By Lofton Wheeles
For the Opelika Observer
The Auburn Chamber of Commerce hosted their Tuesday Talk last week and invited Alabama Superintendent for Education Dr. Eric Mackey to speak about Alabama Achieves.
Alabama Achieves is a recent initiative the Department of Education is taking to better the schools across the state.
The strategic plan for Alabama Achieves has five goals: to have academic growth and achievement, which focuses on literacy and the AMSTI For All program; to create college and career and workforce readiness, which focuses on getting Alabama students the credentials that say they’re ready for the next step in life; to have a safe and supportive learning environment, which focuses on getting more nurses in schools, fostering an environment that supports students’ mental health and making families feel engaged and supported; to have effective educators, which focuses on getting teachers that are qualified to teach their respective subject; to create customer friendly service in the education department, which focuses on ensuring that the Department of Education is responsive to educators, the education community and parents as they are moving forward.
Mackey opened the meeting with an expression of gratitude about being able to meet in person to talk about the topics at hand. Mackey called seeing people in person for a meeting “so different,” but he is “glad that we’re moving back toward that.”
The type of instruction in schools was the first topic at hand. Alabama schools have been offering either in-person or virtual learning this past year due to the ongoing pandemic. However, Mackey announced that most of the school districts will be offering in-person instruction again.
“There are schools that are still struggling to stay open, but all of our [school] systems, at least most importantly our elementary schools are opening,” Mackey said. “That’s what we’ve really been concerned about all year long because, as you know, that’s been a struggle.”
Mackey mentioned that he and Chamber Board Member Tracie West met with Jeffrey Fairbrother, a dean at Auburn University, prior to the meeting as they were unable to have an in-person meeting previously due to the pandemic. According to Mackey, they spent the meeting discussing the university’s role in the Auburn community and the state’s development.
Mackey gave an update regarding the vaccine rollout and the goal that was set regarding the adults in Alabama. He mentioned during the meeting that state is looking to get above 70% of adults vaccinated in Alabama and he expressed the necessity in making willing and able people feel more at ease about taking the vaccine. However, Auburn seems to have no trouble in taking the vaccine when it comes to those working in the school system.
“Vaccination is the key to getting ourselves back to normal, or something really close to normal, and I hope we continue to be on the same trajectory,” he said. “Now again, I’ll brag on Auburn, Auburn City Schools has the highest, if not one of the top two, rate of adults in the school system willing to take the vaccine. In fact, until Auburn rolled out its vaccination clinic, we were running about 25 to 35% of teachers and adults in schools willing to take the vaccine, and I think Auburn hit 85% immediately.”
Mackey then presented the budgeting for relief programs such as the first and second round of the CARES Act signed under the Trump administration and the American Rescue Plan signed under the Biden administration. However, there is still some uncertainty on how to spend the funds due to the lack of rules and regulations present regarding how the money should be spent.
“We decided not to distribute those allocations because that could obviously mean we could get in a situation where we send $100 million dollars back because the rules were published after the money was spent, and we just don’t think that would be fiscally responsible,” he said. “So, we’re holding on, but that money can spent all the way until September 30, 2024.”
Mackey gave examples during the discussion of the American Rescue Plan of what the money could be used for in the future. These examples include career tech equipment and sensory deprivation rooms for children with autism.
The Alabama Department of Education, according to Mackey, is looking to boost their social media presence.
“[Social media] is where young people are getting their news and that’s what we’re really trying to tap into,” he said. “We want 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds to want to be teachers and so how do we get those people to engage with the education community.”
For more information on the Tuesday Talks presented by the Auburn Chamber of Commerce, go to their Facebook page facebook.com/AuburnChamber or to stay updated on the Alabama Department of Education go to alsde.edu.