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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?

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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.

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.

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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 | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution

Gerald Johnson and John Cochran

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.

A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.

The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.

In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.

While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.

Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.

Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.

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On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.

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Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color

Elizabeth Huntley and James Pratt

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Auburn University's Student Center (VIA AUBURN UNIVERSITY)

The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.

This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.

Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.

These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.

We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.

Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.

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In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.

We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.

In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.

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Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.

Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”

Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.

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Opinion | Alabama lags behind the nation in Census participation with deadline nearing

Paul DeMarco

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The United States Census is starting to wind down around the country with a Sept. 30 deadline for the national population to be completed. However, a United States District Court has recently ruled that the date may be extended another 30 days to allow more time for the census to take place.

Regardless of the deadline, Alabama has work to do when it comes to the census.

To date, the national average for participation around the country has been almost 65 percent for the census.

Unfortunately, Alabama residents are providing data to the census at a lower percentage, around some 61 percent of the state population.

There is already concern among state leaders that if that number does not reach above 70 percent, then the state will lose a seat in Congress, a vote in the electoral college and millions of federal dollars that come to the state every year.

The percentage of participation has varied widely around the state, from a high of 76 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36 percent in neighboring Coosa County.

State leaders are making a final push to request Alabama residents fill out the census in the last month before it is closed.

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We will find out later this fall if Alabama passes the national average of participation in the census compared to other states to retain both its future representation and share of federal dollars.

In the meantime, Alabamians need to fill out their census forms.

The state is depending on it.

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Opinion | This Labor Day let’s honor Alabama’s workers

Bren Riley

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In July, the Southwest Alabama Labor Council made the tough decision to cancel what was going to be our 75th annual Labor Day Parade in Mobile in order to ensure the safety of our affiliates, members, and the general public.

Needless to say, I’m crushed. Each year, there’s nothing I look forward to more than gathering with union members far and wide to celebrate Alabama’s union members. After all we have been through in 2020, no one deserves a day of love and celebration more than our workers.

For many of us, Labor Day represents a day off to enjoy our last day of summer. But Labor Labor Day is so much more than just picnics and gearing up to go back to school—it is a day to honor America’s working people. In the face of this unprecedented pandemic, it’s important now more than ever to support Alabama’s workers first.

Unfortunately, Alabama was ranked the worst state in the country to work during the COVID-19 pandemic. When I first read this, I was heartbroken. Then I got angry.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spotlighted challenges that have always faced Alabama’s working people. Inequality. Poor working conditions. No mandated sick or family leave. For decades, Alabama’s labor movement has fought tooth and nail for these sorts of protections, only to be pushed back by members in Congress who want nothing more than to destroy unions at the expense of our working people.

In Steve Flowers’ Sept. 3 column, Flowers points out how different things were in Alabama not too long ago. From 1946-66, “Alabama was the most unionized state in the South by far. In fact, every major employer in the State of Alabama was a union shop.”

Ordinarily, I’d feel crushed reading such a statement. But like my anger mentioned earlier, this time around, I’m determined.

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This Labor Day, we have a chance to build back the power of the labor movement in our state by gearing up for what could be the most important elections in Alabama’s modern history.

At the forefront, we have the opportunity to elect Joe Biden as the President of the United States, thereby ending the most virulently anti-labor administration we have seen in the last century.

And here in Alabama, we all-in for the fight to re-elect Senator Doug Jones. Sen. Jones has been nothing but an ally to our working people, especially in pushing his Senate colleagues to take up HEROES Act — a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill currently sitting untouched in Mitch McConnell’s lap.

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In total, the Alabama AFL-CIO has endorsed ten candidates running for office in 2020. By electing politicians who will fight for America’s working class and uplift the labor movement, we can keep making real progress in the fight for a fair economy and a just society.

This Labor Day, whether it’s time to head in after a socially-distanced gathering with loved ones or a Zoom call with friends, take the time to reflect on why we get to celebrate this holiday.  Labor unions bring the freedom to balance life and work — the freedom in knowing that one job is enough, that you can be with a sick child or parent without losing your job, that you can report hazards without being fired. This Labor Day, let’s get fired up for a better Alabama.

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