A couple of weeks ago, after the school system experienced its fourth educator death in a 48-hour span from suspected COVID-19 complications, Montgomery Public Schools officials decided to shut down in-person classes and return to virtual learning until all educators who wanted a vaccine had received one.
It was a significant setback for the district, which had worked hard to get students back in classrooms. But it was also the 10th educator death within MPS in two months. Safety of the teachers had to come first.
The problem, of course, was when could those teachers hope to be vaccinated? Vaccinations across the state were going slowly — the slowest in the nation, in fact. And there was no plan in place to get teachers a vaccine, and no central location to which to send them. Some within MPS genuinely worried that the system might remain in virtual class mode until the end of the school year again.
And then along came Alabama State University. Again.
Earlier this week, the historically Black college in Montgomery announced a partnership with MPS, agreeing to move teachers to the front of the line and vaccinate at least 800 of them. It could be a game-changing arrangement for the school district, the teachers and the entire city.
And it’s not new for ASU.
The last 12 months have been hard all across this country, and especially in Alabama. The pandemic has thrown life as we once knew it into complete chaos, upending norms and eliminating the livelihoods of thousands.
But one of the bright spots in the middle of all this has been ASU’s work — both in attacking the virus head-on with innovative technologies and forward-thinking plans and in providing for the local community, particularly the poorest areas of Montgomery.
ASU, under the leadership of president Quinton Ross and director of health services Dr. Joyce Loyd-Davis, made a decision early on in this pandemic that it wasn’t going to run from COVID, but would instead take a proactive approach to combating the virus on campus and helping the local community cope with it.
Early on, ASU partnered with the Alabama Department of Public Health and became a testing site, offering free tests to anyone in the local communities and putting together various efforts to test for the virus in low-income housing complexes. At one point, the university, through a partnership with the Montgomery Housing Authority, set up a drive-thru testing location for residents of some housing complexes.
Many state officials and legislators, while working in Montgomery, have ventured onto the ASU campus to get a test, because it was one of the few, reliable testing locations in the state.
That’s because Ross and ASU officials didn’t take no for an answer when they went looking for tests and new technology to install on campus. While other universities around Alabama were scaling back testing and moving away from it, ASU actually ramped during the fall. In fact, the school had a plan so comprehensive and well-stocked with testing supplies that it was one of just three universities in the Southwestern Athletic Conference that said it could meet and exceed every benchmark for playing football in the Fall.
In late August, ASU entered a partnership with Draganfly to install advanced temperature scanners around campus. The five scanners would check for elevated body temperatures and also check a person’s vital signs, including oxygen levels, in an effort to detect COVID. If a warning was triggered, the person could then receive a free test from ASU’s testing location on campus.
Last month, ASU announced that it would also be a vaccination site, and that after vaccinating many of its faculty and staff, it would then start vaccinating members of the local community. This was before the commitment to vaccinate MPS educators.
It’s hard to stress just how important ASU’s involvement in the testing and vaccination efforts are — to all of us, and particularly to our Black friends and neighbors. It is no secret that COVID has taken a particularly devastating toll on the Black community. It is also no secret that many within the Black community are hesitant to take a vaccine pushed by a government that has been anything but compassionate and caring to them in the past.
Keep in mind, the horrors of the Tuskegee syphilis project happened just a few miles up the road. Those sorts of atrocities aren’t easily forgotten, nor should they be.
That ASU, the historically Black college that played a central role in the fight for civil rights, is now leading the vaccine efforts in Montgomery has to matter to a whole bunch of people. It has to provide some level of trust and faith in this vaccine, particularly for the many MPS teachers — and their family members — who received their teaching degrees from ASU.
There will never be any real way to know how many lives were saved or how many people avoided serious illnesses because of ASU’s efforts over the last year. But it’s safe to say it’s well into the hundreds and will only grow.
Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen a staggering amount of death and sickness. Every day, every news story is seemingly filled with more agony and sadness.
ASU has reminded us that there are a few bright spots out there.