Opinion | TCSS is failing – and infecting – county students

Tuscaloosa county schools are suffering from Covid-19 at the highest rates in the state. System leaders are to blame.

At the University of Alabama, if a student tests positive, close contacts are notified and told to quarantine for fourteen days. By contrast, at the Tuscaloosa County School System, students are allowed to be exempt from quarantine after being exposed and return to in-person instruction, as long as they have a doctor’s note and a negative test – a policy inconsistent with other Alabama school systems or public health guidelines.

This policy has been supported and publicized by Randy Smalley, who is District 6’s representative on the Tuscaloosa County School Board. According to local parents and teachers, Smalley has egregiously downplayed the coronavirus, claiming back in September and October that the COVID-19 pandemic would be over by election night. As of today, the United States continues to see the highest case total and death total globally.

Smalley’s comments garnered considerable attention when, in a board work session on Oct. 22, he downplayed the pandemic again, saying, “We don’t have an outbreak in our schools… we’ve got overreaction going on in our schools rampant like a wildfire in Colorado and California.”

Mr. Smalley’s comments show him to be derelict in his duty as an elected official.

— Kempton Walker, TCSS parent

Notably, this was not the only problematic comment uttered at this in-person board work session. Throughout the video, Smalley expressed anger with the CDC guideline that says a person who has been identified as a close contact should quarantine for 14 days. Smalley took issue with this, lamenting that his kids would miss homecoming week. Smalley, who does not have a medical degree and owns a flooring business, has advocated for this contradictory policy to be enforced, as he explains how he took his daughter to get an exemption note. 

On social media, teachers and parents expressed frustration and anger at Smalley’s comments. 

“The position that TCSS has collectively taken directly violates all respected and acknowledged guidelines regarding quarantine and COVID-19 incubation periods,” one TCSS teacher told the CW. “It is time the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education and the Tuscaloosa County School System Superintendent be held accountable for their comments and actions.” 

The teacher, who preferred to remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation from TCSS, explained that students are being sent home to quarantine and then returning back within 24-48 hours with an exemption note, with many reporting symptoms several days later, which is consistent with the incubation timeline. 

“In the video, Mr. Smalley says, ‘I’ll do whatever it takes to get my kids back in school,’ and apparently, that means even if it takes endangering the lives of students and employees of the school system, because that means his kids can attend homecoming,” said Kempton Walker, a parent of two students in the system. “Mr. Smalley’s comments show him to be derelict in his duty as an elected official.” 

As evidenced in his comments in the Board work session recording, Smalley’s political opinions are influencing health and education policies that affect TCSS students. He espouses conspiracy theories that minimize the severity of the pandemic and those who have lost loved ones. 

TCSS, which currently has about 16,000 students attending in-person classes, has consistently trended upward in case numbers since school began back in August. Meanwhile The University of Alabama – although initially startling – has reported lower numbers, indicating success in mitigation efforts. The latest report released by the school system on Dec. 4  shows that 163 students and teachers have tested positive for the coronavirus between Nov. 19 and Dec. 4. Smalley claimed that these numbers are not indicative of an outbreak, yet TCSS has consistently led the state with the highest number of cases in a school system, according to the statewide COVID-19 dashboard

In the video recording, Smalley went on to invoke race into the discussion of quarantine guidelines, comparing the actions of a TCSS administrator who was screening students walking into school, to segregationist and former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door.

“This comment is fundamentally inappropriate, offensive and unacceptable,” the TCSS teacher said. 

Smalley, although the impetus for this controversial quarantine exemption policy, is not alone in his abject negligence, as his co-conspirator in this endeavor is TCSS Superintendent Keri Johnson. As seen in the video, Johnson lacks the resolve to stand up to Smalley and other board members as she acquiesces to their demands, demonstrating her incompetence to lead the school system amidst a pandemic. 

Alarmingly, at the end of the board work session video, one board member can be heard talking to Dr. Johnson and suggesting that administrators enforcing CDC guidelines should be fired, saying, “There’s got to be consequences…we got to hold that person accountable…and maybe you’re gonna get some time off.”  

The University of Alabama has come under scrutiny the last several months as COVID-19 numbers grew. But now, as they steadily decline due to a coordinated effort of administration, physicians and public health experts, we see the TCSS Board of Education allow for policies that encourage the spread of this virus, not mitigate it. TCSS lacks the leadership that is required to combat this pandemic as cases, hospitalizations and deaths increase, and it is incumbent for those in the community to ask: Who deserves the blame? 

Ultimately, in this case, the buck stops with the TCSS school board and superintendent, a group of leaders who have decided to create policy born out of incompetence and conspiracies. Tuscaloosa County deserves better.  

Editor’s Note: Since this story has been published, the CDC has changed its guidelines to a 10-day quarantine, replacing the standard 14-day protocol for close contacts.