Friday, Mackey released the state’s guidelines and recommendations for the fall, which included Mackey’s desire to see in-person schooling.

“It was the most intense professional development, training and instructional guidance I’ve had in more than 30 years in education,” Eiland said. “There were two topics we discussed – the road map to going back to school and mental health.”

Eiland said the mental health aspect of the return to school is one of the most important factors. In fact, for the past few years the Butler County School System has contracted with BB&H to provide services at Greenville High School and Greenville Middle School. Eiland said the school system needs to expand the services. 

“I want a mental health person that can serve every school in our district,” Eiland said Monday as he spoke about future plans.

Eiland also said the Butler County School System will be surveying parents on their opinions of returning to school in the fall. Statewide, Mackey said about 15 percent of parents were looking at home schooling or keeping their children at home for online learning. Locally, Eiland predicts that number to be between two and five percent.

“We’re going to be prepared for whatever the percentage is,” he said. “We just spent more than $500,000 on Chromebooks for K-12. Every student will have a device.”

However, even with the new technology, Eiland said schools would continue to look to in-school offerings.

“We want traditional classroom instruction,” he said. “That is what is best for the majority of the children. There is no substitute for eyeball to eyeball interaction between a teacher and a student.”

According to Eiland, classes will begin on Aug. 20, “unless something changes.”

Eiland said Mackey and his views were “comprehensive.”

“When I say comprehensive, it caused us to think about so many things we were not thinking about,” he said. “The task force team that he pulled together were from every content area possible educationally and you and public health officials, law enforcement officials, environmental specialists – just a plethora of experts. They came from districts large and small, they were young and seasoned administrators, there were members from the Alabama Association of School Boards. All of them – including the governor and her staff were providing input. It was very extensive team and they put together a very comprehensive, broad plan and it was pointed toward smaller districts as well. It has a broad nature about it, it has an extensive nature about it, but then it also has a specific nature about it. Some of it said ‘do now,’ some was ‘do later,’ but in the end, just as he said in his address to the public on Friday, ‘I am with guidance handing this to the local districts to do what is best for their district based on their exposure to COVID-19. I’m not telling them what day they have to start school. I’m urging them to start later,’ which we did months ago. We changed from Aug. 6 to Aug. 20.”

Eiland said he was impressed with the more than 50-page plan.

“It is so doable – so workable and so sensible – realistic,” Eiland continued.

Physically, things will look different in the schools this fall, according to Eiland.

“They’re going to have protective gear,” he said. “We’re not providing masks for students – you could never get it right, the difference of sizes. I think it is important for our teachers to have masks for the safety of our children. That’s one of the things I don’t think people get. There’s a look of weirdness in the eyes of some people when you approach them in a mask. It’s a two-way street – it’s protection for you plus respect for others. Because our teachers are teaching so hard and they are projecting it is necessary. We’re going to be very safety minded with all of our actions.”

Eiland said the Chromebooks were on the way to Butler County.

“We’re going to be able to teach remotely if forced to,” he said. “Not to mention they’ll be there for the children to use on a daily basis, so how great is that? It’s two-fold. You have the availably there at school. They will have them and be accustomed to their use.”

The district will also be providing each teacher with a gallon of hand sanitizer, along with other measures that are being taken. Thermal scan thermometers will be available.

“We’re going to be prepared for remote instruction,” Eiland said. “Traditional instruction is our hope and prayer – and we’re going to look at a blended curriculum. There are going to be situations where there is going to have to be a blended approach. For example, a child may start to school and then friends may become infected with the virus and all of a sudden, mom and dad aren’t comfortable with that anymore. If they feel like they have to move out of the school setting to the home setting for instruction, then we’re ready for that.”

Eiland said it is a virtual curriculum, not a virtual school.

“The virtual curriculum takes into account our state curriculum and focus of study for all of the course that are studied in the state of Alabama,” Eiland said. “In the past, when a child chose to go to home school, we lost that child as part of our average daily membership. They had to withdraw. When you lose that child, you lose funding. Having that virtual program means that they leave you but they stay enrolled. It’s a game changer. We’re able to offer even greater dual enrollment opportunities. We have scholarships that fund at least half of the dual enrollment costs – that’s huge. It’s created opportunity and I’m happy for that.”