While much of the focus has been on the opening of Athens City and Limestone County schools this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the two private schools in Athens, Athens Bible School and Lindsay Lane Christian Academy, are also preparing to begin the school year in a few weeks.
Both schools will open for in-person instruction. LLCA will open Aug. 6, while ABS will begin its school year Aug. 12.
Officials at both schools say a lot of preparation has gone into its plans to open schools on time despite the number of COVID-19 infections remaining high.
“We created a task force represented with two doctors and three nurses, as well as some other professionals in the cleaning and medical business,” Lindsay Lane Christian Head of School Steve Murr said. “We met several times going through the information that we have.”
Murr said one thing the task force looked at was how schools in other countries were able to have in-person learning without a large virus outbreak.
“Students (in other countries) have been back in school for months,” Murr said. “Probably millions of students going back have not had a big outbreak related to them being in school. The percentage of school-age children that have been negatively affected by COVID-19 is very, very small. We felt like taking the precautions we are, we'll be able to have a productive school year.”
Lindsay Lane Christian has approximately 485 students, and Murr said the school is doing what it can to keep them socially distanced as much as possible.
This includes no mixing of classes during the day, some classes eating lunch in the classrooms while others eat at the school's outside cafeteria and pavilion. Classrooms will also be arranged where all desks face the same direction so students will not be face-to-face.
Murr said the biggest question he has gotten is about masks. He said they will be required in places where students aren't able to social distance.
“With the CDC and the Alabama Department of Public Health changing things and mandates coming from the governor, we are very fluid in our plan,” Murr said. “I think what we would do is require masks to be in the hallways and other crowded areas. Inevitably, there will be times in the classrooms where students wouldn't have masks on.”
The school will also have many hand sanitizing stations set up, as well as sanitation misting machines which will clean throughout the school.
Murr said the vast majority of parents have expressed the desire for in-person instruction, and he said he has received calls from parents of Madison County students who are interested in their child attending LLCA after Madison schools announced they would be online-only for the first nine weeks.
“We will be livestreaming teachers, so if you have a class from 8-8:50, that is the time where you can watch that,” he said of online learning. “We have new cameras that just show the teacher and the whiteboard, and a document camera to show the problem the teacher is working on, so students would be able to see that.”
Murr said online learning is not a long-term solution with students and would ideally be only for students who have to leave school due to feeling symptoms of illness or quarantining due to either testing positive for the novel coronavirus or coming in contact with someone who has.
“Students need to be in school,” he said. “They need socialization of being around other students, and to say a student is going to sit for seven hours in front of a computer; that in itself is going to be very difficult.”
Athens Bible School is taking a similar path. Principal Chris Duke said the school board solicited input from parents and families when it came to announcing its plan to begin school Aug. 12.
“Of course, all the information is changing on pretty much a daily basis, so we're trying to pull that information together as best we can,” he said. “We try to make it as current as we can, which, of course, is almost impossible.”
Athens Bible's enrollment is approximately 230 students, which makes it easier to social distance. However, in areas where it will be difficult for students to be socially distant, masks will be required, Duke said.
“When distancing can't be maintained, such as chapel or any other assemblies, we'll have to have the face coverings,” he said. “We'll encourage (students) to bring their own, but we will also have them at school in case someone has forgotten theirs. But a lot of students have been coming this summer for sports-related activities, so they have gotten used to bringing and wearing their masks.”
Like LLCA, Athens Bible will have numerous hand sanitizing stations and sanitizing misting machines throughout the school in order to keep it as clean as possible. Also, neither school will allow visitors to enter the building until further notice.
Duke said any online distance learning would be handled on a case-by-case basis.
“If someone is in a situation that warrants (online learning), we will try to work with those families,” he said. “But our hope and focus right now is trying to start in person. There's just so many angles to think about. The biggest thing is trying to stay up to date as much as we can and do the very best we can for our students.”