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.
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.
Wide variance in educational attainment between counties
The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.
A recent analysis by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama shows a wide variance in educational attainment between Alabamians residing in different counties.
According to the PARCA research, across the state, 10 percent of Alabamians over the age of 25 have earned a master’s or higher-level degree. Sixteen percent of the adult population has just a bachelor’s degree. Just 9 percent of adult Alabamians have an associate’s degree.
Nearly 22 percent of Alabamians have attended college but did not earn a degree, and 31 percent of Alabamians have earned their high school diploma or GED but did not receive any education beyond that.
Ten percent of adult Alabamians have finished the ninth grade or higher but have not gotten a diploma or GED. Just 4 percent of Alabamians 25 or older dropped out of school without at least finishing the ninth grade.
At least 35 percent of Alabamians have at least an associate’s degree. By comparison, 20 percent of the adult population in Massachusetts has a master’s degree or above and 24 percent have at least bachelor’s degree. Factoring in the 8 percent with associate’s degrees, 52 percent of Massachusetts adults have some sort of degree versus just 35 percent of Alabamians.
Alabama is 44th in educational attainment. West Virginia is 51st with 30 percent — 22 percent with a 4 year degree or above. Georgia, largely due to the success of the HOPE scholarships, has 40 percent of the population with a degree two year or above. Mississippi is at 33 percent. The national average is 39.9 percent.
The PARCA study also breaks it down into county-by-county differences. The top ten counties in Alabama for educational attainment are Madison, Shelby, Lee, Jefferson, Baldwin, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Autauga, Coffee and Elmore.
In Madison County, 8.1 percent of adults have an associate’s degree, 25.7 percent have earned at least a bachelor’s degree and 16 percent have a master’s or higher degree. More than 20 percent have some college but no degree, 20.8 have a high school diploma with no education above that, 5.9 percent finished the ninth grade and 2.9 percent dropped out in the ninth grade or earlier.
Nearly 50 percent of adults in Madison County older than age 25 have earned at least a two-year degree. Madison County is followed by Shelby County with 49.5 percent, Lee with 43.1 percent, Jefferson with 40.7 percent and Baldwin at 40.7 percent. These are the only five counties that are above the national average.
The bottom 10 counties for educational attainment are Wilcox, Bibb, Greene, Coosa, Cleburne, Bullock, Lawrence, Conecuh, Barbour and Washington. Wilcox is in 67th place for educational attainment and is also regularly one of the state leaders in its unemployment rate. Just 3.6 percent of adults in Wilcox County have a master’s degree or above, just 8.9 percent have completed their four-year degree and only 4.8 percent have even an associate’s degree. Just 17.3 percent of the adult population in Wilcox County has any sort of degree. That is 22.6 percentage points below the national average. Nearly 20 percent of adults in Wilcox County have attended college but did not finish, and 40.3 percent has a high school diploma or the equivalent but no college. More than 16.5 percent finished the ninth grade but did not get a diploma or GED. Nearly 10 percent did not finish the ninth grade.
Educational attainment is a concern because the fastest growing professions generally require more education than simply a high school diploma. Gov. Kay Ivey is trying to increase the percent of the workforce with at least a two-year associate’s degree or the technical training equivalent of a two-year associate’s degree.
Many high-paying technology jobs require a two year or even a four-year degree or above. It is difficult for the state to recruit those sorts of employers to counties where the workforce is not competent to fill the positions. Those sorts of employers often have to recruit employees from far outside the county or even the state.
Even manufacturing jobs are increasingly high tech as new factories use more robotics and automation than the factories of the past. Today’s high-paying jobs require more knowledge, skill and technical competence than the factory jobs of the past.
Higher Ed Commission elects Dothan businessman, Huntsville CEO as chair and vice chair
Charles Buntin was elected chairman and Miranda Bouldin Frost was elected vice chair of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, the commission announced on Friday.
Both have been members of the commission since 2015.
“As the coordinating board for public higher education in Alabama, I pledge to continue to work with our institutions throughout this pandemic to maintain the highest level of excellence for Alabama’s students,” Buntin said. “Earlier this year, our colleges and universities proved their resilience to a changing work environment by successfully transitioning to online learning.”
Buntin is a shareholder and realtor with Tom West Company in Dothan. He graduated from Leadership Alabama in 2013, is a current member of the Houston County-Dothan Rotary Club and is a former chairman of the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce.
Bouldin Frost is president and CEO of LogiCore Corp. in Huntsville, a company that provides Systems Engineering and Technical Assistance (SETA) services to U.S. Department of Defense agencies.
She is a member of the Greater Huntsville Rotary Club and a board member of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber of Commerce.
The commission faces steep challenges. State funding had been increasing to help institutions recover from the 2008 recession before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now institutional enrollments, budgets, auxiliary revenue and the health of employees and students are simultaneously at risk.
“The dedication to student success shown by Chairman Buntin and Vice Chair Bouldin Frost will guide their decision making as the higher education community navigates the current COVID crisis and its impact on Alabama’s universities and community colleges,” said Jim Purcell, executive director of the ACHE.
Alabaster City Schools gets federal grant to bolster security
U.S. Attorney Prim Escalona on Friday announced that the U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a $374,883 grant to Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education to bolster school security.
The grant is administered through the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) School Violence Prevention Program (SVPP), which has awarded almost $50 million in grants nationwide.
“I am pleased to announce that the COPS Office has awarded this grant to the Alabaster City Schools’ Board of Education this year,” Escalona said in a statement. “The safety of our students is a top priority and this grant will enhance school safety for these students. While there have been some unique challenges to this school year, our commitment to ensuring students are safe when attending school is the same.”
“With the new school year underway, the safety of our nation’s students remains paramount,” said COPS Office Director Phil Keith in a statement. “Although this school year may look different at the start, now is the ideal time to make preparations to enhance school safety for when all of our children are back in the classroom.”
Alabaster City Schools will be able to coordinate with law enforcement, train local law enforcement officers to prevent student violence, buy metal detectors, locks, lighting, and other deterrent measures, buy technology to notify local law enforcement during an emergency and other measures that provide a significant improvement in security, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.
Gov. Kay Ivey awards $72 million for remote learning tech in state colleges
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday awarded $72.34 million in federal coronavirus aid to the state’s higher education institutions for remote learning technology.
“Since July, the state of Alabama has awarded $432,753,000 to various levels of education to ensure that we have a safe and smart continuation of educational instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “COVID-19 has exposed deficiencies in our remote learning capabilities, and I am pleased to award our institutions of higher education the critical funds to enhance their instructional experience.”
“My office has received numerous CARES Act funding requests, and we are eager to help as many folks as possible. We are still reviewing them to ensure they meet eligibility under the letter of the law and will be forthcoming when finalized,” Ivey continued.
The Alabama Community College System will receive $27,345,000.
- From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
- To support the purchase of technology hardware and software to facilitate distance education and remote learning at the state’s community colleges
- $8 million for a laptop loaner program to assist low-income and other students within special populations with remote learning
- $10 million for a statewide virtual desktop environment that will allow students to utilize institution owned software anywhere and at any time
- $2,920,000 for video conferencing equipment in a classroom at each community college
- $6,425,000 for Zoom rooms, next generation firewalls and online course assistance
“Alabama’s community colleges have adapted quickly to a new learning environment at each of our 24 colleges, but we are constantly looking for new, innovative, and engaging ways to improve the student experience,” ACCS Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker said in a statement. “We are grateful for the additional resources this funding will provide to enhance learning for Alabamians for years to come.”
Alabama Public 4-Year Institutions will receive $25,000,000.
- From the $300,000,000 for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure related to remote instruction and learning
- To establish a reimbursement for universities for costs they are incurring related to remote instruction and learning
- Maximum allocations per institution have been established
- This is in addition to the $50 million the Governor allocated on July 6, 2020, to assist the universities with COVID-related expenses
“While the Higher Education Partnership is energized by the return to campus of our students this fall, the year has certainly been filled with COVID-19 related challenges for Alabama’s 14 public universities,” Alabama Higher Education Partnership executive director Gordon Stone said in a statement. “Throughout the year, Governor Kay Ivey and her team have worked with the institutions to make sure that Alabama’s next generation of leaders have been served with a continuous learning experience. Thank you, Governor Ivey, for once again recognizing the importance of our students, faculty and staff with the latest round of CARES Act support.”
Alabama Independent Colleges will receive $20,000,000.
- From the $118,346,250 for any lawful purpose as provided by the United States Congress, the United States Treasury Department, or any other federal entity of competent jurisdiction
- To establish a reimbursement program to assist Independent Colleges with expenditures that they are incurring related to the coronavirus
- Maximum allocations per institution have been established
“On behalf of the 25,000 students at Alabama’s Independent Colleges, we want to express our sincere gratitude to the governor,” Alabama Association of Independent Colleges and Universities president Paul Hankins said in a statement. “The additional support is greatly appreciated in this unprecedented time of financial need. These funds will go a long way to ensure our schools can remain open. Our colleges have done everything necessary to keep their students safe and on campus.”