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Senators, school nurses push for expanded COVID-19 safety plan

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A bipartisan trio of state senators has for weeks been pushing a statewide COVID-19 school safety proposal that includes thermal scanning, rapid testing for the flu and COVID-19, 300 new school nurses and 500 square-foot nurses stations and isolation units outside each public school.

Conversations with Sens. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, Jim McClendon, R-Springville, and Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham, in recent weeks have included the Alabama Department of Education and the Governor’s Office. But the plan, created by the Alabama Association of School Nurses, doesn’t seem to have gotten much traction, frustrating the legislators. Their proposal was not part of the recently released ALSDE Roadmap for Reopening Schools in August.

“Now, with 138 school systems that are all doing their own thing, I’m afraid for our students,” Singleton, the Senate Minority Leader, told Alabama Daily News on Monday. “I don’t know where the hell we’re going with this.”

Singleton said earlier this spring, he proposed hiring 300 additional school nurses to help schools monitor and try to slow the spread of COVID-19. He was then approached by GOP colleagues Waggoner and McClendon, to lend his support to the Safely Opening Schools 2020 plan, which has a total cost of about $150 million, much of which could be covered by federal coronavirus relief funds, advocates said.

Singleton, McClendon and Waggoner all sent requests for use of federal CARES Act money to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office. Waggoner, one of the highest-ranking members of the Senate, could not be reached for comment. 

Ivey’s press secretary, Gina Maiola, confirmed to Alabama Daily News that lawmakers supporting the project had recently met with staff in the Governor’s Office, but said the plan is still being assessed.

“As schools plan to reopen in the fall, the safety of students and faculty is the governor’s top priority,” Maiola said.

Of the state’s more than 44,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases since March, about 19% have been in the 5 to 24 age group, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. The virus has hit older Alabamians and those with underlying health conditions harder, accounting for most of the state’s 984 COVID-19 deaths. Still, in a recent survey, ASDE said about 15% of parents are not comfortable with sending their children back to schools, in many cases because they have underlying health conditions or because they live in a household with someone at high risk for COVID-19.

McClendon said the proposal, which includes taking every student and staff members’ temperature each morning and isolating those with a fever for possible further testing, would prevent potentially ill students from entering classrooms.

“This is the only plan out there to do anything about protecting 750,000 school children and their families,” McClendon, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said.

McClendon is advocating for 1,400 small, free-standing structures, designed at Auburn University, at every public school. They’d cost about $50,000 each.

“We’re trying to make our schools safer,” McClendon, chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said. “What’s going to happen when a child shows up at school and you suspect they have the COVID-19 virus. What do you do with them while you wait on a parent?”

Requests for comment from ALSDE about the plan being pushed by the school nurses association and the three lawmakers were not returned.

The 45-page roadmap for reopening released late last month by ALSDE said that children who fall ill at school should be placed in a designated area of quarantine with a facial covering in place. Nurses should wear N95 masks when caring for these students and parents should be called to pick the child up from school.

In May, the Alabama Association of School Nurses surveyed the state’s 138 nurse administrators or lead nurses at each school system. The response rate was 83%. 

According to AASN, the responses found:

  • 17.63% of schools do not have a nurse on campus throughout the day;
  • 88.7% of districts do not have an isolation area;
  • 97.39% of districts do not have enough gowns for their nurses, nearly 48% don’t have enough gloves;
  • 75.65% of districts do not have a sink in every nurse office;
  • 80% don’t have thermal thermometers.

“As a nurse and as a parent, I am looking for reassurance that it is safe to send my child back to school,” said Kristine Tate McClary, a registered nurse and legislative liaison and district representative for the AASN . “I want to feel comfortable that every reasonable precaution available to minimize the health risks associated with COVID-19 is being utilized. School nurses will play a critical role in the daunting task education administrators face regarding the health component of safely reopening schools in Alabama. Now, more than ever, school nurses will be on the frontlines to keep our students and staff safe and healthy. We are deeply committed to facilitating a safe and effective plan to reopen schools this fall.”

She said the AASN plan provides a mechanism to implement the guidelines outlined in the ALSDE roadmap equitably across the state.

“The ALSDE Roadmap to Reopening Schools outlined what school districts should do,” McClary said. “The Safely Opening Schools 2020 Plan provides the tools to do just that.” 

Former state Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, and Liberty Duke, a lobbyist for AASN, have also been advocating for the plan. Duke said the plan came together this spring in part because of some existing relationships. Dial and Duke worked on legislation in 2011 to get flu vaccine clinics in public schools. Duke still works with an Alabama-based company, HNH Immunizations, that provides those clinics. Because of their work on the flu vaccine access, Dial and Duke know Texas-based Coldchain Technology Services, which could supply rapid testing equipment to each school in the state.

Part of the proposal would allow for more than 500,000 flu and COVID-19 tests available to public school students, staff and faculty in the 2020-2021 flu season. Test results would immediately be available to the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another company mentioned in the proposal is California-based Dragonfly, which could supply thermal scanning equipment. 

Singleton said on Monday he’s not promoting a particular vendor, but the health and safety of students. He said he plans to keep pushing Ivey’s office to do more.

He said if every district is on its own to provide safety measures, rural and low-income systems like those in his senate district will struggle. Meanwhile, the option to keep children home from school is harder in areas with less high-speed Internet access.

“I think my children will be left out at both ends,” Singleton said about safety and access. “… We’re going to be left out on both sides, that’s why I am so frustrated by this plan.” 

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