State school board meeting turns contentious over reopening plan

Updated: Jul. 14, 2020 at 6:37 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - State senators and state education department officials clashed in a contentious board meeting Tuesday.

The Alabama State Department of Education school board heard plans from State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey and three state senators on the safe reopening of public schools. Gov. Kay Ivey, who was not physically at the meeting, said all funding to reopen schools will likely be covered by $150 million of CARES Act funds.

Mackey said 25 to 30 percent of parents are choosing remote learning for their children as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“There are other districts like Selma that are considering not doing on-campus instruction right now, and of course that remains a local board decision,” he said.

In Mackey’s plan, masks are encouraged to be worn by students and faculty when appropriate, but it would be up to Ivey, local government officials or local school leaders to mandate wearing them.

“We have to be careful about that because we know that there are some medical conditions where doctors have said, ‘Hey, these people don’t need to have that,’” Mackey said.

Mackey confirmed state school leaders worked with state health leaders to get funding to supply every teacher and student with at least three masks for the school year.

One school board member, Dr. Tommie Stewart, urged the board to take a more direct stance on health and safety measures, asking if they could urge local governments and school districts to mandate mask coverings.

“Seems like we’re gambling with the lives of children for money and that’s frightening to me,” Stewart said.

Senators Jim McClendon and Bobby Singleton, both of whom serve on the education budget committee, are not happy with Mackey’s proposed plan. McClendon said he feels he and the others have been “sandbagged” on every effort.

“The plan that originally [the state school board] came up with had nothing in there to protect our children, protect our faculty and staff,” he said. “And so we came forward with a plan that would do that, that would identify potential COVID cases before they got in the building, and we’ve been fighting every step of the way trying to get this implemented, and it finally came down today with the governor’s intervention in this thing. Things are starting to move.”

Ivey said some aspects of the senators’ plan, such as requiring students be tested, are not feasible. McClendon said every aspect of the plan is feasible with the federal government’s funding.

“Every step of the way they found problems with what we proposed, but we’re not done,” he said.

Singleton takes issue with the lack of uniformity in the state’s plan.

“This is the one time, the one time, that we can make sure that there’s equity in our schools with our children,” he said.

Singleton said while some school districts like Baldwin County are already installing infrared technology, others with less local funding are at a loss. He also disagrees with the governor’s stance against testing.

“If we’re testing 2-year, 4-year college students, why aren’t we testing these kids who are going to absolutely go home to their parents?” he asked.

The school year starts in three weeks for many districts. Ivey asked Mackey to finalize a reopening plan by Friday.

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