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Gov. Kay Ivey urges Alabamians to fill out 2020 Census

“To put it plainly, 60 percent just won’t get it. Self-response at that level just will not cut the mustard,” Gov. Kay Ivey said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Oct. 31 is the last day to fill out the 2020 census. (STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Tuesday said the COVID-19 pandemic and devastation it’s had on the state’s economy has made the need for all Alabamians to fill out the 2020 census even more important. 

“It really brings home the importance of the $13 billion in federal funding that comes to the state each year, and the critical importance of maintaining our current level of congressional representation in Washington,” Ivey said during a web conference with reporters Tuesday.

Oct. 31 is the last day to fill out the 2020 census. To fill out the 10-question census visit www.my2020census.gov or call 844-330-2010.

Alabama’s participation in the 2020 census so far is at about 59.8 percent, which is about 2.5 percentage points behind the national average, Ivey said.

“To put it plainly, 60 percent just won’t get it. Self-response at that level just will not cut the mustard. We remain at serious risk of losing representation and critical federal funding if we don’t achieve maximum participation,” Ivey said.

Low participation in the 2020 census could cost the state federal funding for education, housing assistance, road and infrastructure projects and health care, Ivey said. Many federal grant programs use population estimates from the census to determine funding levels.

Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs and chairman of the Alabama Counts committee, said during the press briefing that COVID-19 has had an impact on the state’s census drive, but that officials are renewing the emphasis this summer and fall.

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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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Education

FBI, DOE investigating potential fraud in Alabama virtual schools

The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money.

Josh Moon

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(APR GRAPHIC)

The FBI and the U.S. Department of Education have been conducting a lengthy and wide-ranging investigation into multiple virtual schools in Alabama, focusing specifically on those schools falsifying student enrollment records to drive up state reimbursements, potentially costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over the past five years, several sources and various documents and recordings obtained by APR show.

The investigation, the sources told APR, is centered on two schools in Limestone County — the Alabama Connections Academy in the Limestone County system and Renaissance Academy in Athens City — but is not limited to those schools. The sources each participated in interviews with the FBI and DOE in this investigation and asked for anonymity out of fear of losing their jobs. 

APR was provided a recording of agents from the FBI and DOE conducting a joint interview with officials in Limestone County, and asking specific questions about the virtual schools in those districts, the superintendents in charge and about irregularities involving student enrollments. 

The home of Athens City superintendent Trey Holliday was raided by FBI agents in June, and the Bureau confirmed at the time that the raid was part of an ongoing investigation. 

In addition, three sources have confirmed to APR that officials working at the Alabama State Department of Education have been interviewed by the FBI and DOE and the state has provided records and other information to aid in the investigation. The sources each have intimate personal knowledge of the investigation, but spoke on condition of anonymity because they’re not authorized to provide such details.

When asked for an official comment on the investigation, a spokesperson for ALSDE directed APR to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama. 

A spokesperson for the USA Middle District office declined to comment or confirm the existence of an investigation — a standard response when an investigation is ongoing but has yet to produce indictments — but did acknowledge the raid of Holladay’s house in June.  

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The investigation of the virtual schools, and the allegations of improperly boosting enrollment figures to generate more tax dollars, would be similar to federal investigations of virtual schools in other states. As in those investigations, the alleged wrongdoing in Alabama involves tens of millions of dollars in tax money. 

In less than three years, Limestone’s general fund budget has swelled from a reserve balance of around $2 million to now more than $20 million; Athens has experienced a similar uptick in revenue the last five years. 

Sources told APR that investigators also suspect that there has been illegal personal gain by both school system employees and individuals working with third parties that operated the virtual programs, and indictments could come before the end of the year. 

Virtual Schools

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In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed a virtual school bill, allowing for school districts to operate one of two kinds of virtual schools. Local school boards could decide to operate their own virtual school, contracting with an outside entity for only the software and platform, but otherwise hiring teachers and controlling the school like any other in their district. Or local school districts can contract with an outside entity to provide all of the services — from hiring the teachers and monitoring classroom performance to aligning with state standards and meeting the needs of disabled students — and the local central office would serve as a simple pass-through for payments. 

Those payments are also key. Under that virtual school bill, students enrolled in virtual schools earn the district the same in per-pupil funding as a student enrolled in traditional schools. So, even if a child in the Black Belt is enrolled in a virtual school hundreds of miles away in Limestone County — and several reportedly are — and never sets foot in the county or a local school building, Limestone still gets the $6,000-per-pupil allotment for that student. 

This setup, of course, makes virtual schools extremely profitable — both for local districts and for the outside companies hosting the schools. 

Limestone’s Connections Academy, the largest virtual school in the state with more than 2,500 students enrolled this school year, falls into the second category of virtual schools — one in which the outside company, Pearson, handles all functions and Limestone gets a small percentage each year for serving essentially as a pass-through. APR requested a copy of the Pearson-Limestone contract but it had not been made available prior to publishing. 

Those types of contracts, however, have raised red flags with several local superintendents and even with officials at ALSDE, all of whom see massive potential for fraud and waste. At least two bills have been pushed since the passage of the original virtual schools bill that would close loopholes and put extra safeguards in place. Neither passed. 

“We’ve been sitting on a time bomb, and everyone knew it was ticking,” said one county superintendent. “There has never been enough oversight of these schools. Even when you saw the horror stories in other states, no one did anything.”

As it stands, companies, such as Pearson, are allowed to make almost every decision, and local officials are oddly and surprisingly unconcerned with how the schools make decisions. Or even what decisions they’re making. 

For example, Limestone County officials, including two superintendents and multiple employees, couldn’t tell APR or the FBI and DOE approximately how many teachers were employed at its virtual school. In addition, they didn’t know how those teachers were hired, if they were required to be certified or if they were adhering to Alabama standards. 

And their inability to answer those fairly basic questions came after Limestone County had been duped once into virtual school fraud scheme that cost the district millions of dollars and more than 100 laptop computers.   

The Investigation

According to Mark Isley, the former human resources director for Limestone County Schools, an investigator from the FBI and one from the DOE showed up unannounced at the system’s central office last September and began grilling then-superintendent Tom Sisk, Isley and others about the virtual school in Limestone County and a similar school in Athens, where Holladay served as superintendent. 

A recording of that interview was later provided anonymously to APR, and the two investigators can be heard asking specific questions about the enrollment figures in Limestone’s virtual school, whether the system had verified the authenticity of each student enrolled and how much interaction the Limestone virtual school had with the Renaissance school in Athens. 

“They clearly knew way more than they let on, and you could see that as the interview progressed and they laid out evidence of fraud taking place,” Isley said. “I was not shocked. I think anyone who was honest would tell you that they either didn’t know hardly anything that was happening in that (virtual) school or they suspected something wasn’t right.”

The two agents also asked Sisk in-depth questions about Limestone’s first attempt at operating a virtual school in the 2016-17 school year. On the recording, Sisk said that he signed a contract with an entity named Educational Opportunities to provide a full virtual school and enrolled more than 200 students. 

“Two to three months into it,” Sisk said, officials from ALSDE contacted him and told him that the students enrolled in the Limestone virtual school were also enrolled in private schools around the state. On the recording, one of the agents asking questions provides Sisk with a letter that was sent in 2017 by Sumter Academy to parents of students at that now-defunct private school. The letter informs parents of a new virtual opportunity in which their students can be “dually enrolled” in both Sumter and a virtual school hosted by Limestone County. The letter also offered free laptops to students who signed up. 

Limestone County never recovered the laptops it provided to Educational Opportunities. 

“I guess we can see where our laptops went,” Sisk says to the agents. 

A week after the interview with the FBI and DOE, Sisk resigned at Limestone County to take a job superintendent’s job in Tennessee. He resigned shortly after taking the job when it was learned by that school system that his doctorate degree was allegedly purchased from an online school in Pakistan. 

Reached by phone, Sisk declined to comment, saying “I’m retired now. Limestone has a new superintendent who can answer your questions.” 

The Isley Problem

During the interview with Sisk, it becomes obvious, as the FBI and DOE agents pepper him with questions and press him for specifics, that they suspect a certain level of collusion between Limestone County — or, at the very least, its virtual school provider — and officials at Sumter Academy. The agents press Sisk to explain how Sumter could be offering a stipend and laptops to students who sign up without Limestone being in on the fraud. 

Sisk maintains that he had no clue about any of it and shut it down as soon as he was informed by ALSDE officials of the potential fraud. 

What happened to that potential fraud — and whether it was ever reported or investigated by state or local officials — is unclear. Neither Sisk nor ALSDE would discuss it. But on the recording, Sisk is quite adamant that he knows nothing about what happened to Educational Opportunities and never chased down where the district’s 100 laptops ended up. 

But that virtual school would not be Limestone’s only problem. Following the interview, Isley said he told the FBI and DOE agents of current, equally-troubling issues with Limestone’s current virtual school, Connections Academy. 

Among the issues: Connections was failing to follow guidelines for serving disabled students, putting at risk millions in federal funding, and there was a huge discrepancy between the teacher units for which Pearson, the company that operated Connections Academy, was billing the state and the number it appeared to actually employ. 

According to Isley, who was responsible on forms sent to the state for “placing” teachers — essentially the act of accounting for the teacher units that were provided by the state by showing where those teachers were employed within the district — Pearson was claiming more than 100 teacher units, yet Limestone had placed no more than 23. 

“That’s all I could find, and I thought it was weird and that someone should look into it,” Isley said. “I’m in charge of HR, you know. It’s my job to make sure the teachers are there.”

Isley isn’t alone in his concerns. Two other sources, including one long-serving financial officer currently working for a school district in Alabama, viewed Connection Academy’s teacher data and concurred that a large discrepancy exists. 

What that discrepancy means, however, is unclear. On paper, it should be impossible for such a gap, because the state requires each district to submit a detailed report of all teachers employed, their years of service and their certification levels. Those numbers are compared to the teacher-unit funding each district receives, and adjustments are made. 

Still, there seems to be an issue somewhere. Current Limestone County superintendent Randy Shearouse told APR that Connections Academy planned to employ roughly 107 teachers for the upcoming school year. That would be a slight decline in teachers despite an enormous uptick in students — Connections will have nearly 600 additional students this year. 

Shearouse, who was named superintendent in June, said he couldn’t speculate on the numbers because he hadn’t been on the job long enough to dig into them. He also said he was mostly unaware of the investigation of the virtual school, having only heard about it. 

For raising the concerns, Isley was promptly shuffled out at Limestone in a very public fashion. He was placed on leave last January for reasons that the district refused to reveal, although it hinted to media outlets that Isley was the subject of an investigation. (Limestone’s attorney actually argued in a court filing that the district had no duty to inform employees why it placed them on paid leave.) A short time later, the district began termination proceedings against Isley, a former county superintendent who had been on the job less than two years. 

In documents submitted to the state department of education, Limestone listed four reasons for its decision to terminate Isley mid-year, including the very odd charge of improper dumping of a Christmas tree and ornaments at a thrift store and a discrepancy with how Isley documented time off. 

Dates on the supporting documentation, obtained by APR, shows that Mike Owens, who was serving as the acting superintendent at the time, didn’t collect a single piece of evidence to support terminating Isley prior to placing him on leave. In fact, two of the incidents happened months before — one of which Isley discussed with Owens — and didn’t receive a reprimand of any kind. 

Isley eventually settled with the Limestone system and agreed to a forced resignation. He remains unemployed. 

“The guy is a boy scout,” said Isley’s attorney, Shane Sears. “Even when it’s to his own detriment, he’s going to do the right thing and speak up. That’s what happened here. All you need to know about this is how they reacted to what he was saying.”

A Bigger Issue

The investigation being conducted by the FBI and DOE clearly has not stopped in Limestone County. Sources confirmed to APR that in addition to state and Limestone/Athens officials interviewed, the FBI has also talked with people connected to Sumter Academy and to officials at a virtual school in Eufaula, as well as to numerous people affiliated with multiple third-party virtual school providers.

Their focus, in each instance, involves virtual schools inflating enrollment numbers in order to secure more federal, state and local funding. Sources told APR that the FBI and DOE are exploring a variety of avenues by which those numbers have been inflated, including enrolling private school students, homeschool students and prisoners. 

The latter appears to be the primary issue in Athens, three sources familiar with that investigation told APR. The Renaissance Academy, which was started in 2015 in Athens, began enrolling prisoners the same year, pulling in more than 600 enrollees from Alabama’s prisons around the state, and pulling in the $6,000-plus-per-pupil funding that went with them. 

But according to sources, the Renaissance school did a particularly poor job of tracking those prisoners, and investigators have found instances of long-since-released prisoners still being on the Renaissance rolls. 

“Dr. Holladay has been an educator for over thirty-five years,” said Holladay’s attorney, Joe Espy. “There are no charges pending against him and if any are filed, he will vigorously defend them.”

Holladay is not alone in hiring legal representation. At least two other individuals involved in either the Limestone County or Athens investigations have hired Montgomery attorneys. 

Whatever comes of potential criminal charges, though, there is little doubt that state lawmakers have to find ways to secure the virtual school setup, and to instill some level of oversight. 

“This is like the wild west out there right now,” said a longtime ALSDE employee. “People have quickly figured out that no one is watching what’s going on here and they’re taking advantage. We’re talking about millions of dollars lost to fraud. And, oh, by the way, the schools they’re providing aren’t great either. This can’t go on.”

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Congress

AFL-CIO endorses Adia Winfrey for Congress

Brandon Moseley

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Congressional candidate Adia Winfrey. (VIA WINFREY CAMPAIGN)

Monday, the Dr. Adia Winfrey for Congress campaign announces that she has received the endorsement of the Alabama AFL-CIO in her campaign for Congress.

At their annual convention last week, union leaders from across the state recognized Dr. Winfrey’s passion, ability to lead, and attentiveness to the issues affecting working men and women, as reasons to endorse Dr. Winfrey, the Democratic challenger, in Alabama’s Third Congressional District race.

“Labor unions have long been a leading force in our nation’s economy,” Dr. Winfrey wrote. “Workplace safety standards, employee benefits, equal pay for women, non-discrimination policies, and so much more can be attributed to directly to union members who were willing to speak up for what is right. I look forward to being a voice for Alabama’s hard working men and women in Congress.”

Dr. Winfrey is challenging nine term incumbent Mike Rogers (R-Saks) in the November 3 general election. During his 18 years in Congress, Mike Rogers has earned only a 16 percent lifetime rating by the AFL-CIO for his votes.

“For 7 generations my family has called Talladega, Alabama home,” Winfrey said. “I am the mother of four amazing children, a Doctor of Psychology, author, founder of the H.Y.P.E. (Healing Young People thru Empowerment) Movement, and…I am running for Congress in Alabama’s 3rd Congressional District! I believe in the future of our beautiful state and nation. It is time for leadership with a new vision which is #FocusedOnAlabama.”

Winfrey has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Wilberforce University and a doctorate of clinical psychology degree from the Wright State University School of Professional Psychology. She is the founder of the H.Y.P.E. (Healing Young People thru Empowerment) Movement.

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Environment

Gulf State Park will have a prescribed burn in late August

Brandon Moseley

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A fire at Gulf State Park. (VIA ALABAMA STATE PARKS)

Monday, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced that that it is planning to have a prescribed burn as Gulf State Park later this month.

The planned prescribed burn at Gulf State Park is a necessary part of a forest management plan associated with longleaf pine restoration, wildfire fuel reduction and invasive species control. The 140-acre burn will take place in a section of the park’s campground between August 18 and September 3, 2020, weather permitting. Camping reservations are not being accepted for campsites 1 to 123 and sites 469 to 496 during the burn period.

If weather conditions are favorable during the burn period, an additional 110 acres of marsh near the campground might be burned as well to reduce the risk of wildfire in that area. The planned burns will not affect camping reservations for campsites outside of the burn location.

The Alabama Forestry Commission will conduct the prescribed burns for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) State Parks Division. They assure the public that every effort is being made to ensure safety and proper smoke management during these burns.

Prescribed fire is an effective way to reduce wildfire risk, enhance wildlife habitat and maintain a healthy forest ecosystem. This is especially important in the south Alabama coastal region due to the vegetation type and a longer growing season. The use of prescribed fire enables the Alabama State Parks Division to better manage its parks’ forest resources into the future.

For more information about the benefits of prescribed fire, visit www.outdooralabama.com/prescribed-fire-alabama.

Gulf State Park has two miles of beaches, a spacious campground a brand new Lodge and Conference Center, Lake Shelby, miles of walking paths, camping sites, and a fishing pier that allows anglers to fish out into the ocean for schools of saltwater fish normally accessible only to fishermen with boats. Gulf State Park has gorgeous white sand, surging surf, seagulls, pelicans, restaurants, a pool at the lodge, and a variety of activities for the entire family to enjoy.

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Gulf State Park is a destination that Alabamians visit over and over again all year round. Gulf State Park has beaches, hiking, camping, dining, canoeing, a dog park, indoor lodging amenities, freshwater fishing, saltwater fishing, educational adventure at the Nature Center as well as new programs starting at the Learning Campus and Interpretive Center. Gulf State Park is located on the southern end of Baldwin County, fronting the Gulf of Mexico. The Alabama gulf coast is world renowned for its beaches.

The fishing pier is presently closed for renovation and some facilities may not be available currently due to COVID-19 restrictions. Check with the park for more details.

The Alabama State Parks Division relies on visitor fees and the support of other partners like local communities to fund the majority of their operations. Alabama has 22 state parks across the state available for a variety of entertainment needs. Six of those parks are developed into resorts. They are Cheaha State Park, DeSoto State Park, Gulf State Park, Joe Wheeler State Park, Lake Guntersville State Park, and Lakepoint State Park.

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To learn more about Alabama State Parks, visit www.alapark.com.

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National

Saban tries to save the college football season

Brandon Moseley

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban.

Monday, University of Alabama head football Coach Nick Saban said that he wants to play the 2020 season for the players.

“I want to play, but I want to play for the players’ sake, the value they can create for themselves,” Saban told ESPN. “I know I’ll be criticized no matter what I say, that I don’t care about player safety. Look, players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home. We have around a 2% positive ratio on our team since the Fourth of July. It’s a lot higher than that in society. We act like these guys can’t get this unless they play football. They can get it anywhere, whether they’re in a bar or just hanging out.”

Saban’s comments came on a day when the very future of the 2020 season was on the brink. The Mountain West Conference announced that it was suspending all sports indefinitely due to the coronavirus. Hundreds of college football players have taken to Twitter and social media begging the powers that be not to kill this season. They were joined by Saban and other prominent figures in the sport, including Michigan head football Coach Jim Harbaugh, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and even President Donald J. Trump (R).

“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay,” Trump said on Twitter supporting a statement by Lawrence.

Some conferences had already made up their minds to punt on the season.

“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our students, student-athletes, coaches, faculty, staff and overall communities,” said Dr. Mary Papazian, chair of the MWC board of directors. “Through the hard work of many over the past several months, the conference made every effort to create an opportunity for our student-athletes to compete, and we empathize with the disappointment this creates for everyone associated with our programs. The best interests of our students and student-athletes remain our focus and we will persist in our efforts to forge a viable and responsible path forward.”

A decision to postpone of cancel the 2020 college football season could come as early as this week. A growing tide of voices are calling for the cancellation or postponement of the college football season

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ESPN’s Heather Dinich reports that this is based on what the athletic conferences are hearing from their medical advisory boards about the long term affects of COVID-19.

College Presidents are very concerned that COVID-19, while rarely fatal in college students, can leave survivors with heart issues that may well be long lasting. The mother of one Indiana player reported that her football player son contracted coronavirus while on campus for pre-season for strength and conditioning training. Her son developed symptomatic COVID-19, that included breathing difficulties. Now he is over the COVID-19; but has heart inflammation that jeopardizes his playing career and perhaps even his long-term health.

There is a similar situation with a Major League Baseball player who had COVID-19 and not has heart inflammation, which doctors say can be a side effect of contracting COVID-19. Over half of college football players are African-American, the demographic that has seen the highest rate of bad outcomes from COVID-19, including death.

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The University of Louisville recently had to cancel all football activities on campus when a group of football players, in violation of the coronavirus social distancing protocols, attended a party on campus and not thirty players tested positive for the coronavirus.

A number of college football players have contracted the virus including University of Alabama, Auburn University, and Clemson players.

The presidents are concerned about the long-term health effects of COVID-19 on college athletes as well as the rest of the student body and faculty and staff. They are also concerned about the schools’ legal liability if they don’t do everything in their power to fight the spread of the virus and cancelling fall sports is arguably necessary to fight the spread of the virus. Congress failed to pass legislation that would have given schools and employers liability protection from COVID related lawsuits.

The Mid-American Conference (MAC) and South West Athletic Conferences (SWAC) (which includes Alabama A&M and Alabama State) have already voted to postpone fall sports to Spring. The decision by the MAC puts pressure on the other Division 1 Football Bowl Series schools to also postpone or cancel the season. The University of Connecticut has already cancelled its 2020 football season, the first Division 1 school to make that decision. Others could follow.

On Tuesday, the Big 10 Conference presidents will meet on possibly postponing the 2020 season to December or later.

The PAC 12 conference college Presidents will also meet to discuss the possibility of postponing or cancelling all fall sports. A number of PAC 12 players have come out vocally expressing concerns about the safety of playing the sport during the global pandemic.

The Big 10 and PAC 12 are two of the “Power Five” conferences along with the Southeastern Conference (SEC), the Big 12, and the ACC. If either the Big 10 or PAC 12 were to postpone or cancel the football season it would be difficult for the other schools to continue without them; though most conferences have already adopted a ten game conference only season. Alabama and Auburn are members of the SEC.

The Power Five conference commissioners met on a conference call Sunday night to prepare a recommendation on how to proceed if the Presidents decide that playing sports in the fall are an unnecessary risk. They were unable to reach a decision on whether that recommendation should be to play the 2020 fall sports in the spring or to cancel fall sports altogether as spring sports, including baseball and softball were last spring.

The commissioners of the SEC and ACC both released statements saying that they are moving forward to play. It is highly possible that some of the Power Five conferences will play this fall and some will play in the spring. How this would affect the college post season is still unclear.

“The college football season should be canceled, it should be canceled today,” said ESPN sports commentator Stephen A Smith on Monday. Smith cited a lack of leadership looking out for the health of college athletes in college football.

ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit had already come during the spring and predicted that the sport could not be played this year due to athlete safety. There is a growing consensus in both the medical and academic community that this may be the case.

A decision by the PAC 12 on Tuesday, could start a domino effect that will lead to the cancellation or postponement of all fall sports.

Some analysts have expressed skepticism that the 2020 and 2021 football seasons could both be played in the 2021 calendar year and even that the COVID risk will be less in the spring than it is now.

The SEC had already reduced the season from 12 games to 10 and postponed the state of the football season to Sept. 26. SEC football players were already supposed to be in camp preparing for the fall season; but the conference has postponed the start of football practices to August 17.

The Alabama High School Athletic Association at this point still plans to play high school fall sports including football.

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