Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

I have spent most of my professional career fighting for public schools against every form of school privatization imaginable.

But since the beginning of this school year and the incredibly reckless way many public schools have dealt with reopening and keeping students and staff safe, I feel much of that enthusiasm drying up.

It’s not something I’m proud of feeling.

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

But there are so many people I will never be able to look at the same way ever again.

There are so many organizations, unions, school boards, administrators, policy makers who have lost my trust – perhaps forever.

I’m not saying I love charter schools or private schools.

I don’t.

I still think they’re mostly scams bent on using the laws to cash in on kids while taking our tax money and running.

But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.

I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.

And, frankly, I just don’t feel that way anymore.

How can you preserve such an ideal in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – so many school boards who vote to open classrooms – and keep them open – despite raging infection rates? Despite students and teachers getting sick? Despite quarantines and warnings from epidemiologists?

SCHOOL BOARDS

McKeesport Area School District, where I live, has had more than 14 cases of Covid among students and staff since September and the school board isn’t even considering closing.

In fact, in October when most of these cases were coming to light and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines suggested schools should temporarily close to ensure the virus wasn’t running out of control, administration chose to ignore the CDC on the basis of advice by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Seriously.

Administrators prioritized local officials telling them what they want to hear over national experts in infectious disease with hard truths. In short, keeping the doors open was considered more important than student safety.

Meanwhile, the district where I work, Steel Valley Schools, smartly decided to open with virtual learning in September. However, the board decided to change to a hybrid model in November to test the waters.

Yes, the board decided to make students and teachers guinea pigs in an experiment to see if they could somehow avoid getting sick while cases surged throughout the country and state.

And after only five days, a high school student tested positive and numerous kids and staff had to quarantine.

Yesterday the state Website announced that our county, Allegheny County, – which had been considered moderate in terms of infections – is now in the substantial category. The incidence rate is 138.7 per 100,000.

Also in the substantial category are nearby Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.

Will Western Pennsylvania schools do the right thing and go to remote learning? Will Steel Valley finally give up this in-person experiment? Will McKeesport?

Without a strong leader like a Governor or President to order a shut down and take the heat, I’m not sure local school directors will have the courage to act.

They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.

In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.

So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.

There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.

At McKeesport, parents can enroll their kids in the district cyber program. No live teachers. No synchronous lessons on-line. Just a canned credit recovery program through the Edmentum company.

It’s terrible, and administration knows it’s terrible.

I’ve heard Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman say as much at school board meetings. But he and most of the board feel they have done all they need to do by providing this option.

They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.

And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.

There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.

Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.

We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.

I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.

So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?

This is very personal to me.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. My doctors tell me I can’t risk my life going into the school buildings to teach as infections run rampant through the state.

But my district has refused to allow me a safe work environment.

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

I have to burn my sick days so I can stay safe at home. But at the same time, I’m encouraged to take overtime hours to put up remote lessons, grade papers and contact parents.

I’m ready to do that as part of my job, but they won’t let me. They’d rather pay me and a sub who babysits my students in-person while I do what I’m allowed to do remotely at the same time.

So how do you look an administrator in the eye who refuses to lookout for his own employee’s safety?

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

Let me tell you, I love my union. I’m a union man. I believe in collective bargaining and worker solidarity.

I just wish my local did, too.

Because the leadership is perfectly fine with agreeing for the staff to work in unsafe conditions and no special protections for those like me who are more likely to contract the disease.

Leaders throw up their hands and say “We’re an association not a union,” and “If the boss says you come back to work, you have to come back to work.”

It’s even worse that I work in Homestead – the site of the historic strike.

So how do I look union leaders in the eye who have no problem throwing me to the wolves?

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

And the state and national unions aren’t much better.

To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised when Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey called for schools in areas with substantial infection rates to follow state guidelines and go to remote learning.

This after months of…. Nothing.

And what is PSEA threatening if districts don’t comply?

Nothing…. So far.

But I guess saying something about it is better than what they were doing before.

The national unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – certainly haven’t taken any hardline stances.

No one wants to rock the boat, but we’re talking about human life here.

There is no place further back to draw the line. We can compromise on salary and benefits but not on health and safety!

My God! That’s a human right!

We’re either unions in solidarity with our members – all our members – or we’re not.

And right now there is no solidarity, no leadership, nothing.

When I say things like this, people tell me I’m angry.

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

How many lives are we going to put at risk before it’s enough?

How many children? How many parents? How many staff?

Even if healthy people catch this thing, even if they get over it, they could have lifelong debilitating injuries from it.

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

And even the education activist community has been complicit in it.

When I tell some of my fellow grassroots organizers that schools should be open remotely, they complain about how that opens an opportunity for ed tech companies, charter and private schools.

They’re afraid teaching on-line will make ed tech companies an eternal part of school curriculum and replace real, live educators.

But that’s obviously false.

We’ve seen during lockdown periods that no one likes asynchronous teaching programs. No one likes these ed tech learning platforms. What works best in these times is curriculum created by classroom teachers taught by those classroom teachers to their students over online platforms like Zoom.

The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.

The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.

Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.

That’s nonsense, too.

Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.

However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.

I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.

And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.

Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.

CONCLUSIONS

Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.

It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.

It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.

But leadership has failed at every conceivable level. Time and again.

Strangely, that’s the only saving grace of the whole situation.

It isn’t the system that failed. It is the people in power in the system.

I know in my heart that the best way to run a school is still duly elected members of the community.

Just not THESE duly elected members.

I know that unions are vital to protecting workers rights. Just not unions lead by such wishy washy timid officers.

I know that education activism is necessary to keeping school privatization at bay. But activists can’t let their fears of what might be thwart people’s health and safety right now.

That’s the problem with Democracy. The leaders you get are representative of the community.

And our communities are perverted by one overwhelming belief – capitalism.

That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.

That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.

That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.

That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.

In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

When you look across the ocean at the more socialist countries, you see much better plans to deal with the pandemic. Not perfect, but better.

When everything isn’t dependent on money changing hands, you can more easily prioritize human life.

So, yes, my faith has been shaken in our public schools.

I still think the idea of a public school is one to be cherished and fought to protect.

But the leaders we have – nearly all of them – should be rejected.

We need an army of citizen activists, parents and teachers to come forward at the first opportunity to replace them.

Anyone in a leadership role this year should have to explain themselves – what did you do to protect students and staff during the pandemic?

If they can’t prove they took real steps to keep people safe and not sacrifice the people they were charged to protect on the altar of capitalism – if they can’t do that they should step down.

They should step down with tears in their eyes and forever have their names sullied by their cowardice and stupidity.

They have failed us all.


 

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18 thoughts on “Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

  1. All this and so much more. We have had more than 30 cases in my district. EVERY SINGLE NOTICE HAS SAID NO ONE ELSE HAS BEEN IN CONTACT WITH THE POSITIVE CASES. They cling to the notion that the plexiglass barriers on the desks, masks, and 6 ft distance being observed at all times 🙄 protects us all. As if our students are truly perfect with this. Add to that upcoming faculty meetings 35+ people in person are safe because we can spread out in a chorus room or band room. No we are not safe.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Gretchen. It’s helpful to know you’re not alone. Your situation sounds worse than mine. We just have to remember that none of this is okay. None of this should be allowed to happen. And if we survive this, we need to hold those responsible accountable for their gross negligence and lack of leadership.

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  2. Steven, it might be time to start looking at states like Minnesota where you can start a teacher powered charter school. It doesn’t make the decisions any easier, but at least it is the teaching staff in the school making them. We do have a publicly elected school, but it includes a teacher majority. This is an incredibly difficult time to be an educator, however I feel like our staff is actually making the best decisions for students and our own well being. Just to be clear, my post is not to push any buttons, it is just to say there are other paths that can put students & teachers at the center.

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    • I don’t know, Peter. A teacher led school sounds really nice. I don’t see why teachers can’t administrate a school but parents and community members need to be part of it, too. I don’t see why that can’t be done without the baggage of charter schools. I just don’t know. It’s an argument for another day. Right now we have all we can handle just trying to survive this crisis. But when it’s all over, many things may change including how a lot of people look at public schools.

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      • Steven, after we come through this I would love to have an intelligent, civil conversation about options. Just a side note, most states don’t allow teachers to serve on the school board of the school they teach in.

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  3. You have put into words just about exactly what teachers in my Michigan district are dealing with and feeling. We have no plan for when to go remote and cases are rising in our area.

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  4. I work as an education union staffer. I share your frustration. Many of my locals are so divided that we can’t organize, we can’t fight for safety. Because the pandemic has been politicized and people will not listen to doctors and scientists, some are against mask wearing, social distancing, and anything short of face to face instruction. That division between people in the association, the people in the community, places a lot of pressure on the school boards, the superintendent, and the local and national labor leaders. These are all representative organizations. When the members of a group are divided on an issue it makes it difficult to take a stand.
    There should be no divide on this issue. Your medical situation clarifies this for you. This is a matter of medicine and science. We should be listening to doctors and scientists as you and I know.
    Many of our politicians and business leaders have turned against that and it has created confusion and doubt. The people in our communities and in our associations have been mislead. Our union leaders and school leaders are trying to navigate that division and confusion.
    Be angry with the politicalization of a pandemic, not at the organizations and leaders that are trying to deal with and clean up the mess. Keep working on your local, your school, your state organizations. Make your voice heard. This article is doing that.

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    • Thank you for commenting, Mike. I am in contact with leaders at the PSEA and am least upset with that organization. I do see them trying to advocate for members. I am more frustrated with my local and the national unions. I suppose I’m asking for a lot. I’m asking for the union to take chances and put things on the line. But this is life and death. Thins are already on the line. It’s only been a few months since schools reopened. I hope that things will change and our unions will become more committed to fighting this even if it means putting themselves at risk. The bottom line is if every union member refused to go back to an unsafe situation, this would be over. We need that kind of action.

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  5. Excellent article, Steven. I am in despair about what I see happening among the schools. As well, of course, in the country as a whole. Where has our compassion gone? Or did we never have it, and I’m fooling myself?

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  6. As a school board member I was ready to get defensive … but here in Ann Arbor we have stayed virtual throughout, though there have been vocal parents, and others, including MD’s, who have been pressing for a return to person to person instruction, especially for the youngest and most vulnerable students who we all know are having a hard time with virtual instruction. We are doing mostly synchronous teaching – perhaps too much so, with too much screen time, and teachers on unsustainable overload. The union reports that 80+% of teachers feel it’s not safe to return and we’ve been working with them. We have too many older vulnerable staff in all positions.

    Now, as positive cases increase significantly, and even more staff and students in quarantine many districts are pulling back to remote. It’s been a tough go all around, and I can’t say I’m certain we’ve made the best choices, but if we had gone back, and saw cases rise as they are, I’d have felt much worse.

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  7. Do the parents who want to go back understand that if just one student tests positive, the entire class stays home for two weeks with no notice? How many parents are prepared to shift gears in a matter of hours? Doesn’t it make better sense to stay put and find a reliable way to work at home? Or shouldn’t energy be put into helping parents who can’t? “Essential” workers should not be a glorified label for “expendable” workers.

    I don’t know about your school, but mine is made up of a lot of teachers who would be adverse to striking for money or benefits but given the possibility of infecting themselves and their families, they were ready to dig in their heels and absolutely refuse to go back. This is the first I’ve ever read of an association being different than a union. Don’t let some representative tell you their hands are tied and you can’t strike. How many strike breakers are out there who would actually take your place and risk death? How many parents would support you saying a return to school is not worth the risk of spreading the virus to their families? Some parents actually trust their children’s teachers. It wouldn’t surprise me if even board members supported your work action.

    School boards should not be pressured to solve a problem our state and federal leaders won’t. If our economy relies on the ability of schools to be babysitters, this needs to be pushed to the front of any discussion.

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  8. There are still some good public schools out there. Don’t lose hope! I live in a red part of California, and my daughter is in 1st grade. We’ve been virtual up until now, and her teacher and principal have been wonderful. They’re going back in person 8:00-12:00 T-F this week, but my daughter will stay at home. She will be virtual with the whole class on Mondays. The rest of the week, she will Zoom with the class in the mornings (we’ll see how that goes), and then have 45 min with the teacher and other virtual students in the afternoon. The school gave the teachers 2 extra weeks of intensive PD on virtual learning in August, and it really shows. I have no complaints. My daughter is learning so much. I really hope some of these other districts around the country can look to the ones who got it right and make some improvements. (And this is in a school that is 90% Hispanic and 85% free and reduced lunch. It’s all about the leadership.)

    Like

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