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Three Schools Return to Class; State Announces Vaccine Plan

Huntsville City Schools announced that Columbia, Lee and New Century Technology high schools students will return to campus classroom learning today.

The system suspended in-person learning last Wednesday through Friday due to the number of teachers under self-quarantine for exposure to COVID-19.

There were no new cases of positive tests at any of the three schools. However, the number of teachers who would be absent and the lack of substitute teachers to fill the void led the school system to transition back to virtual learning for three days.

The system began the school year with virtual classes only for the first nine weeks.

“When you have a lot of staff members in quarantine or a lot of teachers in quarantine, that of course takes away the student supervision in terms of teaching and learning,” HCS spokesperson Craig Williams said when classroom activities were suspended.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Department of Public Health rolled out plans for distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available.

In a best-case scenario, one would be available to select individuals by the end of this year and to the general public in 2021.

If available the first persons to receive the vaccine will be those at high risk, including those with serious illness, health care workers and first responders.

“We want to assure the public that there will be (an) equitable distribution of vaccine to all Alabamians, especially to vulnerable populations in rural and urban areas,” State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said in a news release.

According to the release, several vaccine products are currently in clinical trials and will be released after their safety has been reviewed and approved by a panel of health experts. The vaccine will be provided free of charge.

The plan has three phases — critical populations, provider recruitment and enrollment, and many additional sections pertaining to vaccine. These include storage and handling, documentation and reporting, second-dose reminders, regulatory considerations, vaccine safety and program monitoring.

  • Phase 1: potentially limited doses of vaccine will be available and they will be targeted to those at highest risk and highest risk of exposure, first responders and healthcare workers who care for those with critical needs.
  • Phase 2: large numbers of doses will be available, and supply is likely to meet demand. Educational efforts will target critical populations who were not vaccinated in Phase 1.
  • Phase 3: there is likely to be a sufficient supply and all unvaccinated groups will be targeted. Special attention will be directed to populations or communities with low vaccine coverage.

The complete plan may be viewed at alabamapublichealth.gov/covid19/assets/adph-covid19-vaccination-plan.pdf.

Operation Warp Speed, the federal program to make available 300 million doses of a vaccine by early 2021, is a plan to shorten a normal six-year vaccine approval process.

To volunteer for vaccine trials visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org/

City Schools Facing Staffing Shortage Due to COVID-19; 3 Schools Temporarily Close

Three Huntsville City Schools closed campus classrooms Wednesday and returned to remote learning until at least Friday.

The move wasn’t made because of an increase in positive COVID-19 tests, but because multiple staff members went into self-quarantine.

The three schools are Columbia, Lee and New Century Technology.

The system began the school year with virtual learning for the first nine weeks.

“When you have a lot of staff members in quarantine or a lot of teachers in quarantine, that of course takes away the student supervision in terms of teaching and learning,” said Huntsville City Schools spokesman Craig Williams.

“Transitioning a school into remote learning is now something we’re familiar with, something we did at the beginning of the school year. It’s something both students and staff have a comfort level with.”

While classrooms are closed, the three schools will offer curbside meals for students.

According to Williams, school officials will assess the situation Friday and inform students and parents whether or not campus will reopen Monday or later.

Teachers not in quarantine will continue to teach virtual classes from school.

“They’re not congregating, they’re not gathering in one area out of an abundance of caution to make sure we’re following those safety guidelines,” Williams said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also stressed the availability of substitute teachers.

“It’s definitely worse than it’s been in the past relative to the sub shortage because of COVID,” Williams said. “I think some individuals are hesitant not only to be around other people but be around children.”

Anyone interested in becoming a substitute teacher can apply at the Huntsville City Schools website. 

Toyota Revs Up E-Learning Support in Madison County With Donation, Launch of Virtual Learning Hub

As virtual learning continues across the area, many students are still in need of laptops and Internet access to complete schoolwork. 

To help meet the need, Huntsville City Schools, Madison City Schools and Madison County Schools will receive $200,000 from the Toyota USA Foundation for devices and Internet access to help students with distance learning. 

“This is an exciting announcement for schools, teachers and students across our community,” said Elizabeth Fleming, The Schools Foundation Executive Director. “COVID-19 has strained school budgets tremendously as districts plan for in-person and remote learning for more than 55,000 students.

“The silver lining is seeing the community support for our schools and Toyota has been a tremendous partner in education from day one.” 

The funding announced today is part of a national effort to help more than 350,000 students gain access to virtual learning in 13 states where Toyota has operations. 

“All students deserve equal access to education,” said April Mason, Toyota Alabama general manager. “The foundation typically supports STEM, but the pandemic has exposed deeper issues that are a barrier to good education.” 

Toyota also debuted an education hub, providing virtual tours, fields trips, STEM-based lessons, and more. The community can virtually visit Toyota Alabama and step into the future to discover how Toyota is building a mobile society. 

Education hub resources are free and available to the public by visiting Tour Toyota Education Hub

COVID-19 Continues to Impact High School Football Games

Florence High School’s football team received a forfeit more than a week ago when Bob Jones pulled out of two games in the wake of nine players testing positive for the novel coronavirus COVID-19.

The Falcons have since returned the favor to the Patriots’ crosstown Madison rival James Clemens.

Florence forfeited Friday’s game to Brentwood (Tenn.) after three players tested positive for the virus, and also announced a forfeit to the Jets this Friday while the team remains isolated until Oct. 5.

Meanwhile, James Clemens received a Friday night forfeit from Lee when Huntsville City Schools announced multiple Generals were in quarantine.

In a different twist, Briarwood Christian of Birmingham received a forfeit from Mortimer Jordan, so the Lions traveled to Madison to play James Clemons. The homestanding Jets won the game but it won’t count in the standings for either team.

The developments were the latest in how COVID-19 has impacted area football in recent weeks.

Last Thursday’s rivalry game between Huntsville and Grissom was forfeited by the Panthers after it was reported one player tested positive for the virus and others were in quarantine.

The game was originally scheduled for Sept. 2 but city school officials postponed it due to what they deemed were racially motivated social media posts between the rivals.

Last week, Bob Jones also forfeited its home game against Auburn. Hazel Green (2-4, 0-4) had an open date but placed players into quarantine and forfeited this week’s game to Muscle Shoals.

Friday, Huntsville (0-5 overall, 0-3 in Class 7A, Region 4) is scheduled to play at region rival Albertville; Grissom (3-2, 2-1) hosts Austin (4-1, 2-1) and Lee (1-4, 02 in 5A, Region 8) visits Brewer (0-6, 0-3).

Thursday, Bob Jones (2-3, 0-2 in 7A, Region 4) entertains rival Sparkman (3-2, 3-0).

COVID-19 Causes Two High School Football Teams to Forfeit Games

Madison County officials announced last Wednesday a two-week trendline for the coronavirus had remained flat for the past month with around 40 new positive tests per week. The announcement was made at the latest COVID-19 news briefing.

Two days later, the coronavirus splashed back into local headlines with Madison City Schools Superintendent Ed Nichols announcing Bob Jones would forfeit two football games because nine players had tested positive.

The Patriots forfeited a region game to Florence and will also forfeit this week’s non-region game against Auburn while the team shuts down activities. The second forfeit will leave Bob Jones with records of 2-3 overall and 0-2 in Class 7A, Region 4.

The school system also delayed Monday’s expected reopening of on-campus learning for one week. There were reportedly 15 positive cases and 170 students and staff quarantined across the system.

However, Bob Jones isn’t the only football team sidelined by COVID-19.

Monday, days after Madison County Schools students returned to campus, system spokesman Tim Hall said Hazel Green would shut down its football season for 14 days after three players tested positive and 15 other Trojans are in quarantine. Hazel Green is off this week, but will forfeit a region game to Muscle Shoals Sept. 25 and will have records of 2-4 overall and 0-4 in Class 6A, Region 8.

Huntsville City Schools, which reported nine positive cases with 114 quarantined among its students and staff, also reopened campuses Monday to many of the system’s students.

 

Fund Established to Support Nonprofits Providing Supervised Learning for Students

A fund has been established to support nonprofit organizations providing assistance for local students during this time of virtual learning.

The Remote Learning Supervision Fund is a collaborative effort of the Huntsville/Madison County Chamber, The Schools Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville. Toyota Alabama, Raytheon Technologies, and The Junior League of Huntsville provided the initial $50,000 to start the fund. The deadline for donations for the initial round of grants is Sept. 25, and grant applications will be open soon.

The fund is for nonprofits that provide supervised learning for students in Huntsville, Madison, and
Madison County school districts that are operating remotely, running staggered schedules, or temporarily closed because of COVID-19 cases.

“While all three public school systems are operating virtually for the first nine weeks, schedules could adjust as the school year proceeds, and students will continue to need support,” said Lucia Cape, the Chamber’s Senior Vice President of Economic Development, Industry Relations and Workforce. “We are thankful for all of the organizations who have stepped up to provide expanded services to support children, and this fund is intended to help provide scholarships and subsidies for parents who cannot afford existing options.”

As the first donor, Toyota created the momentum to get it started.

“Toyota is proud to support this initiative in collaboration with fellow community members,” said Kim Ogle, Toyota Motor North America Communications Manager. “We’re grateful to do our part and see our community come together and help each other during this unprecedented time.”

For information, visit hsvchamber.org.

Data Suggest Local COVID-19 Curve Flattening

After a period of spiking coronavirus positive tests within Madison County, some good news surfaced last week.

County Commission Chair Dale Strong said recent numbers suggest the COVID-19 curve is flattening. The national Center for Disease Control and Prevention reduced its suggested quarantine time and the Alabama High School Athletic Association announced fall sports would begin on time.

Also, schools will reopen in August after they were shuttered in March when the virus entered Alabama. However, Huntsville City, Madison and Madison County all agreed to do virtual learning for at least the first nine weeks.

“For the first 12 weeks (of the virus), Madison County experienced a minimal increase in cases while positive cases (in recent) weeks skyrocketed, and our hospitals continued to meet health care needs,’’ Strong said at Friday’s COVID-19 briefing at the Huntsville City Council chambers.

In the wake of mandates from the Madison County Health Department and Gov. Kay Ivey, the demand for testing and the need for hospital stays due to the virus have decreased.

“We’ve begun to see a reduction in the number of new cases compared to prior weeks and that indicates mitigating measures are working,’’ Strong said. “The demand for testing has been reduced by almost 10 percent and hospitalizations for coronavirus appear to be flattening across Madison County.’’

But the statistics remain bleak.

There were 145 positive tests Thursday and 154 more Friday within Madison County. There are more than 250 health care workers who have tested positive. As of Saturday morning, 4,142 of the 48,298 people tested in Madison County were positive and there have been 21 confirmed deaths.

Meanwhile, there have been 76,314 confirmed cases of the 639,795 people tested statewide with 1,413 confirmed deaths.

Heading into the weekend, Huntsville Hospital had 106 inpatients who tested positive in its three countywide facilities and Crestwood Medical Center had 15.

Also at the briefing, Dr. Karen Landers of the  Alabama Department of Public Health said, per CDC guidelines, people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive should isolate for 10 days instead of the previously recommended 14.

In Montgomery, the AHSAA’s Central Board voted to implement the Return to Play Best Practices guidelines as a return to playing fields was greenlighted. Spring sports were canceled along with classroom learning in March.

Fall sports teams can begin workouts Monday. Football squads can work in helmets and shorts only for the first week, Volleyball, cross country and swimming and diving squads can use the first week for acclimation and tryouts.

Another option is beginning fall practice Aug. 3 and the first games and meets can start Aug. 20.

Business Community Raises $180,000 For Local Teachers

Nothing inspires a business community like a clear-cut mission and a high return on investment.

In a celebration at Burritt on the Mountain, the Huntsville Committee of 100 and more than 200 area business owners, elected officials, local school boards and superintendents, and state representatives, celebrated raising more than $180,000 to fund new National Board Certified Teachers (NBCT) within the Huntsville, Madison, and Madison County school systems.

Believing there is a direct link between quality education and a skilled workforce, the Huntsville Committee of 100 revealed statistics six months ago showing that for every $1 invested in National Board Certified Teachers there is a $31 return on that investment.

From left: Linda Akenhead, Leah Gradl, John Allen, Elizabeth Fleming, Stephanie Lowe. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“Research shows that National Board Certification for teachers is the key to driving academic achievement in our local schools,” said Committee of 100 CEO John Allen. “The Committee’s philanthropic arm, the Creative Cities Fund, teamed up the Schools Foundation to fund certification for 100 teachers from the three local school systems, and tonight we applaud that achievement.”

The National Board for Professional Teaching Standards said this initiative is the first and largest effort nationwide by the business community to fund board-certified teachers in public schools.

On average, students taught by National Board Certified teachers show gains of one to two months of learning over students in other classrooms.

Alabama State Superintendent Dr. Eric Mackey honored the efforts by video while the Huntsville Youth Orchestra entertained guests and culinary students prepared the cuisine.

Burritt on the Mountain hosted a celebration of investing in education. (Photo/Steve Babin)

“This is just the beginning,” said Stephanie Lowe, director of engagement with the Huntsville Committee of 100. “While driving to hit the $200,000 goal, both organizations will continue conversations to make this a focus across our state, as achievement in education continues to be a priority in all parts of Alabama.”

The Creative Cities Fund focuses on creative ideas that stimulate economic growth. Over the last five years, the fund has helped initiatives including Launch 2035 regional visioning; land-use planning such as the Singing River Trail; Downtown Huntsville BlueBikes; and peer-to-peer counseling in local high schools.

The NBCT Campaign is the fund’s largest campaign to date.

Tying Education to Business, Huntsville Committee of 100 Funds National Board-Certified Teachers

A leading Huntsville business advocacy organization is seeing its investments paying off.

Though, the group did not invest in financial markets, it invested in education.

Last May, the Huntsville Committee of 100 launched an exclusive initiative in May to fund 100 nationally board-certified teachers throughout the Huntsville City Schools, Madison City Schools and Madison County School systems.

It is the first time an Alabama business community has made an impactful investment in education in order to make Madison County more attractive to employees and employers.

According to John Allen, CEO of the Committee of 100, there are three tenets to its mission: promoting cooperative local government to ensure local business leaders are elected to positions that help make the community better; to advocate for long-term economic development; and to push for higher quality public education.

“We have 55,000 students in our schools every day and about 90 percent of them are in public education, so we know the value of a public education,” said Allen. “We were looking for a way to impact, support and encourage high quality public education.

“I asked former superintendent of Huntsville City Schools Matt Akin what a business organization like ours could do to change the conversation around achievement in our schools. His response was to nationally board-certify 100 teachers.”

In 2014, the Committee of 100 established the Creative Cities Fund at the Community Foundation of Greater Huntsville. It focused on conversations around creating high achievement in the local school system and setting a culture of high expectations.

The project was intended to drive innovation, education and economic development by raising funds year after year for that purpose and putting those funds back into community ideas quickly.

“We reached out to the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and learned the national board certification process was a very vigorous, performance-based, peer-reviewed and critiqued, one to three year process a teacher has to go through,” said Allen. “One teacher compared it to writing a master’s thesis for each of the four modules of the process.”

“The certification process costs $475 per component with a registration fee, so teachers are looking at $2,000 per teacher to go through the process, money many teachers do not have,” said Michelle Accardi, director of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. “Board certification is one of the levers we use to elevate student outcomes and research shows that all other factors being equal, a kindergarten student with a board-certified teacher is 31 percent more likely to be on grade level at the end of the year. Those are spectacular outcomes.”

When they are certified, teachers receive a $5,000 stipend from the state and, in some schools, they get an additional $5,000.

“Students learn more from board certified teachers,” said Accardi. “Early childhood literacy has ties to efforts and outcomes at high school graduation and beyond.”

The Committee of 100 began collaborating heavily with the schools foundation, a convenient partner because they work with all three school systems and are engaged in the national board certification process.

Allen said, on average, there is a one- to two-month achievement gain in board-certified classroom students and classrooms of board-certified teachers.

Furthermore, a recent study shows that for every $1 invested in national board certified teachers, there is a $31 return on investment.

When the Committee of 100 started the program, Alabama had 2,700 board certified teachers, which is about 6.3 percent of all teachers in Alabama.

To put it into perspective, about 90 percent of physicians are board-certified nationwide but only about 3 percent of teachers nationwide are board certified.

“Our organization, community business leaders, and elected leaders have bought into this process and all the dollars go straight to funding a teacher,” said Allen. “Prior to May, Madison had 58 teachers who are board certified; Huntsville City had about 30; and the county had about 35. In Huntsville, there are currently 70 additional teachers going through process, and in Madison there is another 35 with 25 now participating from Madison County Schools.

“We are now working on conversations surrounding how do we grow the conversation to a statewide level and how do we make it sustainable. We found that having a board-certified teacher in the school, they become a magnet, a mentor and a leader in the school.”

Accardi said student outcomes improve with certification.

“We currently have 25 different certificates a teacher can elect to certify in,” said Accardi. “Across all the certificate areas, every time someone does research on it, you see an increase in student outcomes.”

She also said the Committee of 100 initiative is unique because, as a business community, they understand not just the increase in outcomes, but they see a significant return on investment on board certification when talking purely dollars and cents.

“You see huge savings in teacher retention with a national board-certified teacher almost four times as likely to stay in a school setting than those teachers who are not certified,” said Accardi. “It helps elevate your game as a teacher, and if you have a group of NBCTs working together in a school, it gives you someone to consult with on issues.”

Going through the certification process enables teachers to see improvement in their own practice, as well.

“The National Board Certification process has improved my teaching practice by helping to change the way I interpret and use student data,” said Aimee Thomas Scrivner, a second-grade teacher at Huntsville’s Academy for Academics and Arts. “It has not only helped me gauge (and thus improve) my effectiveness as a teacher through measuring student impact of specific lessons and strategies, but helped me to develop meaningful relationships with students, parents, and colleagues that ultimately benefit student development and learning.”

‘Career Signing Day’ Helps Aim Students Toward Building Sciences

National Signing Day is a big event in the lives of high school student-athletes and their families.

The kids announce where they plan to continue their education and take their athletic talents to the next level.

Well, in Huntsville, there is another kind of “signing day.”

For the second time, Huntsville City Schools is hosting a “Career Signing Day,” when students are recognized for continuing their career paths within the fields of building science.

Just look around and you’ll see the demand for builders and tradesmen.

Construction zones and caution tape continue to speckle the city, as developers race to keep up with the demands required to complete projects.

Developments designed to enhance the growing infrastructure of Madison County seem to be popping up everywhere, and with no signs of a slow-down, the need for skilled workers and tradesmen is greater than ever.

“We are partnering with people to create more opportunity for internships and practical experience,” said Todd Watkins, director of Career Tech Education for Huntsville City Schools. “We are going to have interviews prior to the event. We are really excited because it gives our students a chance to do interview sessions.

“Then they can actually graduate high school and go straight to work.”

Turner Construction’s Director of Business Development Tyce Hudson said his company is working closely with area schools to ensure that upcoming graduates are aware of their options, whether they choose to pursue a four-year degree or opt for going directly into the workforce from high school.

“We are trying to get the message out that there are very bright careers in the trade industry right now,” he said. “We see shortages in mechanical, electrical, and plumbing so the demand for those is probably the highest.”

Through the efforts of companies such as Turner Construction, Huntsville City Schools students enrolled in the Career Tech Education Department are able to get practical work experience outside of the classroom by working on actual workplace projects.

Watkins also lauds the district’s newest career tech center at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

The initial program will allow students to work in the hospitality and culinary industries shadowing staff, giving them the opportunity to leave the school campus and report directly to Space & Rocket Center CEO Dr. Deborah Barnhart.

Watkins said the increased employment opportunities coupled with the area’s demand for progress equals many more options in the building science arena, whether individuals choose to seek a 4 year degree or not.

“What kids are seeing,” he said, “is that they can be employable right out of school or they can also go to (a four-year college) or a junior college.

“Kids are starting to realize that career tech is not a one-way path.”