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Montgomery County, Birmingham City schools join others in virtual learning for start of school year

Numerous school districts statewide have opted for online learning to start the 2020-2021 school year.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Both Montgomery County Public Schools and Birmingham City Schools on Wednesday announced plans to have students begin virtual learning for the first nine weeks of school rather than in-person classes as public health officials struggle to control the spread of COVID-19 in Alabama and across the country.

Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Ann Roy Moore in a press conference Wednesday announced the decision and said the school system would determine whether to extend virtual learning beyond those nine weeks “at a later date.” Moore said of parents surveyed, 18,558 requested virtual learning instead of in-person school.

Birmingham City Schools Interim Superintendent Mark Sullivan said at a separate press conference Wednesday that school administrators “have constantly watched the COVID-19 cases in our city and across our state rise” and while the decision wasn’t easily made, he believes it’s best for students’ safety well-being.

Decisions by those two school systems come as numerous others across the state have also decided against immediately reopening schools to children, as COVID-19 patients in recent weeks have filled hospitals to record levels and deaths from the virus hit an all-time daily high on Wednesday.

Numerous school districts statewide have opted for online learning to start the 2020-2021 school year. Those include Tuscaloosa City, Mobile County, Madison County, Madison City, Huntsville City, Anniston City, Bullock County, Greene County, Bessemer City, Midfield City, Montgomery County and Selma City schools.

Most Alabama school systems have given parents the option of in-person school, blended learning — in which a student attends school in-person for some classes and the remainder online — or virtual learning.

There remain questions as to what might prompt school systems to transition from in-person learning to remote learning if COVID-19 cases surge in local areas. For now, that decision has been left to local districts to make.

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“Currently, no guidance has been presented from the ALSDE, ADPH or the CDC regarding an infection rate that would trigger a transition to blended or remote learning,’ Piedmont City Schools said in a “frequently asked questions” document published Tuesday.

It’s also not clear whether parents will be notified if a classmate or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.

“Will I be notified if a classmate/teacher of my child has tested positive for COVID-19?” Piedmont’s document states. “We are awaiting further guidance from the ADPH, ALSDE, and other sources on notification procedures.”

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The Alabama Department of Education’s “Roadmap to Reopening Schools” plan doesn’t address what local school systems should do if a student or teacher tests positive for COVID-19.

Alabama School Superintendent Erik Mackey told WHNT 19 earlier in June that state education officials will not be involved in the coronavirus notification process.

“Whoever conducts that test is required to report that to the department of public health and then public health takes it from there,” Mackey told the news station.

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

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program gets more national attention

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s First Class Pre-K program gives children advantages in math and reading that last into middle school, far longer than the gains studied in other high-quality pre-K programs, according to an article published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

While programs like Head Start and Tennessee’s pre-K program have been shown to lead to significant educational improvements when children enter kindergarten, those benefits appear to experience a “fadeout” within a year. 

The new research followed students through the 7th grade. Further research should examine the persistence of benefits through high school, according to the article, which was published by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, ThinkData and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The research “is reassuring and supports accountability for continued investments and expansion,” the article concluded.

The journal that featured the article is a publication of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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Education

Selma residents will discuss renaming Edmund Pettus Bridge at Aug. 7 virtual event

Micah Danney

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The historic Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

A group of Selma residents, in response to the latest push to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge, has organized and will host a virtual town hall meeting to discuss the proposal.

The forum can be viewed live on the Facebook page of the Selma Matters Campaign on Aug. 7 at 6 p.m. The group encouraged members of the public to attend.

The event will include “leaders from across the country who bring a wealth of knowledge to the various aspects of considering the name change” and will feature Selma locals, including “foot soldiers” of the Civil Rights movement. It will be moderated by LaTosha Brown, a Selma native and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Bernard LaFayette, Civil Rights activist and co-founder of the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth, and Reconciliation.

There have been several initiatives launched over the years to rename the bridge, which bears the name of a Confederate general and reputed grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. The current push is by The John Lewis Bridge Project, a nonprofit formed to rename the bridge in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis, who led the historic march for voting rights across the bridge and into the batons and fists of white State Troopers and deputized citizens in 1965.

The nonprofit was formed in June, when Lewis was ailing with cancer. Lewis had responded to a previous attempt to rename the bridge in his honor by politely declining it in an editorial. His office did not comment when the current initiative was announced.

Residents of Selma, some of whom were on the bridge in 1965, or had relatives who were, have resisted efforts to rename it. Some argue that its name has become synonymous with the struggle for political and human rights that made it famous. It’s a landmark in the global landscape of freedom struggle sites, and is under consideration for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

The latest petition had a goal of 500,000 signatures. It has surpassed that since Lewis died, and the goal was increased to 1 million signatures.

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“In recognizing this rising effort, the Selma Matters Campaign has dedicated its focus on ensuring the citizens of Selma are given the opportunity to voice their opinions and not be left out of the decision-making process that directly impacts Selma,” the group said in a statement.

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Education

Exposure notification app for college students launches pilot phase

Micah Danney

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Screen captures of the GuideSafe application. (UAB)

College students across Alabama and anyone with a .edu email address are being invited to participate in an anonymous Exposure Notification System app for iPhone and Android users. The app launched in a closed pilot phase on Monday that will allow up to 10,000 downloads for each phone type.

The app is part of the GuideSafe platform, a suite of tools designed to help people reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. It features a tool called HealthCheck, which allows users to report COVID-19 symptoms, and another called Event Passport, which uses an algorithm to assess whether a person is safe to attend a gathering of 10 or more people or not based on the responses they log in HealthCheck. 

The GuideSafe platform encompasses the Stay Safe Together and Testing for Alabama initiatives. Participation is voluntary and designed to protect users’ privacy while anonymously alerting each user to potential exposure to someone who has tested positive in the last 14 days. The exposure notification system assigns random numbers to each user to keep them anonymous to each other and to the system.

The app will be made available for mass public download later this month after the pilot phase ends and the app’s performance is assessed.

GuideSafe is the largest-scale testing initiative for higher education in the nation. It uses exposure notification technology developed jointly by Google and Apple.

Alabama is one of the first states to launch the technology, which is part of the state’s program for safe entry to campuses of higher education. Gov. Kay Ivey allocated more than $30 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the plan.

The pilot app was built by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham-based MotionMobs, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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“We have worked extremely hard to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a positive difference in this pandemic,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall.”

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Education

Governor announces $100 million internet voucher program for students

The governor has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced a program to increase internet access for K-12 students for distance learning as the start of the new school year approaches. 

The project, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, will provide vouchers for families of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches “or other income criteria,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The vouchers will pay for equipment and services for high-speed internet from the fall through Dec. 31. 

Ivey has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

The funds will be used to expand internet access by providing “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels,” according to Ivey’s office. 

“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic. While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”

Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch are to receive a mailed letter in August, and a website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.

“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Governor Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history. More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education,” said Eric Mackey, Alabama superintendent of education, in a statement. “A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities. We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”  

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The funds are to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which has partnered with Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy for the project. 

“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely. I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services,” said Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the State Senate, in a statement. “Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”

According to Ivey’s office, the plan was drafted with the input from the Broadband Working Group, a group Ivey announced the creation of on June 25, which is composed of legislators and industry experts who are to provide to guidance on the state’s spending of $1.9 billion in CARES Act funds. 

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“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Governor Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income. I think Governor Ivey has a good plan,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus. 

Mackey said last week that approximately half of the state’s K-12 students will begin school by learning virtually for a period of time. A lack of internet connectivity in many homes is a major concern for school administrators who face the challenge of providing education to students when new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Alabama. 

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