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Opinion | What this pandemic reveals about public education

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I love public education employees.  They are the most resourceful group of people you could ever meet.  They have to be.  These employees work in an atmosphere of politics and nepotism. They suffer through Legislators and administrators that create policies for them even though many of these policy makers have never worked in a school a day in their lives.  Because of this, school-based employees have had to learn to MacGyver their way through each and every day.

These employees do this because they know what’s at stake; The future of the 51 million students who attend our public schools as well as the future of our country that one day those students will run.

Recently being made aware of a new piece of federal legislation that could impact the lives of public education employees, I did a quick survey of all my friends that work in that sector. I foundthat a large portion of them are not aware of this new law.

You see, they are working hard trying to ensure that students are fed, that packets of school work are assembled, and that the digital divide, which this pandemic has now thrust into the spotlight, is addressed as best it can be.

They are busy trying to MacGyver their way through a pandemic that education policy does not address, yet they are still expected to somehow provide continuity in teaching and learning.

But at what cost? How much will our students actually benefitfrom these weeks of taped and spliced together hybrids of online and paper and pencil learning, and is that greater than the sacrifices our employees’ may ultimately make?

How much responsibility should school districts share in making sure the most vulnerable in our communities are fed?  Under a pandemic and amidst shelter in place orders, at what point do schools step back and local governments and other agencies step up?

I think these are just a few of the questions that are being asked by those in position to educate public school employees about their rights under the new FFCRA, and they just don’t have the answers. So they are saying very little, fearful that what little societal infrastructure public education can provide during this pandemic will fall apart.

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Lacking any universal definition of what public education is today and what its responsibilities truly are, public education employees are expected to be and do it all. With a smile on their faces.  Because it’s “for the children”.  The rest will be sorted out later.

Well, this pandemic has thrust this topic to the forefront. It’s time to sort it out.  It’s time to recognize public school employees as employees, not martyrs or miracle workers, or folks with big hearts that are willing to sacrifice it all.

They are employees, and in the United States employees have rights.

In that vain, public education employees, you need to know what your rights are so that you can decide what is right for you and your families.

If you are being asked to work in a building and you feel that you cannot or should not be doing it, if you cannot work (telework included) due to childcare issues, if you or a family member are sick with COVID-19, or you take care of anyone that is in a high risk category, there are now some federal job protections for you.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) contains several provisions that will provide meaningful assistance to school district employees. It took effect April 2, 2020, and will end on December 31, 2020.

The FFCRA provides two types of leave for employees impacted by COVID-19: Emergency Paid Sick Leave and Emergency Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) Leave.

First, let’s talk about the Emergency Paid Sick Leave.

It provides 10 days of paid sick leave to an employee who is unable to work or telework if:

1. The employee is subject to a federal, state or local quarantine or isolation order related to COVID -19;
2. The employee has been advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine due to concerns related to COVID-19;
3. The employee is experiencing symptoms and is seeking a medical diagnosis;
4. The employee is caring for someone described above;
5. The employee is caring for the employee’s child if the school or place of care for the child is closed, or if the childcare provider of the child is unavailable due to COVID-19 precautions.
6. The employee is experiencing any other substantially similar condition specified by the Secretary of Health and Human Services in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of Labor.

How much it pays:

If an employee is unable to work due to the conditions described in 1-3, the employee is entitled to their regular rate or the applicable minimum wage, whichever is higher, up to $511 per day over a 2-week period.

If an employee is unable to work due to the conditions described in 4 or 6, such as a lack of child care, the employee is entitled to pay at 2/3 their regular rate or 2/3 the applicable minimum wage, whichever is higher, up to $200 per day for 2 weeks.

If an employee is unable to work due to the conditions described in 5 the employee is entitled to pay at 2/3 their regular rate or 2/3 the applicable minimum wage, whichever is higher, up to $200 per day for 12 weeks.

If the employee is part-time, the employee is entitled to be paid for a number of hours equal to the number of hours that the employee works, on average, in a 2 week period.

All full-time and part-time school system employees are covered by the Emergency Paid Sick Leave and are eligible for the two weeks of emergency paid sick leave if they meet one of the six criteria listed above.

Now let’s discuss the Emergency FMLA Leave.

It allows an employee to take up to 12 weeks of leave if the employee is unable to work or telework due to a need for leave to take care of the employee’s child if the school or place of child care has been closed, or if the child care provider is unavailable due to a public health emergency.

How much it pays:

The first 10 days (2 weeks) of leave may be unpaid, except that an employee may choose to use the new emergency sick leave (as identified above) or any other accrued paid leave.

The remaining 10 weeks of FMLA leave provided by this law will be paid at 2/3rds of the employee’s regular rate, up to a maximum payment of $200 per day ($10,000 total).

Emergency FMLA applies to any full-time or part-time employee who have been on the payroll for 30 calendar days.

Another important fact for employees who lack childcare or are caring for an ill child:

Employees in those circumstances can combine both emergency leaves. Here how combining the two may work:

• Weeks 1-2 – Emergency Paid Sick Leave at 67% regular salary up to $200/day

• Weeks 3-12 – Emergency FMLA Leave at 67% regular salary up to $200/day

In the case of lack of childcare, an employee may choose to use accrued leave and emergency paid sick leave together in order to make 100% of his or her salary for that period of time up to two weeks.

Remember it is illegal for an employer to discharge, discipline, or otherwise discriminate against an employee taking leave.

If you feel you need to use one or both emergency leave options, please notify your organization for further guidance.  If you are not a member of an organization contact your supervisor to obtain the proper paperwork.

I am not advocating for or against utilizing the FFCRA, but I will say this:  IF these MacGyvered forms of distance learning do get shut down due to the fact that public school employeesexercised their legal rights, parents don’t worry, we can make up any time in the classroom that may have been lost.

How?

The easiest and cheapest way to do this would be to end high stakes testing.

Think about it. Most school systems spend weeks after spring break doing test prep and high stakes testing.  If schools are able to go back into session in August (which I PRAY is the case!) then they could use the first four weeks to make up what was lost and omit the high stakes testing at the end of the year. This is a slightly altered version of a suggestion made by Dr. Eric Mackey, Alabama’s State Superintendent.

Let’s not aid the destruction of public education by buying into the false narratives that these last few weeks of school arecritical and must continue at all costs, that the sky is falling if we don’t get our children behind a digital device, and that our schools are solely responsible for the care and feeding of our students.  Instead let’s recognize how out of focus our vision has become concerning our expectations of public education and public education employees, and let’s begin a discussion asking parents, communities, and community leaders what their responsibilities are when it comes to our children and youth.

Public Ed can come back from this better and stronger, but only if we take action to correct the inequities and misguided policies that this pandemic has thrust onto the National stage.

Finally, to our public school employees, please take this time to care for yourself and your families. We will need you more than ever once our school doors reopen.

 

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Opinion | With COVID-19 policy, don’t blame your umbrella. The rain got you wet

Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, and Ellen Eaton, M.D.

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Monica S. Aswani, DrPH, is an assistant professor of health services administration and Ellen Eaton, M.D., is an assistant professor of infectious diseases.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this perspective are those of the authors.


As states re-open for business, many governors cite the devastating impact of physical distancing policies on local and state economies. Concerns have reached a fever pitch. Many Americans believe the risk of restrictive policies limiting business and social events outweighs the benefit of containing the spread of COVID-19.

But the proposed solution to bolster the economy — re-opening businesses, restaurants and even athletic events — does not address the source of the problem.

A closer look at the origins of our economic distress reminds us that it is COVID-19, not shelter-in-place policy, that is the real culprit. And until we have real solutions to this devastating illness, the threat of economic fallout persists.

Hastily transitioning from stay-at-home to safer-at-home policy is akin to throwing away your umbrella because you are not getting wet.

The novelty of this virus means there are limited strategies to prevent or treat it. Since humans have no immunity to it, and to date, there are no approved vaccines and only limited treatments, we need to leverage the one major tool at our disposal currently: public health practices including physical distancing, hand-washing and masks.

As early hot spots like New York experienced alarming death tolls, states in the Midwest and South benefited from their lessons learned.

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Indeed, following aggressive mandates around physical distancing, the number of cases and hospitalizations observed across the U.S. were initially lower than projected. Similarly, the use of masks has been associated with a reduction in cases globally.

As the death toll surpasses 100,000, the U.S. is reeling from COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. In addition, the U.S. has turned its attention to “hot spots” in Southern states that have an older, sicker and poorer population. And to date, minority and impoverished patients bear the brunt of COVID-19 in the South.

Following the first COVID-19 case in Alabama on March 13, the state has experienced 14,730 confirmed cases, 1,629 hospitalizations and 562 deaths, according to health department data as of Monday afternoon.

Rural areas face an impossible task as many lack a robust health care infrastructure to contend with outbreaks, especially in the wake of recent hospital closures. And severe weather events like tornadoes threaten to divert scarce resources to competing emergencies.

Because public health interventions are the only effective way to limit the spread of COVID-19, all but essential businesses were shuttered in many states. State governments are struggling to process the revenue shortfalls and record surge in unemployment claims that have resulted.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, allocated $150 billion to state governments, with a minimum of $1.25 billion per state. Because the funds were distributed according to population size, 21 states with smaller populations received the minimum of $1.25 billion.

Although states with larger populations, such as Alabama and Louisiana, received higher appropriations in absolute terms, they received less in relative terms given their COVID-19 related medical and financial strain: the CARES Act appropriations do not align resources with state need.

As unemployment trust funds rapidly deplete, these states have a perverse incentive to reopen the economy.

Unemployment claimants who do not return to work due to COVID-19 fears, per the Alabama Department of Labor, can be disqualified from benefits, perpetuating the myth of welfare fraud to vilify those in need.

The United States Department of Labor also emphasized that unemployment fraud is a “top priority” in guidance to states recently.

Prematurely opening the economy before a sustained decline in transmission is likely to refuel the pandemic and, therefore, prolong the recession. Moreover, it compromises the health of those who rely most heavily on public benefits to safely stay home and flatten the curve.

Some would counter this is precisely why we should reopen — for the most vulnerable, who were disproportionately impacted by stay-at-home orders.

The sad reality, however, is that long-standing barriers for vulnerable workers in access to health care, paid sick leave and social mobility pre-date this crisis and persist. And we know that many vulnerable Americans work on the frontlines of foodservice and health care support where the risk from COVID-19 is heightened.

A return to the status quo without addressing this systemic disadvantage will only perpetuate, rather than improve, these unjust social and economic conditions.

COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in our state and nation, and re-opening businesses will not provide a simple solution to our complex economic problems.

No one would toss out their umbrella after several sunny days so why should America abandon public health measures now? After all, rain is unpredictable and inevitable just like the current COVID-19 crisis.

The threat of COVID-19 resurgence will persist until we have effective preventive and treatment options for this novel infectious disease.

So let’s not blame or, worse, discard the umbrella. Instead, peek out cautiously, survey the sky and start planning now to protect the vulnerable, who will be the first to get wet.

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Opinion | Cleaner air during pandemic shows need for alternative fuels, electric vehicles

Mark Bentley and Phillip Wiedmeyer

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Photos of a smogless Los Angeles skyline set against a brilliant blue sky have emerged as an iconic image to showcase the impact of decreased air pollution during America’s COVID-19 quarantine.

Similar photos from around the world, including what are usually smog-filled cities in India, China and Europe, provide a glimpse of a world with improved air quality.

It’s no secret that poor air quality has historically been caused by traffic, but due to tighter regulations by the federal government, industries’ contribution to pollution has decreased significantly. Scientific research is beginning to show how social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have created an unintended consequence of improving worldwide air quality.

For nearly two decades, the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition has been advocating to improve Alabama’s air quality by increasing the use of cleaner alternative fuels and expanding the market for advanced technology vehicles. Cleaner burning alternative transportation fuel options like biodiesel, ethanol, propane and natural gas also reduce pollution just like electric vehicles.

Air pollution remains a global public health crisis, as the World Health Organization estimates it kills seven million people worldwide annually.

But is the COVID-19 pandemic showing us the wisdom of transitioning to cleaner vehicles, whether electric vehicles with drastically lower emissions or vehicles using cleaner-burning alternative fuels? The answer is an emphatic yes.

Recent research shows global carbon dioxide emission had fallen by 17 percent by early April when compared to mean 2019 levels. In some areas, including the United States and the United Kingdom, emissions have fallen by a third, thanks largely to people driving less, according to research published in Nature Climate Change.

Numerous organizations, including NASA, continue to study the environmental, societal and economic impacts of the pandemic, and researchers view recent air quality gains as promising evidence that the use of alternative vehicles could have long-term positive impacts.

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“If I could wave my magic wand and we all had electric cars tomorrow, I think this is what the air would look like,” Ronald Cohen, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at UC Berkeley who studies the effects of the stay-at-home orders on air quality, told the Los Angeles Times.

Wider use of electric vehicles and the other domestically produced alternative fuels would lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil while also helping our environment. Poor air quality already causes negative consequences for millions of Americans.

Alabama could also see economic benefits from increased production of electric vehicles, with Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz operating plants in the state and working hard to produce the next wave of electric vehicles. As part of a $1 billion investment in Alabama, Mercedes began construction of a high-voltage battery plant in Bibb County in 2018 for its all-electric EQ brand of vehicles, as well as batteries for its hybrid plug-ins.

“This is a teaching moment,” Viney Aneja, an air quality professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University told the Raleigh News and Observer. “We should learn from it. We should promote behavior that will allow air quality to be as good as it is outside right now.”

This is a prime opportunity for America to embrace alternative and cleaner-burning transportation fuels, as well as electric vehicles, while also decreasing reliance on foreign oil and creating jobs here at home.

It could also make those picturesque photos of the big-city skylines become commonplace instead of a rarity.

Mark Bentley has served as the executive director of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition since August 2006.

Phillip Wiedmeyer serves as the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition’s chairman of the board of directors and president and is one of the ACFC’s original founders. He also serves as the executive director of the Applied Research Center of Alabama, a non-profit dedicated to public policy issues impacting Alabama’s growth, economic development and business climate.

About the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition

Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition serves as the principal coordinating point for clean, alternative fuel and advanced technology vehicle activities in Alabama. ACFC was incorporated in 2002 as an Alabama 501c3 non-profit, received designation U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program in 2009 and was re-designated in 2014. A national network of nearly 100 Clean Cities coalitions brings together stakeholders in the public and private sectors to deploy alternative and renewable fuels, idle-reduction measures, fuel economy improvements and emerging transportation technologies. To learn more, visit www.alabamacleanfuels.com.

 

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Opinion | Electric vehicles next wave to drive Alabama’s continued auto-manufacturing success

Gerald Allen

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Alabama has long been a leader in the automotive manufacturing sector in the United States and, now, we have the opportunity to sustain that momentum for years to come through significant investments in the electric vehicle (EV) industry.

Dating back to 1993 when Mercedes-Benz announced their opening of their only U.S.-based assembly plant in Tuscaloosa County, our state has continued to provide a favorable business climate that has helped recruit Hyundai, Honda, Toyota and Mazda. The substantial investments of these companies have only furthered economic activity through the numerous tier 1 and tier 2 automotive suppliers that have also located to our state.

Combined, these Alabama-based automakers and suppliers produced nearly 1.6 million engines in 2018 and created over 40,000 automotive manufacturing jobs. Alabama currentlyranks as the number three autoexporting state in the country, andexports of Alabama-made vehicles and parts totaled $7.5 billion in 2018.

Now, as we continue toward a 21stcentury transportation system and economy, we must acknowledge – and prepare for – the electric vehicle wave that is coming.

Significant research shows that consumer interest in electric vehicles is exponentially on the rise and so is theproduction of EVs by manufacturers. Globally, total EV sales surpassed 1 million vehicles in 2017, then quickly doubled to cruise past 2 million in 2018 and that number is expected to double again in 2020 to reach 4 million total sales. According to a Deloitte report, it is expected that global EV sales will top 21 million by 2031.

In recognition of the growth in EV sales, Mercedes-Benz broke ground in the fall of 2018 in Bibb County to build a plant producing high-voltage batteries for the all-electric EQ brand of Mercedes vehicles, as well as batteries for Mercedes hybrid plug-ins. This project alone is well over a billion-dollar investment in Bibb County and, with it, Mercedes has now invested more than $6 billion in its operations here in the state.

We know that expanding EV sales andproduction in Alabama will require anumber of investments from the industry, the legislature and eventually theconsumers of this state. To cement our reputation as a forward-leaning automotive leader, we must prepare for the future of electric vehicles, production of electric vehicles parts and ensure the necessary EV infrastructure is in place to be competitive for generations. Doing so will show that our state supports this burgeoning sector of automotive manufacturing and help recruit even more of these projects that will provide numerous high-paying jobs and produce significant economic benefits.

The Rebuild Alabama Infrastructure Plan, approved legislatively in 2019, provided a foundational first step as it included a provision that helps propel Alabama toward the cutting-edge of EV infrastructure. The landmark legislation established a grant program that proactively facilitates the installation of new EV charging stations across the state. These stations will supplement the Electrify America charging stations currently being installed in the state and add to Alabama’s EV infrastructure.

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Additionally, the full body of the state Senate and our colleagues in the House have shown a commitment to the expansion of EV production in Alabama with a $2 million investment in this year’s budgets to educate and promote the use of electric vehicles to the public. We believe this will further Alabama’s reputation as a premier automotive manufacturing state as these funds will go toward developing an EV industry educational website with mapping of charging stations and other useful resources, as well as funding to further build out  Alabama’s EV charging infrastructure.

Mercedes-Benz has been a game changer for our state. With their initial investment in 1993 to their significant investments in EV batteries, it’s clear the electric vehicle wave is coming and, with it, significant opportunities for automotive manufacturing growth in Alabama. Now is the time for us to show our state’s ongoing ingenuity by supporting this sector’s transformation to electric vehicle production with these significant investments and overall support of the growing EV industry.

Gerald Allen is a member of the Alabama State Senate, R-Tuscaloosa, representing District 21. Senator Allen can be reached at [email protected].

 

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Opinion | Mueller anniversary a sad reminder of the day Sessions ran away when needed most

Tommy Tuberville

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Three years ago this week, one of the biggest hoaxes in American history began as Robert Mueller was appointed to lead the Democrats’ Russia witch hunt, and the man most responsible for birthing that national nightmare was U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is now running to reclaim his former Senate seat.

Throughout this campaign, Sessions has claimed that nameless, faceless Justice Department bureaucrats demanded that recuse himself from the investigation, and he had no other choice than stepping down.

So, without even a courtesy call to the man who appointed him, Sessions abandoned his president and fed him to the wolves, and he almost bought down the entire Trump presidency in the process.

The truth is that Sessions did, in fact, have several other options, but he lacked the courage and selflessness to seriously consider any of them.

If Sessions was unsure he could remain loyal to the president, perhaps the easiest option would have been to decline the cabinet post when it was first offered, but, instead, he went in the other direction.

Just two weeks ago, President Trump appeared on the Fox and Friends morning show and said that Sessions literally begged him to be appointed attorney general on four separate occasions, so he made the appointment despite severe misgivings.

“(Sessions) wasn’t, to me, equipped to be attorney general, but he just wanted it, wanted it, want- ed it,” Trump said. “Jeff was just very weak and very sad, and when ‘Russia’ was mentioned, just the word ‘Russia,’ he immediately, instead of being a man and saying, ‘This is a hoax,’ he recused himself.”

In response to the nationally-televised comments, Session released a harshly-worded statement that accused President Trump of lying.

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Another option available to Sessions would have been to ignore the urgings of the Deep State bureaucrats at the Justice Department who supposedly told him that he must recuse himself ac- cording to “regulations.”

On-going revelations about inappropriate actions by entrenched liberals at the Justice Department and the FBI indicate that many of those who advised Sessions were likely working against President Trump and pushing for him to fail from the first day he took office.

But even if Sessions felt so strongly that insulating himself from the investigation was the proper path, he should have first marched into the Oval Office with his recusal in one hand and his resignation in the other and said, “Mr. President, which one of these do you want me to sign?”.

That way, it would have been Donald Trump’s choice, not Sessions’, but he was too fearful of the answer, so he recused first and boxed-in the president.

Yet another option available to Sessions was to quit his job and walk away as soon as President Trump’s loss of confidence in him became obvious, which happened quickly. But like a bad houseguest who will not leave when the party is over, Sessions overstayed his welcome for months on end and forced the president to fire him.

Sessions was likely reluctant to resign because he felt he had given up his U.S. Senate seat in or- der to become attorney general, but when you work for the president, what you gave up, what you sacrificed, and what you think you deserve must simply be set aside and forgotten.

Selflessly doing what is best to protect the president and the nation you serve should be your one and only focus.

As a retired football coach, I know a good bit about teamwork and winning.

In order to win, each player has to be willing to put the team ahead of themselves. They have to set their own interests aside so the team can succeed, and they have to take incredible risks in order to score a win. Jeff Sessions proved too selfish and unwilling to do any of those things for the Trump team to win.

Finally, Sessions had at least one other option, and it is the one I would have taken.

He could have remained loyal to the president, watched his back against the Democrats’ fake news sneak attacks, and helped him fulfill the promise of making American great again.

President Donald Trump knows that he can depend upon Tommy Tuberville to remain loyal to him come Hell or high water, and that is why my campaign proudly carries his full endorsement and support.

 

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