I left Montgomery on Thursday evening fuming. In four weeks, more than 700,000 K-12 students, teachers, nurses and administrators across 138 school districts will venture back into Alabama’s classrooms for the first time since COVID-19 stopped our education system in its tracks.
In the four months since schools closed in March, the Alabama State Department of Education (DOE) hasn’t developed a single uniform parameter to protect the health of Alabama’s teachers and students this fall – not one. On Thursday, I learned that they don’t intend to.
The DOE released a so-called “roadmap” to reopening schools. It’s a 45-page document that has no provisions for testing or contact tracing. No criteria for determining the best time for school districts to open. No statewide plan for distance learning in the event schools are forced to close again. No substantive direction. The document is nothing more than a series of colorful graphics and suggestions, void of the leadership required by this crisis.
This isn’t a case of reasonable minds disagreeing. It’s not even debatable. The DOE plan is woefully inadequate and it comes at a time when the state is setting new records for COVID-19 cases with each passing day. I left Montgomery angry because our school administrators and teachers, our parents and our children deserve so much better. I was anxious because I don’t want to see our schools become incubators for this virus, and I don’t want to ever see the day when children are the new face of COVID-19 in Alabama.
But I know problems are rarely solved in anger. So, I started focusing on solutions. In a time when nearly everything in our country is politicized, the wisdom that stood out to me the most was from the late Republican U.S. Senator John McCain. “Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you,” he said.
With all the fear, uncertainty and loss COVID-19 has caused, we now have the opportunity to change the landscape of public education in Alabama – for now and the future. This is about a cause greater than any single individual.
The Alabama School Nurses Association has proposed the Safely Opening Schools (SOS) Program. It’s an aggressive, proactive plan focused on health equity – ensuring each and every Alabama school is equipped to implement health measures to keep our teachers and students safe. It includes three primary components.
1. Building nurses stations/isolation rooms at every single school in Alabama at a cost just under $50,000 per building.
2. Purchasing testing machines and supplies for every school in Alabama that is projected to result in more than 500,000 tests in nine months.
3. Hiring approximately 300 nurses for the schools around the state that are currently without one, with their salaries guaranteed for two years.
The SOS program is a strong plan, and I join my colleagues from across the aisle, Senators Jabo Waggoner and Jim McClendon, in supporting it. We’ve asked Governor Ivey to fund the majority of the program’s $150 million price tag out of Alabama’s $1.8 billion federal CARES Act allocation. We believe the remaining expenses could be covered by various grants, at no cost to Alabama’s taxpayers.
This is about our principles. For far too many Alabama students, school is the first and only checkpoint for signs of distress like physical abuse, poor nutrition, and mental and physical health issues. The return on this investment will extend well beyond this current health crisis. We have the opportunity for every school in the state – EVERY SINGLE SCHOOL – to have a cutting-edge nurse’s station, with state-of-the-art testing equipment and a full-time school nurse. Without this program, all students are at increased risk. That risk is disproportionately high for students in underserved and historically marginalized districts.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. We also have to address other educational inequities like access to technology, broadband and learning support. For most of the counties in my district, the percentage of families with broadband in their home is in the single digits. Our commitment to mitigating these impacts and providing an equitable system of public education must be unwavering. We can’t afford to have a wait-and-see attitude. We have to make prudent decisions and we have to make them now.
The leadership should be coming from the DOE, but instead, they’ve opted to pass the baton to local school districts. If the DOE is not up to the job, then the onus is on the rest of us to protect Alabama’s children, and the parents and teachers committed to educating them. In a time where so many things divide us, glory belongs to the act of being constant to the people on whom you rely, and who rely on you.
Bobby Singleton is the Alabama Senate Minority Leader