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The Price of Doing What’s Right

A man who was trying to do the right things, the honorable things, has been treated as the villain and punished as if he were the one violating rules and laws. And the system in place to stop such a thing has failed.

Josh Moon

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Photos of Mark Isley, right, with family and friends back "when life was good." (APR GRAPHIC/CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS)

On the phone, Mark Isley is in tears — his words barely understandable, coming out in short screeches. Isley’s tears are not really from sadness, and certainly not relief or joy. They are more a combination of worry, of anger and of teeth-gritting frustration. The kind of frustration that sucks you in and consumes your entire existence. The kind of frustration shared by a husband and wife, when some event — or some series of events, in the case of Mark Isley — has derailed your life, taken your perfect, peaceful existence and turned it upside down in a dumpster.

That is why Mark Isley is crying, and why his tears are justified. Because what’s happened to Isley is not fair.

In fact, it is the most wrong thing that can happen: A man who was trying to do the right things, the honorable things, has been treated as the villain and punished as if he were the one violating rules and laws. And the system in place to stop such a thing has failed, and the people who should stand up for him — or, at the very least, stand for the rule of law — have turned a blind eye and a deaf ear. Who wouldn’t be frustrated by that?

“It hurts you when a system and a group of people who you’ve put your trust in turns on you and fails to protect you,” Isley said. “I am hurt by what’s happened. Actually, I’m more than that — I’m devastated. My life has been ruined by what’s happened, and I haven’t done the first thing wrong. The system we have should protect people like me. Instead, it’s done the opposite.”

Isley, once upon a time in his life, was a school superintendent in Boaz. Then he was the director of human resources for the Limestone County school system. Today, he is unemployed — effectively blackballed within the public school system in this state — and only an investigation by the Alabama Department of Labor has provided him unemployment compensation and COBRA insurance, both of which were improperly (and possibly illegally) denied him.

All of this for the sins of not looking the other way. Not letting things go. Not letting the good ol’ boys run the show.

“Mark Isley doesn’t have a bad bone in his body,” said one of Isley’s former bosses, who asked not to be identified. “He’s as good as they come, and you can trust him to do the right thing, even if it’s not popular — even if it costs him his job and everything. That’s why he’s in this predicament, and it’s a damn shame.”

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THE TROUBLE IN BOAZ

To understand why Isley is unemployed currently, it’s probably best to start at the beginning, back when the craziness started in Boaz in 2015. Isley was in his third year as superintendent of the system and in his fifth year in Boaz. He and his wife Belinda were happy and content. They liked the town, had found a church home at First Baptist of Boaz and loved the kids and school system.

And the school system loved him. Isley was given a state award for innovation, received high marks from his teachers and was generally considered a very popular, hard-working and devoted superintendent. In interviews with local media the first couple of years after he was promoted to superintendent in 2012, Boaz school board members and other community leaders raved about Isley and the job he was doing.

Two things blew it all up: Isley said he caught his chief financial officer, Brian Bishop, missing dozens of days of work without taking proper leave time. Then a tape of a popular basketball coach, Anthony Clark, striking a player landed on his desk.

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Of course, it wasn’t simply those things that created the strife for Isley, because those things are not hard issues to deal with — not from a purely factual standpoint. The strife occurred when small-town life intervened in the personnel matters of a school system.

A bulk of the town attends the same church, First Baptist Boaz, and church activities are the primary source of social activities and business relationships. And when the CFO accused of stealing off days and the basketball coach accused of hitting a player are serving on the deacon board with the school board president and two more board members as members of the church — along with Isley — then, well, things that should be simple get really complicated.

That’s not to say that such personal relationships should complicate things, mind you, but just the same, they often do. And in Isley’s case, they seemed to matter a lot.

A bulk of the town attends the same church, First Baptist Boaz, and church activities are the primary source of social activities and business relationships. (VIA GOOGLE EARTH)

In emails obtained by APR, Isley repeatedly advises his school board president, Rick Thompson, that Bishop is missing numerous days and failing to report them. In one documented week, Isley writes to Thompson that Bishop has worked just one day of the five-day workweek, and yet, Bishop recorded zero absences.

In total, Isley provided the Boaz board — and also informed numerous people at the Alabama State Department of Education — with evidence that Bishop had missed more than a thousand days of work without taking a personal leave or sick day to account for the absences.

For his troubles, Isley was chastised by Thompson. In one email, Thompson told Isley that he doesn’t like that Isley is sharing information about Bishop with another board member, Tim Whitt, and he ordered Isley to “leave (Whitt) out of any discussions” concerning Bishop.

“There was no doubt whatsoever that (Bishop) was missing the days and that Mark was right about it,” said a former Boaz school board member, who asked not to be identified out of fear of retaliation. “But some people let their personal relationships cloud their judgment. That’s what it boils down to.”

Bishop ended up leaving Boaz for a different school system three months later, before a formal hearing occurred. Asked specifically about the allegations against Bishop and the numerous reports from Isley — all without any action taken against Bishop — ALSDE declined to comment.

Both Isley and Thompson were unhappy with how the entire situation played out, and the friction between the two only grew.

In December 2015, as he was still navigating the Bishop ordeal, Isley learned that there were allegations of physical abuse of a player against head basketball coach Anthony Clark — and that there was video evidence. After reviewing the video, Isley determined that Clark should be fired.

A source who has viewed the video, which was captured on a school security camera, told APR that Clark could be seen punching the player three times with a closed fist. The incident occurred at a practice and in front of other students. It also was not the first time that Clark had been accused of physically assaulting a player. But it was the first time an incident was caught on tape.

(Isley did not provide APR with any documents or materials concerning Boaz schools, and he declined to speak about the details of his departure or any other incidents related to his employment, honoring the terms of the non-disclosure agreement he signed as part of his settlement with Boaz.)

After reviewing the video, Isley wrote to Thompson to inform the board president of the allegations against Clark and to let him know that an investigation was underway. A few days later, Isley wrote Thompson again to inform him that after conducting the investigation, and hearing allegations that included inappropriate relationships with female students, Isley was planning to call an emergency board meeting to discuss Clark’s future at the school.

This set off a firestorm — both within the Boaz school system and around the town. Immediately, Isley received an email response from Thompson, who warned that “You do NOT have the votes to do this.” That email, and a later phone call with Thompson, was followed by a text message a few days later from Boaz First Baptist pastor Aaron Johnson.

In that message, Johnson seemingly warns Isley to stop the investigation into his deacon chairman, blames the whole situation on a few malcontents and indicates that his opinion of Isley could be lessened if things go the wrong way.

“(Clark) is a good man and is much loved and respected here at FBC,” Johnson wrote. “I hope my respect for each of you will not be changed by a handful of malcontents. I’m sure nobody has told you about the last coach who was a deacon here and the superintendent (who) fired him.”

Isley took the message as a clear threat, since the previous superintendent referenced by Johnson was forced out by the board after attempting to fire a popular high school coach. Johnson and church members inserted themselves into that situation, as well.

Johnson, however, insists the message carried no threat and was sent in an effort to help Isley avoid a potential problem by firing a popular coach and church member.

“I was just trying to head off a big fight in my church, in my town,” Johnson said in an interview last month. “I was also helping a friend. I would have done the same for Mark Isley. In fact, I thought I was helping Mark.”

With the church in the middle of it, and with Facebook messages and posts flying, Isley’s attempt to fire Clark became a civil war in Boaz. Isley said numerous church members came to his office and called — some with threats — and it turned what should have been an internal, simple matter into a crisis that would ultimately cost him his job.

Johnson, who began the interview with APR by calling Isley a “nut,” admitted that he pushed for his church members to stand up for Clark, but he denied encouraging anyone to go see Isley or to make threats. Later in the interview, he called Isley “a good man” and said he wished things had worked out differently.

Quite a few people in Boaz likely have that wish. The three FBC members on the school board — Rick Thompson, Rhonda Smith and Jeff Roberts — blocked Isley’s attempts to fire Clark in early 2016. But with Isley still pushing to place the coach on administrative leave, Clark resigned and accepted another job at Andalusia. In an email with board members, Thompson called Clark’s departure a “sad day.”

Four years later, a former school board member referred to Clark’s departure as “the day Boaz dodged a bullet.”

There are a lot of people in this town who owe Mark Isley an apology. He stood up and did the unpopular thing."

In September 2019, a female student from Andalusia filed a federal lawsuit against the Andalusia School Board and superintendent and high school principal, alleging that she had been the victim in a long term sexual relationship with Clark — a relationship that began when she was just 17 years old and a high school junior, the year after Clark left Boaz.

The lawsuit goes into explicit detail of Clark’s many, many sexual encounters with the minor, including encounters on school grounds and at Clark’s home. It alleged that school officials knew about the relationship but never reported it, and it alleges that the school board and others were aware of Clark’s long history of abuse and sexual assault of students at previous high schools.

“After that all came out, a lot of us found out some things we wish we had known a lot sooner,” said a former Boaz school board member, who also asked to remain anonymous. “There are a lot of people in this town who owe Mark Isley an apology. He stood up and did the unpopular thing and took a tremendous amount of grief for it from people who were supposed to be his friends. And I’m ashamed to say that I’m one of them.”

The revelations about Clark, who has not been charged by law enforcement, have not swayed Johnson, however. Asked if he regrets the way Isley was treated by him and his church members after learning of Clark’s past, the Andalusia allegations and about the video of Clark striking a player, Johnson said it didn’t change anything for him.

“I was trying to help a friend and nothing more,” he said. “I don’t have any power here. People just asked me for my support as a friend, and I made a few calls. Nothing more.”

The Clark incident, coming on the heels of the issues with Bishop’s leave, was the end for Isley’s tenure at Boaz. Isley’s relationship with Thompson was damaged beyond repair, according to two sources familiar with the situation. And then, things got weird.

With tensions high between Isley and Thompson following Clark’s departure, Isley and Boaz principal Gary Minnick selected Arab coach Justin Jonus to take over. Jonus seemed to be a popular choice — he lived in Boaz, was well known and well liked around town and was a member at First Baptist. According to three sources familiar with the process, Jonus was assured that the job was his.

However, shortly before the board meeting at which Jonus’s hire was going to be approved, Thompson showed board members an email between Isley and Jonus that allegedly showed Isley promising Jonus a massive salary, according to four people familiar with the situation. Those four people include two former board members, a longtime Boaz school administrator and a former ALSDE official who was familiar with the subsequent state investigation into the matter.

According to multiple sources, an investigation would later show that the email was a fake — or, to be more accurate, someone had gained access to Isley’s school email and changed the amount he was offering Jonus. A copy of the doctored email was then provided to Thompson just prior to the meeting.

“It was a flat-out setup,” said one of the sources. “This is not a secret at this point. It has been proven. The state did an investigation of this.”

An ALSDE spokesperson did not respond to my questions about this investigation.

However, the scheme got the desired results. The board voted 3-2 against hiring Jonus, who was in attendance and ready to shake hands. Following the meeting, Jonus stood, screamed “What!” and left.

A few weeks later, Isley would follow him. The board voted to buy out Isley’s recently-renewed contract — a decision that would cost the tiny school district more than $200,000 when it was all over. Isley’s tenure as Boaz superintendent, a position that he described as his dream job, was over.

Isley pleaded with officials at ALSDE to intervene, and provided numerous people with documentation for why he sought to terminate both Bishop and Clark. I asked an ALSDE spokesperson to explain why no one intervened in the matter or seemingly made an effort to address Isley’s concerns about both employees, and ALSDE again said the matters were part of an ongoing investigation and declined comment.

It would not be the last time Isley was left hanging.

After more than a year working as a professor at Alabama A&M University, Isley accepted a job in 2019 as human resource director at Limestone County Schools. (VIA GOOGLE EARTH)

THE TROUBLE IN LIMESTONE

After more than a year working as a professor at Alabama A&M University, Isley accepted a job in 2019 as human resource director at Limestone County Schools. In September 2019, Isley, along with then-superintendent Tom Sisk and another administrator, were called into an unannounced meeting with an FBI agent and an investigator from the U.S. Department of Education. Their focus: the system’s virtual schools and a lot of missing money.

For Isley, the questions they were asking made a lot of troubling pieces fall into place for him, and, he thought, it provided him an outlet to express concerns that had so far gone unaddressed by local and state officials. Isley had documented, and expressed repeated concerns to his bosses and state leadership, about a number of issues within the Limestone system, including troubling hiring practices at the virtual school, Alabama Connections.

Once the meeting was over at the school, Isley walked the two investigators out and chatted with them. Then he went to lunch with them, where, for more than two hours, he broke down his concerns, explained processes and agreed to provide the FBI and DOE with any information they needed.

“I didn’t tell them anything that I hadn’t already told people above me,” Isley said. “I’m sorry, but I’m not the person who will cover up things. If you do things the right way, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

This series of events led to my first contact with Isley — an email that showed up in my inbox and detailed how and why he was forced to resign as the H.R. director in Limestone County. Included among the reasons was the fact that he reported to ALSDE, the U.S. Department of Education and the FBI a number of problems within the district’s virtual schools and that he reported violations of federal laws to the state.

Isley’s interaction with FBI and DOE investigators was of particular interest to me, since I had been working for weeks to determine why the FBI was investigating virtual schools around the state. Back in June, the Athens City superintendent’s home was raided by FBI agents, and there were quick rumors that the raid involved the city’s virtual school.

I’m sorry, but I’m not the person who will cover up things. If you do things the right way, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Isley also had other information and documentation of serious problems within the district’s virtual schools, including that the district was failing to follow individual education plans, known as IEPs, for learning disabled students and that the state’s largest virtual school was all but unmonitored by local school officials. Isley also provided information about improper hiring practices that were in violation of Americans With Disabilities Act guidelines, placing millions of dollars in federal money at risk. He also made claims of outright and shocking racism, including a school board member instructing him not to hire “any (n-word)” for principal positions.

(Isley made the same racism claim in a lawsuit against the school district, which he filed after he was placed on leave. The school board member, president Bret McGill, denied the claims. Isley told me, however, that he turned over to the FBI a recording of McGill making the comment.)

To prove his claims, Isley provided a series of emails to APR in which he asked a state department of education official to determine whether an improper hire had been made for an elementary arts teacher position. The official, Jayne Meyer, told Isley in a response that the specific teacher in question — whose name is obscured in the email — would be hired “out of field” because she lacked the proper education and experience combination required for the position. Such a hire is a violation of local board and state policy and could place the system in jeopardy of losing Title I funds.

To date, no one has provided any information to dispute Isley’s claims of improper hiring practices. No one at ALSDE disputed his claims or seemingly took any action to correct the hires or protect Isley.

Instead, ALSDE officials sat idly by as Isley was pushed out at Limestone County in a ruthless, callous forced resignation that came just after the start of the second semester last school year. Without reason, Isley was placed on administrative leave.

“If you want to know if Mark was right, just look at the way they forced him out in the middle of the year with no evidence,” said Isley’s attorney, Shane Sears. “I think that says everything. They couldn’t even give us a reason for placing him on leave. They just had to get him out of there and shut him up.”

Limestone attorneys argued in a letter to Isley’s attorney that school officials were not required to provide a reason. Instead, they wanted Isley to submit a statement explaining why he shouldn’t be placed on leave for an unknown cause. In addition to that, Limestone County officials apparently leaked the personnel move to the local media and issued statements indicating that Isley was the subject of an investigation.

There was, in fact, an investigation. But that investigation, conducted by interim superintendent Mike Owens, appears to have started after Isley was placed on leave. The investigation’s goal seems to have been to find any cause for which Isley could be placed on administrative leave and ultimately fired. Owens submitted a report to ALSDE to justify placing Isley on leave and for recommending his termination, a copy of which was obtained by APR.

The report showed every piece of evidence submitted by Owens was gathered after Isley was placed on leave.  And those allegations, well, they didn’t exactly rise to the level of fireable offenses.

They included a dispute between Isley and the owner of a thrift store over where he left Christmas decorations as donations; a complaint by a teacher from a year earlier that Isley didn’t properly address her complaints of being bullied by another teacher; an allegation that Isley didn’t attend a conference in Montgomery and provided different reasons for why, but ultimately used personal leave days to cover his absences; and a dispute over whether Isley properly recorded leave days — a dispute that was based entirely on incorrect information in a memo.

“I did nothing wrong, and I can prove that every allegation they’ve made was utter nonsense,” Isley said. “I am willing to sit in the town square in Athens and take a polygraph test about all of it. I have facts and evidence to support everything I’ve said and to prove them wrong on everything they’ve accused me of.”

It has not mattered in the least.

THE AFTERMATH

Now, months later, Isley is out of work and can’t get hired for positions he’s more than qualified to hold, because he keeps getting undercut during the hiring process. At least four times now, he’s been a step away from getting a job, only to have an apologetic superintendent call to say that their board has issues or the board got a call from someone.

Even when Isley turned to his friends and asked for help, the results have been the same.

“The guy’s been blackballed — it’s obvious,” said the executive director of an entity involved with Alabama public education. “I talked with two different superintendents and it never went anywhere, and they couldn’t give me good reasons why he wasn’t hired for jobs that he was qualified to get. It’s a real shame, because he’s a good man.”

Now, Isley is left in a position he never would have dreamed of a few years ago: unemployed, scraping by for money, trying to cash in favors to get interviews for jobs he should walk into — all while he’s a year away from being vested in the state retirement system.

The stress and embarrassment have taken a toll on Isley, and on his wife. And his tormentors continue to pile it on. Last month, he learned that Limestone County officials never submitted his unemployment paperwork to the Department of Labor, which prevented him from receiving unemployment compensation and COBRA insurance.

Last week, after Isley reached out to the governor’s office for help, a Department of Labor investigator called. Isley got thousands of dollars in back pay within days, and he said the investigator told him that Limestone officials have repeatedly refused to submit the required paperwork, potentially committing a felony.

Isley said he was told that an official investigation is underway and that his insurance has been restored.

I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My life has been turned upside down. And I was right about everything."

That all provides at least some temporary relief for the Isleys, but it does little to address the larger problem — that an administrator who has never been accused of doing anything wrong, who has received awards for leadership and innovation, could be shoved out of jobs, humiliated and blackballed, as the State Department of Education looks on, for the sins of holding people accountable and doing the right things.

“They’ve completely and utterly broken me, which I think was their goal,” Isley said. “I can’t sleep. I can’t eat. My life has been turned upside down. And I was right about everything I did , and can prove it. But no one cares. They care about their politics and their friends and protecting images — not doing what’s right for the kids or following the law. If I can get one more year in the system, I’ll retire and move on, because I’ve learned that it’s not a place for people like me.”

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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Report: Alabama is fourth-least politically engaged state in 2020

The study scored states based on 11 key indicators of political engagement. Those included things like voter turnout, political donations and voter accessibility policies.

Micah Danney

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Alabama was ranked fourth from last in political engagement in the country in 2020 in an analysis done by the personal finance website WalletHub.

The study scored states based on 11 key indicators of political engagement. Those included things like voter turnout, political donations and voter accessibility policies.

A record 137.5 million Americans voted in the 2016 presidential election, but that only accounts for 61.4 percent of citizens who are old enough to vote. The U.S. ranks 26 in voter turnout among the world’s 35 developed nations. 

“That’s no surprise, considering most states don’t emphasize civic education in their schools,” the report points out. “Large proportions of the public fail even simple knowledge tests such as knowing whether one’s state requires identification in order to vote.”

One of the study’s metrics where Alabama scored lowest was the percentage of the electorate that voted in the 2016 election, which was 57.4 percent. That number is low, said Jill Gonzalez, a WalletHub analyst, and is 4.5 percent lower than it was in the 2012 presidential election.

She said that other factors responsible for the state’s low rank were its preparedness for voting in a pandemic and the low percentage of residents who participate in local groups or organizations.

The report’s assessment of the state’s preparedness for voting in a pandemic included voting accessibility metrics.

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“Alabama actually received a negative score here because of the unnecessary obstacles created for voter access, such as: voters need a notary or two witnesses to complete an absentee ballot, voters are required to provide a copy of a photo ID for the mail application and/or ballot, and mail ballots are due before close of polling,” Gonzalez said in an email.

She said that states ranked at the top of the list, like first-place Maine, have higher engagement due to measures taken by state legislatures. 

“Making it easy for people to vote increases engagement,” Gonzalez said. “This can be done through things like automatic voter registration, early voting, or voting by mail. The existence of local civic organizations involved in voter mobilization also plays a part in this.”

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A federal judge ordered Alabama on Sept. 30 to do away with its witnesses or notary requirement for mail-in ballots, and to allow curbside voting for the Nov. 3 election. An appeals court reversed the former ruling on Tuesday, a decision which Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill applauded. It upheld the latter decision, about which Merrill said, “we intend to appeal to the Supreme Court to see that this fraudulent practice is banned in Alabama, as it is not currently allowed by state law.”

Metrics where Alabama ranked below average, with a score of one being best and 25 being average, were as follows:

  • 26th in percentage of registered voters in the 2016 presidential election
  • 35th in voter accessibility policies
  • 37th in percentage of the electorate who voted in the 2018 midterm elections
  • 38th in total political contributions per adult population
  • 42nd in percentage of the electorate who voted in the 2016 presidential election
  • 45th is the change in the percentage of the electorate who actually voted in the 2016 elections versus the 2012 elections

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ASU strips Bibb Graves name from campus building

Workers removed the name of Bibb Graves, a former Alabama governor, from a campus residence hall that also houses the historically Black college’s famed bell tower. 

Josh Moon

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(ASU)

A few months ago, Alabama State University president Quinton Ross promised to remove the names of those with ties to white supremacy or who supported racist causes from campus buildings. 

A former KKK leader was the first to go. 

Workers removed the name of Bibb Graves, a former Alabama governor, from a campus residence hall that also houses the historically Black college’s famed bell tower. 

“This is something that we have planned to do for several months,” said Ross. “I established a committee to research the names that are on our buildings to determine those who were closely associated with racist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Bibb Graves was a Klan leader at one point, so the decision was made to remove his name from the building.”

The committee was led by Dr. Janice Franklin and university archivist Dr. Howard Robinson. Removal of Graves’ name was unanimously approved by the ASU board of trustees. 

Removing Graves, who was elected governor of Alabama on the strength of his support from the KKK, was a popular decision on campus and among alumni. Getting his name off the building had been a topic of discussion for decades. 

Ross said the university will now begin the process of choosing a new name for the bell tower building. 

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“I am proud that we are able to make this happen during my tenure as president of the university,” Ross said.

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“Worst fear come true:” Two Alabama public school teachers lose parents to COVID-19

Two Alabama high school teachers tell APR about losing loved ones and the struggles they’ve had with school districts they say didn’t do enough to protect them, their students or their families from the deadly disease.

Eddie Burkhalter

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She couldn’t taste the M&Ms. The Alabama high teacher said she tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks after classes started, and days later her elderly mother, whom she was caring for, did, too.

“Her oxygen level decreased and she developed pneumonia,” the teacher said. She spoke to APR on the condition that her name not be used, nor her county school district identified, as she’s not yet able to retire. 

Her mother died in late September from COVID-19, and she lives with the knowledge that she believes she got coronavirus at her school and passed it on to her mother. 

It’s one of two stories from Alabama high school teachers who spoke to APR this week about losing a loved one and the struggles they’ve had with school districts they say didn’t do enough to protect them, their students or their loved ones from the deadly disease. 

“I have taken every precaution I possibly could personally, but I feel like my school system let me down as far as not having adequate PPE, not performing adequate cleaning rotations or having proper cleaning supplies,” the teacher said. “Anything that got cleaned in my room I cleaned myself, and I even bought some of my own supplies because we didn’t have any.” 

There’s no social distancing among students during breaks or a lunch, she said, describing kids as “sitting on top of each other without their masks.” It was a maskless culture in her community to begin with, she said, and it has continued after school restarted. 

“Something’s got to change,” she said. 

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She told APR that she understands the scientific data, which shows children are less susceptible to severe outcomes and death from COVID-19, but explained that that doesn’t tell the whole story. 

“You’ve got to consider the people that are in charge of those kids on a daily basis, and are teaching them, that we’re taking that home,” the teacher said. “We’re considered essential workers, but we’re not treated as such.” 

According to an Oct. 2 CDC report, between March 1 and Sept. 19, there were 277,285 confirmed COVID-19 cases among school-aged children in the U.S., and nearly twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds had the disease compared to their younger counterparts. Children, even when asymptomatic, can still transmit coronavirus to others. 

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A separate CDC study in September found that 12 children at three Salt Lake City, Utah, child care centers got COVID-19 in those centers, then spread it to 12 other family members, with one infected parent having to be hospitalized.  

She said teachers weren’t invited in on reopening discussions until two days before the school board’s meeting to vote on the matter, and that despite a promise from the county’s Emergency Management Agency director that teachers would receive training on protective measures, that training hasn’t taken place. 

In late July, school administrators held a video conference meeting with teachers interested in instructing virtually in a plan that would use the state’s Schoology learning system and SchoolsPLP curriculum, she said. 

“Of course, I was part of that, because I had emailed supervisors early on saying, ‘Hey, I’m high risk myself. I take care of elderly high risk parents. If there’s any way that I can teach virtually, have my name on that list,’” she said. “So they kind of gave me the, ‘Well, we don’t really know exactly what direction we’re going in.’” 

In the meeting, teachers were told they’d be paid $75 per student for the entire semester to teach virtually, but that they could not contact those students during school hours, which they considered to be like double-dipping, she said. 

“Even during our planning time right on school campus, so it had to be after hours,” she said. “We just weren’t willing to do that for the amount of money, because we all kind of added up the hours and it was not even minimum wage.” 

When no teachers agreed to such low pay, the system decided to switch from using the state’s learning management system and curriculum to an easier online curriculum called Edgenuity, she said, which was already being used during summer school. 

Instead of paying some teachers to instruct those virtual students, the system required each school’s assistant principal to instruct all of those virtual students, she said, which left vulnerable teachers, and those caring for sick family members like herself, no choice but to teach class in person. 

“So that didn’t even become an option,” she said. 

“We were told that we were getting all this cleaning equipment, and we were using COVID money to pay for extra custodians to come in and help clean the schools,” she said. “And as early as the day before school started we had no cleaning supplies. They had to scramble around just find Clorox wipes and Lysol, which is hard to find anyway.” 

Those extra custodians weren’t hired until last week, she said. Her school started back with in-person, five-day weeks, or virtual learning, on Aug. 19, yet there was no plan to leave a day of the week open for cleaning, she said.  

“So teachers were upset. Concerned about that, because we were feeling like we weren’t being treated like professionals,” she said. “Nobody was communicating. The answer to most questions, even in the first several days of school, was, ‘Well, we don’t know.’ We’re starting school and the plan was ‘there is no plan.’” 

The board of education did allot some money for teachers to select cleaning supplies from a company the system buys from. Three weeks after school started, she received some supplies, but not exactly what she’d ordered. Other teachers tried to hunt down supplies online, but had little luck at the time, when cleaning supplies were in short supply nationwide. 

It was about that time that she tossed several M&M’s into her mouth and couldn’t taste them. She couldn’t smell a candle nearby either. A family member spotted the loss of taste and smell as symptoms of coronavirus and suggested she get tested. 

She tested positive and was sent home to quarantine, but said that although the CDC guidelines call for a classroom to be deep cleaned after a teacher tests positive for COVID-19, the next day her school held ACT tests in her classroom without doing that deep cleaning. 

“They sprayed some Lysol and wiped down desks, but it didn’t get a deep clean,” she said. 

Other schools in her district have had COVID-19 outbreaks, and more than a quarter of her students that attend class in person have either tested positive for coronavirus or were quarantined because of exposure to someone who has, she said. 

The teacher said before either contracted COVID-19 her  mother bought her two large air purifiers “out of her own pocket because she knew the risk was great with my returning to face-to-face classroom instruction.” 

No Choice 

The other Alabama high school teacher who spoke to APR this week also asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation for speaking about her concerns. 

“At our school, we have had so many of our kids have it, and so many of our football players have it,” she said of confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Her father was in his early 80s and she was his only caregiver, having lost her mother years before, she said. 

“So I’ve tried to limit my contact with him as much as possible since we started back to school,” she said. 

Recently, she began having headaches and became concerned, she said. 

“I couldn’t shake my headache. It just wouldn’t go away, and we had all these kids that had COVID at my school,” she said. 

She went for a COVID-19 test on Friday and got the call on Monday that she had tested positive. Two days later her father developed a fever and also tested positive for the coronavirus. 

His fever had come down, but one day she couldn’t get him on the phone. He was found that day, lying on the kitchen floor, she said. 

“I started CPR on him, she said. “I thought maybe I got something but I didn’t. It was just me doing the breathe.” 

“He’s my only person. He’s it. For four years now I’ve tried my very best to take such good care of him,” she said. 

She hadn’t seen him for a week before he got sick, but she suspects she gave it to him before then, when she may have been asymptomatic. 

“I had no choice about it. No choice whatsoever,” she said of having to work in person. 

She’s expressed her concern to the Alabama Education Association about how her school was mishandling the dangers of COVID-19 before she came down with the illness and before her father died, and said the school isn’t following its own guidance. 

“They’ve let parents into the building. They’ve let outside visitors in the building. They let a group take a field trip, even though it was in their plan that they could not,” she said.

Her attempt before school started to warn an administrator about how class schedules would overcrowd classrooms was dismissed outright, she said. 

Numerous people who work in the poorly ventilated administrative offices at her school have contracted COVID-19, she said. 

“Because we have no ventilation in our offices. It’s just like a nursing home,” she said, adding that those offices have windows but the windows can’t be opened. 

She struggled several times during the interview when discussing the loss of her father, and described the entire ordeal as her “worst fear come true.”  

“This is just so shocking. I mean, I just still can’t believe it,” she said. “I’m just heartbroken.” 

“Do the best you can”

A teacher at a Shelby County high school told APR recently that teachers are buying their own safety equipment, and described the community as fighting against keeping their own children and families safe. 

She also asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation for speaking openly about what’s happening in her school.  

“The administration said, ‘You’re not going to be able to keep six feet of distance. This is not going to happen. Period. Do the best you can, but we understand that’s not going to happen,’” she said. 

“There are teachers who have shower curtains hung up all in their rooms. There are teachers who are spending their own money to buy HEPA air filters,” the teacher said. “We’re just kind of left on our own to figure out a way to protect ourselves.” 

The teacher said at first, if a student was found to be positive for COVID-19 and quarantined, custodial staff would do a deep cleaning of that classroom, but that practice, too, has since fallen by the wayside.

Prior to Sept. 29, Shelby County Schools weren’t publishing information on the number of confirmed cases among students or staff, and that was a big point of contention for teachers, she said.

Since they have begun publishing those numbers on the district’s website, teachers are still unsure about their veracity, she said, adding that it was unclear if virtual students are included in the numbers, which would drive down the positivity rate listed in the data and not give a good glimpse as to what’s happening in physical classrooms. 

The teacher said also troubling is how parents of many students are handling COVID-19 in schools, with many pressuring one-another not to report positive COVID-19 test results to the school, so as not to cause other students to miss class and extracurricular activities due to quarantining. 

“So there’s pressure in the community to not report. They don’t care. They don’t think it’s gonna hurt them. They don’t think it’s gonna hurt their children,” she said. 

The teacher said just about every teacher she’s spoken to has had a student who is out of class for a period of time “and then of course we all think, okay so they didn’t report. So they just went home and got better and didn’t report, and I don’t necessarily blame them, because of the pressure.” 

Cindy Warner, a spokesperson for Shelby County Schools, in a response Tuesday to APR regarding the teachers concerns, said that the district includes virtual students in the COVID-19 testing data because many of them come to campus for extracurricular activities including athletics and have contact with other students and faculty. 

Warner said the COVID-19 data isn’t broken down by school “as the district maintains the responsibility to uphold FERPA rights of students and ADA protections for employees” and doing so would increase the risk that a student or teacher could be identified. 

Speaking to the teacher’s concerns about a lack of social distancing, Warner said teachers have been instructed to try to create as much space as possible between them and the students, while also providing quality instruction. 

Maintaining social distancing in the school became harder, Warner said, when the district transitioned on Sept. 14 from a staggered two-day week to a full five-day week. 

“Teachers have not been asked to spend personal money for PPE or supplies for their classrooms, however, they may have voluntarily chosen to do so,” Warner said. “The district has a Concerns Protocol established through our Human Resources Department. This process provides a way for employees to discuss any COVID-19 related concerns. The district has provided appropriate accommodations to address employee concerns, including the purchase of many HEPA air filters for teachers/staff across the district.” 

On cleaning, Warner said enhanced cleaning is done throughout the day, and a deep cleaning is done on Wednesday and Fridays after school. 

Asked about the teacher’s statements about parents pressuring one another to keep positive COVID-19 test results to themselves, Warner said the district and school is unaware of that. 

A protest

On Tuesday, the first day of in-person learning across Montgomery Public Schools, 168 teachers didn’t report to class, and about 60 protested outside the Montgomery Public Schools central office, WSFA 12 News reported

“We do not have a concrete plan. We have an outline but then we have to fill it in. How in the world am I going to sit at my desk and teach kids online and teach a classroom full of students?” one teacher said during the protest, according to the news station. 

In a statement Tuesday, the Alabama Education Association said the association has made great efforts to make sure both students and educators are as safe as possible in their classrooms and schools.

“AEA is aware of the frustration many educators have regarding their health and safety – and although today’s protest was not spearheaded by AEA, the association is focused on the safety of all education employees in Montgomery County as they return to work,” AEA’s statement continues.

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Education

UA partners with Alabama Power and Techstars on energy-focused accelerator

The EnergyTech accelerator organization will support startups in energy technology and advance the University of Alabama’s educational and research mission.

Brandon Moseley

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The University of Alabama has partnered with Alabama Power and Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator. (contributed)

The Alabama Power Company announced last week that it has partnered with the University of Alabama and Techstars on the Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator.

The EnergyTech accelerator organization will support startups in energy technology and advance the University of Alabama’s educational and research mission.

“This partnership with Alabama Power and Techstars demonstrates our efforts to provide innovative, entrepreneurial, research-oriented and student-centric opportunities,” said Dan Blakley, the associate vice president for economic and business engagement at Alabama Power. “This public-private partnership is a great example of our focus on statewide workforce development, job creation and technology transfer that create opportunities for our students to remain in state and succeed after graduation.”

According to the Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator agreement, UA students will be given access to unique opportunities to engage with the energy startups to broaden their own skill sets and help improve Alabama’s economy.

UA Students will be given internship opportunities with participating startups in the accelerator.

There they will learn how new companies in the increasingly dynamic energy sector are built and grow. The accelerator will provide hands-on learning around energy, technology, entrepreneurship and research for students and faculty.

If and when COVID-19 conditions improve, there are plans in place for students to visit the accelerator and participate in networking events.

Public Service Announcement

The Alabama Power Company is the founding partner in the Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator. The accelerator identifies and evaluates high-potential startups addressing industry problems with solutions to better serve customers and communities. The accelerator invests in early stage companies with a technology or business model relevant to the energy industry.

The Techstars Alabama EnergyTech Accelerator is also supported by the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama, the Alabama Department of Commerce, Altec and PowerSouth. These supporters are playing a key role in the accelerator and share the common goal of growing the number of startup companies in Alabama.

The accelerator recently selected and inaugural class of 10 startups for the 2020 program, which launched an intensive 13-week endeavor on Sept. 8. Companies from seven states were chosen. Three of them are already headquartered in Birmingham.

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The accelerator’s companies will work with UA faculty, the UA Career Center, The EDGE and EDGE Labs, and other relevant UA units to provide experiential entrepreneurship and learning opportunities for students.

As part of the partnership, students will have the chance to participate in the accelerator’s Demo Day, which is currently scheduled for December.

The partnership will explore ways to engage faculty and students in six core technology emphasis areas including battery storage and charging, electric vehicles, cybersecurity, smart homes and businesses, renewable energy and connectivity.

Techstars is the global platform for investment and innovation. It was founded in 2006. The company began with three simple ideas: entrepreneurs create the future, collaboration drives innovation and great ideas can come from anywhere.

Since 2006, Techstars has invested in more than 2,200 companies and today has a market cap of $29 billion.

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