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Education

Opinion | Finally, state superintendent reverses course, weighs in on Washington County charter debacle

Larry Lee

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For months, state superintendent Eric Mackey has said he has no jurisdiction over the state charter school commission. However, as we have pointed out numerous times, the charter law of 2015 clearly says, “The department shall oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act.” Furthermore, the guidelines written to govern the charter commission say, “The department will oversee the performance and effectiveness of all authorizers established under this act.”

However, in a strongly worded email to all members of the commission sent June 4, 2019, Mackey changed his tune and points out eight concerns he has with how the Washington County charter, Woodland Prep, approval process has been handled to this point.

These are:

  • Insufficient student enrollment
  • Insufficient number of school administrators, teachers, and staff
  • Facility and building readiness and compliance
  • Financial stability
  • Inaccurate or possibly false information contained in the original application
  • Insufficient statutory parental makeup of the charter school governing board
  • Transparency of the charter school governing board
  • Fierce public opposition

This memo takes on major significance given the fact that the charter commission has a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m on June 7 to consider a request by Woodland Prep. While the charter commission will not reveal the nature of the request, it is widely thought that Woodland Prep intends to ask for a one-year extension of its opening date.

Here is how Mackey addressed the upcoming meeting: “Should Woodland Preparatory request a further extension form the Charter School Commission, I hope you would weigh each of these serious concerns as part of the deliberative process.”

The commission is chaired by Mac Buttram of Huntsville. He is now in the hot seat. Does he ignore Mackey? Or does he delay voting on any request by Woodland Prep?

Buttram is one of the five members of the current board whose terms expired on May 31, 2019. Members may serve until either a replacement is named or they are reappointed. All five of these members may be reappointed.

Given the circumstances surrounding this situation, it would seem the commission should delay any decisions until a new board is in place. However, since so many of their actions have been questionable to this point, who the heck knows what they may do.

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But what we do know is that Mackey’s involvement is long overdue.


The Friday meeting will be by teleconference. For those wishing to listen in, call 1-888-822-7517 and then enter 814512#.

 

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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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Economy

UAH researchers and the world’s fastest supercomputer join the fight against the COVID-19 virus

Brandon Moseley

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More and more of Alabama’s brainpower is being redirected into fighting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Jerome Baudry is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Dr. Baudry and his lab are involved in a project that is using the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer to examine compounds to fight the virus that has already killed 34,807 people as of early Monday morning.

The compounds under review include drugs already available with safe profiles, as well as natural products. Compounds identified as possible future drugs will also be studied.

“We are at this point focusing on repurposing existing drugs,” Dr. Baudry said. “That is, to take existing drugs from the shelf and find which ones are active against either the virus itself or can help in treating or mitigating the effects of infection in the severe cases.”

Dr. Baudry said that about 30 researchers are involved in the project, and are working around the clock. The group is studying how the virus ticks, including how it expresses proteins, for clues on how to defeat it.

“We can use high performance computers and supercomputers to look at the entire genome of the virus, see everything the virus’ genome is making and build computational models of all these proteins, and repeat the repurposing process for each of these proteins,” Dr. Baudry said.

Scientists in the group are starting with some proteins on the surface of the virus in an attempt to prevent it from infecting human cells.

“We are also looking at some of the proteins that allow the virus to replicate itself when it is inside the human cell in order to block this process, a bit like for many anti-AIDS drugs,” Dr. Baudry explained. “But we will expand to pretty much everything in the virus’ genome that can be targeted by a drug.”

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Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s 200 petaflop supercomputer allows researchers unprecedented access to solving this and some of the world’s other most pressing challenges.

Researchers have a databases about virtually all existing drugs, natural products or molecules that may not have been tested yet as drugs. There are thousands of them. Then they build virtual models of these compounds using the laws of physics and chemistry to calculate their composition and arrive at a very detailed computational description.

“Then we look at the virus’ genome,” Dr. Baudry said. “We have to build models for all the virus’ proteins, again describing all the atoms, their properties, how they move together, etc.”

The supercomputers then compute how the atoms of a possible drug will interact with the atoms of the virus’ proteins.

“It’s like doing a test tube experiment to see if a possible drug will bind to the protein, except that we perform this in a virtual test tube using our computers,” Baudry explained.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones explained to the Alabama Political Reporter, “Researchers across Alabama are working around the clock to assess potential treatment for the novel COVID-19. The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) and Dr. Baudry are using technology, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Summit supercomputer, to examine compounds from safe, existing drugs as well as natural products. Repurposing existing drugs is a strategy that can expedite the process if a potential cure or treatment is found. The drugs are already on the shelf, why not test them to see if they can be useful? The high performance computers and supercomputers allow researchers to examine the entire genome of the virus and how it reacts. UAH’s latest announcement is another example of the brainpower we have in Alabama and our state’s commitment to combating this pandemic.”

UAB, Southern Research Institute, Hudson Alpha, and Alabama biotech firms are also working on finding drugs that will treat COVID-19 as well as hoping to develop a vaccine to prevent it.

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Education

Working to educate Alabama’s kids when they aren’t in a classroom

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and the Alabama Board of Education have said Alabama’s children will not be returning to their classrooms on April 6, but they will be returning to their studies.

“Beginning at the start of school on April 6, 2020, all public K-12 schools shall implement a plan to complete the 2019-2020 school year using alternate methods of instruction as established by the State Superintendent of Education,” Ivey announced.

The education community is trying to figure out exactly what this means.

“Learning must continue,” former State Representative Perry O. Hooper Jr. said. “We have an obligation to our students to provide them with the means to continue their education during this pandemic.”

“Beginning April 7th School Districts, under guidance from the State Department, must develop study plans for students and have the means to assess what learning occurred,” Hooper added. “Districts must offer online or paper-based instruction based on available resources.”

There was an assumption by many that this would mean a shift to E-learning. The Alabama Political Reporter, however, has been told that there are problems with implementing that strategy.

Veteran Jefferson County educator Lara McClendon told APR, “My kids don’t have devices.”

Without their own computers or smartphones, kids can’t access E-learning even if the school were to suddenly start live-streaming classes to them in their homes.

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Brian Rhodes is president and owner of BBB Educational Enterprises Inc., a Birmingham based education company.

Rhodes said that if 650,000 Alabama school children all go online at the same time with live streams from their schools there isn’t enough bandwidth to handle it, especially with their parents all working from home clogging the internet infrastructure.

“The pipeline can’t handle it,” Rhodes warned.

APR asked what about kids without internet access or the child whose internet is accessed in his or her mom’s car from the parking lot of a McDonalds or library.

Rhodes predicted that they would struggle to keep up.

The crisis has exposed the state’s lack of broadband.

“Shortly after the COVID-19 outbreak, Alabama cable providers rolled out no-cost and low-cost options for high-speed internet access to the state’s students and low-income populations hit hardest by closures and other impacts of the virus,” ACBA Executive Director Michelle Roth said. “These efforts include offering free broadband and Wi-Fi access for up to 60 days to households with K-12 and/or college students, extending low-cost broadband programs, opening Wi-Fi hotspots for public use, eliminating disconnections of internet service for customers having difficulty paying, and increasing internet speeds universally.”

APR asked Rhodes if you ‘Can you hold back a child who was passing all of his classes when school ended because he does not have internet access.

“I don’t think you can,” Rhodes said. “Not if he was doing well before.”

Rhodes did believe that the schools could continue to give grades during these eight weeks of at-home instruction.

Another option that was discussed was sending home a stack of worksheets for the children to work on at home with some printed out lecture materials.

Rhodes said that is what he thought many systems would do, but predicted that worksheets alone without that interaction with a teacher would be insufficient for kids reading skills to improve during this period of social distancing.

McClendon said that school systems often ration the copies that a teacher can make and charges teachers who print off more than the rationed amount.

APR asked if the teachers have pupil supply money left to pay for materials during this crisis.

Some do, most have already spent it on materials for their classroom,” McClendon said.

Rhodes proposed actually sending books to the kids.

“The key thing is getting something in the kids’ hands,” Rhodes said. “We have got to get books out to kids.”

APR asked how much this would cost.

“Three or four $7 or $8 books and would only cost about $40,” Rhodes said. “I am not talking about a lot of money, with a bag to put them in maybe $50 to 55 a kid.”

APR asked, If you send books home, is there a danger you won’t get them back?

Rhodes said that was no problem. Let them keep them as the start of their own home library.

Rhodes’ plan would be to do this for every kindergarten through second graders and K-3 if there was enough money and that each school system should pick the books that best match the skill levels of their students as well as their own cultural issues. The teachers would then give assignments from the books as well as lead online small group discussions on the materials. Rhodes suggested that the legislature pay for it with a supplemental appropriation.

APR asked McClendon if this proposal would help.

“In some systems, it probably would,” McClendon said.

“It’s my belief that teachers need to be in contact with families on a regular basis,” Hooper said. “Teachers must help students set goals. Furthermore, School Districts should reach out to all available resources both public and private.”

Rhodes said that it was important to get buy-in from parents. Give them instructions and goals, but don’t make it too complicated.

McClendon said that her students understand the technology.

“We do google classroom all the time,” McClendon said. “It’s the parents who don’t understand the technology.”

APR asked: what about the kid in the third grade who reads at a first-grade level?

“Any of our kids who are struggling readers will” fall further behind no matter what we do Rhodes said. “They need one on one with a teacher. You are never going to be able to get that with this. The variations are too great. “The technology is not sufficient.”

McClendon predicted, “Everybody is going to be behind.”

APR asked if the school systems would encourage teachers to work from home as much as possible or would they require the teachers to report to their school building despite the virus risk.

“I don’t know what they are going to do,” McClendon said.

APR asked McClendon if the teachers would benefit from a special influx of pupil supply money to pay for the costs of materials for home learning.

“Yes they would,” she answered.

“Congress must step up to the plate and offer financial assistance to k- 12 education much like the congress is doing for large and small businesses in this time of crisis,” Hooper said.

APR reached out to U.S. Senator Doug Jones (R-Alabama) to see if federal resources were available to address the unexpected costs of suddenly transforming the way the state educates it’s children by this time next week.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jones said the Congress has provided for relief for school systems in the stimulus, “The Phase III deal provides money for an Elementary and Secondary Education School Emergency Relief Fund. According to CRS, Alabama should be getting roughly $216.9 million. That will go to the state then be distributed to school districts.”

The coronavirus stimulus passed the Senate on Wednesday, was passed by the Senate on Friday and then signed by President Donald J. Trump.

“We also must learn from this experience,” Hooper said. “Every state and every school district should have contingency plans developed for every possible disruption to classroom learning. We did not see this coming. Its shame on us if we are not prepared for the next national emergency. Vice President Pence has called the teachers who continue to interact with students remotely American heroes.”

The Alabama public schools sere 744,845 students in 1,530 public schools.

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