Sen. Doug Jones today joined a bipartisan group of senators to introduce a solution to both permanently fund Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and to take a first step toward simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) process. Annual funding for MSIs expired on September 30, 2019.
The solution proposed today by Jones and his colleagues amends his FUTURE Act legislation to permanently renew $255 million in annual funding for HBCUs and MSIs, and will also simplify the FAFSA by reducing it by up to 22 questions. The amendment is paid for through reduced administrative costs achieved by allowing FAFSA applicants to give permission to the Internal Revenue Service to securely share tax return data directly with the U.S. Department of Education.
“The permanent renewal of federal funding is a huge win for our nation’s minority-serving institutions, which have faced growing uncertainty and anxiety since their $255 million in annual funding expired in September,” Jones said. “Instead of making tough decisions to cut programs and staff this holiday season, they can now count on permanent funding that will enable them to plan long-term and focus on their educational mission.”
Jones has long championed the renewal of funding for minority-serving schools and also for simplification of the burdensome FAFSA form, which has proven to be a significant barrier for students who need financial assistance in order to afford college.
Jones recently partnered with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the HELP Committee, to introduce legislation that would reduce the FAFSA form from 108 questions to between 18-30. Tuesday’s proposal is a necessary first step to lay the groundwork for the passage of the broader Jones-Alexander FAFSA reform bill.
After awkward meeting, Ivey demands a new reopening plan from ALSDE
Frustrated lawmakers, including Gov. Kay Ivey, asked Alabama State Department of Education officials and board members to settle on a comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools this fall.
Do you want the money or not? That seemed to be the big question — a question that, oddly, summed up the feelings and the frustrations of many — at Tuesday’s meeting and work session of the Alabama State School Board.
Frustrated lawmakers, including Gov. Kay Ivey, asked Alabama State Department of Education officials and board members to settle on a comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools this fall so they could accept the millions in federal funds that Ivey is trying to dole out.
“I’ve never encountered such a situation,” said state Sen. Jim McClendon, who was in Montgomery on Tuesday to present the Safely Opening Schools Program that he supports. “It’s $150 million. Do you want it or not?”
The SOS program, which is backed by the Alabama School Nurses Association and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, would hire 300 more nurses and provide testing units, testing materials, thermal imaging temperature scanners and stand-alone first aid rooms for every school.
Under the plan, students would be scanned prior to entering a school bus or entering the school by the scanners. Students with high temps would be quarantined and taken to the first aid room where a test would be administered. The testing units have the capability of returning results in 15 minutes and can be used to test for flu types A and B and coronavirus.
It has a price tag of $150 million — with almost all the funding coming out of the state’s $1.8 billion of CARES Act dollars.
Ivey, who is the president of the school board, invited McClendon, and Sens. Jabo Waggoner and Bobby Singleton to talk about the SOS plan. Singleton pleaded with the board to implement the plan and treat all schools and students equally.
Some board members seemed unmoved and raised curious questions. Cynthia McCarty said she heard from nurses who were concerned that the added duties of testing students would be too much. And McCarty said she was concerned that the extra nurses might not be enough to adequately test the students.
Mackey, for the first time, talked about his new plan, which includes $50,000 for every school to use for COVID-related expenses. The request for funds related to Mackey’s plan was first made late last week — a new development after Mackey originally resisted including funding in ALSDE’s “roadmap” plan released late last month.
His new plan, he said, “overlaps” with the SOS plan in terms of hiring more school nurses. But it stops short of mandating testing or requiring that local districts spend allocated money on specific items.
From the start on Tuesday, it seemed Ivey was unhappy with Mackey’s plan — which has also been heavily criticized by teachers and principals for its lack of specific actions and guidelines — and demanded that he provide reasons for why he was resisting the SOS plan.
Although, she did agree with Mackey’s resistance to testing — a surprising pivot for Ivey, who had been in favor of widespread testing in schools as late as Monday.
Following his presentation, Ivey told Mackey to have a new proposal to her by Friday, and indicated that she wanted him to work with McClendon, Singleton and Waggoner.
It’s unclear to all involved at this point if that new proposal will include widespread testing, although it’s hard to imagine why it wouldn’t. The ability to quickly test students provides a level of security that likely will be favored by teachers and parents.
And there’s another factor: Sports.
A testing device that can spit out results in 15 minutes could be used to screen athletes, coaches and officials prior to games, dramatically reducing safety concerns.
Alabama High School Athletic Association executive director Steve Savarese told lawmakers, and confirmed again later on Tuesday, that he supports the SOS program and any plan “that enhances the safety and well-being of our students.”
Where that leaves things is quite unclear. McClendon said he was baffled by the entire meeting and why Mackey and ALSDE is resisting the SOS program. But he said he was willing to work with Mackey and Ivey to move things forward and “do what’s in the best interest of the students and teachers.”
Concerns mount over lack of detailed plans for opening schools
“We can no longer act as if we are operating under normal conditions. We are faced with an abnormal situation that none of us has seen before,” Alabama Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton said.
An Alabama teachers union and Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, expressed concern Tuesday over what they say are a lack of plans for how to safely open Alabama schools while COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
Richard Franklin, president of the Birmingham Federation of Teachers, in a statement Tuesday said that he was extremely frustrated when Alabama’s superintendent of education, Dr. Eric Mackey, revealed the Alabama Roadmap to Reopening Schools plan.
“It was vague, left everything up to local school systems, and offered no extra resources to achieve the safe reopening that we all desire,” Franklin said. “Simply directing district officials to follow generic CDC (Centers for Disease Control) recommendations, without customizing requirements for the realities of our school settings, is insufficient for a safe statewide reopening.”
Franklin said public schools should have the same protocols and physical barriers that are in place in doctor offices, banks, grocery stores and other public locations to keep the customers and patients safe.
“After all, you do not go to any of those locations for 8 hours a day, five days a week, like our students and staff do in our public schools,” Franklin said.
The Birmingham Federation of Teachers recently conducted a survey of 1,750 public school employees statewide to learn their concerns about returning to school.
Among the findings were:
- 60 percent say that their district’s leadership team is not including educators in their conversations about district led virtual education and the upcoming 20-21 school year.
- 72 percent do not feel safe at all returning to their buildings
- 59 percent said that mandatory masks, social distancing, daily classroom sanitizing, frequent hand wash breaks, and smaller class sizes would not alleviate their fears enough to feel safe returning to work.
- When given a choice between face to face, blended (face to face and district led virtual) or complete virtual learning 54 percent said complete district led virtual learning, 9 percent said face to face.
- 66 percent of the respondents felt prepared, or somewhat prepared, for district led virtual learning.
- 96 percent are worried, or somewhat worried, about the impact of the Coronavirus on their own health.
Franklin said the teachers union looks forward to returning to school buildings “but local districts cannot, on their own, provide truly safe learning environments at this time.”
“That is why, currently, Birmingham AFT cannot support face to face teaching. We feel strongly that the numbers of new cases need to be trending downwards before we can even start to consider it,” Franklin said.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Democratic minority leader and Republican State Sens. John McClendon and Jabo Waggoner presented a plan to help safely reopen schools to the State Board of Education. Singleton in a statement later in the day said he and the other senators are very concerned over what might happen if schools reopen without adequate protections.
“At this point, unfortunately, it seems the State Board of Education does not want the responsibility of presenting a plan that shows leadership at the state level by continuing to push its ‘Roadmap to Reopening Schools,’ which does not mandate screening, testing, or isolation rooms for children,” Singleton said in the statement.
The senators developed their plan with help from the Alabama Nurses Association, teachers, superintendents and parents, according to the release.
“We can no longer act as if we are operating under normal conditions. We are faced with an abnormal situation that none of us has seen before. We cannot minimize the risk, at the expense of our children, employees, and their families,” Singleton said. “For many of our communities, this will be the first time that we will be allowing a crowd of more than 20 people to gather in one location. We have to take more precautions than the current ‘Roadmap’ suggests.”
“I’m concerned about all of our children, not just the children in my district. All of our children must be our priority,” Singleton said. “While we have $1.8 billion in federal funds, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make sure that we create and implement an equitable plan for the entire state. Therefore, there is no need to waste time worrying about funding; the funding is there.”
UA staff, faculty and students want on building names review committee
The University of Alabama Systems last month announced the removal of three Confederate memorial plaques and the formation of a group to study the names of all buildings on all UA System campuses.
But that group consists of a group of trustees only, who are tasked with the work and charged with making the final decision which doesn’t sit well with the United Campus Workers of Alabama Local 3965, which on Friday asked that UA faculty, staff and students should be included in the process.
“Though we applaud the UA System’s commitment to removing painful reminders of racism on campus, we believe it can do better and move faster to remedy a situation that is long overdue,” the union chapter said in a press release Friday. “We believe that the expertise and critical perspective of UA staff, students, and faculty must be included in any future decisions about renaming buildings.”
The local union chapter in the press release made a list of demands, including:
- A) faculty, staff, and student representation from all three UA System campuses. We demand that faculty, staff, and students from each campus be appointed as full members on the Committee.
- B) complete transparency of committee business. As faculty, staff, graduate employees, and students, we are the people suffering the everyday violence of entering buildings named after and plaques glorifying slave owners, scientific racists, Confederate leaders, and segregationists. All meetings and deliberations must be open to the public and announced through system-wide press releases at least 48 hours before the meeting. All email or other communication dealing with the committee or committee business must be voluntarily provided to any person or organization that requests them without the submission of a formal FOIA request.
- C) public hearings/listening sessions. We demand the full committee host public hearings or listening sessions so that the voices of community members, faculty, staff, graduate employees, and students suffering the everyday violence of walking by or entering buildings named after and plaques glorifying slave owners, scientific racists, Confederate leaders, and segregationists are heard and placed in the public record.-MORE-
- D) committee recommendations be executed by January 15, 2021. We demand the Board of Trustees require the committee report be completed, published, and made publicly available via online PDF no later than October 1, 2020, with board approval and official name changes in place by the first day of spring 2021 classes.
“Al Brophy’s foundation work, University, Court and Slave and other scholarly works have addressed these building namesakes as had James Sellers, several Crimson White journalists and other campus chroniclers. Faculty expertise will help make the committee’s work more efficient, if consulted,” the local union chapter states in the release.
UA Systems Board of Trustees President pro tem Ronald Gray appointed Trustees Judge John England, Jr., Barbara Humphrey, Vanessa Leonard, Harris Morrissette, Scott Phelps and Stan Starnes to the committee to review building names.
The announcement by UA Systems states that the final decision regarding recommendations by the committee “will be made by the full Board of Trustees at a public meeting, at a time to be announced.”
Analysis | There’s a better plan for reopening schools — if Alabama leaders will use it
Maybe there will be a plan for reopening schools after all.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is set to meet with Gov. Kay Ivey’s staff on Tuesday morning to discuss an ambitious and comprehensive plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools that would see every school in the state get a new, stand-alone nurses station, a testing machine, a full-time nurse and tools to test and check students’ temperatures.
The plan, known as the Safely Opening Schools Program, or SOS, was put together by the Alabama School Nurses Association and has the backing of several doctors and the Alabama Education Association. It was presented to some lawmakers earlier this month.
State Sens. Jabo Waggoner, Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton — two top Republicans and the highest-ranking Democrat — have since submitted requests for funding out of Alabama’s portion of CARES Act money to pay for the various components of the plan.
In a letter sent last week to Ivey, Singleton said he was “excited by the plan,” and believes it will “address, to some degree, the inequity (in his local school districts) and allow my constituents to feel that they are receiving the same support to reopen their schools as the more affluent districts of our state.”
The SOS program contains, essentially, three pieces: Building 500-square-feet nurses stations/isolation rooms at every school, purchasing testing machines and supplies and hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently lacking one. (Every school is technically required to have a school nurse, but the systems have circumvented that requirement by allowing a district nurse to cover multiple schools.)
In total, the plan is projected to cost roughly $150 million — almost all of it (around 90 percent) coming from the nearly $2 billion in CARES Act funds provided to Alabama by the federal government. (The remaining portion is projected to be covered by other grants.) Included in those costs are the nurses’ salaries for two years and the construction of more than 1,300 stand-alone nurses stations/isolation rooms — each costing a little less than $50,000.
In addition, each school would receive its own testing device, which nurses would be trained to use, and testing supplies. If used as the program projects, Alabama schools would turn in more than 500,000 tests in nine months, with blind results being sent to the Centers for Disease Control for data collection purposes. The testing machines can also be modified to test for other ailments, such as the different types of flu.
To put the total cost in perspective, the state has already spent at least $150 million — it received $115 million in grants from the CDC and received part of the more than $450 million the federal government sent to Alabama earlier this year — to test less than 10 percent of the state’s population over the last six months.
The SOS program could potentially test between 12-15 percent in far less time, and in a setting where early detection could prevent massive hotspots.
It’s a good program, and it would likely be worth the costs if only for the things mentioned.
But those things are only half of the benefits of this program. Maybe not even half.
Consider this: Included in the costs, every school in every city in Alabama, regardless of income level or parental involvement or poverty rates, will get a state-of-the-art nurses station and a fulltime school nurse.
To care for children who rarely see any sort of healthcare professional. To diagnose the early signs of disease or mental health issues. To spot the early warning signs of physical abuse or drug addiction.
In every school in Alabama. For two full school years.
“This is extremely important to my communities, as they lack school nurses and other critical health access,” Singleton wrote to Ivey. “The opportunity to have testing/screening on-site and nurses to address students’ health needs would be of tremendous assistance to the residents in my district.”
The same could be said for school districts, and for school children, all over the state.
The simple fact is there is no better plan offered for reopening Alabama’s schools. The others, including the “roadmap” presented by state superintendent Eric Mackey last week, mostly fail to account for known shortages in teachers, staff and nurses, and they offer no assurances for worried parents.
The SOS plan would take the burden of monitoring and quarantining sick students off the staff and faculty, would establish a clear protocol for dealing with the virus in our schools and would assist the state and federal government with accurate, real-time data. In addition, it could be a health lifeline for kids in rural and impoverished areas.
There is no better plan.