As classes resume with COVID raging, some Alabama schools go online, others require face masks

Published 9:06 pm Monday, January 3, 2022

With Alabama hospitals treating more COVID-19 patients daily and the positivity rate for coronavirus tests exceeding 35% statewide, some state school systems are returning to online learning or implementing mask restrictions to avoid classroom outbreaks.

In Sylacauga, students will attend classes remotely for three days when the new semester begins on Wednesday, Superintendent Michele Eller said in a statement. “Considering the surge right here in our community following the holiday gatherings, this is the reasonable course of action to protect our students and teachers from exposure,” she said.

Shelby County schools in metro Birmingham started the post-holiday grading period online Monday for its nearly 21,000 students as part of a plan implemented before the latest surge. The system did the same thing last year to allow for additional quarantine time for anyone who might have been exposed to the virus or gotten sick over the break.

Pike County’s public schools will hold classes in person but require masks for all workers and students through Jan. 28, officials said in an announcement on social media.

“Our focus will remain on keeping our students and employees safe. By implementing these steps, we hope to keep our schools open through this surge,” said the system, located in southeast Alabama.

More than 1,100 people were hospitalized statewide with COVID-19 on Monday, or more than 3.5 times as many as in mid-December.

About 36% of COVID-19 tests came back positive statewide over the last week — a high for the pandemic — and the positivity rate exceeds 40% in 10 of the state’s 67 counties, according to statistics from the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“Community transmission is just spreading like wildfire right now,” said Dr. Sarah Nafziger, vice president of clinical support services with UAB Health System.

Less than 48% of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, giving Alabama one of the nation’s lowest vaccination rates despite months of work by health officials to promote the shots. With more than 16,450 dead of the illness, Alabama has the nation’s third-highest death rate from COVID-19, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

The rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by about 5,004 over the past two weeks, a jump of about 630%. There were nearly 1,058 new cases per 100,000 people in Alabama over the past two weeks, which ranks 20th in the country for new cases per capita.

Hospitalizations aren’t increasing as quickly as the overall COVID-19 case total, apparently because the highly contagious omicron variant doesn’t make patients as sick as earlier versions of the virus, Nafziger said. But the latest surge is still straining health systems because of the large number of workers who are being exposed to the highly contagious variant or infected, she said.

“We’re having a lot of staff who are testing positive, who are having to stay out of work because of that,” said Nafziger.

Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, said the number of medical workers who are out because of COVID-19 or flu is “creating some staffing issues” at hospitals across the state.

“It’s just a much more transmissible virus,” Williamson said of the omicron variant. “I worry that as our cases continue to rise, we are going to see more and more people in the hospital, and it’s going to happen when staffing was already challenging.”

Williamson said that even though omicron seems to be less severe, it is wrong to dismiss the variant as the equivalent of a cold. There are 210 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units in state hospitals, about double the amount at the beginning of the month.

“If you believe that this variant is nothing more than the common cold, you are mistaken because we don’t hospitalize for the common cold. Yet, we are seeing patients with this surge being hospitalized at increasing rates,” Williamson said.

“Based on what we’re seeing, there are fewer people who get severe disease, but there are clearly some who get severe disease.”