There is no plan to reopen Alabama’s public schools.
That much was clear after state superintendent Eric Mackey’s hour-long press conference on Friday — the one in which he presented the state’s plan to reopen schools.
It was, to put it kindly, underwhelming.
To put it not so kindly: It was the State Department of Education running from a hard decision.
Because what Mackey presented on Friday was 50 pages of ALSDE, the governor and the Alabama Department of Public Health essentially telling local superintendents and principals: “Y’all figure it out.”
There was no guidance on testing, quarantining and tracing.
There was no guidance on how to deal with older employees and faculty who decide, reasonably, that the risk is too high.
There was no guidance for parents.
There wasn’t even a requirement that local districts create a plan by a specific date so parents could determine whether to send their kids to school or to opt for the online system.
Basically, Mackey spent 30 minutes or so telling all public school employees to wash up real good and try to stay six feet apart if you can.
Oh, and that there’s no extra money for any of the extra stuff they’re going to have to do.
Look, I get that this is an insanely difficult situation, and that it’s something we’ve never dealt with before. But damn, you’re about to send Alabama’s children back to enclosed spaces in the middle of a pandemic. Maybe, just maybe, that calls for an idea or two from the state’s top leaders on how we might do that at least a tad bit more safely.
It sure is strange how the people in Montgomery want in on every decision made at the local level when there’s political pandering or money involved, but they can’t get away fast enough when there are actual hard decisions to be made?
The vanishing act on Friday wasn’t lost on teachers and principals and local superintendents. A spokesperson with the Alabama Education Association said their office had been flooded with calls from confused and concerned educators following Mackey’s presentation. I spoke with numerous principals and a couple of superintendents, and they were baffled by the “roadmap,” which they said was essentially the same guidance they received last year.
Their biggest question: How are they going to meet even the basic, simple goals laid out in the “roadmap” without extra funding or resources?
For example, Mackey mentioned “school nurses” on a couple of occasions in his presentation, and the roadmap also mentions them, saying they’ll be dealing with symptomatic students.
That’s great. Except approximately 300 schools don’t have a nurse.
Oh, they have a district nurse that covers all the schools in the district, but not one on their campus every day. Not one that can be there within 45 minutes or so.
So, who’s going to deal with that symptomatic child? Who’s going to make sure he or she stays quarantined? Who’s going to discuss with the students’ parents the requirements, or provide options for testing?
All of these things, including the extra cleaning that emphasized throughout the roadmap, are new responsibilities that will have to fall on employees and faculty, and be absorbed by the budgets of cash-strapped local districts.
I can’t, for the life of me, understand what happened here.
Because there were good plans offered up to ALSDE and the committee that compiled the roadmap. There were comprehensive and innovative ideas for dealing with this virus and best protecting students. There were bipartisan plans that would have diverted millions to Alabama’s schools and made the state a model for others to follow, while at the same time drastically improving Alabama’s testing and data reporting.
Instead of those plans, ALSDE punted.
If I had to guess, the reason for that is likely money. Mackey, in his plan, asks for a miniscule amount of it — only enough to equip buses with WiFi and purchase tablets and hotspots — and hopes for grants and other federal dollars to possibly cover other expenses.
The only possible reason for that is that he was told there would be no additional money — not even from the $1.8 billion in CARES Act funds the state is doling out. Which, honestly, seems impossible.
This state’s children are about to return to school. In some counties, Mackey noted, 97 percent of the students plan to be in those buildings. Statewide, roughly 80 percent of kids will be back in the buildings.
The state has a duty to provide the safest environment possible for those kids, and to do everything it can to keep those kids from spreading the coronavirus to family members and at-risk people outside of the schools.
The roadmap presented on Friday does none of that.