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.

19 mins ago

State Sen. Butler: Space Command announcement reminiscent of Huntsville reaction to 1958 Explorer launch, U.S. response to Sputnik

In 1957, the Soviet Union stunned the United States by launching Sputnik, the first manmade satellite. The news put Drs. Eberhard Rees and Wernher von Braun to work on a U.S. response at Redstone Arsenal’s Army Ballistic Missile Agency in Huntsville.

At 10:48 p.m. on January 31, 1958, the Jupiter-C lifted off from Cape Canaveral and successfully deployed Explorer I, the United States’ response to Sputnik. The news was greeted with celebratory sirens and horns in Huntsville.

Last week, the U.S. Air Force announced Huntsville was its choice for Space Command HQ. According to State Sen. Tom Butler (R-Madison), that announcement created an atmosphere much like the 1958 launch.

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(Huntsville Times, Feb. 1, 1958/NASA)

“I tell you, everybody here is just tickled to death,” he said during an interview on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show.” “I was here in 1958 when the Explorer went up. It was our answer to Sputnik. And the whole town at midnight — sirens were blowing, people were blowing horns up, just tickled to death. I think that same kind of atmosphere is here again. I guess we’ll have a new saying, where we’re called the Rocket City, and that’s for great purpose. Now we’ll say, ‘May the force be with you.'”

“I think it’s appropriate for winning the command center for Space Force, and we will adapt, obviously, the assets that were needed for the Space Command, are already here in Huntsville, Alabama at Redstone Arsenal,” Butler continued. “There’s plenty of land, plenty of assets at the Space Command will need. The Army Materiel Command is here. The Space Command will be here. The Army Missile Defense Command will be here. And the big one — NASA. This is where the Marshall Space Flight Center is. And we have an old saying here, too. We used to say by air and car, you couldn’t go anywhere without going through Atlanta. Well, going to outer space, you have to come through Huntsville, Alabama. We just saw that this week with the testing down at the Stennis Center, down near you, the main engining that will be lifting us to the moon in Artemis. We’re just tickled to death the way that went. Those engines are now on their way to Cape Kennedy, down at Canaveral. We’ve got a lot of interest from Huntsville here in space, and I think that helped us win the Space Command.”

14 hours ago

Alabama’s coronavirus numbers have started to go down

After rising steadily since the first week of October, new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Alabama have begun decreasing in recent days.

Alabama has seen a 9% decrease in hospitalized coronavirus patients over the last week. As of Monday, the state has 2,798 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, a decline of 286 from the all-time high of 3,084 recorded on January 11.

In the last week, Alabama has averaged 2,019 new COVID-19 cases per day, an enormous drop from the 3,080 per day witnessed on January 11.

The current rate of new cases is likely lower than reality due to a slowdown in reporting usually caused by a holiday weekend, but the decrease began in the early days of last week.

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Yellowhammer News refers to cases as those confirmed by a molecular test performed in a laboratory. When including results from rapid tests and other methods of COVID-19 detection, the average rises.

Clicking image opens interactive chart in new tab. (BamaTracker)

Hospitalizations, like cases, have sometimes seen rapid jumps in totals just after a holiday weekend. Again, like cases, the declines began before the holiday weekend.

Clicking image opens interactive chart in new tab. (BamaTracker)

Several Alabama counties, including Jefferson and Madison, are now considered “low risk” for coronavirus transmission by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH).

Clicking image opens interactive map in new tab. (ADPH/Screenshot)

ADPH calculates the county risk assessments each Thursday.

The virus remains widespread in the state, even as the risk is lower than in recent months. Of Alabama’s 67 counties, 63 reported a new coronavirus case on Monday.

A metric closely watched by health officials, the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive for the virus each day has decreased from 31% to 23% over the last week.

Alabama’s death toll from the virus is now estimated to be 6,121.

Of those, 5,099 have been confirmed as coronavirus deaths by the Alabama Department of Public Health, and another 1,022 are considered “probable” COVID-19 deaths but have not yet been confirmed by the department.

Over the course of the pandemic, it has been rare for a probable COVID-19 death not to ultimately be certified as a coronavirus death.

Deaths reported in one week usually occurred in weeks, or even months, before being logged by APDPH. The agency has recency confirmed a large spate of coronavirus deaths, but few occurred in the week prior to the reporting.

More positively, Alabama’s vaccine distribution program has picked up pace after a slower than wished for launch.

Alabama has now administered 148,685 vaccine doses as of Monday afternoon.

The state had only given out 89,763 doses on the week ending January 9. Alabama hospitals received their first doses in the middle of December.

The federal government has now shipped 379,875 vaccine doses to Alabama, meaning that 39.14% of the state’s received doses have gone into the arms of its citizens.

Alabama has been allotted 640,150 doses of vaccine, meaning only 59.34% of the state’s promised product has been delivered as of Monday.

Both vaccines require two doses, administered three to four weeks apart, to reach their full effectiveness.

Monday, January 18, marks the first day that Alabamians age 75 and up and non-medical first responders like police officers and firefighters are eligible to receive the vaccine.

ADPH estimates there are around 350,000 citizens of the state age 75 and over. An estimate of the number of people eligible due to service as a first responder was not provided.

The state’s nursing home residents and medical workers — the initial categories slated to get the vaccine — remain eligible to do so. APDH estimates Alabama has over 300,000 health care workers.

Due to limited supply, it is likely that the vast majority of Alabamians will not be able to receive a vaccination for a few more months.

Health officials are urging continued mask-wearing and social distancing to continue mitigating the spread of the virus.

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

14 hours ago

Crimson Tide’s Will Anderson named National Freshman Player of the Year

University of Alabama true freshman linebacker Will Anderson, Jr. on Monday was announced as the recipient of the Shaun Alexander-FWAA National Freshman Player of the Year Award for the 2020 college football season.

The award is named for Shaun Alexander, the former Bama star running back who went on to an All-Pro NFL career with the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Football Team.

The Football Writers Association of America also named Anderson and Crimson Tide defensive back Malachi Moore to the FWAA Freshman All-America First Team.

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This comes after Anderson earned the starting job at jack linebacker during the fall. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team and picked up second team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press. Anderson ended up tied for second in the conference in sacks with seven while ranking third in tackles for loss at 10.5.

Meanwhile, Moore earned the starting role at star for the Tide defense. The former Hewitt-Trussville star was selected to the SEC All-Freshman Team and also picked up second team All-SEC honors from the AP and the league coaches. He led the UA defense with four forced turnovers, including a team-high three interceptions, while totaling nine passes defensed.

Retired from his playing days for the past decade, Alexander now travels the country speaking and teaching people about the things he is passionate about: his Christian faith, marriage, fatherhood, football, winning, leading and love.

RELATED: Shaun Alexander on life, love and loss — ‘We will see her again, worshiping God together’

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

14 hours ago

Fundraiser for donation-based Alabama restaurant helps provide meals to those in need

Drexell & Honeybee’s, a donation-based restaurant in Brewton, is holding a fundraiser to be able to continue providing meals to those in need. Musician Maxamiliano Nelson wrote a song called “I Was Hungry (and You Fed Me)” for Drexell & Honeybee’s, and is giving 100% of the proceeds of his song downloads to the restaurant.

The soul-food restaurant has always been a “pay-what-you-can” place, which means customers choose how much they want to pay for the meal, whether it’s a generous donation, a few coins, a handwritten note, or just simply a thank you. There are no prices listed anywhere on the menu or in the restaurant, so customers don’t feel pressure. Owners Lisa Thomas-McMillan and Freddie McMillan have created a safe haven where everyone knows they can come get a hot meal when they need it. To them, food is about the joy of serving others and that doesn’t come with a price tag.

However, Drexell & Honeybee’s has been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is why they’re hosting a fundraiser.

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“With all of our donations based on anonymity and the pandemic forcing us to offer only take-out meals, we’ve had to unfortunately stop accepting contributions as we don’t want to take the chance of someone not getting a meal because they feel embarrassed about what they can or can’t provide in these unprecedented times,” Lisa Thomas-McMillan says. “Feeding the needy has always been a higher calling for us and with this initiative, we’re hoping we can rally additional support from the community and continue delivering hot meals to those who need it most for many years to come.”

Maxamiliano Nealon is a multi-lingual, Spanish-English singer/songwriter who lives in Portland but sings with a goal of spreading hope in a troubled world. He believes in the mission of Drexell & Honeybee’s, and the song “I Was Hungry (and You Fed Me)” is an homage to it. It serves as a tribute to the spirit, charity and togetherness the restaurant has shown the community over the years. The song can be purchased for $1 and downloaded here.

Lisa and Freddie have enthusiastically embraced the song, calling it the restaurant’s theme song. As passionate music lovers themselves, they saw it as a unique opportunity to raise awareness of their mission. Living by the motto “We Feed the Need,” Drexell & Honeybee’s puts serving their community at the forefront of everything they do. Now, they’re hoping their community can help to support them.

RELATED: Lisa Thomas-McMillan is a 2020 Woman of Impact

Julia Sayers Gokhale is a writer and editor who has been working in the lifestyle journalism industry since 2012. She was Editor in Chief of Birmingham Magazine for five years and is now leading Yellowhammer News’ lifestyle content. Find her on Instagram at @juliasayers or email her at julia@yellowhammernews.com.

16 hours ago

State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris disputes report Alabama ‘last in the country’ on vaccine distribution — ‘We are not even close to last in the country’

Over the last several days, reports have circulated that show Alabama ranked last in the country in vaccine distribution according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. The data show the state has administered less than 100,600 of the 444,640 doses distributed.

However, that is not accurate, according to State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris.

During an appearance on APTV’s “Capitol Journal,” Harris disputed the claim and maintained the lackluster numbers were a result of CDC having not properly received vaccine data.

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“The numbers that are reported on the CDC website are not correct,” he said. “We understand there is an issue with the way the CDC is receiving some of our data. A lot of those numbers are from the long-term care pharmacy program that’s operated by CVS and Walgreen’s. At the same time, I would acknowledge we would like to be giving doses out faster than we are.  We could certainly be doing a better job, and we have a lot of things we’re putting into place to do that. But we are not last in the country. We are not even close to last in the country. We’re kind of middle of the country, and as of Friday, we have transmitted new numbers to CDC. The new numbers do look a lot better on that website, and I think they’ll continue to improve as we improve our data collection.”

Harris also addressed complaints about the hotline designated by the Alabama Department of Public Health (ADPH) to schedule appointments being overwhelmed and said while the system will have to be improved, the real issue is the limited number of available vaccines.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.