By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday extended the statewide face mask order until Aug. 31 and will require most Alabama students and employees at schools and colleges to wear face coverings.
Ivey said that though the number of COVID-19 cases has not decreased significantly in recent weeks, the state cannot afford to halt all in-person teaching for students across the state.
“We don’t have the luxury of not getting our young people back in school,” Ivey said a press conference in the Capitol Wednesday. “While I respect those districts that have elected to go to virtual classrooms, I feel with all my heart that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home, especially if there are other options, and that slide is likely to have a dramatic negative impact on Alabama’s future, our young people.”
Ivey said that she hopes those schools that have elected to start this school year teaching only virtually will reconsider and slowly phase into in-person teaching if the outlook of the virus is good in their areas.
State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said he agrees with the new order extension and implored every Alabamian to keep wearing masks.
“Today, there is no argument on whether [masks] are effective,” Harris said. “This is the best tool we have right now to prevent transmission of the disease.”
State Superintendent of Education Eric Mackey late last week estimated that up to half of the state’s public school students will be attending classes remotely in the fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, about 20 school systems so far have said they will offer only virtual instruction — not in-person classes — when the school year begins, according to media reports.
In a recent survey done by the Alabama Education Association, 68% of educators said they were “very uncomfortable” about returning to the classroom under current outbreak conditions and 70% said remote learning should be the only option for when the school year begins.
Ivey said on Wednesday that she understands teachers’ health safety concerns and believes these decisions have to be made on an individual basis, but also asks school districts to encourage in-person teaching whenever possible.
“Everything has to be done at a local level in decisions with that regard,” Ivey said. “Certainly, we want our teachers to be safe, as we want our workers at the schools and our students, so it’s a work in progress and we’ve just got to use good common sense.”
Harris said all schools will be properly sanitized before opening and that ADPH is in the process of releasing a “tool kit” for schools on how to safely bring students into classrooms.
The Alabama Policy Institute, a Birmingham-based think tank, issued a statement on Wednesday opposing Ivey’s extended order, saying it is unenforceable and too burdensome on students and teachers.
“The mandate also fails to take into account our many special needs classrooms and their unique challenges,” API President Caleb Crosby said. “As we have seen time and again with the COVID-19 pandemic, one size fits all solutions don’t work. Whether masks should be worn in schools is a question for local leaders, while parents most certainly should have a voice in the decision-making process.”
Ivey’s newest order requires students in the second grade or higher and employees at a school or college to wear a face mask when attending school or classes.
The AEA survey showed that most teachers, administrators and support staff want mask requirements for themselves and students.
Ivey first required Alabamians to wear a face mask two weeks ago in an order that was set to expire Friday. Anyone who is in a public space, especially when inside a building and within six feet of other people must wear a face mask.
Under state law, those who do not comply with public health orders could face a $500 fine or even jail time. However, the governor and other state leaders have emphasized that they are not pushing to penalize violators.
Ivey said Wednesday she does not see the need to close businesses again, saying that Alabama’s economic health and people’s livelihoods need to be protected as well.
More than 81,000 Alabamians have tested positive for COVID-19 and 21,947 cases were confirmed within the last two weeks, according to BamaTracker.com.
There are currently 1,598 hospitalizations because of COVID-19 and 1,489 people have died from the virus.
Harris said there is not enough data yet to determine if the state’s number of new cases is at a leveling-off point and said they could still be seeing the effects of gatherings from the July Fourth holiday.
“Overall our numbers are not yet particularly encouraging,” Harris said.
Harris said the amount of hospitalizations in the state is worrying but also said the ADPH is working with the Alabama National Guard to prepare alternate care sites if the need arises.