WINSTON COUNTY - As a certain percentage of students across the county are preparing for virtual or remote learning formats amid the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are admitting the process is throwing them quite a learning curve, as well.
On Thursday, Aug. 20, schools across Winston County are scheduled to open their doors to students to begin a new year, whether virtually for students not attending in person due to the pandemic or those in traditional classroom settings.
Before schools open, however, preparations are being put in place for those remote learners who are planning for at least the first nine weeks of school to do their studies online. This means reliable internet service is essential.
Winston County Schools has announced they are providing 12 buses within their bus fleet that are equipped with Wi-FI to be strategically placed throughout the county in remote areas, in order to give students high speed internet service when doing their online studies.
Three of those 12 buses are going to Haleyville City Schools, which is deciding the best locations for their remote student learners, according to officials there.
Jeff Scott, transportation supervisor for Winston County Schools, noted their nine remaining Wi-FI connected buses, after three are given to HCS, will be parked in areas where students can get the best use of internet service.
“Right now we’re looking at maybe some fire departments, different churches and different places in our outlying communities that will provide plenty of parking,” Scott said. “It will make it easier access for our parents and our students.”
The idea is taking buses already in the county fleet and equipping them with Wi-Fi access. Drivers, identified who run routes closest to the remote locations, will drop their buses off at the remote areas after running their morning school routes, Scott explained.
The buses should be parked in these areas with Wi-Fi access beginning around 8 a.m., officials said.
Then in the afternoon, drivers will get the buses for their afternoon routes around 2 p.m., so students will have access for their studies roughly from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. during the school week of Monday through Friday.
The buses will not be left parked at these remote areas overnight or during weekends, so students should take advantage of the times they are parked in order to do their remote or online studies, officials indicated.
“The most important thing is to make sure all students have internet access,” Scott said.
Currently, around 17 to 20 percent of the Winston County Schools student population will be using the remote format at least the first nine weeks of school due to the pandemic, amounting to 1/5th of the student population, Scott explained.
“It’s very important for these students to be able to do their work, to have access with the Wi-Fi,” Scott said.
“We’re going to try to make the Wi-Fi as good as we possibly can,” he added. In some of the remote areas, boosters may have to be purchased to be placed on each bus to make sure the internet signal is strong and ready for online formats, he said.
Remote learners will not be boarding the Wi-Fi buses but will need to do their online lessons from their vehicles in the parking areas where the buses are located, school officials said.
“It’s going to give every student the opportunity to have internet access, and that’s big, because a lot of the areas without this, they wouldn’t have it and it would put a lot of students at a disadvantage,” Scott said.
“It’s challenging, but we will get through it,” he continued. “It will be learning experience for all of us, but we will overcome it.”
Greg Pendley, superintendent of Winston County Schools, noted at last count, the system had 288 students who will be doing the virtual format rather than the traditional classroom setting.
“It is a constantly changing situation,” Pendley said. Wi-Fi was scheduled to be installed beginning this week on the buses, Pendley stated.
“All of our campuses, as Haleyville, will have a public domain (no password required), so they can come out in the parking lot and get access if that is where they chose to go,” Pendley pointed out.
The buses will be at various locations, but efforts are underway to check the connectivity in those areas, he said.
Dr. Bill Bishop, director of administrative services for Haleyville City Schools, is over the transportation for the school district.
“I am a traditional person, and I believe in virtual learning. I believe kids (should) go to school one-on-one with their teachers, but we have to have this in place also because some people are afraid to come to school. Some people want to do (learning) virtually,” Bishop stated.
“We want to make sure our kids get an appropriate education,” he added. “It’s really sad we don’t have internet connection in 2020, everywhere for everyone. Right now, we don’t have that, and we need it.”
Bishop has been in discussions with Scott and Pendley about the use of buses for Wi-Fi, three of which are going to be used by HCS.
In all, HCS has 16 buses provided by Winston County that provide transportation for their students, according to Bishop.
After studying the various areas without adequate or no Wi-Fi service, officials are eyeing areas such as Beech Grove Road Pebble and south Haleyville for these three Wi-Fi equipped buses, he added.
“We are looking at locations that are safe locations, that have parking,” Bishop stated. “Churches, community centers, fire departments, things like that.”
In order to be able to park Wi-Fi buses in these areas, church ministers, community leaders, etc., must give permission, school officials explained.
HCS has about the same percentage of students who are doing the virtual or remote learning format as Winston County, and most are equipped with a laptop or ChromeBook device needed to accomplish these learning goals.
A separate story in this issue details how students can access virtual learning devices if they do not already have them,
These devices will be equipped under the Child Internet Protection Act, which means students will not have access to inappropriate internet sites, Dr. Bishop stated.
HCS is also planning on blanketing the parking lots on their campus with Wi-Fi access, so students, who may not can travel to the other remote areas, can do their studies from their vehicles on campus, Dr. Bishop explained.
“We are going to do what we can. We are going to make it through this,” he continued. “Our number one priority is we want to keep our students safe. At the end of the day, we have to educate our students.
“It’s hard to keep up in a virtual environment, because you don’t have that one-on-one attention from teachers,” Dr. Bishop pointed out. “You have to self-pace. You have to be self-disciplined. Believe it or not, the success rates of students in a virtual environment...you can’t replace a teacher is what we’re saying.”
Students face strict cleanliness rules when boarding, riding buses
During the COVID-19 pandemic, rules on cleanliness regarding buses in both districts will more strict than in the past, school officials explained.
“First and foremost we really need parents to help us,” Scott stated. “If that child is showing any kind of symptoms or signs (of being sick) that they don’t send them to school that day.”
Each student upon boarding a bus as well as the entire time riding the bus, will be required to wear a facial covering. Students must also use a hand sanitation station provided on each bus on which they ride, he noted.
Before and after each bus route, bus drivers will apply strict cleaning measures of the entire bus, using disinfectant spray contracted through Cintas to wipe down the seats and areas and the entire bus, Scott stated.
Concerning rules of social distancing, of keeping people six feet apart in efforts of preventing the spread of COVID-19, seating charts will be used by Winston County schools, according to officials.
“We will space them as best we can, and we are going to require that family members sit together, because they are already living together in households,” said Scott.
“If 20 percent of our students go virtual, then that is going to limit the amount of people on our buses,” he said.
“If we can’t maintain that six foot social, we will have the masks, which we are going to have (students wear) on the bus regardless,” he added.
“There is no way you are going to maintain six foot at all times on a school bus,” he stressed.
School officials will have extra masks on buses for students that may not be wearing one. However, all students are being encouraged to have their own mask or facial covering before boarding the bus.
Governor Kay Ivey in her last press conference about COVID-19, informed that the state mandate regarding facial coverings also applies to second grade students and older.
However, all students, regardless of their age, meaning even the younger grade levels, when boarding buses, will be required to wear a facial covering, local school officials said.
“That’s every parent’s right, whether they choose to abide or not, but we are going to encourage everyone, because the governor has mandated, and if people ride a school bus, they will be required to wear a mask,” Scott said. “That is their ticket to the bus.”
Parents that may not want their child, younger than second grade to wear a mask, are encouraged to bring their children to school, according to school officials.
“We understand it may be more inconvenient for some than it is others, but we’re just asking everyone to try to respect each other and wear them. That is what we’re wanting them to do,” said Scott.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.