TUSCALOOSA, AL. — A small group of Tuscaloosa County High School students held signs and chanted "Do us a favor, make our schools safer," in front of the Tuscaloosa County School System headquarters on Greensboro Avenue Friday afternoon. The students gathered to protest the school system's response to the coronavirus pandemic, as the number of new cases rise across the county.
TCHS junior Kassie Reed told Patch that the students' main grievances centered on enforcement of public health protocols for students participating in in-person instruction, as well as closer monitoring of students who do test positive and eventually return to school.
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"I just want to know and be confident going to school that I'm going to be safe," she said.
Patch reported earlier this week that TCSS recorded 82 new COVID-19 cases among students and employees on Tuesday, with the system primarily pointing to homecoming parties, Halloween events and other outside gatherings as the reasons for the uptick. Superintendent Keri Johnson also reiterated to local media this week that the system does not believe there to be spreading of the virus through classroom contact.
The majority of the new cases for the system, as previously reported, were traced to TCHS and Hillcrest High School, with TCSS officials saying high school students typically come into contact more with one another and those outside of campus than elementary and middle school students.
Several of the students cited instances where mask guidelines were not enforced, in addition to a lack of regard for social distancing. They also mentioned having high-risk family members and their fears of contracting the virus.
"We go to school and kids aren’t wearing their masks and the teachers, they are providing cleaning supplies and masks but they're not exactly enforcing these things," said TCHS student Joslyn Collins.
The student-demonstrators also each expressed a desire to continue in-person learning, but in an environment they can feel comfortable in knowing their risk of exposure is low.
"I really would hate to shut the schools down, but if the rules and the regulations don’t become more strict and clearer to the students, then, all-in-all, I think it might be good for us to just shut down," Reed said. "I know some people don’t have access to online stuff, but the school is providing iPads and hotspots for kids to be able to do this at home. We, as a community, could do this."
In her update Tuesday, Johnson did say the system had finally secured 7,000 iPads and is in the process of getting them ready to deploy as needed. However, TCSS has expressed its desire to continue in-person instruction unless circumstances change.
The worries persist, though, with Collins lamenting the possibility of returning to a virtual learning format and backsliding on the academic progress she's made.
"For me, we were home the first nine weeks because we were worried about our family then we came back to school and I'm learning so much better," she said. "But at the same time, I think something needs to be done, like even just an extra week after Thanksgiving break, like a reset period."
While Collins did say many students, faculty and staff do adhere to the rules, she hopes the system will take a more proactive approach in making sure the measures are followed to promote the safety of the entire school system and the community.
"I can't speak for everybody, but we enjoy school," she said. "We want to stay in school, we just want our school to be safer for us."