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Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama) hosted his weekly Facebook Live conference to discuss what's happening in politics in Alabama Friday. This week's call featured State Superintendent Eric Mackey, who joined Jones to discuss how the coronavirus is affecting the upcoming academic year.

As it stands, the current data does not favor traditional instruction with full classrooms and in-person learning. Jones mentioned that over the last two or three weeks, positive case numbers have been steadily going up, and while a majority of positive patients do not need inpatient care and generally recover, a spike in cases comes with more ICU beds taken, ventilators utilized and deaths recorded.

"I am particularly worried about the hospitalizations," Jones said, citing Alabama hospitals' stress under finding sufficient resources to keep up with rising cases.

Jones attributed the concern to the Memorial Day and July 4 holidays catching up to hospitals. COVID-19 can take up to two weeks for symptoms to show, and the results from two major summer holidays are showing a sharp spike in positive cases.

He also reminded listeners that the most controlling factor of schools' reopening plans is the virus itself. Jones worries that a vaccine is not going to be available until perhaps the winter or later, so he said he is working now to make the most ideal school year possible under these circumstances.

"Everyone wants our kids to be safe and healthy. Everyone wants our teachers to return to schools and be safe and healthy," Jones said. "But, we have to be smart and we have to do it in ways that put the health and safety of our students, teachers, parents, personnel and families first."

A major factor in Jones' educational safety plan is the Reopen Schools Safely Act, a bipartisan bill he introduced at the end of June to establish funds strictly for education from kindergarten to the college level.

The bill is a product of Jones, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) and Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-Louisiana). The goal is to find sufficient funds for school districts in the United States to reconfigure learning spaces, replenish supplies and provide a viable environment for safe learning. Jones predicts that the average school district will need about $1.8 million to make this work.

As some school districts prepare to return to instruction as early as next week, Mackey offered insight on what it takes to logistically make a school year successful. Mackey explained that schools are required by law to be in session for 180 days, or 1,080 hours. Teachers are paid to work 187 days no matter how often they're in schools, and these basic guidelines can drive any variation of what constitutes as a complete school year.

"Back in early June, I asked superintendents to delay school start dates to Aug. 20," Mackey said. "By law, local school boards have the authority to set their own start dates."

One option, which Mackey has encouraged, is reducing the number of student days to give teachers more planning time. Students may have longer school days under this plan, but the shift would allow for teachers to stay on top of class preparation, shift their pedagogies to accurately reflect their learning environments and offer extra time for cleaning and sanitizing.

"We'll protect them as much as we can," Mackey said. "I want to be clear...I take a risk when I go to the grocery store. ... I take the precautions I need to take. It's the same way with going to school. I can't say 100% that everyone is going to be safe, but we can try to make it as safe as we can."

Such precautions include wearing face coverings in schools (this is defined by face masks, face shields and clear plexiglass barriers between students and teachers, to name a few), enforcing social distancing, offering extensive cleaning and promoting personal hygiene. Mackey added that he is getting comments from "both sides" of the instructor population – some are upset that the measures are not enough, some are too worried to even go to school and others are content with this being the job they signed up for and are eager to take the challenges as they come.

In short, he recognized that there will never be a plan that pleases everyone, but promised that his team is doing all they can to make the smartest decisions available.

"I think most teachers feel like we're making progress to make schools as safe as possible," Mackey said.

Regarding online instruction, Mackey assured listeners that the process for teaching homebound students is "much better" than what it was in the spring. However, he acknowledged that there is an equity issue that comes with having students stay at home. Some of these concerns stem from technology issues in rural areas, socioeconomic capabilities and parents' inability to separate from work to ensure their student is being supervised and taught well.

Though he affirmed that the State Department of Education will do all it can to help resolve some of these inequities, it is ultimately up to local school boards to enact plans that make the most sense for their particular districts.

"We have no intention to penalize any school district that chooses their own path. It's one of those things where we can agree to disagree," Mackey said. "We do have pretty robust online learning. It includes AP courses, and even includes some career tech courses too."

Apart from coronavirus news, Jones mentioned that yesterday the Senate approved the National Defense Authorization Act. As Alabama is one of the leading states for national defense, he asserted that the bill will contain millions of dollars for the state economy through defense funding.

"There's a 3% increase for military salaries and pay, there's extra monies for education and kids with special needs," Jones said. "At the end of the day, it's all about the nation's security and modernizing our military."

He also took a moment to honor the life of Rep. John Lewis, who passed away on July 17 from pancreatic cancer.

Jones will continue to provide updates as they become available.

For more information regarding the Reopening Schools Safely Act, click here. For more from the Alabama State Department of Education on reopening schools, click here. To watch the full video with Jones and Mackey, see below:

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