Senators, school nurses push expanded COVID-19 safety plan
A bipartisan trio of state senators has for weeks pushed 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.
Sens. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, Jim McClendon, R-Springville, and Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham, have been in communication in recent weeks with the Alabama State Department of Education and the governor’s office. But the plan, created by the Alabama Association of School Nurses, hasn’t 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,” said Singleton, the Senate minority leader. “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 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 supporters say could be covered by federal coronavirus relief funds.
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 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 45,263 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 1,007 COVID-19 deaths. Still, ALSDE said a recent survey found 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,” said McClendon, chairman of the Senate Health Committee.
McClendon proposes 1,400 small, free-standing structures, designed at Auburn University, to be placed at every public school. They’d cost about $50,000 each.
“We’re trying to make our schools safer,” McClendon 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 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 the association, 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, and nearly 48% don’t have enough gloves;
• 75.65% of districts do not have a sink in every nurse’s office; and
• 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. ”
She said the AASN plan provides a mechanism to implement the guidelines outlined in the state education department’s road map 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.”
Part of the proposal would allow for more than 500,000 flu and COVID-19 tests to be 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.
Singleton said Monday 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 limited 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.”