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Ivey Requests Revisions to ALSDE Reopening Roadmap, Funding Requests


The State Board of Education voted in new officers at its annual meeting Tuesday, unanimously electing Jackie Ziegler (District 1) as vice president and Dr. Yvette Richardson (District 4) as president pro tem. 

Board action also included approval of the appointment of Dr. Tracye Strichik as director of the Alabama Reading Initiative. Strichik, who most recently served as deputy director of the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education, replaces recently retired ARI director, Karen Porter.

State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey reported the ALSDE has sent formal letters to colleges of education requesting validation that their programs meet requirements of the Alabama Literacy Act. The move follows a request by board members at last month's meeting for the ALSDE to ensure compliance with the law as part of its process to approve college of education programs. The ALSDE has given colleges a 12-month timeframe to comply.

Work Session: L
awmakers Present Health-Focused Reopening Plan

A marathon work session following Tuesday's meeting was devoted exclusively to discussion of the ALSDE's Roadmap for Reopening Schools, which was released late last month. The plan provides suggested guidance but largely leaves key decisions such as mandating facial coverings to each local school system.

While many -- but not all -- of Alabama's school systems have released their reopening plans in recent weeks, board members seemed surprised to learn these plans are not being submitted to the ALSDE. When asked, department officials were unable to verify how many or which systems have finalized reopening plans. Mackey told the board the ALSDE will now make that request. 

Dr. Tommie Stewart (District 5) said many are frightened at the prospect of reopening schools amid rising COVID-19 cases and are looking to the state for leadership. She asked what major directives the state can provide to school systems as they look for answers about how best to reopen schools safely for students and staff. 

Gov. Kay Ivey, who serves SBOE president by virtue of her office, invited Senate Health Committee Chairman Jim McClendon, Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, Senate Rules Chairman Jabo Waggoner and a spokesperson from the Alabama Association of School Nurses to present their own proposal for reopening schools. Titled  Safely Opening Schools (S.O.S.) , the $150 million plan would include hiring 300 school nurses, technology to provide thermal scanning devices for students and staff, testing for flu and COVID-19 and a nurse's station in each K-12 school, all paid for up front from the state's $1.8 billion in federal CARES Act funding. Those funds must be spent by Dec. 31, 2020. 

The 480-square-foot nurses' stations, which would take an estimated six to eight weeks to build, were described as a key part of the proposal. They would provide each school with a dedicated area for nurses to isolate sick students behind a glass divider so other students could be seen without risk of exposure. Fewer than 10 percent of Alabama's schools currently have isolated spaces, and many school nurse rooms lack running water, a basic feature essential for the hand-washing required to reduce transmission of COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses. McClendon said the stations would be an investment that remains long after the pandemic passes. He added that it will be the legislature’s responsibility to fund school nurses going forward in the education budget.

Singleton, who has been a vocal critic of the ALSDE's Roadmap plan for what he says is a lack of specific health guidance and resources to help all school systems safely reopen, said the S.O.S. plan would ensure equity for all school systems regardless of local resources. He said the plan is bipartisan and provides a uniform way to minimize risk for all children in every school. He urged the state to take the lead by providing these health resources and not place the responsibility solely on the shoulders of local school systems, some of which have very little access to resources or even healthcare expertise in their communities. Board members asked many questions regarding availability of nurses to hire, expanding nurse duties and building code requirements.

COVID-19 testing also was discussed as part of the S.O.S. plan. Waggoner said Alabama's higher education institutions already are providing testing for their students and asked why a similar request isn’t being made for K-12. Gov. Ivey made clear that although she supports the thermal imaging devices, she was not endorsing testing in schools. She explained that part of her rationale for inviting the lawmakers to discuss the S.O.S. plan was to allow the SBOE to have the benefit of all information as they make their requests for additional federal funds.

At issue is access to the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). The Coronavirus Relief Fund provides $1.8 billion in federal funding to Alabama to broadly address costs dealing with the pandemic. If not spent by December 31, 2020, the funds must be returned. These funds were subject to a tug-of-war between the legislature and governor in the state’s General Fund budget. An executive amendment finally settled the matter, leaving the funds in the governor’s authority with an outline of spending categories. 

The ALSDE already had submitted its request for funding to include digital devices and internet connection at $288 million ($400 per student), $100 million for internet-enabled devices and a $72 million request ($50,000 per school) to pay for healthcare supports including upgrades to nursing facilities, extra pay for extended nurse hours or hiring additional nurses. The funds would be distributed as grants to school systems.

Gov. Ivey directed the ALSDE to revisit its funding request, review items in the S.O.S. proposal and identify what will best address needs for reopening schools. Ivey said the funds are available now, and the department's funding request should be based on all the information available. She asked Mackey to submit an updated funding request in writing by Friday, July 17.

Department Staff Update SBOE on COVID-19 Response 

ALSDE staff presented highlights of the department’s responses to the COVID-19 crisis across multiple areas (view PowerPoint). Among them:

The board also briefly discussed progress on developing an evaluation instrument for the superintendent. Board member Stephanie Bell (District 3) said she wanted to ensure the discussion is transparent as they consider the components of the evaluation.

With so many issues to be addressed as schools prepare to reopen, the board will consider having a called work session prior to its next regular meeting on Aug. 13.