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State Treasurer McMillan joins a national effort to help prevent student debt

Mikayla Burns

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In a national campaign launched March 4, Alabama State Treasurer John McMillan joined 27 other states in trying to address student debt before students are struggling from it.

The campaign is called “For Their Future Movement” and aims to increase awareness of 529 college saving plans and prevent mountains of student debt with 529 College Savings Plans Network.

“More than 44 million Americans have student debt that eats away at paychecks, limits opportunities and leads them to put off buying homes and having children,” said National 529 Campaign Chairman Young Boozer III. “On March 4, we start our march forth, joining together to set our kids and grandkids on a better path with 529s.”

The state’s program for college savings is called CollegeCounts and offers tax advantages for Alabama residents. The savings are developed and grown from federal and state income taxes. It allows tax-free withdrawals, as long as the funds are used for specific educational reasons. There is no minimum deposit for the program, and it allows others to donate funds to the account as well.

The program started in 2005 and now has over 92,000 accounts helping students save for college.

“We hope that through this national campaign, we can bring awareness that our CollegeCounts program can aid in preventing student debt,” said McMillan. “Citizens recognize and associate a 401(k) plan as a savings program for retirement. We hope that Alabamians will soon hear ‘529’ and immediately think ‘college savings.’ ”

 

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Health

Chamber of Commerce releases guide to help small businesses file for coronavirus relief

Brandon Moseley

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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has created a guide to help small businesses, independent contractors and gig economy workers prepare to file for a coronavirus relief loan under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

This guide outlines the steps small businesses need to do to access much-needed funds to help keep their workers on the payroll during this disruptive period.

“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is working with state and local chambers across the country to provide businesses with the information they need to stay afloat and keep people employed during the pandemic,” said U.S. Chamber President Suzanne Clark. “This comprehensive guide ensures small business owners fully understand what aid is available to them and how to access those funds as quickly as possible. We remain committed to ensuring no family or business goes bankrupt due to financial hardships associated with the coronavirus.”

Businesses and entrepreneurs can access the Emergency Loan Small Business guide and checklist here.

Additionally, to help small businesses, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has compiled an interactive map to show the aid available to them on a state-by-state basis. Use the interactive map to learn how aid available under the Small Business Paycheck Protection Program, created as part of the (CARES) Act, could help the small businesses in each state.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that they are committed to helping American businesses respond to the coronavirus so they can support their employees, customers, and communities. We are equipping businesses with tools, resources, and information to help them navigate the challenges of the pandemic in real time.

Learn more at uschamber.com/coronavirus.

Thousands of “nonessential” businesses have been closed across Alabama. Restaurants have been limited to carry out or delivery only. Many businesses are struggling to make payroll during the forced economic shutdown.

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The Business Council of Alabama (BCA) is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate here in Alabama.

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Education

UAB students helping healthcare workers

Brandon Moseley

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Most of America is spending more time at home and working to find something to stay occupied as our schools and workplaces are largely shut down in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus. For America’s hospitals, particularly the intensive care workers, their job has never been more stressful or more important.

215,300 Americans, as of press time, have been confirmed as being COVID-19. For most of them their illness will just mean flulike symptoms and two weeks at their house reading internet news sites and watching way too much bad daytime TV. Unfortunately for nearly ten percent of patients, COVID-19 will mean hospitalization, often in serious or critical condition. Currently 5,004 COVID-19 patients are in the fight of their lives. They can’t win their fight without a lot of help from the skilled doctors and nurses who have made medicine their life’s work.

Students with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Health Services Administration are thanking those healthcare workers on the frontlines, while supporting the local restaurant businesses they love.

Through a partnership with Frontline Foods, the students are independently supporting local clinicians in the fight to keep our communities safe, while simultaneously supporting Birmingham’s local restaurant industry.

Frontline Foods began with independent groups in San Francisco and New York City with the same central idea. They help health care workers and local restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic, that has already claimed over 5,100 lives.

“As this crisis grows in scope and scale, we want to continue to push that mission forward by boosting the morale of our frontline warriors in need across our communities, all while helping local restaurants and their employees,” said Christina Fortugno, a critical care nurse, second-year Health Administration graduate student and MBA student within the department, and co-organizer of Frontline Foods Alabama.
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Fortugno and Bradley Tipper, another second-year MSHA and Health Informatics graduate student, decided the entire process of donating needed to be as transparent as possible.

100 percent of donations made to the Birmingham chapter of Frontline Foods through World Central Kitchen’s website will be used to sponsor meals prepared by our local restaurant community and delivered to local hospitals.

Fortugno and Tipper say their group will absorb all of the administrative overhead.

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“Being in the Health Services Administration program, we’ve been trained on how to support and help our providers,” Tipper said. “We knew that, even though we were about to leave Birmingham, we wanted to be a part of the solution here.”

In addition to providing meals to health care workers, care packages are another way community members are able to say “thank you” to the doctors, nurses, techs, environmental service workers and others. Care packages contain snacks, goodies and handwritten notes of encouragement, to be delivered to our health care heroes. You can purchase items to be included here.

“We are so inspired by the efforts of these leaders,” said Christy Lemak, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Health Services Administration. “They identified what was needed and quickly went to work to fill those needs right here in our community, and the fact that this helps both frontline caregivers and local restaurants is a fabulous ‘synergy’ that I think everyone can relate with as well. This is what servant leadership looks like. It’s great to see the students take charge in this way.”

Fortugno and Tipper began delivering these meals on March 30 to UAB’s Emergency Department. They hope to exp of COVID=1and their efforts to other Birmingham-area hospitals in the in the coming days and weeks.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones said, “We all have our roles and can offer support amidst the COVID-19 crisis, and students within UAB’s Department of Health Services Administration certainly have stepped up to offer a kind gesture and boost morale during this time of need. And what a smart idea to order carry-out from local restaurants – small businesses can certainly use (and are appreciative of) the support right now, making this is a ‘win-win’ situation for all.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci of the White House’s coronavirus task force said recently that he expects “millions” of Americans will get COVID-19. Fauci expects more than 100,000 Americans will die. As these numbers grow, the strain on America’s healthcare workers will only continue to grow.

(Based on an original report by UAB’s Adam Pope).

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Education

State superintendent Mackey addresses concerns about plans for public schools

Josh Moon

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Over the last few days, several public school principals in Alabama — most of them from more rural districts — have spoken with APR about a number of concerns they have about the state’s plan for moving forward with the 2019-2020 school year in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The principals were not angry or even necessarily critical of the guidance being issued from the Alabama State Department of Education and their local school boards. Instead, they were simply worried about the safety of their staff and faculty, and they were confused, in some cases, about what they can and can’t do to protect themselves and their staff and to provide food and coursework to their students. 

With things moving so quickly in such an unprecedented situation, it probably should be expected that communication isn’t always the best. So, state Superintendent Eric Mackey spoke with APR about the specific concerns of the principals and offered helpful guidance to teachers, principals and superintendents on what he and state leaders expect from them moving forward. 

Q: One of the first questions the principals had was about employees and teachers who have underlying health issues that make them more vulnerable to coronavirus. They’re worried about those staff members coming back to work next week, even in a setting without students. Can anything be done to protect them? 

Mackey: Well, of course. We don’t want anyone who has a health condition like that to be put in danger. I know everybody’s anxious, really scared — some maybe more so than they need to be and others not as much as they should. We have about 10 people in here in the office today. We’re being cautious. Washing hands, wiping down with Clorox wipes. We have some people who need to be more scared about it. One of our vital employees has a heart condition, another is a cancer survivor. We’ve told them not to come in. That’s just how it has to be. They can contribute what they can from home. 

And I suggest that be the case for these schools. If you have an employee with an underlying condition, we need to look at ways for them to contribute — if there’s a concern with everyone pulling their own weight — ways that don’t put them at risk and protects them. Because that is absolutely the first priority. Maybe they can’t come in. But someone needs to be calling parents and making sure they have everything. There are ways to do this.    

Q: Another concern is the close quarters of the food prep areas for employees working to get lunches out for kids to pick up. 

Mackey: Yeah, that is something that we’ve worked, something we’ve put a lot of thought into and we are concerned about it. But at the end of the day, these things are a balance. It is very important for us to get the meals out to the kids. We know from the response just how important it is. But in doing so, our people have to follow the standards, and being six feet apart is not always practical. What I want people to do is be safe first. Wear gloves and masks and whatever they can to protect themselves and the area around them. 

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One thing I’m more concerned about right now is that our cafeteria crews won’t be able to keep up with this pace. It’s one thing to have these folks do this work for two or three weeks. But the same men and women can’t do it forever. They need breaks just like everyone. And as this stretches on, we’re going to have to consider changing people out. You might know already, but a cafeteria worker at one of our schools in north Alabama tested positive for (COVID-19) last week. So far, it doesn’t appear as if any other people were infected. But we closed that school down and stopped the meals from there. As this spreads, it was bound to happen, but it’s another indication of just how cautious we all need to be and how real these concerns are.

Q: Because the schools provide meals to any student who asks for one, some of the schools are running low on meals due to kids from other districts and homeschool kids coming in and getting lunches. Can anything be done to alleviate that situation? 

Mackey: There should be some help coming on that. We just received our waiver (Wednesday) to start serving meals for pickup at all of our schools, not just the schools in high-poverty areas. So, we’re going to start rotating the schools that serve, maybe do five in a district and rotate them around each week. That plan is still being worked on. 

Q: Teachers and principals are also very concerned about the process of handing out packets, and then having those packets returned to them. Have you heard this from other folks around the state, and what do you tell them? 

Mackey: I’ve gotten quite a few questions about handling packets. Again, a totally understandable concern. We have people doing really innovative things to get packets to students. Some districts are mailing packets if they can afford it — and I understand that is not cheap and I’m not recommending it. Other districts are running a bus route once per week. And we’ve given advice to them on that: Don’t go in the house, keep your safe distance, handle with gloves, use sanitizer as often as possible. And that’s the main advice we’ve given to our superintendents — figure out a way that keeps you and your people safe.  

Q: It seems as if what you’re saying on almost everything is that this is a unique situation and you’re not going to question people who get the job done the best they can and keep people as safe as possible. Accurate? 

Mackey: Absolutely. One of our biggest issues is always communication, and it’s understandable to a degree. I’m telling superintendents and they’re passing that information on to their principals and they’re implementing things with their teachers and staff. We’ve all played that old game, and we know that information just gets twisted sometimes when it goes through several channels. But know this: Safety is always first. If you’re doing something and you don’t feel it’s safe, back out of it, tell your principal you don’t think it’s safe. Hopefully, we can get that resolved at that level, but if need be, take those concerns higher. Don’t do things that you feel are unsafe for you. That’s not what any of us want. 

Q: Is that same level of flexibility there for the actual school work and how principals and teachers get that handled?

Mackey: It is. I had a principal today ask if it was OK if he told his parents that the kids didn’t have to do the work and they’d receive whatever grade they had going into this. But if they did the work, he was giving out bonus points up to 10 full points on the final average. I told him that was absolutely fine. It doesn’t punish the kids because of this situation and it provides them with incentives to continue doing the work and continue learning. And that’s the key here. 

Q: Has there been any thought to altering the way things are done next year — possibly taking a few weeks at the start of the year for review and to get the students back up to speed — and tinkering with the start and end times? 

Mackey: There have been many, many discussions, and they’re still ongoing. I’ve spoken to a number of legislators who have quite a few ideas. At this point, there are basically three main options we’ve discussed. One that I’ve had from legislators is to extend the school year from 180 to 190 days, which would give us 10 extra days, two full weeks at the start to have a review period. And we can absolutely do that, except that costs money. Someone has to pay for that, and a school day in Alabama costs just under $21 million per day. I don’t see us having an extra $210 million at the end of this coronavirus. A second option that legislators have asked about is giving assessments at the start of the year, and working off those. We actually purchased some really great assessment tools last year. And finally, the third option is to compress the school year and take the first three to four weeks and teach what would have been teaching the final month of this school year. We’re still working through those to see what we think is best.

The main thing I want everyone to understand is that this is an unprecedented event that’s taking place. You go into a school year and you expect to deal with things like tornadoes or ice storms that close schools. But not this. We’re all trying to work our way through it and do what’s right for the students. But we also want our teachers and staff and principals to be safe and protect themselves.

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Aerospace and Defense

Brooks releases road map for completing defense appropriations bill despite coronavirus crisis

Brandon Moseley

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Congressman Mo Brooks, R-Huntsville, on Wednesday released the House Armed Services Committee road map for completing the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“National defense is the #1 priority of the federal government. Despite the once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic, the House Armed Services Committee stands fully committed to passing the annual National Defense Authorization Act,” Brooks said. “The NDAA has passed Congress 59 consecutive years. I will work to ensure FY 2021 is no different. I thank Chairman Smith and Ranking Member Thornberry for their leadership and commitment to passing the FY21 NDAA in the face of COVID-19 challenges. While the process will be different, I am confident the final House Armed Services Committee product will be no less effective at securing America.”

Committee Chairman Adam Smith and Ranking Member Mac Thornberry’s attached the March 31, 2020 letter providing HASC’s plan to have the NDAA ready for committee debate by May 1st.

The letter was addressed to Members of the Committee on Armed Services, including Brooks.

“We want to update HASC members and staff on plans for our committee during the month of April, given the nationwide disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Smith and Thornberry wrote. “One challenge is deciding how to handle meetings of the committee and subcommittees since all such meetings for April will have to be held by conference call or video conference.”

“We must continue to exercise our oversight responsibilities and prepare to pass the Fiscal Year 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) out of committee and off the House floor,” the letter continued. “Our goal is to have the bill ready to go by May 1st, and we will schedule the date of the mark up once the House schedule for the next few months becomes clear.”

“First, we want you all to understand that because of House rules we cannot hold public hearings or classified briefings in the formal sense like in normal circumstances,” they explained. “We will have to do what can best be called, informal events.”

“Public hearings are required to be open to the public,” the leaders of the HASC committee wrote. “They also require a quorum, involving the physical presence of members. Neither of these things are possible to achieve in conference calls or video conferences. Obviously, we also cannot have classified briefings over the phone or on video. There is no way to set up secure connections amongst the number of people that would have to be involved.”

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“Informal events, therefore, would take the form of the full committee or the subcommittees doing video or phone conferences and linking up the necessary members, staff, and witnesses,” the letter continued. “We have one such informal event, set for April 1st with Department of Defense officials to discuss their response to the pandemic. This will be a conference call.”

“We believe that future informal events like this for the month of April make sense, and welcome any suggestions from members on appropriate topics and witnesses,” Smith and Thornberry continued. “But, we hope members will keep in mind some of the responsibilities that will need to be balanced in deciding when to pull together such informal events. We face three significant limitations during the month of April when it comes to setting up these informal events. First, HASC staff and members, as they always are in the month leading up to finalizing full and subcommittee marks, are spending an enormous amount of time doing the work necessary to get the mark done. In fact, we did not plan on having a significant number of public hearings or briefings in April even before the shutdown happened due to this staff workload. Second, these are not normal times. As we’re sure all of you have been doing, we and the HASC staff and everyone at the Department have been fully engaged on managing the pandemic crisis. It is a complex problem and the Department plays a crucial role. We are all working countless angles to address the crisis and that crucial work must be given priority. Finally, efforts to prevent the spread of the virus among Department personnel and others will without question limit the ability of the Department and other witnesses to be available at times in the coming month.”

Smith and Thornberry wrote that these informal events are needed for to get the bill done, while exercising the necessary oversight of the Department.

The informal events are meant to substitute for normal public hearings and briefings and are not the only or even the main thing that the committee is doing.

Social distancing and the prohibition on meeting with more than ten present has made it difficult for Congress to fulfill many of its duties.

Congressman Mo Brooks is serving in his fifth term representing Alabama’s Fifth Congressional District. Brooks recently won the Republican primary. Since he has no Democratic opponent this means that Brooks has been effectively re-elected to his sixth term in Congress.

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