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.
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.
Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced that Jeana Ross is retiring as secretary of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education. She has served in this position since 2012.
“I am extremely grateful for Secretary Ross’ tireless efforts and dedication to our children,” Ivey said. “On behalf of our state, she deserves a ‘job well done’ for her work in expanding voluntary, high-quality pre-K to all 67 counties. She is leaving the Department of Early Childhood Education with a great legacy, and we thank her for her service.”
Under Ross’s leadership, the department has received national recognition for their work. For the 14th consecutive year, Alabama leads the nation in providing the highest quality early learning experiences for four-year-old children.
Ross and her team have grown the nation’s highest quality pre-K program by more than 470 percent: from 217 classrooms in 2012 to 1,250 classrooms located in all 67 counties of the state in 2020.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to serve as Alabama’s secretary of Early Childhood Education for the past eight years,” Ross said. “I appreciate Governor Ivey’s leadership and commitment to our efforts in ensuring as many children possible have access to a strong education foundation. For 14 years, Alabama’s program has ranked No.1 and serves as a model of excellence in early learning, and I am grateful to be a part of this achievement.”
In retirement, Ross will remain in Alabama and plans to consult for the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation as part of their efforts to promote the importance of early learning throughout the United States.
Ivey is appointing Dr. Trellis Smith to serve as acting secretary until Ross’ replacement is named. Smith has been employed with ADECE for 19 years, currently serving as the Alabama Head Start collaboration director.
She holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Family and Child Development from Auburn University and a doctorate in Child and Family Development from the University of Georgia.
Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.
ASU’s Ross: Coronavirus has exposed longstanding inequities in college funding
Traditionally underfunded and serving an economically challenged student population, America’s historically black colleges are particularly vulnerable to the challenges of COVID-19 and many are facing bankruptcy, Alabama State University President Quinton Ross told CNN on Monday evening.
Ross was interviewed by CNN as part of the network’s coverage of how coronavirus shutdowns of college campuses are disproportionately affecting HBCUs.
“It exposed a number of inequities that were already present prior to this virus,” Ross said during the piece.
HBCUs typically lack large endowments and hefty budgets, making it harder for them to adjust to shifting courses online. Also, serving a more economically disadvantaged student body often means that the students don’t have the necessary Internet or computers at their homes to participate in online courses.
Ross said that some HBCUs needed more substantial technological infrastructure to transition to online and other alternative learning methods to ensure the continuity of education for entire student bodies; many of whom were returning to homes without connectivity or computers.
“We had to rush to try to provide and undergird ourselves with technology, and many of the infrastructures were not prepared,” he said.
Ross has said that federal emphasis on access to technology is not just an HBCU issue, “it is a nationwide issue that must be addressed.”
The underlying inequities Ross mentioned stem, in part, from states, such as Alabama, implementing racist funding practices, leaving HBCUs funded at significantly lower levels than white colleges. That made it impossible for HBCUs to keep pace on matters such as technology infrastructure.
Former ASU vice president John Knight, a longtime former state representative, in the 1980s filed a lawsuit on behalf of ASU and other black colleges in the state, challenging the funding policies of the state. The state lost and was forced to pay millions of dollars to at least partially rectify decades of improper funding that denied thousands of black Alabamians a college education.
Jones calls for more federal aid to students, schools and teachers amid COVID-19 crisis
U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Thursday asked Senate leadership to include money for public schools and students in the next round of COVID-19 relief funding.
Jones and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, led a group of other senators in drafting a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer that urges aid to be directed to education during the coronavirus crisis.
“We continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools,” the letter reads. “This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.”
“It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out,” the letter continues.
Approximately $13.2 billion through the CARES act Education Stabilization Fund has already been disbursed to governors for distribution to K-12 schools.
Education organizations recommend $175 billion more for the Education Stabilization Fund to be divided between local education agencies and institutions of higher education, according to a press release from Jones’s office.
Full letter below:
Dear Majority Leader McConnell and Minority Leader Schumer:
We write to urge you to include, in any upcoming legislation designed to provide additional relief to Americans during the COVID 19 pandemic, significant additional support for our nation’s schools. While the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act included an Education Stabilization Fund to provide immediate support, we continue to see the challenges our states and school districts face on a daily basis and the impact this pandemic will have on education budgets over the next 18 months. Less than 1% of the CARES Act funding was specifically dedicated to supporting public schools. This is insufficient to stabilize education through this crisis. We are particularly concerned about how the educator workforce and other school personnel will be impacted by COVID-19.
School districts rely almost entirely on state and local revenue. Low-wealth districts rely the most heavily on state aid and will be most impacted by the economic implications of this crisis. It is our duty to ensure that children receive the education they are rightfully entitled to. Students cannot learn if their schools are forced to downsize operations, eliminate teaching positions in critical subjects, or lay off other critical support staff such as social workers and counselors, due to depleted budgets.
The U.S. economy is expected to contract by six percent in 2021, changing the lives of all Americans in dramatic ways that are not yet fully known. One thing is certain however, students will still need to continue learning and progressing through school. Our nation’s teachers are crucial to ensuring that learning can continue, yet current projections expect the reductions in education spending due to the pandemic to be two and a half times worse than the lowest point of the last recession.  It is not just teachers who will be impacted by these shrinking education budgets. Countless cafeteria workers, school bus drivers, counselors, and other support staff are expected to take a dramatic hit during this pandemic. Our students cannot meet their full potential without the many professionals that make their schools work for them day in and day out.
As local communities and school districts see their revenue shrink, they will be forced to look at staffing cuts, as salaries and benefits comprise the majority of school budgets. As a result of this crisis, Learning Policy Institute estimates that if states experience a 20% decline in revenue, without federal intervention, about 460,000 educator positions will be eliminated.  Congress must invest now to stabilize the public education sector and fill the current gaps in our education workforce and prevent an even more dire shortage in the years to come.
In addition to focusing on our educator workforce in any upcoming economic relief package, we urge you to continue to help schools to address learning loss facing our most disadvantaged students and ensure that all students with disabilities can continue to access the Free Appropriate Public Education to which they are entitled. We therefore urge you to provide substantial, flexible additional investments through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Finally, if the next funding package includes infrastructure provisions, we urge you to explicitly include K-12 schools as eligible recipients for funds.
Thank you for your consideration of this important matter.
When public schools reopen, nurses could be the key to combating coronavirus
When Alabama’s public schools open their doors to students in the fall, there will be one group of people on the front lines, entrusted with the monumental task of identifying and isolating potentially sick students and tracing their contact with other students.
The already overworked and underappreciated (and usually under-compensated) nurses that care for thousands of sick and injured school kids every day in this state will become perhaps the most vital cog in a plan to keep Alabama’s public schools from becoming hotspots for COVID-19.
But there is a hitch: There aren’t enough of them.
“We know that the school nurses will take the lead this fall in whatever plans are developed to respond to this (COVID-19) virus,” said Diana Collins, the president of the Alabama Association of School Nurses. “We feel like that having a nurse in a school all day, every day during this pandemic would solve a number of issues that will arise and provide the best care for our students.
“A major concern for us is the lack of nurses in so many schools. It’s something we’ve spoken with legislators about, and I think those talks have been productive. But of course, money is an issue with something like this.”
Determining just how many school nurses that the Alabama State Department of Education is employing at a given time — and the number of nurses that should be serving each district — is a tricky task. Several factors go into determining the number of nurses needed, including the school population and the known health issues of its students.
By law, each district must employ at least one head nurse, but that still leaves a number of public schools in the state without a nurse stationed on campus. According to figures provided to APR, about 300 schools in the state don’t have a nurse on campus. Many of those are rural schools, which would require extensive travel for the district’s head nurse.
That’s an issue that many principals and district superintendents have brought up numerous times over the last several years. The coronavirus outbreak has only heightened their concerns. It might also be the best chance to make a change.
“Could this be the time that people realize we need a school nurse in every school every day?” asked Jennifer Ventress, the head nurse for ALSDE. “I believe that’s a possibility. But again, it’s about paying for it and where does the money come from. There’s no question that the nurses serve an important function, particularly in the poorer districts. And they will play an important role with the (coronavirus) this fall.”
State officials are examining the possibility of using at least some of Alabama’s allocation of CARES Act money to increase its total number of school nurses for at least the upcoming school year.
Ventress said ALSDE officials are still formulating a plan for the fall — one that includes using nurses and their extensive training to help identify and isolate students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms — but that nothing, including the available dollars, has been finalized.
Under the plan currently in the works at ALSDE, school nurses, in addition to identifying and isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms, would also assist superintendents and principals in identifying areas in which students suspected of having the virus can be sequestered safely. They also will help ensure that students get medical treatment.
The finer details of that plan have not yet been worked out, Ventress said, because of a number of fluctuating variables. State superintendent Eric Mackey on Wednesday asked district superintendents to consider pushing the start of the 2020-21 school year back to at least late August, in part, so school leaders would have more time to gather data.
Ventress said many of Alabama’s school nurses will spend that time working with the Alabama Department of Public Health, helping it to track down and perform contact tracing on patients who test positive for COVID-19. That program will provide nurses with valuable experience for the fall school year, and also provide them with a few extra dollars.
“It is a completely voluntary partnership that we have formed with ADPH to assist them in some much needed tracing,” Ventress said. “We see it as a win-win with no downside. It’s voluntary for our nurses and gives them great training and a little extra money. At the same time, it helps out ADPH, and they could really use the extra assistance right now.”
The primary benefit to ALSDE, obviously, is that by the start of the school year, it should have a small army of school nurses trained to perform proper contact tracing and familiar with the workings of ADPH.
But not in every school.
“Right now, school nurses are needed more than ever,” Collins said. “We are a vital bridge between the schools and the health care providers. We have been caring for these kids for a long time, and we know that environment better than anyone. I would just hope that everyone remembers that we’re all in this together and that everything we do should be in the best interest of the health and wellbeing of the children.”
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