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State superintendent says challenges await when students return to class

Alabama State Superintendent Eric Mackey said Tuesday that as public schools plan to reopen for in-person instruction in the fall,  school nurses could play a critical role in slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus that shuttered them. 

Mackey, speaking with reporters and members of the Alabama House Democratic Caucus in a webinar session Tuesday, said the state’s approximately 1,000 school nurses may be trained as contact tracers, able to help identify those who may have been exposed to the virus and help prevent its spread. 

“We’re going to have severe challenges when we come back to school next year,” Mackey said. 

House Democrats who opposed returning to Montgomery amid the COVID-19 outbreak to close out this year’s legislative Session instead held the online meeting to discuss the state’s coronavirus crisis with Mackey and other state leaders. 

“Right now, what we believe is that probably we’ll be able to open in the fall, but we may be looking at, again, these rolling outbreaks across the state for another year, depending on, as we all know, when a vaccine is widely available,” Mackey said. 

To help mitigate outbreaks, Mackey said they’ve offered to have school nurses across the state to be trained to conduct contact tracing, in which they’d contact each person who may have come into contact with a COVID-19-infected person, instruct them on how to monitor for symptoms and suggest self-quarantining. 

“Therefore we can take over that vital role for outbreaks that that occur in a school family, rather than public health having to use their limited resources in schools,” Mackey said. By doing so, he said, the state Department of Health could instead focus on contact tracing for state nursing homes and other areas that may have outbreaks. 

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Health experts have said that increased testing and contact tracing are critical to getting the virus under control, APR reported on April 27.

State education officials are also focusing on distance learning and access to the internet at students’ homes, both of which will come into play if schools go through more phases of temporary closures, Mackey said. 

But there’s another, pressing problem that schools will surely soon face when children come back into the classrooms, Mackey said, and that’s mental health. 

Parents being out of work, a loss of continuity and structure in their lives can all lead to serious mental health problems in children, he said. 

“We think they’re gonna come back to us with some severe mental health issues,” Mackey said. “Many of them will not be, quote, diagnosable disabilities, but it’s going to be sadness. It’s going to be anger. It’s going to be exhibited in many ways, and we have to be ready for that, so that we don’t see these as discipline problems.” 

In addition to those challenges, teachers will have to address learning gaps caused by the disruption, Mackey said, and the problem won’t be easy to fix. 

“Many students are going to come into school next fall way behind,” he said. “Teachers are going to have to go back and, and, in my words, tighten up the curriculum, because they’re essentially going to have to teach, in many cases, a year and a quarter’s worth of work in a year, and that’s tough. That’s almost an unbelievable task but we’re really gonna have to try to do that.” 

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As the House Democrats held the online meeting their counterparts in the state Legislature debated Alabama’s budget. 

Mackey said he knows the state Department of Education won’t get all of the $300 million in funding increases it asked for this year, so the hope is to prioritize money for literacy coaches, summer school for 2021, mental health, special education, professional development teachers will need and money to help English language learners. 

“The  FY 22 budget I think will be an even bigger challenge than 21, but we’re gonna have severe challenges when we come back to school next next year,” Mackey told lawmakers.

“I hope as a state we finally come to terms with the reality that we have got to do more for students, if we want to get where everybody says they want to be,” Mackey said. 

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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