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Education

House passes Tier III retirement for education employees

Brandon Moseley

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Tuesday, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a bill to expand retirement benefits for education employees.

House Bill 76 is sponsored by State Representative Alan Baker (R-Brewton).

Baker said that Tier III benefits for educators is necessary to encourage teachers to stay in education and to recruit new teachers to the state.

Rep. Thomas Jackson (D-Thomasville) said that this bill addresses “the brain drain on our educators.”

In the wake of the Great Recession, legislators stripped education employees of the ability to retire with full benefits before age 62. This was a cost savings measure as every retired education employee is an enormous drain on the state’s education budget, particularly since the cost of healthcare benefits skyrocketed after the passage of the affordable care act in 2010. At age 65 education retirees are less costly to the state because Medicare picks up roughly 80 percent of their healthcare cost. A retired teacher younger than that, under tier III, would cost the state as much for healthcare as a current employee.

Baker said that his bill, titled the Education Workforce Investment Act, would cost less than a one percent pay raise would.

HB76 would change the retirement structure for public education employees hired after 2013. These changes include allowing employees to retire with benefits after 30 years of service even if they haven’t reached age 62 and would basically undue the cost savings package passed eight years ago.

Baker said that this was necessary to address the growing teacher shortage in the state.

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“We have a shortage among educators, particularly we recognize the teachers in the classroom,” Baker said.

Rep. Harry Shiver (R-Stockton) thanked Baker for bringing that bill, “We need to help the education community.”

Representatives voted unanimously 105 to 0 for the bill.

The bill now moves to the Alabama Senate, where it is controversial.

Thursday, Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) said that the House bill goes too far. The Senate favors Tier III benefits for teachers, but opposes them for other education employees. The Baker bill includes: bus drivers, education aids, school lunchroom workers, security guards, nurses, clerical people, janitors, etc.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) defended the House bill.

“They are all part of the education profession because of that we are trying to recruit people to fill all of the pool for the whole of education,” McCutcheon told reporters on Thursday.

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Education

Alabama institutions of higher learning respond to COVID-19 pandemic

Brandon Moseley

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Thursday, the Alabama Commission on Higher Education reported that throughout Alabama higher education is responding to the call for help during the Coronavirus pandemic. The support has been widespread from food supplies to equipment needs.

“I am heartened by the generosity of college and university staff and students in supporting their community, hospitals and healthcare professionals,” said Alabama Commission on Higher Education Executive Director Jim Purcell.

The institutional efforts have expanded beyond the boundaries of converting to online coursework for students into the communities they serve.

Alabama’s community colleges, along with the University of Montevallo and the University of Alabama, have supplied healthcare workers with 3D printed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

The University of Montevallo is providing free WIFI to the downtown area of Montevallo. This particularly helps area public school children who are having to now take all of their classes online as Alabama K-12 schools are closed through the end of the year.

The Greek community on the campus of the University of Alabama have donated 5,000 pounds of food to the West Alabama Food Bank.

Outside-the-box-thinking has led chemistry and geoscience professors at Jacksonville State University to help Yellowhammer Brewery and Distillery transition to manufacturing hand sanitizer at the Huntsville-based beer distillery. What was supposed to be spring break for the northeast campus turned into a volunteer effort to analyze the company’s first batch of sanitizer to ensure it met the recommendations of the World Health Organization.

East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC) has received medical supplies from Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Auburn has donated three ventilators and multiple disposable supplies to EAMC.

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Although athletic games and training are all on hold, the equipment staff members at Auburn have turned their attention to sewing face masks to be used to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

ACHE’s Purcell called the varied efforts of assistance inspiring. “We are benefitting from technology being used in ways never before seen,” he said.

Troy University has partnered with Troy Elementary School for years to develop a community garden. Social distancing has transitioned the garden into the home of a university coordinator who is continuing to offer lessons on nutrition and gardening via Zoom. Troy’s Rosa Parks Museum has gone virtual through tours and resource sharing.

The University of South Alabama is offering the South CARES Student Emergency Fund to direct critical resources to students who have urgent expenses. USA is collaborating with the city of Mobile to provide appointment-only drive through testing for COVID-19. Virtual visits, provided by USA Health, will give patients access to healthcare providers.

Alabama A&M University is maintaining contact with students via telehealth services for those experiencing depression and anxiety related to the Coronavirus disruption of their academic lives.

James E. Purcell is the Executive Director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

“ACHE will continue to work with our institutions in innovative ways to assist students and the state’s needs during this pandemic,” Purcell said. “This will be recorded as an impossible semester that has produced many heroes and new life lessons.”

A team of Auburn engineering faculty, students, and alumni developed an accessory that added to a common household CPAP machine turns the CPAP into an emergency life-saving ventilator. The prototype was developed March 20 to 22 by Tom Burch and Michael Zabala, faculty in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Hayden Burch, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. Additional engineering faculty and alumni joined the team to refine the mechanical design, control system, user interface, and alarm to have an improved design finished on Monday.

This is on top of the efforts of researchers, like UAH’s Jerome Baudry and UAB’s Frances Lund, who has been enlisted in the effort to find cures, treatments, and vaccines to fight COVID-19.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “We all have our roles and can offer support amidst the COVID-19 crisis, and the higher education community has risen to the occasion. The brainpower and manpower supplied by Alabama’s colleges and universities demonstrate a willingness to serve and is greatly appreciated during this time of need.”

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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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