By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
Gov. Kay Ivey has given the state’s public school leader until Friday to respond to a multi-part proposal from some state senators and school nurses for screening, testing and possibly isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms.
During 90 minutes of discussion Tuesday during the Alabama State Board of Education work session, the lawmakers pushing the proposal, which includes constructing 500-square foot nurses’ stations outside each school, said Alabama State Department of Education leadership had “sandbagged” the proposal.
Ivey invited the lawmakers to the meeting but said she was not endorsing their plan, which includes private vendors. She said she wanted “to bring some closure, make some decisions and move forward.” Most K-12 public schools are expected to open their campuses next month. COVID-19 cases have risen sharply in recent weeks.
“Y’alls’ schools are about to open… we have to have some closure to this situation,” said a frustrated Ivey, who participated in the meeting via video stream.
The more than $150 million proposal also includes hiring 300 new nurses, thermal scanning of students and staff and rapid flu and COVID-19 testing at each school.
Some also questioned whether the testing of students for COVID-19 should be left up to the Department of Public Health, whether 300 school nurses were actually available for hire and whether they’d be passing recurring costs on to local school systems.
“We have CARES money available,” Ivey said. “We need a request from the board or superintendent on how to spend it to safely open schools.”
Ivey said much of the proposed costs could be covered by federal CARES Act funds, but it must be spent by the end of the year, raising questions about recurring costs for schools, including nurses’ salaries.
The plan is being backed by some powerful state senators. Rules Chairman Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills, Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, and Health Committee Chairman Jim McClendon, R-Springville, all spoke at the meeting. Ivey also said it has the support of Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper.
McClendon said lawmakers first presented the plan to ALSDE leadership two months ago.
“It’s almost like we’ve been sandbagged with everything we’ve tried to come forward with,” McClendon said.
Singleton, whose district includes a portion of the rural Black Belt, said schools’ health care and COVID-19 precaution plans should not vary based on their ability to pay for equipment or nurses. In some school systems, one nurse covers multiple schools. Singleton wants a uniformed approach for safety protocols for schools.
“When you look at safety, it should not look like a quilt,” Singleton said.
He also said state leaders shouldn’t just “throw it on locals” to deal with safety precautions.
Several education groups have expressed concerns about the proposal.
“I have not had one superintendent tell me they support this plan,” Ryan Hollingsworth, executive director of School Superintendents of Alabama. “I have not had one superintendent tell me they want their nurse to test their students and staff. I have not had one superintendent tell me they want to build a free-standing nurse building.”
Proponents have said many schools don’t have the space to safely place a potentially COVID-19-positive student while they wait for parents to come get them, hence the need for the free-standing buildings.
Vic Wilson, executive director of the Council of Leaders in Alabama Schools, said almost every school in the state will have space for a safe room because some students will opt for virtual education rather than in-person instruction.
“We don’t need a building for each school,” Wilson said. “We need locals to have the money to make the best decisions for their situations.”
Later in the nearly six-hour meeting on Tuesday, State Superintendent Eric Mackey gave an update on the state’s “Roadmap for Reopening Schools.” That roadmap is not mandates, but guidance to local systems.
According to ALSDE, every school system has its owns plan for COVID-19 response.
Mackey said the ALSDE cannot mandate that students or staff wear facing coverings. That can only be done by the governor, the state health officer or local ordinances or school board decisions. Mackey said right now, about one-fourth of K-12 students are under a facial covering mandate.
“I know some school boards are meeting today to discuss requiring facial coverings,” he said.
Board member Tommie Stewart said she feels like some rules should be mandatory from the state board.
“It seems like we are gambling with the lives of children … that’s frightening to me,” she said.
Selma City Schools this week was the first to say it won’t have in-person classes for at least the first nine weeks of the school year.
Mackey on Tuesday said he’s heard from other school leaders considering the same.
“There’s more of that coming,” Mackey said.