1 month ago

Virtual K-12 school options see increased attention as pre-existing growth hastened by pandemic

Since the state legislature passed a law creating the option in 2015, attending an Alabama public school over the internet has become an increasingly popular choice for students across the state.

The year 2020 saw the first graduating class of students who learned virtually for all four years of their high school education.

Additionally, online schools are seeing increased attention as the coronavirus pandemic creates concern among some returning students.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey told WBRC that school officials are looking to expand virtual learning options. Mackey highlighted specifically that virtual options would let immunocompromised students learn without the fear of contracting COVID-19.

State Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur), who chairs the House Education Policy Committee, told Yellowhammer News that the consensus number among Alabama educators, as of now, is around 5% of students may not return to the classroom this fall.

Estimated enrollment in Alabama’s public schools is around 740,000 students. Five percent of that would be 37,000 school kids.

“We’re just going to have to see what that looks like, and it may look different in different places,” added Collins on the coronavirus’ impact on enrollment.

The pioneering class that learned virtually for all four years graduated from Alabama Virtual Academy (ALVA), a project of Eufala City Schools. ALVA began with 50 students in 2015 and grew to over 3,000 students by 2019.

The Academy plans to raise its enrollment to 3,500 this fall to help accommodate increased interest during the coronavirus pandemic.

Students can enroll in ALVA regardless of where they live in Alabama.

Alabama Virtual Academy is done in partnership with the company K12 Education Inc., a firm that specializes in building online learning programs.

K12 Education Senior Director of School Partnerships and Compliance Perry Daniel told Yellowhammer News that ALVA is especially popular for students who live in Huntsville and Birmingham.

Daniel said 80% of nongraduating students who enrolled in ALVA last year have chosen to return this fall.

Students enroll in ALVA similarly to how they would at any other public school. The necessary supplies are then shipped to students at home.

Instruction at ALVA is conducted through a platform named Online School, with a supplement of video conferencing with certain teachers. It is available for students in grades K-12.

The Limestone County school system operates the Limestone County Virtual School Center, which is roughly similar in enrollment and course offerings to the Alabama Virtual Academy.

Athens City Schools and Conecuh County both operate much smaller virtual learning options.

The Chickasaw City school system in Mobile County opened a virtual academy focused on career training at the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

The school, called Alabama Destinations Career Academy, serves students in grades K-9 and aims to present “hands-on learning experiences in growing career fields” such as “information technology, heath and human services, and advanced manufacturing,” according to a release provided to Yellowhammer News.

Reporting by Alabama Media Group indicates there were 6,100 Alabama students enrolled in the virtual schools during the 2019-2020 school year.

ALVA from Eufala City Schools led the way with 3,091 students and Limestone County Virtual had 2,298.

A source of tension in the development of online schools is that the system providing the school gets the allotment of resources the State of Alabama allocates for each pupil enrolled, even as the costs for providing a virtual school are much less than a physical location.

The Alabama Department of Education recently issued a request for proposals to see which organizations could offer a feasible statewide online school. The proposals are due Friday, June 5.

“[I]n an abundance of caution, we want to have a virtual option in place that school systems across the state can take advantage of in the event it is needed,” Alabama State Department of Education Communications Director Michael Sibley recently told Alabama Media Group.

Collins commented to Yellowhammer about the statewide digital school, “I hope we’re just not looking for a bargain basement price, but that we’re actually looking for quality online education. Because it is available, and we want to make sure we’re getting something that is best for the students of Alabama.”

At the encouragement of Superintendent Mackey, multiple school systems across the state are also developing their own local virtual schools for this fall and beyond. Such efforts would be independent of the statewide virtual academy.

Collins told Yellowhammer that systems in Decatur City and Hartselle City, which she represents, are both building local virtual options.

Alabama State Senator Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) recently addressed the ALVA graduating class that learned virtually for all of high school.

Gudger told the graduates, “We will talk about what happened these past few months for the rest of our lives, especially new phenomenon like social distancing.”

The state senator continued, “But one term that did not surprise any of you was virtual learning, because you all are the pioneers for virtual education here in Alabama. The skills you have learned at ALVA will undoubtedly serve you well as you advance to the next stage of life. Congratulations again a job well done.”

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

10 hours ago

Alabama needs to limit uncertainty for healthcare providers in the pandemic

Uncertainty can be crippling. In many, it turns an energetic “can-do” spirit into a cautious “wait and see” mentality.

In 2011, more than half of small businesses surveyed by the US Chamber of Commerce said they were holding off on hiring new employees largely because of uncertainty about the economy.

That was in 2011. What about in 2020, with the coronavirus and the government’s response to it, at least for a time, laying waste to the stock market and much of the economy? How much does certainty matter now?

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Take Tuscaloosa, for example. Just last week Mayor Walt Maddox said that a lack of a football season, or even a mitigated season with less fans, would be “catastrophic” for the city. How catastrophic? A $131.5 million-in-lost-revenue kind of catastrophic.

So what do the restaurants, bars, and other businesses that rely on football-related revenue do while they wonder if this economic doom is heading their way? Do they hire and train employees? Do they stock up on inventory? How exactly do they plan for two extremely different potential realities?

Those answers are not clear. What is known, however, is that Tuscaloosa is not used to this uncertainty. And neither is our state.

Much of the unpredictability that the coronavirus has brought with it is not easily controlled or minimized. We can’t exactly make college football come back. And even the government cannot regulate the virus away.

We are not, however, entirely powerless in the COVID-19 era. Some uncertainty can be reigned in with action by the state legislature.

On April 2nd, Governor Ivey suspended the licensure and certificate of need requirements for medical practitioners and first responders, which enabled them to more readily come to Alabama’s assistance during the pandemic.

This action made it significantly easier for healthcare professionals from other states to come to Alabama and treat our sick. It’s also made quick and necessary expansions of healthcare facilities possible, since providers no longer have to jump through regulatory hoops governing whether or not the government thinks a new healthcare facility, or even an expansion of an existing facility, is needed.

The certificate of need process does just this. It forces healthcare providers to seek government approval before they can build a new facility or even increase the amount of beds in an existing facility. For many, this is a lengthy and costly process.

For this reason, the suspension of these regulations is good and necessary. It encourages healthcare providers to increase the availability of medical care in our state by offering a break from weighty government restrictions.

The problem, however, is that the April 2nd suspension is not permanent. In fact, Governor Ivey can only suspend these regulations for sixty days at a time.

Insert uncertainty.

Is it worth it for a nurse to pack up and move to Alabama to work with coronavirus patients if the order allowing her easy transfer ends in September (when the state of emergency is set to expire as of this writing)?

Is it worth it for healthcare facilities, likewise, to plan for new capacity if they don’t know for sure whether they’ll find themselves ensnared in government regulations once again in a couple months?

Again, it is a good thing that Governor Ivey suspended these regulations. In fact, the very absence of these regulations provides more certainty for our medical practitioners as they are less dependent on the decisions of bureaucrats in Montgomery. The uncertainty which comes with the temporary nature of the suspension, however, can inhibit the very healthcare providers we need most from proactively planning for the state’s health in the near future.

In short, healthcare providers need to know that if they come to Alabama or begin plans to expand medical facilities within our borders, the state won’t spring costly and time-prohibitive regulations on them. They need the certainty that only legislative action, in the form of a 12-month suspension of these requirements as suggested by API in the RESTORE Alabama Plan, can provide.

This, of course, depends on the Governor calling a special session of the state legislature to address the coronavirus and its effects. And if she does, this issue will not likely be a controversial one. In fact, over 70% of Alabamians support this idea, according to a recent Cygnal poll.

Even so, it is an important move. The state government has the ability to inject some stability into a healthcare field riddled with questions. Doing so is in the best interest, not only of our healthcare system, but of our state as a whole.

Parker Snider is the Director of Policy Analysis for the Alabama Policy Institute (API).

API is an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit research and educational organization dedicated to free markets, limited government, and strong families, learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

16 hours ago

National leader in water resources to head Alabama Water Institute

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Scott Rayder, an expert on building opportunities and funding for scientific organizations, was selected as the executive director of the Alabama Water Institute for The University of Alabama.

Water is a signature research and academic focus at UA, and AWI was formed to conduct integrated research and education on complex issues of water quantity, quality and security globally and locally.

“The University of Alabama strategically focused on water as a signature research thrust not only because of the profound importance of water in all facets of life, but also because we believe the University is ideally positioned to become a national and influential leader in the discipline. I believe Scott has both the vision and ability to work with faculty and students to make this happen,” said President Stuart Bell.

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The executive director position and AWI are vital to UA’s plan to increase research productivity and innovation in research, scholarship and creative activities that impact economic and societal development. Rayder will play a key role in continuing collaboration with the National Water Center, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration center located on the UA campus.

Currently senior advisor to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and to the president and vice president of the UCAR Foundation, Rayder will join UA Aug. 1.

He has extensive experience in building relationships and opportunities with both the private and public sector, including longstanding relationships with federal funding agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, NOAA, U.S. Geological Survey and National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“The University of Alabama has the unique opportunity, working with federal, state and industry partners, to propel the state of Alabama to become the epicenter for water research, water resource management and the new water economy in the United States. Scott is well-known both nationally and internationally and is the ideal leader to take full advantage of this opportunity,” said Dr. Russell J. Mumper, vice president for research and economic development.

Rayder’s involvement with higher education and research extends to the beginning of his career at NOAA, and includes nearly two decades of experience in senior leadership positions in large government, not-for-profit and private sector companies.

“I am honored to be joining the dedicated AWI team. UA science, policy and engineering expertise is uniquely positioned to help improve our understanding and application of the latest science and technology in support of critical water issues that affect everyone across the globe to citizens right here in Alabama,” Rayder said. “I look forward to engaging with the faculty, public and private stakeholders, philanthropists and future Alabama graduates in growing this capability here at the University.”

His work at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research in support of the National Center for Atmospheric Research as well as at the Center for Ocean Leadership included working with research universities and private sector partners in the pursuit of funding to better understand and utilize the world’s resources.

He was also part of the presidential transition team in 2016 for the U. S. Department of Commerce, which oversees NOAA.

Rayder holds a bachelor’s degree in government and geology from Hamilton College, New York, and a master’s in public administration with a concentration in science and technology policy from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

The committee for this national search was co-led by Dr. Mark Elliott, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering, and Dr. Behzad Mortazavi, professor and chair of biological sciences. Dr. Patricia Sobecky, UA’s associate provost for academic affairs, professor of biological sciences and founding executive director of AWI, was also integral to the search process.

“We are grateful to Dr. Sobecky for her dedication in standing up the Alabama Water Institute as founding executive director,” Mumper said. “Her leadership created an excellent foundation for transformative research and economic development relating to water.”

(Courtesy of the University of Alabama)

17 hours ago

Anniston’s 44-year-old Book Rack saved from closing by new owners

The Book Rack, an Anniston institution that was set to close after almost 45 years, opened a new chapter July 1 as “Jo’s Book Rack.”

Patricia Hancock bought the store five years ago as part of a lifelong dream she finally fulfilled in retirement. Now that Hancock is retiring again, she is “jumping for joy” that she didn’t have to close the Quintard Avenue store that has more than 70,000 books.

The Book Rack grew popular selling used paperbacks at half-price, while giving 25% of the cover price back in credit to people who brought in good-condition books.

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Brittany Boozer shopped at The Book Rack as a teenager but thought it went out of business years ago. Then her husband, Jonathan, emailed her a notice that the store was for sale.

“I thought it was a joke because I love books so much,” she said. “When I realized it was true, I said, ‘Hey, can we do this?’”

Married 10 years and having never owned a business, the Boozers decided to give it a shot. They are renaming the store “Jo’s Book Rack,” in part after her grandfather who died in 2016, and for their daughters, Jorden, 5, and Journey, 18 months. Jonathan already works full-time but will help his wife at the bookstore when he’s able.

“My grandfather was an avid reader and instilled it in me as a child,” she said. “I wanted to honor him and our girls, who I hope will love books as much as I do.”

Hancock posted on The Book Rack website “It’s time to celebrate!” as she turned the keys over to the Boozers. She said that when she was in her early 30s she wanted to own a bookstore, but it didn’t happen for 40 years. Hancock thanked her loyal customers and said she is excited “business will be conducted as usual” through the new owners.

Boozer admitted being “a little nervous” becoming a store owner in the midst of a pandemic that until recently had forced the closure of all “nonessential” businesses in Alabama and across most of the U.S. She is concerned by some print publications going out of business and that many young people read only online books.

“But I prefer to feel a book in my hands,” she said. “I know other people feel the same way.”

Boozer said there are “very busy” days ahead as she conducts a full inventory of the sales racks and books in storage. She hopes to soon begin online sales, will open a children’s section and will offer more hardbacks. Boozer may initiate sales of used hardbacks by sacrificing some of her huge collection from home.

“I want to make changes, but I want to keep some things the same to give old customers what they’ve come to expect the past almost 45 years,” she said. “At the same time, I want to offer things that will appeal to the younger generation.”

Boozer wants to sell books to parents who are homeschooling their children. She hopes to promote Jo’s Book Rack through sales of T-shirts, keychains and logo items. A new store sign will be installed atop the building, and there will be a new front window logo. Boozer intends to highlight new books and local authors.

“I am very excited for this opportunity to continue a landmark business in Calhoun County,” Boozer said. “I hope to keep the old customers and attract new ones.”

Contact Boozer at josbookrack@gmail.com or https://www.facebook.com/JosBookRack/.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

18 hours ago

Roby: Happy Independence Day

The Fourth of July is one of America’s most celebrated holidays each year, honoring the birth of American independence dating back to 1776. Americans gather from state to state to participate in beloved traditions such as fireworks, parades, barbecues, and many more. With all that is happening across the country right now, I hope that we each stop and reflect on the meaning of this special day.

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Our Founders had the incredible courage to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to defy a king and conceive a new nation based on freedom, equality, and government empowered by the consent of the governed. As they declared, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Now more than ever, our nation craves unity during these unprecedented times throughout all our communities. As we navigate a global pandemic that continues to sweep across the United States, already tragically claiming more than 130,000 precious lives, my greatest hope is that we stand together as one united people.

May we be ever vigilant in making sure the United States always embodies the ideals in that bold declaration by our Founders. May God bless each of you, and may God continue to bless the United States of America. From the Roby family to yours, we wish you a wonderful Fourth of July!

Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama, with her husband Riley and their two children.

18 hours ago

Stay safe during July 4th holiday

Across the country, people enjoy lighting fireworks to celebrate our nation’s birthday each Fourth of July. While gathering in large groups to watch fireworks shows may not occur this summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic, families and socially distant groups can still safely enjoy the holiday.

Follow these tips to stay safe while using fireworks:

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  • Check to make sure using fireworks is legal in your area.
  • Only buy legal fireworks labeled with the manufacturer’s name.
  • Make sure children use sparklers only outdoors and keep them away from their faces, hair and clothing. Sparklers can burn up to 2,000 degrees.
  • Wear eye protection.
  • Always use fireworks outdoors and have a bucket of water or water hose nearby and stay away from people in case of accidents from backfiring or shooting in an unintended direction.
  • When using fireworks, always point them away from houses, trees, cars, shrubbery and, especially, other people.
  • Do not hold fireworks while lighting them. Place them in an open container before lighting the fuse.
  • Light one firework at a time and never relight a “dud.”
  • Never allow children to pick up fireworks from the ground. Unexploded fireworks may still ignite.
  • Soak used or unignited fireworks in a bucket of water before throwing them away.

Many families may spend Independence Day weekend at a lake or beach. Be aware of these additional precautions when you’re near the water.

Boating safety

  • Make sure your boat is in good working order before taking it out for the first time and that all required equipment is on the boat.
  • Make sure all life jackets are in good working order. Life jackets must be worn by children younger than 8 years old and by anyone on a personal watercraft or being towed on skis or a tube.
  • Be aware of what other boaters are doing around you.
  • Storms can come up quickly, especially in the summer, so keep an eye to the sky. If caught in a storm, try to get to the nearest shelter.

 Pool and water safety

  • Anywhere there is water, there is a danger of drowning. Never swim alone.
  • An adult must always watch children closely. This means no reading, talking on the phone or texting.
  • An adult should be within arm’s reach of infants, toddlers and weaker swimmers.
  • Enter shallow water feet first. It is never OK to dive into water less than 9 feet deep.

 Heat safety

  • Drink more fluids (nonalcoholic), regardless of your activity level. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.
  • The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Limit the amount of time spent outside during these hours.
  • At least 20 minutes before going outside, apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)