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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.

 

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Education

Governor announces Secretary Jeana Ross to retire

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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.

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Her appointment is effective June 1, 2020.

 

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ASU’s Ross: Coronavirus has exposed longstanding inequities in college funding

Josh Moon

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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.  

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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.

 

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Education

Jones calls for more federal aid to students, schools and teachers amid COVID-19 crisis

Eddie Burkhalter

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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:

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 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,[1] 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. [2] 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. [3] 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.

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When public schools reopen, nurses could be the key to combating coronavirus

Josh Moon

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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. 

School nurses. 

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. 

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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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