Local schools address concerns about virtual learning, extracurricular activities

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    By Michelle Key
    With contribution from
    D. Mark Mitchell

    COVID-19 surprised the United States in the spring and changed everything. Millions of schoolchildren were affected when schools in Alabama and across the nation closed their doors and went to virtual learning for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

    As days went by, it was obvious COVID-19 was not going anywhere soon. The Alabama Department of Education, led by State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey, began to develop a ‘Road map to re-opening schools’ for the 2020-21 school year.

    The plan consisted of three different models:

    – Traditional learning: students attend classes in school on-campus.

    – Blended learning: students transition between traditional and remote learning and back again based on needs and preference and

    – Remote learning: students attend classes remotely using a variety of virtual and paper resources. Teachers have regular check-in times and can provide virtual instructions.

    Virtual learning is not new to Alabama schools; the Act no. 2015-89 passed in 2015 and became state law in the 2016-17 school year. Act No. 2015-89 states: “a student enrolled in a virtual school program offered by his or her local school system shall be treated as if he or she is attending his or her local school in the attendance zone in which they reside for purposes of participating in extracurricular activities and shall be subject to the same requirements, including Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) rules, imposed on a traditional public school student enrolled in the traditional public school.”

    The AHSAA abides by the act and allows virtual students to participate in athletics including football, band and other sports.  

    How are local schools handling sports and extracurricular activities?

    Auburn City Schools – In a statement released to the Observer, it was stated that “All students, regardless of the option selected, traditional or remote learning, are eligible for participation in after-school events. As referenced in the Auburn City Schools’ Return to Learning plan, remote learning students may participate in extra-curricular activities including athletics.”

    Lee County Schools – Lee County Superintendent James McCoy confirmed that Lee County Schools are allowing remote or virtual learning students to participate in sports, including marching band.

    Opelika City Schools

    According to Opelika Superintendent Dr. Mark Neighbors, OCS does not currently allow students choosing virtual learning to participate in any extracurricular activities and offered the following explanation.

    “When considering the issue of whether a student who opted to participate in our virtual program since the onset of COVID and the State of Emergency issued by the Governor may participate in extracurricular activities, our focus has been on the safety of our students, their families, our faculty and staff and by extension, our community,” Neighbors said. “Those parents who have elected to keep their children at home since the onset of COVID presumably have done so because of their concerns for possible health problems, either for the student in question or a member of his/her family.  To allow students who were concerned about the health risk of attending in-person school to participate in extracurricular activities seems inconsistent.  That is, the same health risk, and possibly a higher risk, exists in extracurricular activities that exists in the in-person classroom and school setting. After many discussions, particularly with medical professionals, we felt that it was too risky for the children who chose to stay at home for health reasons to be exposed to the same health risk by participating in extracurricular activities. Therefore, the decision was made to only allow traditional in-person students to participate in extracurricular activities during the pandemic.”

    Neighbors went on to explain that the decision was not one that was made lightly. “We do not take this decision lightly.  In considering this issue, we have considered the Alabama Virtual Education Law which was passed prior to the pandemic as well as the AHSAA guidance. We have not disregarded that law or the guidance; however, we are operating in unique uncharted times and we have made what we believe to be the best decision we can for the students of our schools, their families, our faculty and staff and by extension, the community at large. We will always err on the side of guarding public health and protecting human life,” he concluded.

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