Audio Interview

 

 0:00 – 7:54 – Introductions & schools/athletics

7:55 – 10:26 – Religious Gatherings

10:27 – 11:43 – Movie Theaters

11:44 – 14:08 – Masking Compliance

14:09 – 16:22 – State specific comments, travel

Birmingham, AL Interview Conducted March 2021
Schools After the first confirmed case March 13, the governor declared a state of emergency and all schools were closed. E-learning was utilized but was fairly lax in implementation. The 2020-2021 school year allowed both online and in-person learning, in which students initially attended two days a week, with normal classes resuming briefly in the fall, regressing to staggered, then back to normal in winter 2021, except for Birmingham City School System. Social distancing is encouraged, and masks are required. Athletics continued as normal in the 2020-2021 school year.
Masks Masks are state mandated. Mask compliance in the cities appears to be nearly complete; lower in rural areas. A drop in compliance has been noticed as other states end mask mandates.
Religious Gatherings  After canceling in-person ceremonies for several months, optional services (Mass, etc) began to be offered, with Jeff’s parish utilizing social distancing and mask requirements. Attendance appears normal as of spring 2021.Temperature checks are taken in Sunday School.
Restaurants and Bars Every restaurant open for in-person dining.
Movie Theaters Some chains, such as AMC, are open to varying degrees, anywhere from weekends-only to a full seven days a week, with a cap at 40% capacity. Many theaters are offering rentals.

Schools

My wife and I are both teachers in the same district while my children (8 and 9) attend school in a different district. Alabama is a little different than some other places in that there are lots of city school systems, even for smaller cities in otherwise large urban areas. We are in Birmingham, Alabama and in the metro area there are over a dozen city school systems in addition to the county systems. Most of these city systems only have one high school. My family is Catholic and so we are also in tune with the local parish school.

First, I’ll discuss what happened with the system in which I work. We got our first email about COVID February 27th. On the morning March 11th our principal was confident we wouldn’t miss a single day of instruction due to COVID. I remember telling our assistant principal that we would be out for several weeks. That is the day the NBA suspended its season. The next day all out of state field trips for the district were cancelled. Disneyland closed. The SEC basketball conference tournament was cancelled. Later that day so was the NCAA tournament and as well as all NCAA spring sports. The NHL cancelled its season as well. Toilet paper became scarce. 

The next day, Friday the 13th, we had a faculty meeting in the morning and our principal said we may need a couple days worth of e-learning plans. That evening’s school dance was still scheduled. He was adamant that we not cancel it.  We were planning on doing a career day the next week where adults would come and give presentations in classrooms about various careers. Our counselor was upset at the prospect of postponing it. I remember telling our assistant principal that we were going to have bigger problems. Later that day the first case in Alabama was confirmed. The governor declared a state of emergency and said schools would shut down beginning next Wednesday, March 18th. The next day the district sent out an email saying all student absences would be excused that next week for those kids that don’t want to come Monday or Tuesday. By the end of the day they sent another email saying there will be no school at all next week. We did not return to school for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year. We did e-learning, but it was not very rigorous. My children’s school system was similar in many ways, although their e-learning was more rigorous in the spring.

Going into the 2020-21 school year many school systems would allow students to learn virtually or in person. For both the system I work in and the system my children attend in person learning was going to be two days a week. My school would be Monday/Thursday and Tuesday/Friday while my kids would go Monday/Tuesday. Most systems started back in August, but most of those went back a week later than usual. At my school roughly 30% of students chose virtual. It’s higher at the high school and lower at the elementary schools. A few systems including Birmingham City and Jefferson County (2 of the 6 largest in the state) schools stayed virtual for months. Jefferson County started in person learning in October while Birmingham City did in person for about a week and a half before Christmas before going back to virtual full-time.

In my school we only had 50% capacity on any given day at the start of the year. Desks were spread out, but not all of them were 6’ apart. So social distancing was not non-negotiable, but it was a goal. All teachers had to have a seating chart in order to do contact tracing.  Students had to wear masks at all times when inside. We have had no classes cancelled due to COVID since August. At my kids’ school they have had some teachers impacted which caused classes to be split. This led to my son having a couple of days where he was able to stay home and do e-learning, but it was not mandatory. So no cancelled classes for my kids either.

After a few weeks my children were able to go back to 5 days a week.

They have stayed 5 days a week ever since. My system went to 5 days a week in October but we had issues with contact tracing and so went back to staggered in November. One or two kids would take out two dozen students due to contact tracing. We once again went 5 days a week in late January/early February with elementary schools first, then middle schools, and high schools last. We are using a cohort model in middle school so the kids are in the same group for each class and have the same seating chart for each of their classes – except for their electives. 

Despite being in person since August not a single case of COVID has been contracted at our school. Hundreds of kids have been sent home due to contact tracing but not one of them actually contracted the virus. A few teachers have gotten COVID, but they all got it off campus. The problem was always contact tracing, but actual transmission. My son’s best friend was quarantined for 14 days back in September and later had to quarantine for 24 days because his mom got COVID, so he had to wait until her 10 days was up before his 14 day quarantine began. 

In terms of sports we cancelled everything back in March like everyone else in the country. Unlike many other areas, we pretty much went back to normal sports wise over the summer. I coach cross country, a fall sport, and we were given the green light to start summer training in early June, which is normally when we start anyway. The only stipulation was that we check temperatures before practice. We discontinued that when school started back. We had a full season with no athletes testing positive although we had a couple that were quarantined. The football and volleyball teams completed their seasons as well. A few high school football games were postponed or cancelled but the season went off about as well as the college season did. We completed basketball, wrestling, and indoor track last month on the middle school level while high school is wrapping up the basketball state playoffs now. 

Cross country races were a bit different than in the past, but not much. Each meet seemed to have their own procedures. Our first race required kids to wear masks up to the starting line before discarding them just before the race began. The coach then had to get the masks together and have them for the kids at the finish line. The next race required kids to run while carrying their masks so they could quickly remask at the finish. That led to a lot of masks dropped along the course. The race after that did not require masks at the starting line but assigned starting spots and only allowed athletes to be on the starting line for a minute or two before the gun went off. Another change was that a few races had more divisions or ran middle school and high school races on different days. 

Our local Catholic school has either one or two classes per grade at the K-8 level and has had several classrooms quarantined entirely. They also cancelled their volleyball and basketball seasons, which was disappointing as our children play sports through them. The Christian school across the street from our house had in person learning that followed the same sort of schedule as most schools in the area.

Religious Gatherings

Our diocese suspended Mass for the elderly and sick on March 12th and suspended offering the cup as well.  Masses were suspended as a whole by the 17th in the entire diocese. Unfortunately, I don’t have the date when Masses were offered on an optional basis, but I believe it was either late April or early May. It was after Easter. Mass is still optional in the diocese. However, we have gone to Mass just about every week since May. Face coverings are “required” but there have been a couple of people in each Mass without a mask on. Every other row is cordoned off and social distancing is encouraged. We were able to have Christmas Mass this year as well as Ash Wednesday services with ashes distributed via a Q-tip. Some other parishes sprinkled the ashes on people’s heads to avoid physical contact. My son was able to do first reconciliation last week. My kids go to Sunday school every week but have their temperature taken before going in. There is a virtual option for that as well, but it appears most students are going in person.

The Methodist Church across the street from my house has been doing in person worship since late spring as well. They also had a basketball program for grades K-5 which was what my kids did in lieu of the local Catholic basketball league. They required a temperature check and masks even for players. Not ideal, but better than nothing.

Movie Theaters

The theater nearest me is not showing movies during the week.  It is only showing movies Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It’s an AMC theater, but other AMC theaters in the area have showings 7 days a week. The next closest theater is showing a dozen movies in the 7 o’clock range. Capacity is capped at 40%.  It seems that the AMC theaters are partially or fully opened while other theater chains are completely closed. Weekday rentals are an option for AMC theaters as well.

Travel and Masking

COVID hasn’t had nearly as big an impact on my area as it has in other parts of the country. We did a hard lockdown in March and early April, then slowly opened up. When COVID really hit we stayed open. In May my family went down to Mobile Bay and stayed at a nice hotel for a few days. In June we drove to Houston to visit family. That’s the same month the local water park opened. We got season passes and went more times than I can count. We had to wear a mask as we walked through the gate, but otherwise it was completely maskless. The next month we visited Florida’s beaches. 

Currently we are essentially back to normal. My wife and I went to the Rose Bowl in Dallas last month.  Almost every school is open 5 days a week. Every restaurant is open for indoor dining (except Chic-Fil-A). The only thing that’s noticeable is mask wearing. It would seem that mask compliance in the city is well over 90%. When I go to the grocery store I may see one adult without a mask each time. I did go on a camping trip with my son’s scout troop in late fall in a rural area. I did notice that mask compliance was much lower there. At the time they only had 18 deaths out of a population of over 32,000 though. I have noticed that as you go further from the city compliance drops in other areas as well. 

 

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