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State provides new money, new guidance as Alabama schools set to reopen

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State officials on Monday announced grants to Alabama's public schools to help pay for health and wellness programs and for technology for remote learning. The grants, $170 million in all, are funded by the federal CARES Act and are intended to help schools deal with the threat of COVID-19.

As Alabama schools look toward reopening in less than a month, each public school system will receive a minimum of $170,000 for COVID-19 related wellness preparation and remote learning expenses under two grant programs announced Monday.

The money comes from the about $1.9 billion in federal CARES Act funding allocated to the state and further divided by lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey in May into areas of need.

“COVID-19 greatly impacted delivery of instruction within our public schools and, in many cases, exposed our weakest areas of remote learning capabilities,” Ivey said in a written statement.

Funds for both programs will be awarded to local school systems based on a formula, Ivey’s office said. Student enrollment, poverty levels, special education students, English learner students, student proficiency levels and the impact of COVID-19 will be factored. 

State Superintendent Eric Mackey on Monday told Alabama Daily News that with both programs, systems have flexibility in spending.

“Local school districts know best what they need,” Mackey said. “Some places already have a nurse in every school, some communities don't have a nurse in every school. Some communities have one-to-one devices already, some communities don't have one-to-one devices. 

“So the importance was to get the money out to the schools as quickly as possible, but to allow them to make decisions about what they need to do.”

Mackey said the weighted distribution ensures that funds will flow to the most vulnerable students, which is critical during the pandemic.

Wellness

According to Ivey’s office, the health and wellness grants will provide $70 million directly to school systems. The money can be used for:

• Salaries or wages for health care professionals or aides to provide COVID-19 response or care;

• Contracting for specimen collection and testing of COVID-19;

• Temporary facility improvements and supplies for nurses’ work areas for COVID-19 response;

• The creation of isolation areas for symptomatic students;

• Screening equipment to check body temperature;

• Or modification of school transportation vehicles to mitigate or isolate the spread of COVID-19.

On Friday, Mackey sent Ivey a proposed “addendum” to the June Roadmap for Reopening Schools, a list of guidelines, not mandates, for schools to consider. The revision included suggestions for grants to pay for nurses, testing, facility improvements and screening. 

Some lawmakers recently criticized the roadmap as too vague and creating a patchwork of wellness plans based on what school systems can afford. They and the state’s school nurses' association proposed a $150 million plan that included small stand-alone buildings at each school to isolate students with possible COVID-19 symptoms and 300 additional nurses.

Last week at a state board of education meeting, Jennifer Ventress, nurse administrator for the state Education Department, explained that each school system has a lead or supervising nurse, as required by law.

“In addition to that, every school has a school nurse,” Ventress said. “Now, that nurse may not be present physically everyday, but that school should have an assigned school nurse.”

According to the Education Department, it would cost an additional $28.3 million to get a nurse in every school in the state.

This year, the Education Department requested a $7 million increase for school nurses in the 2021 state education budget. Lawmakers approved a $1 increase to $33.9 million. That’s about a $3.5 million increase from 10 years ago.

Ventress said she’d love to have 300 additional nurses, but questions the availability. 

Nursing positions are often among the most advertised, in-demand jobs in the state, according to information from the Alabama Department of Labor. In April, there were more than 3,400 online advertisements for jobs for registered nurses.

Ventress said the Education Department and the Alabama Department of Public Health are working on a “tool kit” for schools that outlines how to handle various COVID-19 scenarios in schools.

“The nurses and superintendents are begging us for black and white, but it’s just not black and white right now,” Ventress said. “Things are changing constantly, the guidance is changing constantly ... we have to make sure we’re changing with the guidance.” 

Technology

The Educational Remote Learning Devices Grant Program will provide $100 million directly to systems to purchase electronic devices for remote virtual learning. Several systems have already announced they will only offer virtual options at the beginning of the school year. To get the grant money, systems must give the state Education Department:

• A remote learning plan compatible with the devices to be purchased;

• Information to ensure teachers and instructors are proficient with the operations of the device including technical support;

• A plan developed by each school to ensure each student has access or availability to the internet, and a plan for maintenance of the devices, including software updates, physical repairs and replacement of lost and damaged devices.

Mackey and the Education Department recently contracted with SchoolsPLP to develop a statewide learning portal that is supposed to offer each school's basic coursework online. The platform is supposed to be ready to launch by August.

Broadband access, or the lack thereof in many parts of the state, has been a hindrance for some systems as they plan for COVID-19 closures.

Senate Majority Leader Del Marsh, R-Anniston, advocated in April for using about $800 million in CARES money to expand broadband. Earlier this month, he suggested $300 million for internet connectivity. 

“The governor and I are mutually committed to ensuring Alabama’s students have the necessary tools to access a quality education,” Marsh said in a statement Monday.

Mackey said the department continues to hear from local school leaders who are considering delaying the in-person start to their school year. It’s a local decision, Mackey said, but one of several things systems are asked to consider are parents who normally depend on their children being in school during the day. 

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