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Alabama’s COVID-19 testing of college students shows few cases so far, officials say

Eddie Burkhalter

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The University of Alabama's quad (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

More than 75,000 college students across Alabama have been tested for COVID-19 as classes continue to start, and while the number of infections among those tested was low, what happens next will depend largely on those students’ decisions to help keep themselves and others safe, according to experts behind the statewide testing program. 

“This is something that students are going to have to own,” said Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert and professor at UAB, speaking to reporters Thursday. Saag and others who help run the Guidesafe program, a COVID-19 testing strategy for college students developed by UAB and the Alabama Department of Public Health and paid for with $30 million in federal coronavirus relief aid, updated reporters on the state of the program. 

Bob Phillips, executive director of GuideSafe, said of the more than 75,000 students tested, just .75 percent were positive, which is around 560 students. The program aims to test up to 200,000 students, however, and Phillips said “straggler” schools continue to help guide students through the testing program. 

Phillips said 13 collections sites have been operating around the state, and the program will begin reducing testing capacity and testing sites toward the end of the week as more universities open.

Soon after testing capacity is reduced, the program will begin to transition into sentinel testing, where random samples of smaller segments of campuses are to be tested every couple of weeks to monitor for outbreaks. 

Phillips said there have also been “multiple thousands of tests” done by private practitioners and other healthcare facilities for students, outside of the Guidesafe program, but that he was unsure of the number of those tests that were positive. 

Speaking of a return to college sports, Saag said, “I think we’re all engaged in a giant experiment. There’s no clear way forward.” 

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We know the principles of how the virus is transmitted and the guidelines being used to try and keep sporting events as safe as possible take those principals into account, Saag said, from reduced capacities in stadiums of 20 percent or slightly more to social distancing at restrooms and snack areas. 

“That said, this virus is pretty wile,” Saag said. 

Asked about recent decisions at the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to close in-person lessons and opt for online classes after outbreaks in those schools, Saag said the decision comes down to a university’s ability to physically have the capacity to quarantine students who need to be quarantined, and about the schools’ decision around surging cases. 

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Statewide the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations have been declining in recent weeks, and Saag said he believes that’s because of Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask order, and said that if everyone continues to follow that order he believes the state will be in a better place by September or October. 

Saag said he doesn’t think there will be a great deal of COVID-19 transmissions happening in classrooms, as instructors are there to monitor the required wearing of masks and social distancing is established, but he worries about the disease spreading during social gatherings after class. 

Jack West, editor-in-chief of Auburn Universities student newspaper, The Auburn Plainsman, tweeted a video Tuesday evening of young people congregated in a crowded downtown Auburn club, dancing shoulder-to-shoulder and without masks. 

“This is an indictment of the concept of the Auburn Family. Some people really don’t seem to care about each other at all. This behavior is selfish, it’s ignorant, and it’s stupid,” West said in a subsequent tweet.

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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Friday is deadline for Shelby County remote learning students to decide to return or not

Some parents have expressed concern that they have to make a decision so early.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Sept. 25 is the deadline for Shelby County schools students who have begun the school year to decide whether they want to return for the next nine weeks or continue learning remotely.

Starting on Monday, Sept. 14, the students who chose the traditional model of learning transitioned from two days a week of in-person instruction to five days a week as part of the “Back Together” phase of the Shelby County Schools reopening plan.

“Traditional in-person students may transition to remote learning if you have concerns about returning to school five days a week,” said Superintendent Dr. Lewis Brooks in a letter to parents. “Students who are currently remote students must continue in that platform but will be able to transition to in-person instruction starting October 12, 2020. Please reach out to your local school principal if you are a remote learner and plan to return to traditional in-person instruction at the end of the grading period on or before September 25, 2020.”

Some parents have expressed concern that they have to make a decision so early.

Shelby County Schools spokesperson Cindy Warner told APR that this decision is for the next nine weeks.

Students in traditional at-school learning can switch to online learning at any time — just like a student who tests positive for the coronavirus.

But parents are being asked to make the decision if they are going to stay online or not because the system doesn’t want students going back and forth between online classes and traditional at-school classes.

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Warner said that 25 percent of students are currently in online instruction but from what they have heard from parents, they expect that many of those students will return.

Warner said that if a parent elects for their children to remain in online learning, they will be given the option of going to traditional in-person learning after this nine-week grading period ends.

Warner said that they did not know how many Shelby County students have tested positive for the coronavirus because the state is going to soon be reporting that data on their dashboard.

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A parent at Oak Mountain High School shared an email with APR in which the school announced that that high school alone had 20 students who have tested positive and are in isolation, plus 68 students who are in quarantine because they have been exposed to the coronavirus.

Shelby County has the fifth-highest number of coronavirus cases with 5,116 cases including 299 in the past week. Some 41 Shelby County residents have died from COVID-19 — 14th highest in the state.

At least 2,507 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, four of them children age 0 to 17.

“If your child is exhibiting symptoms, please keep him/her home. If your child has tested positive, please contact the school nurse,” Oak Mountain High School wrote to parents.

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Dr. Chris Cox appointed interim president at Bevill State Community College

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Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker on Wednesday announced the appointment of Dr. Chris Cox as interim president of Bevill State Community College. Cox will serve in the role until a permanent president is named at the completion of a presidential search. 

Cox has more than 24 years of higher education administration experience and currently serves as interim president at Lurleen B. Wallace Community College. Prior to his role at LBW, Cox served as the executive director of workforce solutions and innovations for the Alabama Community College System.

“Time and time again, Dr. Cox has proven to be a capable leader and I’m confident Bevill State will be well-served by his time as Interim President,” Baker said. “Chris’s innovative and enthusiastic approach is a benefit to students, faculty, and staff alike.”  

A Geneva, Alabama, native, Cox began his career as a teacher and coach at Dale County High School in Midland City. He later served as assistant principal at Geneva High School in Geneva and principal at Pinedale Elementary School in Enterprise.

Prior to joining the ACCS, Cox spent time in Oxford, first as Oxford High School’s principal and then as assistant superintendent for the Oxford City Board of Education. Cox earned a bachelor of science in social science from Troy State University and a master of science in educational administration from Alabama State University.

Cox earned his doctorate of philosophy in educational administration from Auburn University.

“I am ready to hit the ground running to cover the more than 4,600 square miles that Bevill State and its campuses serve in the great state of Alabama,” Cox said. “Bevill State is a special place and I look forward to working alongside the faculty, staff, and administration to best serve our students. Go Bears!”

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Cox’s tenure at Bevill State Community College will begin on Thursday, Oct. 1.

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Alabama declines to release COVID-19 data associated with child care centers

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

It was unclear Tuesday the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 there have been among staff, children and relatives associated with child care facilities in Alabama, because the Alabama Department of Public Health declined to release that data.

“All cases of COVID-19 are required to be reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health under notifiable disease laws. ADPH is aware of cases in entities such as child care but does not report separately from other data,” said Dr. Karen Landers, assistant state health officer, in a message to APR on Tuesday.

APR has asked for that data and whether ADPH was aware of the number of cases associated with child care centers statewide.

Landers noted that ADPH does provide the percentage of cases among age ranges, however. There had been approximately 2,628 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama children 4-years-old and younger as of Monday, according to ADPH’s dashboard, but the department doesn’t specify which of those cases are associated with child care centers, and it was unclear how many cases there have been among relatives or workers connected to child care centers.

While children 10-years-old and older can efficiently transmit COVID-19 to others, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a recent report note that “limited data are available on SARS-CoV-2 transmission from young children, particularly in child care settings.”

The Sept, 18 CDC report looked at three COVID-19 outbreaks in child care facilities in Salt Lake County, Utah, during April 1 through July 10, and found that the 12 children who contracted the disease spread it to at least 12 others outside the centers, and one parent was hospitalized with coronavirus.

In one facility, researchers confirmed five cases among workers and two among children. One of those children, aged 8 months, transmitted COVID-19 to both parents, the report notes. Many of the children had mild symptoms or none at all, researchers found.

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“COVID-19 is less severe in children than it is in adults, but children can still play a role in transmission,” the report reads. “The infected children exposed at these three facilities had mild to no symptoms. Two of three asymptomatic children likely transmitted SARS-CoV-2 to their parents and possibly to their teachers.”

While Alabama’s Department of Public Health isn’t releasing data on cases associated with child care centers, many other states are, including Texas, South Carolina, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Massachusetts.

There have been 332 confirmed cases, two deaths and 14 separate outbreaks associated with child care centers in North Carolina, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

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Health officials in California’s Sonoma County traced 30 cases of coronavirus to one child at a child-care center in the county, where 16 students, 11 relatives and three workers tested positive, according to The Los Angeles Times. In addition to that outbreak, there have been 62 other cases at 13 child-care facilities in the county, including 27 family members, 10 workers and 25 students, with 381 cases of children younger than 17 still under investigation, the newspaper reported on Sept. 21.

Reopening child care centers can be done safely, according to an Aug. 28 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which that found that in Rhode Island, which reopened child care centers on June 1, there were just 52 confirmed and probable cases among staff, children and relatives across 29 centers between June 1 and July 31.

The report noted that Rhode Island at first limited centers to 12 or fewer students, required staff and students to not move between groups in centers and “universal use of masks for adults, daily symptom screening of adults and children, and enhanced cleaning and disinfection according to CDC guidelines.”

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on March 19 issued an order closing child care centers through April 5, with exceptions for facilities that provided services to first responders and other workers deemed essential. Harris on March 27 issued a supplemental order allowing centers that cared for 11 or fewer children to reopen.

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Monday published a press release touting the number of open child care centers across Alabama. According to the department, 76 percent of all child care facilities in Alabama are open.

“Alabama is well on our way to reopening the necessary number of child care facilities to enable parents to return to work and resume a more normal schedule,” said Alabama DHR commissioner Nancy Buckner, in a statement. “This is the sixth survey we have conducted and each one has shown tremendous growth in the numbers of open facilities. We have worked hard to encourage child care providers to open by providing support in the form of grants and supplies.”

Asked whether the department is aware of the number of COVID-19 cases among children, staff or relatives associated with child care centers, a DHR spokesperson responded in a message to APR on Monday that “We don’t track that.”

While child care plays a critical role for working parents across the country, the pandemic and subsequent shutdowns have put a strain on the businesses, according to a July 13 study by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which surveyed more than 5,000 child care facilities in every state.

Among the child care centers surveyed, two out of five said they would have to close without more public assistance, while half of the minority-owned centers said they have to close without more aid, according to the report. A quarter of child care workers said they’d applied for or received unemployment benefits, and 73 percent of centers said they have or will begin laying off workers and/or make pay cuts.

An Aug. 26 study by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center found that 32 percent of parents polled said their child care centers were closed, 14 percent of them permanently, and 22 percent of the parents said they could not return to work in person without childcare.

Even when child care is available to parents, many are worried about sending their children back while COVID-19 continues to spread. Of those asked, 77 percent of parents said they were concerned that sending their kids back would increase the risk of exposing their family to COVID-19.

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Alabama’s First Class Pre-K a bright spot in state’s Black Belt, report finds

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama’s Black Belt communities continue to be hard-hit when it comes to unemployment and a declining population, but according to a report released Tuesday, the region’s Pre-K program is a bright spot. 

The University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center released its latest report in the center’s “Black Belt 2020” series, each looking at different aspects of the majority Black counties that make up the state’s Black Belt.

Tuesday’s report — entitled “Access to Early Childhood Interventions and First Class Pre-K in Alabama; the Black Belt Region“ — shows that the state’s First Class Pre-K program is improving educational outcomes for students in the Black Belt and across the state.

Hunter Whann, a graduate student and research associate at the Education Policy Center, told reporters during a briefing Monday that Black Belt counties have a much higher percentage of single-parent households and, in general, higher percentages of participation among 4-year-olds in Pre-K programs.

Exceptions are Escambia, Lamar, Lowndes and Pike counties, which have less than 37 percent participation. 

“Some counties outside the Black Belt still have low access, so a lot of progress has been made, but of course, as always, there’s more progress to be made,” Whann said.

Noel Keeney, another graduate student and lead author of the center’s latest report, said he believes that because there’s a greater percentage of single-parent households in the Black Belt, and higher rates of participation in Pre-K, it’s evidence there’s a need for the resources that Pre-K provides to families. 

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Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center, noted that the National Institute of Early Childhood Education Research in April 2020, ranked Alabama’s First Class Pre-K as the highest quality state-funded pre- kindergarten program in the country for the 14th consecutive year. 

Katsinas said that from the very beginning of the state’s First Class Pre-K in 2000, and especially under Gov. Kay Ivey, the focus has been to develop Pre-K in the Black Belt. 

“And I would suggest these data show that that has been a successful approach,” Katsinas said. 

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Barbara Cooper, Alabama’s Secretary of Early Childhood Education, speaking to reporters during the briefing Monday said that from the beginning, officials knew there were some counties and some students that should be the focus of those resources. 

“We’ve been able to really see the type of gains in the Black Belt communities because the department has been so purposeful about making sure that we’re serving our most vulnerable populations,” Cooper said, adding that work continues to reach those counties with lower participation rates. 

Pamela Truelove-Walker, Region 3 Director for the Office of School Readiness, said Monday that the Black Belt is seeing Pre-K funding of almost $20 million during fiscal year 2020-2021, which employs approximately 466 teachers in those counties. 

“So we are excited about the intentionality and the purposefulness with which we are targeting those areas,” Truelove-Walker said. “Because we do know that what it is that we are providing for those children, those families, those homes, and even with workforce development. It is very important.” 

The data is clear, both Truelove-Walker and Cooper said Pre-K boosts school readiness skills, reading and math scores, social emotional development, but it is also closing achievement gaps for children living in poverty. 

“We are very excited that children who actually attend First Class Pre-K are making gains that are, in many instances, even double the gains that their peers are making who were not able to actually have a First Class Pre-K experience,” Truelove-Walker said. 

Additionally, First Class Pre-K allows families the ease of mind to know their children are receiving high-quality education while they themselves enter the workforce. 

“Those families are able then to seek jobs and have opportunities for workforce development that they would not have had if their children were not able to be enrolled in a high quality learning environment,” Truelove-Walker said. 

Parental involvement in a child’s education, a critical factor in future educational attainment outcomes also gets a boost through participation in Pre-K, Truelove-Walker said, and that involvement is then carried forward as the child progresses in school. 

Jinping Sun, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Technology Studies at the University of Alabama, said Monday that research shows that family participation in children’s early learning is twice as predictive of a student’s academic success as family socioeconomic status.

“The earlier parents become involved in their children’s literacy practices, the more profound the results and the longer lasting the effects will be,” Sun said. 

Data also shows that the benefits of Pre-K last well into a child’s later school years, Copper said. 

“We have children that have been in Pre-K from its inception, and they continue to outperform their peers in both reading and math,” Cooper said. “We also see long-term benefits of children not having as many behavior referrals, disciplinary referrals in elementary school. Having better attendance, because we tackle attendance from day one in Pre-K.”

To learn more about the Education Policy Center’s previous reports on the Black Belt, visit the center’s website here.

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