Byrne: Education in the time of the pandemic

Last week, I had a virtual conference with the leaders of the local school systems in our district. Starting a new school year is a difficult task in the best of times. Doing so in the middle of a pandemic with the disease spreading as it is now makes this normally difficult job truly daunting.

I greatly appreciate what these leaders and their staff are going through. Over $500 million of the CARES Act money Congress sent to Alabama will be used to help schools deal with COVID-19, and the purpose of our call was to bring them up to speed on that federal money coming their way and to offer them the support of my office.

The first and most important decision our local school systems have to make is whether to allow students to return this year in person. Most of our local systems in southwest Alabama have decided to do that starting in August but with an option for parents to decide if they prefer for their children to only participate virtually. The Mobile County system has elected to delay start of the school year until September 1 and provide instruction during the first quarter, which lasts nine weeks, in remote fashion only. Then they will reassess.

Actually, all of these systems will have to constantly monitor the situation and potentially reassess based on how things are going. It’s important to know that flu season begins in October and peaks between December and February, which is relevant because public health experts warn that COVID-19 spread could worsen during this same time. We will just have to wait and see because like so much else with regard to this disease, the experts really don’t know.

Why is there such a push to reopen schools? We had a hearing on the Education Committee last month, and testimony indicated that virtual or distance learning may work for some students but for many it doesn’t. That may be because they don’t have access to the internet or because they just need in-person help from a teacher physically present in the classroom. For the many students for whom distance learning doesn’t work, virtual classes are the same as no classes.

In April, the Collaborative for Student Growth, a non-partisan education research organization, released a study on the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. It projected that the early closure last spring resulted in a 30% loss in reading gains for the academic year, and a 50% loss in mathematics. And that was for missing only part of a semester. That same month the Brookings Institute, a left-leaning research organization, released preliminary findings on the cost to students’ future earnings caused by the spring closures. It came to a loss of over $1300 in future income per year, per student, and a 12% hit to national GDP.

On the health side, in May the U.S. Center for Disease Control issued a resource for school leaders called “Considerations for Schools” which lays out how schools can open with safe environments and operations. Last week it issued new guidelines for schools and a statement on “The Importance of Reopening American Schools This Fall,” concluding that the health risk of COVID-19 to children is small when compared to the considerable benefits of in person education.

And, just a few weeks ago, the American Academy of Pediatricians, which is “Dedicated to the Health of All Children,” issued a “Guidance for School Re-Entry” in which it emphasized that “all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.” It noted that “children and adolescents are less likely to be symptomatic and less likely to have severe disease” from COVID-19. It also provided detailed guidance for schools.

There is another important consideration here. The AAP found that “schools play a critical role in addressing racial and social inequity.” At a time when the US is having a major national discussion on inequality, we need to consider the potential long term, serious, and disproportionately negative effect not opening schools will have on poor children and children of color. They are more likely not to have internet at home or a caregiver there during the school day as their parents are more likely to have to work. Not being in school for an extended period is a big issue for any child, but for these children it will likely mean a permanent, lifelong setback.

Finally, we all should include in our considerations the health and safety of our educators. Putting them physically in a classroom exposes them to risks, and some of them have justifiably expressed their concerns. The CDC guidance on healthy school environments and operations will help protect students and teachers. But there will also be extra stress on our educators as they cope with the challenges posed by the disease, and the AAP’s Guidance directly addresses the need to help them with that stress. As with health care providers during this pandemic, educators operating in person are front line heroes and deserve our support.

As we work our way through the experience with this disease, let’s not forget that there will be a vaccine that effectively provides immunity, and an effective treatment so that those who have it won’t face hospitalization or death. As a result, we will return to a new normal in which we won’t be so distanced from one another and schools will operate closer to the old normal. Let’s make decisions for today with an eye to this future new normal. And let’s take care of our children in their health AND their education.

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne is a Republican from Fairhope.

1 hour ago

Chuck Martin endorses Republican Russell Bedsole in Alabama House District 49

Russell Bedsole’s Republican candidacy has received a boost in the Alabama House District 49 special election.

This seat, covering parts of Bibb, Chilton and Shelby Counties, was vacated by the resignation of State Rep. April Weaver (R-Brierfield), who left the legislature to join the administration of President Donald J. Trump.

Bedsole led the pack in the GOP primary held last week, finishing ahead of second-place Mimi Penhale and third-place Chuck Martin. Since no candidate got a majority, a runoff will be held on September 1.

On Wednesday night, Martin endorsed Bedsole in that runoff via a Facebook post.

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Martin led Bibb County in primary votes and finished with a competitive 24.25% overall.

In a release, he expounded on why he is publicly backing Bedsole.

“After thoughtful consideration, I am endorsing Russell Bedsole to represent District 49 in the Alabama House of Representatives,” Martin stated. “Like me, Bedsole has deep roots in District 49. I believe he will be a strong voice for Bibb, Shelby, and Chilton counties, and he will fight for our communities’ conservative Christian values in Montgomery.”

Bedsole, a longtime deputy sheriff in Shelby County and an Alabaster city councilor, has already been endorsed by the likes of Shelby County Sheriff John Samaniego and the Alabama State Fraternal Order of the Police in the race.

“It is an honor to be endorsed by Chuck Martin,” Bedsole commented. “As a representative of District 49, I will fight for pro-life and pro-Second Amendment legislation, along with funding for developing crucial infrastructure, in the Alabama House of Representatives.”

Penhale, the legislative director for Shelby County’s legislative delegation, has taken an unpaid leave of absence from her state government job to run for office. She has been endorsed by the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

3 hours ago

License plate to support Alabama business proposed — Must meet 1,000 application benchmark

A license plate that will support Alabama small businesses will be created if 1,000 apply for one by July 31.

Funds from purchasing the plate will be given to Main Street Alabama, which will in turn provide workshops and grants to small businesses around the Yellowhammer State.

The tag can be applied for here. A $50 fee accompanies the application.

“With this program, individuals can show their dedication to their favorite small businesses, who in many cases are their friends and neighbors, with a tag that gives back to them with workshops and grants focused on strengthening their business,” said Main Street Alabama state coordinator Mary Helmer in a statement.

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Helmer added, “Small businesses keep it local by consistently sponsoring the local baseball team, providing gift baskets for the local charity drives and creating jobs in their community.”

Main Street Alabama is a non-profit entity and an offshoot of Main Street America organization.

The artwork on the tag was created by Chris Seagle, a graphic designer based in Birmingham.

The idea for a car tag supporting small business originated among a group of elected officials in Jefferson County.

Casey Middlebrooks, a member of the group and a Hoover City Councilman, said that his fellow officials “felt Main Street Alabama had the statewide presence and resources to facilitate support to small businesses throughout the state.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

3 hours ago

Ivey urges Alabamians to complete Census — Billions in funding, congressional seat at stake

Governor Kay Ivey (R-AL) on Friday released a video public service announcement urging Yellowhammer State residents to complete the 2020 Census.

The deadline to complete the Census recently was moved up to September 30, meaning there is less than seven weeks left for Alabamians to either self-respond or respond to Census Bureau field staff.

Leaders from the public sector, as well as industry, economic development, charitable and civic organizations, have warned for months that Alabama has a lot on the line during the 2020 Census response period.

Projections have shown the state will lose a congressional district and corresponding electoral college vote — likely to a far-left state such as New York, California or Illinois — if Alabama’s response rate continues to lag.

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“Complete your 2020 Census today,” Ivey said to begin the new PSA. “We only have until September 30.”

“Without you, Alabama stands to lose billions in funding, a seat in Congress and economic development opportunities,” she continued. “It only takes minutes to complete. Go to my2020census.gov or participate by phone or mail.”

The governor concluded, “Be counted — if not for you, for those in Alabama who depend on you for a brighter tomorrow.”

Watch:

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

4 hours ago

Report: Birmingham golf tournament Regions Tradition canceled for 2020

A report from WBRC in Birmingham on Friday says that the yearly golf tournament Regions Tradition has canceled the 2020 edition due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The event organizers say it will be back in early May of 2021.

WBRC says they were told by a “source close to the tournament” about the decision to cancel the 2020 version.

The tournament had previously been rescheduled from its normal late spring/early summer slot until September due to COVID-19 concerns.

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Regions Tradition is a tournament on the PGA Tour Champions circuit, a series of competitions held each year for golfers over age 50.

According to Alabama NewsCenter, the annual Regions Tradition tournament has an economic impact on the Birmingham area between $20 million and $25 million every year.

The Tradition was first held in 1989 and is one of the five major golf tournaments on the Senior Circuit.

Regions took over as the event’s sponsor in 2010 and relocated the tournament to the Birmingham area beginning in 2011.

Steve Stricker won the tournament in 2019, a title he will now keep for two years.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

4 hours ago

Jefferson County health officials say coronavirus pandemic precautions will continue into 2021

Two impactful figures in Jefferson County’s healthcare system advised on Friday that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting precautions such as mask-wearing will remain a major factor in public life at least through the end of 2020.

Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson and CEO of the UAB Health System/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance Will Ferniany briefed reporters on coronavirus information during a Friday morning videoconference.

“This pandemic is not going away by the end of December,” warned Ferniany.

Wilson said it was “very likely” that he would push to keep a mask order in place across Jefferson County “through the flu season” which would indicate the ordinance would stay in place at least through the spring of 2021.

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“We have pretty good evidence that our face-covering orders, and our help from the public wearing face coverings, has made a difference,” remarked Wilson.

“We still have a ways to go but we’re starting to bend the curve downward,” Wilson told reporters.

The remarks made by Wilson and Ferniany are similar to what Mobile County epidemiologist Dr. Rendi Murphree told Yellowhammer News in recent days.

Ferniany said that UAB is making a significant investment in rapid testing that should be ready for action by the end of the year, the availability of which should make dealing with the virus more manageable.

Wilson highlighted a standard he felt more people should understand.

The county health officer said that any person exposed to someone positive for COVID-19 should quarantine for 14 days, even if they go out and get a test showing they do not have the virus.

“Fourteen days is the maximum amount of time from being exposed to the virus where you could still develop symptoms,” Wilson said to explain the policy.

Ferniany said UAB Hospital is currently treating around 90 patients, down from a peak of 130. He relayed that 40 of the COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized are in the ICU.

RELATED: Alabama coronavirus update: Hospitalizations begin to decrease, new cases falling

The executive also said that the toughest aspect of caring for COVID-19 cases currently is the shortage of nurses. He said the hospitals he oversees are down “several hundred nurses” with the partial explanation that traveling nursing companies are luring workers away with higher wages.

Wilson reported additional good news for Jefferson County. He said that the area is not experiencing a higher rate of black citizens dying from COVID-19 than white citizens.

“So far we’re not seeing a racial disparity in terms of deaths in Jefferson County,” he relayed.

“Forty-one percent of our deaths in Jefferson County with COVID-19 are African American. The African American population is 43%,” Wilson stated.

Yellowhammer News asked Wilson what kind of benchmarks he would need to be passed to trigger a loosening of coronavirus precautions and whether that would be dependent on a vaccine.

“We’re not going to be out of the woods for quite a long time,” Wilson responded.

“The bottom line will be the amount of disease activity we have in the community, and the trajectory of that,” he continued.

With respect to the vaccine, Wilson replied, “It is really hard to predict what is going to happen with the vaccine: How effective is it going to be, how widespread we’re going to be able to vaccinate people and how soon. There are way too many unknowns for us to say much about that.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95