When Baldwin County Schools opened their doors, on time, in August, Superintendent Eddie Tyler received hate mail.
Parents wrote spite filled letters. They claimed he was “murdering their children” by exposing them to COVID-19 in schools.
But the 31,000 children that Tyler considers his first priority and his full responsibility had spent four months sitting at home. Some of them were scared, some were hungry, others were lonely. A lot of them were just plain bored.
Tyler said he didn’t know how long the pandemic would last, how it would end or even if the district’s best laid plans to open would work.
What he knew to be absolutely true was that children needed to be in school.
Tyler and his staff spent those same four months working every day to bring them back in the safest way possible.
His staff discussed masks, distance, cleaning, air quality, bus routes and sickness protocol. They listened to experts, they presented plans. In the end, they opened the doors to all 46 schools in the district, on time.
“We circled the wagons and tried to figure out, how do we move forward,” Tyler said.
“All the decisions were pushed down to the individual school systems. We had guidelines and recommendations but until the government said we had to shut the doors we felt like we could open,” Tyler said.
Those months of planning led to system-wide pivots that tweaked every school day activity from riding buses to eating lunch. Tyler said new cleaning protocols set to battle COVID-19 also kept more common illnesses like flu at bay too.
“We hear every year about how many children are out with the flu and what the vaccine looks like for flu but it just wasn’t on our radar this year,” he said. “I attribute that to how well we kept the schools and buses clean.”
Tyler said even if health officials say masks can go, the cleaning will stay.
“I don’t see any of these practices changing going into next fall,” he said.
He added that the school system is also looking at upgrading HVAC systems with new air filters designed to help stop the spread of viruses.
As senior staff members reviewed COVID-19 protocols, the one provision they could not put in place was six feet of social distance between each student. Schools were told to do the best they could. The swift creation of the Baldwin County Virtual Elementary School solved that problem in many locations.
The virtual high school, which had already been a staple of the school system for nearly 10 years, was expanded to include all grade levels. The student population there exploded from 300 to 7,000.
“That did relieve pressure on the footprints of our brick and mortar schools,” Tyler said.
More than all the prep work, cleaning and shuffling of students, Tyler said reopening schools was successful because of the system’s transparency. Tyler sent regular emails over the summer to update parents and each day every school sends a report to parents detailing how many absences there were related to the virus.
Those numbers swelled after Thanksgiving and Christmas as hundreds of absences were reported across the county. In recent days, they have dwindled to single digit numbers.
“Our parents take comfort in that we’re speaking to them, we’re letting them know what’s going on,” Tyler said.
Tyler has never minced words and was clear when school opened in August: COVID-19 was in the classrooms.
“It’s there, but as long as we are protecting ourselves, we can’t not go to school,” Tyler said. “So many systems are experiencing some issues with academic progress. Right now, we feel comfortable.
“Do we have to do remediation next year? Yes. Are we pleased with what we’re doing? Yes,” he said. “I have to say it has gone well. I don’t know if myself or the board or our staff could have predicted that it would go as well as it’s gone.”
Baldwin County’s reopening has been so successful that other districts and states have taken notice. Tyler is in regular communication with other Alabama districts and recently walked through the county’s reopening plan with politicians in Pennsylvania who are still grappling with shuttered schools.
As students in Baldwin County enter the last nine weeks of school Tyler said he is proud of staff, students and parents for tackling one of the most difficult challenges he said he has ever encountered.
“As we discuss where we were and where we are now, I am very proud. I am very proud of how we have withstood one series of events after another and when I say ‘we’ I am talking about not only employees but our Baldwin County family,” he said.
“Our parents could have abandoned us. They could have made things very difficult,” Tyler said. “But we all continued the great things we started several years ago and now we are running at the front of the pack. I feel Baldwin County can run with any of the elite systems in the state of Alabama.”