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Opinion | Alabama leaders’ plan to reopen schools really isn’t a plan at all

Josh Moon

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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. 

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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. 

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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.  

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

Study: Those with COVID twice as likely to have dined in restaurants

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that adults who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten in restaurants, which builds upon known factors about how the disease is transmitted, experts say, but the study has limitations.

The study surveyed 314 adults in 10 states and found that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were twice as likely to have eaten at restaurants within the previous 14 days. Researchers found that there was no significant difference between those who tested both positive and negative and who said they had gone to gyms, coffee shops, used public transportation or had family gatherings.

“Masks cannot be effectively worn while eating and drinking, whereas shopping and numerous other indoor activities do not preclude mask use,” the study notes.

Dr. Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist and associate professor at UAB’s School of Public Health, told APR on Wednesday that the study lends evidence to what the medical community knows are potential risks for contracting COVID-19, which include being indoors and unmasked, but there are nuances to each of those activities that can either increase or decrease that risk.

The study did not differentiate between indoor and outdoor dining, and infectious disease experts say being outdoors decreases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“It’s also hard to know what policies are in place where these people were recruited from for this study,” Hidalgo said. “Whether they’re required to be masked or if there’s a decreased capacity in a restaurant.”

Monica Aswani, assistant professor at UAB’s School of Health Professions, said she would be cautious about interpreting the study through a causal lens.

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“People who are willing to dine in restaurants are also likely to engage in other risky behaviors, such as not wearing masks. Since this is a survey, there is not enough evidence to suggest that the source of exposure was restaurants without contact tracing to supplement it,” Aswani said. “Likewise, respondents may have misreported their behaviors, given the sensitive nature of the questions. The authors note this as a limitation and highlight how participants were aware of their Covid-19 test results, which may have influenced how they responded.”

Aswani also noted that the questions about dining did not differentiate between indoor versus outdoor seating, “which represent different levels of risk to exposure.”

“Participants who visited a restaurant on at least one occasion, regardless of the frequency, are also considered similar. Consequently, in the two weeks before they felt ill, someone who dined on a restaurant patio once and someone who ate indoors at five different restaurants are indistinguishable in their data,” Aswani said.

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Hidalgo said that while there are clear limitations to the CDC’s study, the findings do back up what the medical community knows about the transmission of the disease.

“I would very much look at this from the big picture perspective, and say we know that indoor activities are an increased risk for COVID-19. This study lends evidence to that,” Hidalgo said.

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Economy

Report: Transitioning to electric vehicles could save Alabama millions in health costs

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama could save $431 million in public health costs per year by 2050, if the state shifted to an electric transportation sector between now and then, according to a new study by the American Lung Association.

Such a transition would reduce other health-related issues, said the organization, which used data on pollution from vehicles and from oil refineries to calculate its findings.

Alabama would experience approximately 500 less asthma attacks per year, about 38 fewer premature deaths and prevent more than 2,200 lost workdays annually.

The transportation sector is one of the main contributors to air pollution and climate change, said William Barrett, the association’s director of advocacy for clean air and the study’s author.

“We have the technology to transition to cleaner cars, trucks and buses, and by taking that step we can prepare Alabama for the future while also seeing the health and economic benefits forecasted in ‘The Road to Clean Air,’” Barrett said. “Especially as our state faces the impacts of climate change, such as extreme storms, this is a powerful and practical opportunity to take action to improve our economy, our health and our future.”

Trading combustion-powered vehicles for electric ones could result in $11.3 billion in avoided health costs across southern states by mid-century, the report estimated, and prevent roughly 1,000 premature deaths.

Nationally, Americans stand to save $72 billion in health costs and $113 billion in avoided climate change impacts, the ALA said.

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The path to that future depends on leaders factoring public health effects into decisions about transportation, Barrett said.

That involves steps like pursuing electric vehicle fleets when purchasing decisions are being made and supporting the creation of enough charging stations along highways, roads and at truck stops.

Investing in that infrastructure can drive wider economic benefits, Barrett said. He cited California’s increased manufacturing of electric vehicles.

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Tesla is the most well-known producer that has located there, but Barrett said that makers of trucks and buses have also chosen to locate their facilities in the state.

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Health

CDC director: Vaccine won’t be available to general public until mid-2021

Eddie Burkhalter

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CDC director Robert Redfield (VIA CSPAN)

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during testimony Wednesday before a U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee said a vaccine won’t be widely available to the public until mid-2021. 

Wearing a mask is the most important public health tool we currently have in the fight against the deadly disease, he said.

“I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine,” CDC director Robert Redfield told lawmakers.

Asked during the hearing by Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, when a vaccine will be ready “to administer to the public,” Redfield said that he believes there will be a vaccine that will initially be available some time between November and December. 

“But very limited supply, and it will have to be prioritized,” Redfield said. “If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public, so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to go back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter 2021.” 

Redfield said it will take time to expand vaccinations out from those who need them most direly to the larger public, and said there are about 80 million people in the U.S. who have underlying health conditions that put them at greater risk and need the vaccine first. 

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said there will likely be a vaccine available to the public possibly before the November election or even sooner. 

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When asked about Redfield’s statements that one won’t be available to the public until the summer or early fall of 2021, Trump said during a press conference Wednesday that Redfield was mistaken. 

“I think he made a mistake when he said that. It’s just incorrect information,” Trump said. “And I called him, and he didn’t tell me that. I think he got the message maybe confused. Maybe it was stated incorrectly. We’re ready to go immediately as the vaccine is announced, and it could be announced in October. It could be announced a little bit after October.” 

Trump refuted the CDC head, and said the vaccine will be made available to the general public “immediately” once one is approved. Asked for Trump’s timelines as to when a vaccine will be ready to administer to the wider public, an official at the press conference seated near Trump said that will likely occur by the end of March. 

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The Trump administration on Aug. 14 announced that the McKesson Corporation would be the central distributor of COVID-19 vaccines in the U.S. The company distributed the H1N1 vaccine during the 2009-2010 pandemic. 

AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine trials were put on hold worldwide on Sept. 6 after a volunteer in Britain experienced a serious health problem. The company’s vaccine trials resumed in the United Kingdom on Saturday.

The company in a statement said it was working with global health authorities to “be guided as to when other clinical trials can resume.” 

The drugmaker Pfizer Inc. on Tuesday announced that those enrolled in the clinical trial for the company’s own COVID-19 vaccine were experiencing mild to moderate side effects, but that an independent monitoring committee has not yet recommended pausing the study.

There have been 2,392 COVID-19 deaths in Alabama since the pandemic began, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

At least 193,000 people in the U.S. have died from coronavirus, according to The Washington Post.

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Health

Jones: Trump, Senate GOP leadership not serious about another round of COVID-19 relief

Eddie Burkhalter

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Incumbent U.S. Sen. Doug Jones during a livestreamed press conference. (VIA DOUG JONES CAMPAIGN)

Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, on Friday said it’s unclear whether Senate Republican leadership or the White House will work with Democrats to draft another round of meaningful COVID-19 relief for a country in need.

Jones, speaking to reporters during a Facebook Live press briefing, said Sen. Mitch McConnell’s paired-down bill, which he and all other Democrats, and one Republican Senator, voted against on Thursday was a “political stunt” by McConnell and did far too little for individuals, businesses, schools and local governments.

Democrats passed the $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill in May, but McConnell declined to take it up in the Senate or use it as a starting point for negotiations with Democrats, Jones said.

Democrats later agreed to drop the price of that aid down to just more than $2 trillion, Jones said, but the Trump Administration refused to budge and talks fell apart. Trump then signed a series of executive orders to provide aid in piecemeal.

Jones said that he does not believe Trump was acting in good faith and wanted to strike a deal with Democrats, and instead used the crisis for personal political gain.

“Democrats who were trying to do this were talking about things that are important to help the American people. He would refuse to budge because he wanted to issue those executive orders and have a photo op with his big signature on those executive orders that he issued. I am absolutely convinced of that,” Jones said.

Jones was also asked about a statement in opponent in the upcoming November election made regarding revelations that President Trump lied to the American people about his knowledge of the deadliness of COVID-19. Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville told a reporter this week that while he hadn’t watched the news on the matter, he believed it was “fake news.”

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The Washington Post journalist and author Bob Woodward in his latest book wrote that Trump told him on Feb. 7 that the disease was “deadly” and that it was “more deadly than your strenuous flu” while spending the next month telling the public that COVID-19 was no more dangerous than the regular flu. Woodward this week released segments of his recordings of those interviews with Trump saying those words.

The President should have been doing more in February, March and April to ready the country for what was to come with coronavirus, Jones said “but instead he was saying that was going to miraculously disappear.”

Jones noted that for the last several months Jones has hosted press briefings inviting top infectious disease experts at the University of Alabama and other top health officials on, to speak about the pandemic and take questions from the media and the public. Jones said Tuberville’s defense of Trump’s comments undermines Alabama’s ability to get information to the public.

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“If we’re still undermining that competency, if we’re still doing things to support and defend comments that are not supportable and not defensible, what we’re going to see is a problem when we do actually have a vaccine,” Jones said.

“I think that Coach Clueless’s comments really reflect the fact that he’s always going to support Donald Trump no matter what,” Jones said, referring to Tuberville. “We see it all too often up there right now. People will not stand up and speak out even when they know the President is wrong, and he should be called to account for it.”

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, also spoke to reporters during Jones’s press briefing, and both he and Jones urged the public to go ahead and cast absentee ballots for the November election. Alabama is already accepting ballots by mail, or in person, at local Courthouses.

“What’s unique about our current situation, and the tragedy of the pandemic, is that we now have what is essentially early voting in Alabama,” England said.

Sending in an absentee ballot by mail can be confusing, England explained, and requires a copy of a photo ID and for two witnesses or a notary to sign the ballot application. England said people can also simply visit their local county courthouse with their photo ID, ask for a ballot application, fill it out and fill out their ballot and cast their vote on the spot.

“Get up. Get your ID. get your mask. Go to your local county courthouse. Request your absentee ballot application. Fill out that and the ballot and cast your vote,” England said.

Jones encouraged the public to visit onealabamavotes.com to learn more about how to vote, by mail or in person.

“We’ve got a chance in Alabama to get numbers up through this process, and that’s a good thing,” Jones said.

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