What Democratic Midterm Victories Mean for Pennsylvania’s Schools

We can breathe a sigh of relief.

Fascism was defeated at the polls.

Christian nationalism, snake oil salesmen and angertainment all fell to the power of the ballot at this week’s midterm election in Pennsylvania.

Democrat Josh Shapiro beat far right Republican Doug Mastriano for Governor.

John Fetterman beat reality TV star Dr. Mehmet Oz for Senator.

And a host of local grassroots progressives triumphed from Summer Lee becoming the first black woman ever elected from our state to the House to Lindsay Williams retaining her seat in the state legislature. Even Austin Davis (my state representative) will become the first black Lt. Governor in the Commonwealth.

And most surprising, the state house may have even flipped to Democratic control after decades in Republican hands. (There are still a few races that are too close to call.)

All-in-all, it was a good night. Especially in an election cycle where Republicans had every advantage. The President’s party usually loses seats during the midterms, and just last week it seemed that Joe Biden would be no exception. However, now that the dust has cleared, the losses seem to be minimal to nonexistent.

So what does it all mean for our state’s schools and the future of our kids’ educations?

First, we can expect far fewer insane policy proposals and those that are put forward will have next to zero chance of passing.

No more worries about our already meager education funding being cut in half.

No more fears of Florida’s regressive “Don’t Say Gay” law restricting free speech coming to the Keystone state.

The Critical Race Theory panic (A.K.A. – teaching actual history) will fade to just another wing nut conspiracy theory thrown to the Republican base to generate support instead of an actual policy proposal to restrict academic freedom.

I suspect a lot of the baseless hysteria Republicans had been shouting from the rafters will decrease as pollsters show them how ineffective it was in getting votes that weren’t already staunchly GOP.

For the first time in years, Republicans may have to push toward the center instead of constantly to the lunatic fringe. Otherwise, they’ll continue to lose.

Second, we may actually see some positive education policies make their way through the state legislature.

Shapiro has promised to increase education funding. That and the still pending court decision on a lawsuit against the state demanding adequate funding may be enough to turn the funding faucet on a few cranks. With Democrats holding an increasing share of seats, all it takes is a few moderate Republicans (are they out there?) to join them to get things done.

However, it isn’t all wine and roses.

During the general election, Shapiro came out in favor of some school voucher programs. This puts him to the right of our current Governor Tom Wolf. So we can look forward to our new Governor supporting an increase for tax credit scholarships and other de facto voucher plans that will drain public education coffers just as we’re working to increase them.

It is also anyone’s guess whether a pro-voucher Governor would support charter school reform – something we desperately need and that Wolf championed during his tenure.

And though both Wolf and Shapiro criticized standardized testing, it would take a mightily informed and courageous state politician to go up against the economic powerhouse of the testing industry.

In short, the election mostly means we don’t have to worry about as many flaming meteorites crashing down on our schools.

Things might even get better here and there – especially with additional funding.

However, we will have to monitor our representatives as if they were little kids sulking by the cookie jar. They will almost definitely try to sneak in some garbage legislation to hurt our students and enrich their corporate buddies.

When we look at the national situation, it appears much the same. Even with Fetterman going to the Senate, it’s unclear whether Democrats will have control of either legislative body. Even if they do, the majority will be razor thin.

A robust Democratic Party determined to enact progressive legislation could make much of such a situation, but as we’ve seen in the past, that is not the case with the current leadership.

The most we can realistically hope for is that they put a stop to insane GOP legislation.

The question is whether we can build on such Democratic gains at both the state and national level. Usually that doesn’t happen. But it will have to be the goal moving forward.

Stopping the worst is a worthy aim but it cannot be everything. We must continue to push our representatives to make actual progress and fix the slow and steady drip of fascism, corporatism and Christian nationalism that has dominated our politics for far too long.

So let us celebrate a worthy election cycle while we prepare for all the political battles still to come.

A sigh of relief, a renewed fighting stance and back into the fray.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Will We Even Try to Keep Students and Teachers Safe from Gun Violence? Or Just Keep Preparing for the Worst?

“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”

Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.

I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.

“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.

I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

That’s just life in the classroom these days.

According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.

“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”

It seems like nowhere is safe.

Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The first was on January 19 at Pittsburgh’s Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education school.

A 15-year-old boy waiting in a van to go home was shot and killed after at least one person opened fire outside the school.


The second was on April 5 at Erie High School. A 16-year-old student was shot and injured at the school.

The third was on Sept 27 at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.

A 14-year-old student was killed and four others wounded (ages 17, 15, 14, and 14) in a shooting near the high school athletic field after a football scrimmage.

“Mr. Singer, what’s happening?” Olivia asked.

I turned to her confused at first then I realized what she meant.

“The lockdown? Let me check my laptop. No…. Nothing. I really don’t know, Honey. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be over soon. Why don’t you get back to the assignment?”

“Okay.”

Such violence isn’t limited to schools.

On Sept 24 three people were shot in Kennywood Park, a popular amusement park in West Mifflin.


Two years ago in September a 15-year-old boy was killed and another was wounded in a shooting at the Haunted Hills Hayride in North Versailles.

In 2020 a man was shot and killed at Monroeville Mall. In 2015, a 17-year-old entered the men’s department on the lower level of Macy’s department store in the evening and shot his intended target and two bystanders, leaving two with critical injuries.

Is there anywhere safe anymore?

You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go on a haunted hayride. You can’t go to an amusement park.

I had students who were hiding in the mall during the 2015 shooting. My daughter wasn’t involved in any shootings but she went to Kennywood this summer.

Where does it stop?

Why are we doing so little?

A few weeks ago my school had another active shooter training for teachers while the students, thankfully, had a day off.

Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.

At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.

“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”

It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.

But could I really? Alone?

We do everything we can to prepare ourselves in case something like this happens – but as a society we do nothing – NOTHING – to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

Where’s increased gun regulations to make sure these weapons aren’t getting into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable?

Where are bans on assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and war?

Where is increased liability for those recklessly selling firearms?

Where is anything we could be doing to make our schools, malls and places of entertainment safer?

“Mr. Singer, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“You can’t hold it just a little longer, DeVon?”

“No,” he said hoping from foot to foot.

“Number 1 or number 2?”

He giggled and held up one finger.

I reluctantly pointed to the trash can.

“Take it over there to the corner. I’ll stand in front of you so…”

“Attention teachers! The lockdown has now been lifted. You may continue as normal.”

I sighed, unlocked the door and wrote DeVon a bathroom pass.

We never did find out what triggered the lockdown. One time it was a gunshot in the surrounding neighborhood. Another time it was an unauthorized adult seeking access to the building.

It could be much worse. And it will happen again.

The chances of it being a school shooter are low.

The chances of myself or my students being hurt or killed is even lower.

But it’s still too high.

Living under the constant shadow of this threat is creating a trauma that we’ve given up trying to solve and just call normal.

It is unacceptable.

We need to do more.

Not just on the days when one of these tragedies strike – but every day.

It is not safe for students and teachers – it will NEVER be completely safe, but it can be safer.

That’s the point – how safe can we make it?

And why aren’t we doing anything to reach that goal other than preparing for the worst?


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

What my PA Public School Classroom Would Look Like under Gov. Doug Mastriano

Just one teacher. And 33 kids.

That’s what my classroom would look like if Pennsylvanians vote for Doug Mastriano as our next governor.

The Republican state representative wants to slash education budgets in half – yes, IN HALF!

And that means doubling class size – at least.

Honestly, I don’t know how we’d cram all the desks in the room. I can barely fit 15 in there now.

Where would we put the books, computers and cabinets? The students, alone, would be wall-to-wall.

Just imagine that many middle school kids stuffed into the room arguing about who’s touching who and which classmate stole their pencil or book. Not to mention the children striving to get my attention to solve disputes, get help with classwork, ask permission to use the bathroom – and a thousand other issues!

I’d try my best to meet their needs but under Mastriano we just wouldn’t have the resources we used to have.

For example, there’s no way we could afford a school nurse at each building like we have today. We’d be lucky to have one nurse for all four buildings in the district – elementary schools, middle schools and the high school. If a student feels sick, there’s not much I could do except send the child to the office to try to call home and get a parent or guardian to pick the kid up early. And if the parents can’t make it, just let the kid put his or her head down?

What if the issue’s more psychological? There might be a school counselor somewhere in the district so a student can talk out an issue he or she is having – perhaps conflict resolution with a former friend, discuss peer pressure to try drugs or maybe deal with suicidal thoughts. But there’s probably a long waiting list to see this mythical counselor. Hopefully, the problem is not too urgent.

I feel especially bad for the special education students. Aides would be almost non-existent so many kids with special needs would have to struggle through issues with which we’d normally help them. All the individual Education Plans (IEPs) would have to be rewritten to take this new normal into account.

Even lunch would be disrupted. After all, there would be fewer cafeteria workers so it would be harder just to cook a hot meal and make sure it gets onto a tray in time for students to eat it.

There’s no doubt about it.

My classroom would be very different if Mastriano wins the gubernatorial election in November.

The former US Army Colonel who participated in the January 6 insurrection proposes slashing education funding from $19,000 on average, per student, to $9,000.

According to an analysis by the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), the plan would mean a 33 percent overall cut in public school revenue, or a $12.75 billion loss. It would require approximately 118,704 layoffs – 49 percent of all employees in schools around the state.

At my district of Steel Valley in Munhall on the western side of the Commonwealth, the situation probably would be much like I described.

I can’t imagine how any teacher could adequately tend to double the students, but I might not have to imagine it.

I’d probably be laid off.

More than half of Steel Valley’s staff would be out of a job – 92 of our current 172 school nurses, counselors, aides, cafeteria workers and teachers would be looking for work.

And that’s just where I’m employed.

Things would be even worse for my daughter where she attends McKeesport Area School District.

According to PSEA estimates, the nearby McKeesport district would lose 281 of 521 staff – a 54% reduction. Classes would go from an average of 17 students to an average of 46. That’s an increase of 29 students per class!

How can she learn in that kind of environment!? She isn’t in college yet. She isn’t in some University of Pittsburgh survey class that meets in an auditorium. She’s in middle school!

But it would be pretty similar at public schools, charter schools, career and technical centers and intermediate units across the state.

From one side of the Commonwealth to the other, we’d go from 239,902 staff to 121,198. Class size would go from an average of 16 students per class to 33. That’s an increase of 17 students per class or 109%.

However, the PSEA estimate is actually a best case scenario for Mastriano’s proposal.

Like so many wannabe big time policymakers, he is very light on the details of how we would educate the state’s 1.7 million students. This whole proposal was just something he blurted out during a March 2022 WRTA radio interview.

It’s his plan to completely eliminate local school property taxes. Funding would be provided directly to parents via “Education Opportunity Accounts,” and families could then decide whether they want a public, private, charter or home school option.

To go from a statewide average funding level of $19,000 a student to $9,000 a student requires a cut of $17.6 billion, or 53%.

But if the remainder isn’t being paid by property taxes, that’s a roughly $15.3 billion a year expenditure by the state that used to be paid by local property taxes. Where is he getting that money from? And if the state can afford to pay that much, why not just pay the full $19,000 per student and make none of these unnecessary cuts? Or why not just pay half and reduce property taxes by that much? Mastriano is not exactly forthcoming on any of this.

PSEA admits that to come up with its own estimates of the damage the organization filled in a few details. The union assumes the state would fully fund the $9,000-per-student voucher and leave other local non-property taxes and federal revenues untouched.

That might not happen. We could be looking at an even more draconian situation.

The biggest question the PSEA is sidestepping is the impact of allowing taxpayer dollars to fund so many different types of schooling.

Even under Mastriano’s plan, nontraditional educational providers like charter schools would suffer because like traditional public schools they would be receiving less funding from the state than they do now. And parents using their vouchers to pay for private schools for their children would still have to make up a pretty big gap between the amount of the voucher and the cost of private school tuition.

However, since traditional public schools serve the overwhelming majority of the state’s students, they would take the biggest hit financially. If more parents use their voucher to pay for private, charter or home schools, that’s less funding for our public school system. That means even greater cuts to student services and more staff layoffs.

Moreover, what if parents use the voucher for a fly-by-night educational option that doesn’t meet it’s obligations?

For example, according to reports by the Network for Public Education, about half of all charter schools close in 15 years. And 27% close in five years.

And when it comes to charter schools that took federal funding, 12% never even opened. They just gobbled up the cash with nothing to show for it.

What will happen to students whose parents lose their vouchers in schools like these? Who will pay for these kids to be educated? Or will they have to go without?

And when it comes to private schools, does Mastriano mean only secular private schools or does he include parochial schools? Will your tax dollars be used to pay for students religious education?

And what about the curriculum at these private schools or some home school programs? Many use texts published by Bob Jones University Press, Accelerated Christian Education, or A Beka.

The books are riddled with counter factual claims and political bias in every subject imaginable such as abortion, gay rights and the Endangered Species Act, which one labels a “radical social agenda.” They disparage religions other than Protestant Christianity and cultures other than those descended from White Europeans.

They teach that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time, some dinosaurs survive into the present day (i.e. the Loch Ness monster), evolution is a myth disproved by REAL science and homosexuality is a choice.

Teaching these things in school is not just educational malpractice, it’s exactly the kind of indoctrination the right is claiming without evidence happens at public schools.

If someone wants to pay for such an education out of their own pocket, that’s one thing. But to ask taxpayers to fund such propaganda is something else entirely!

Thankfully, Pennsylvania voters don’t have to accept this. Not yet anyway.

There are still more than three months before the election. Voters can choose the Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro. He has promised to INCREASE education funding and not just blow up the whole system.

To see an interactive map of how Mastriano’s education cuts would affect your school district, click here.

For now this is only a bad dream. We still have time to wake up and vote accordingly.

Students should not have to submerge themselves in a sea of classmates and hope the teacher will have time to educate them.

We should cut class size, not increase it.

We should hire more teachers, not rely on a skeleton crew.

We should invest in education, not sell off our future for a fast buck today.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Teachers are Being Spied on for Thoughtcrimes

Teachers, be careful.

Big Mother is watching you.

When you post a rainbow flag on your Facebook profile…

When you tweet support for Black Lives Matter…

When you like a YouTube video of someone punching a Nazi…

Big Mother is watching.

Or more specifically, Moms for Liberty is watching.


And, no, the group’s members probably don’t get the irony of their name.

Moms for Liberty (MFL) is a billionaire-funded front group dedicated to spreading disinformation and chaos at public schools across the country.

They’ve offered cash prizes for turning in teachers who dare to educate on topics that go against far right doctrine. They’ve demanded books on similar topics be removed from school libraries and curriculum. And they’ve even stormed school board meetings where they don’t necessary live to complain about every petty grievance Fox News is broadcasting this week.

Now they’re coming after teachers social media.

They’re creating workshops to encourage people to find public educators’ online accounts and report anything they don’t like at school board meetings or in the media, ultimately demanding the offenders be fired.

After all, if Miss Roosevelt has a rainbow flag on her personal Facebook account, what’s to stop her from making her students gay!?

If Mr. Kennedy tweeted in favor of Black Lives Matter, what’s to stop him from making our White children hate themselves because of the color of their skin!?

And if Mrs. Gore liked a YouTube video where a Nazi got punched in the face, how do we know she won’t condone such violence in the classroom!?

MFL is based in Florida, but operates on a county-by-county basis, claiming 200 chapters in 37 states including Pennsylvania (Allegheny, Eerie, Bucks, Lancaster counties, etc).

This is an image advertising one such workshop in Nueces, Texas, but they are popping up everywhere.

One of the many ironies about the situation is how the idea has been pulled almost directly from George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “1984.”

Orwell coined the term “thoughtcrime” to describe a person’s politically unorthodox thoughts – anything that runs counter to the party line. In criminalizing thought and even tasking the Thinkpol (i.e. thought police) with monitoring things people say, write or how they act, Orwell could be describing MFL.

In the fictional country of Oceania, the party controls all speech, actions and thoughts of citizens. This is pretty much what MFL is trying to do here.

It’s a strange way to love “liberty.”

These right-wingers actively harass people on the left for their politics, but cry foul when anyone dares to call them out on theirs.

The Florida-based organization claims to be just “moms on a mission to stoke the fires of liberty.” Yet it’s infamous for encouraging a “mass exodus from the public school system” while disrupting that same system at every turn.

Its members are using culture war shenanigans to intimidate and harass people into silence.

They’re weaponizing fear to coerce people into curtailing political speech of which they don’t approve.

As infuriating as this is, it’s not new.

There have always been a few petty people in nearly every community willing to scroll through teachers feeds looking for trouble. Frankly, it’s why new educators are warned to keep their personal lives off the Internet or to keep their information private.

The only difference now is how concentrated these spying efforts may become.

We’re not talking about just the local crank looking for photos of teachers drinking or engaged in the crime of living an adult life.

We’re talking about well-funded ideologues out to destroy the public school system, one teacher at a time.

Incorporated in 2021, MFL is a 501(c)4 corporation, so it doesn’t have to disclose its donors. However, one of the group’s founders is Bridget Ziegler, wife of the Florida vice chairman of the Republican Party. The organization is affiliated with at least three separate PACs, and has the funds to pay for keynote speakers like Megyn Kelly and Ben Carson at its fundraisers. Some of its biggest supporters are the Koch family, the DeVos family, former Trump officials and The Federalist Society. 

They have the money to go through your Web footprint with a fine toothed comb.

So what should teachers do about it?

As a public school teacher, myself, the way I see it, there are two things we can do:

1) Lock down or disengage from social media


2) Keep doing what you’re doing

Your response will depend on your own situation.

If you live in a so-called Right to Work state or where worker protections are few and far between, you should probably get a tight grip on your online presence.

Make sure your personal Facebook account and any groups you belong to are private and secure. Ensure that anyone invited into these groups is verified through either questions or personal invitation. Check that everyone has agreed not to screen shot any discussions happening – and even then be careful what you post because nothing is ever 100% secure.

Use a privacy audit to make sure you don’t have something embarrassing out there. This guide from Violet Blue is a good starting place to ensure your private information is not easily findable online.

On the other hand, if you live in a state with strong union protections, you have a reliable union at your school, etc., then you have less to worry about.

You can’t be fired for expressing your freedom of speech on your own time on your own social media accounts. As long as you’re not on school devices, using or sharing such accounts in school or with students, you should be fine.

That doesn’t mean someone won’t try to harass you over your digital presence. But if you understand the dangers and feel relatively safe, you probably are.

I’ve been writing on education and civil rights issues for 8 years. I actively TRY to get people to read this stuff.

In that time, there have been a lot of folks mad at me for what I write. I sometimes get hate mail (usually email) calling me everything you can think of and more you can’t. And when some of these folks find out where I work, they sometimes call up to complain and demand I be let go with haste!

Nothing has come of it.

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen tomorrow. But I refuse to live in fear.

I am who I am.

I shout it to the world.

And if someone wants to fire me for it, then fine.

There are lots of things I could be doing other than this.

We’re in a national crisis with teachers leaving the profession in droves at least in part because of fascist shenanigans like this.

Bottom line: I love teaching, but I’m not going to change who I am to do it.

Moms for Liberty can rage. They can spend all of Betsy DeVos’ billions trying to fire me and other educators who dare to have thoughts that may deviate from the right-wing.

Big Mother is not MY mom. And I don’t owe her anything.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Dr. Tia Wanzo is the First Black Superintendent at McKeesport Area School District

It only took 138 years, but McKeesport Area School District finally has a Black Superintendent.

Dr. Tia Wanzo was sworn in yesterday at a well attended special meeting of the board.

Dr. Wanzo had been Assistant Superintendent under outgoing Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman who left the district for a corresponding position at Beaver Area School District at the end of June.

The McKeesport district, established in 1884 and located just southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has had a sizable Black population for decades. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, the district is 71 percent white and 23 percent Black. It serves the City of McKeesport, and boroughs of Versailles, Dravosburg and White Oak as well as a small portion of South Versailles Township.

“It’s an honor to sit on the board at this time as history was made,” Board Member LaToya Wright Brown wrote on a Facebook post.

“Dr. Wanzo is the first African American to be appointed in the role of superintendent at MASD. I look forward to working in collaboration with our central administration teams, MASD staff and communities to give our students what they deserve.”

Dr. Wanzo will be paid $165,000 per year – $25,000 more than Dr. Holtzman had been paid in his original contract from March 29, 2017.

The board voted unanimously to hire Dr. Wanzo as Superintendent though School Director Matt Holtzman – the former Superintendent’s brother – was absent.

During the previous administration, Dr. Wanzo was often put in difficult positions.

In 2019 when the ACLU of Pennsylvania filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district on behalf of 11 district students, she had the difficult job of defending her boss, Dr. Holtzman, while still advocating for the students.

Dr. Holtzman, who was named in the suit, refused to let the students create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

Dr. Wanzo was quoted in the Pittsburgh Tribune Review on the matter as follows:

“The frustrating part is the students clearly did not understand that they’re in the middle of this. And also, it’s frustrating that they feel that we are telling them they cannot do that, you’re not allowed to have this club, because that was never ever stated by any of us.”

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students.

The students were allowed to create the club as long as no “non-school persons or entities” are named as advisors or participants of the club.

Dr. Wanzo was also put in a difficult position more recently when the previous school board voted to extend Dr. Holtzman’s contract two years before it expired – a potential violation of state law.

Dr. Holtzman resigned and was rehired at the same board meeting. When this proved contentious, the previous board did the same thing a month later for Dr. Wanzo and then claimed any criticism of what they did for Holtzman was either unfair for not including Wanzo or racially motivated because Dr. Wanzo is a person of color.

The matter concluded with Dr. Holtzman leaving the district.

Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Wanzo spent her entire career at MASD. She was a fifth grade teacher at Francis McClure Middle School, a second grade teacher at White Oak Elementary School, a fourth grade teacher at Cornell Intermediate School, Assistant Principal at Founders’ Hall Middle School, and ninth grade principal at the high school.

She graduated from the district and still lives in its borders. As a student, she attended Centennial Elementary, Cornell Middle School, and graduated from McKeesport High School in 1997. 

She has a BA in Elementary Education from Clarion University, a degree in Educational Leadership from Carlow University, and a Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Duquesne University.

Hopefully she will be able to lead the district to a brighter future.

To many students she may appear a beacon of representation as well as proof that a student from McKeesport can rise to the top.

WATCH DR. WANZO BEING SWORN IN:


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Holtzman Resigns as MASD Superintendent After Questions Over Contract Shenanigans

For the second time in a year, McKeesport Area School Directors accepted the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman.

However, this time his resignation appears to be permanent.

At a special meeting in July of 2021, the board both accepted Holtzman’s resignation and then immediately gave him a new 5-year contract.

However, after months of controversy over the legality of the move, at last night’s special meeting, the board voted to let him go FOR REAL.

Holtzman has accepted a new position at Beaver Area School District, approximately 50 miles northwest of McKeesport.

His last day is June 30. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo will serve as Acting Superintendent immediately upon his departure.

The controversy stems from a move last year by the outgoing board to retain Hotlzman in McKeesport when he had been poised to accept a new superintendents position at Kiski Area School District. He resigned and was rehired at MASD in order to secure him a new contract with a competitive salary and years of service.

But this didn’t sit well with three board members (Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess) who walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order.

Then in January – a month after three new board members were sworn in following the election – the board voted 5-4 to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire were enforceable.

Lawyer William C. Andrews wrote a letter stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the Pennsylvania school code. The law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Holtzman’s own legal council, Mark E. Scott, wrote that the move was, in fact, legal and that it was common practice at other districts.

At a February board meeting where letters from both lawyers were read into the record, Holtzman offered to resign, then and there:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

At the time, it was unclear whether the board could move forward with Holtzman at the head of the district or not.

Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.

A mere three months later, he put in his current resignation.


Holtzman’s tenure at McKeesport was fraught with controversy from the beginning.

He was hired as high school principal without any principal experience while his own father, Mark Holzman, Sr., was on the school board.

Before this, he had been dean of discipline at McKeesport’s vocational department for two years before taking a similar role at West Mifflin Area High School. However, he was mostly known in MASD for his years on the high school football team when he had been a student there (he graduated in 1997) and then at Syracuse University.

His family also had a close relationship with one of the most controversial figures in the Mon-Valley, Pat Risha. The late Risha, who had been a superintendent, himself, at McKeesport, West Mifflin and South Allegheny districts, could have opened many doors, and was heralded as a “power broker” in his obituary.

Holtzman was originally hired as MASD superintendent at a special meeting on March 29, 2017, at a salary of $140,000, according to minutes from that meeting.

His time as superintendent was rocky, to say the least.

The Covid-19 pandemic offered hard challenges for every district, but Holtzman often made decisions that put students and staff at risk, keeping buildings open during times of high community spread and often with mask optional policies. The result was hundreds of people testing positive for the disease who might not have otherwise.

The district offered a cyber option for students whose parents wanted to keep them safely at home during the worst of the pandemic. Many districts were able to provide live teachers from the child’s grade level to instruct through on-line services like Zoom. However, MASD used the corporate Edmentum program to provide academics. The problem is it wasn’t created for that purpose. It was created for credit recovery, not robust academics. As a result, the district cyber program was developmentally inappropriate, and full of typos and inaccuracies.

It was no better for students who came to school in-person. Thousands of children were unable to get to school because bus routes were cancelled daily over the last year.

Holtzman blamed the problem on a contract with bus company, PA Coach Lines, which didn’t have enough drivers and would cancel the routes just hours before the buses were set to arrive.

The district had to go to court to break the contract and just entered into a new 6-year contract with Krise Transportation out of Penn Hills starting next year.

Holtzman’s controversies predate the pandemic.

In 2019, he refused to allow 11 high school students to create a Black Student Union. He claimed his objection wasn’t due to the organization’s content  but the participation of one of the student’s mothers – Fawn Montgomery Walker who was running for McKeesport Mayor at the time and who is lead organizer of Take Action Mon Valley, a community action group.

The district eventually reached a settlement agreement with the American Civil Liberties Union and the students who had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the district and Holtzman.

The students were allowed to create the club as long as no “non-school persons or entities” are named as advisors or participants of the club.

Not everything Holtzman did in the district was contentious.

He had a talent for getting donations from large companies.

Last year, he was instrumental in getting Comcast to provided 2,500 free laptops for students, teachers and staff in the middle and high school. The gift also included one year of free high-speed internet access for eligible families – services that can be extended annually. 

The news was broadcast live on NBC’s “Today” show.

Around the same time, Holtzman helped broker a partnership with The DICK’S Sporting Goods Foundation and MASD for investment in students at Twin Rivers Elementary School. The agreement is supposed to involve co-designing a new school model and wrap-around services for the community.

Here’s hoping MASD has success with Dr. Wanzo or whoever eventually takes the Superintendent’s position on a permanent basis.


 

 

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Gadfly’s Most Outrageous Articles in 2021 That You May Have Missed or Been Too Polite to Share

The most popular topic people wanted to read about on my blog this year has been how teachers are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In short, it’s a mess.

We’re struggling big time.

In the media, they call it a teacher shortage, but it’s really an Exodus away from the profession for educators who are fed up with being treated like crap.

But that’s not the only thing I wrote about in 2021.

At this point in my career with everything crumbling around me, I have no more F’s to give.

I’m laying it all out straight. And this is from a blogger who has often been criticized for not holding anything back BEFORE!

Now I am pointing out all the elephants in the room.

And jaws have been hitting the floor.

Sacred cows? Not here. Have a burger.

So after already publishing a top 10 list of my most popular articles from the past year, I’ve compiled a list of ten more (or so) that didn’t get the acclaim but deserve it.

Some of these articles are not for the faint of heart.

If you’re tired of being polite and ignoring all the flaming dumpster fires that well behaved teachers aren’t supposed to mention, then you might enjoy some of these stories.

So buckle up. Here we go:


10) Lesson Plans Are a Complete Waste of Time 

Published: Sept. 16


 Views: 2,971


 Description: The title says it all. Stop wasting teachers’ time by making us fill out paperwork that won’t help us do our jobs but will make administrators and principals look good. We make our own plans for ourselves. We don’t need to share with you a bunch of BS with Common Core nonsense and step-by-step blah-blah that will probably have to change in the heat of the moment anyway. 

Fun Fact: Teachers in my building rarely say anything to me about my blog. But I got some serious appreciation on my home turf for this one.


9) Where Are the Parents? The School Shortage We Ignore 

Published: Nov. 17


 Views: 2,997


 Description: We talk about missing teachers, subs, aides, bus drivers, but not parents or guardians. We should. They are absolutely essential to student learning. I think there are a lot of good reasons why parents don’t participate in their children’s schooling, but they will never get the help they need if we continue to ignore this issue and throw everything on teachers and the school.


 Fun Fact: So many liberals lost their minds on this article saying I was attacking parents. I’m not. If people were drowning, you would not be attacking them by pointing that out and demanding help fishing them out of the water. It is not “deficit thinking” to acknowledge that someone needs help. It’s authentic advocacy for both students and parents.


8) I Triggered Bill Maher By Writing About Standardized Testing and White Supremacy 

Published: Nov. 3


 Views: 2,076


 Description: It wasn’t just liberals who were butt hurt by my writing – it was neoliberals, too. Comedian Bill Maher actually mentioned my article “Standardized Testing is a Tool of White Supremacy” on his HBO show. He joked that I was devaluing the term ‘white supremacy.” Sure. These assessments only help white people unfairly maintain their collective boot on the throats of black and brown people. That’s not white supremacy. It’s melanin deficient hegemony. Happy now!?

 Fun Fact: Maher’s assertion (I can’t claim it’s an argument because he never actually argued for anything) seems to be popular with neoliberals trying to counter the negative press standardized testing has been receiving lately. We need to arm against this latest corporate talking point and this article and the original give plenty of ammunition. My article was republished on Alternet and CommonDreams.org.

7) School Sports are Overwhelming Academics. Time to Kick Them Out

Published: Dec. 10


 Views: 2,080


 Description: Most of the world does not have competitive after school sports. Kids participate in sports through clubs – not through the schools. I suggested we might do that in the US, too. This would allow schools to use more of their budgets on learning. It would stop crucial school board decisions from being made for the athletics department at the expense of academics. It would remove litigation for serious injuries. Simple. Right?


 Fun Fact: So many folks heads simply exploded at this. They thought I was saying we should do away with youth sports. No. Youth sports would still exist, just not competitive sports through the school. They thought poor kids wouldn’t be able to participate. No, sports clubs could be subsidized by the government just as they are in other countries. Some folks said there are kids who wouldn’t go to school without sports. No, that’s hyperbole. True, some kids love sports but they also love socialization, routine, feeling safe, interaction with caring adults and even learning! But I know this is a radical idea in this country, and I have no illusions that anyone is going to take me up on it.

6) Critical Race Theory Articles

A) If You’re Afraid Kids Will Learn Racism is Bad, Perhaps Public School is Not For You 

B) Public Schools Are Not Indoctrinating Kids About Racism. Voucher Schools ARE

C) Muzzling America’s Teachers with a Ban on Critical Race Theory is What Orwell Warned Us About

Published: (A) Oct. 14, (B) Jun3 17, (C) July 2


 Views: (A) 1,918, (B) 1,869 , (C) 1,207


 Description: Republicans have a new racist dog whistle. They pretend white people are being taught to hate themselves by reference to a fake history of the US called Critical Race Theory. In reality, schools are teaching the tiniest fraction of the actual history of racism and Republicans need that to stop or else they won’t have any new members in a few generations. I wrote three articles about it this year from different points of view than I thought were being offered elsewhere.


 Fun Fact: I’m proud of this work. It looks at the topic from the viewpoint of academic freedom, the indoctrination actually happening (often at taxpayer expense) at private and parochial schools, and the worthy goal of education at authentic public schools. Article B was republished on CommonDreams.org.

5) County Council Election Articles


A) Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

B) A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council


C) I Fought the Do-Nothing-Incumbent, and He Won

Published: (A) March 19, (B) April 2, (C) May 26


 Views: (A) 514 (B) 111 (C) 248


 Description: I ran for office this year in western Pennsylvania. I tried for Allegheny County Council – a mid-sized position covering the City of Pittsburgh and the rest of the second largest county in the state. Ultimately, I lost, but these three articles document the effort. 

Fun Fact: These articles explain why a teacher like me ran for office, how I could have helped public schools, and why it didn’t work out. Article C was republished on CommonDreams.org.

4) Vaccine Articles


A) How I Got the Covid Vaccine: an Immunization Odyssey

B) Hope During a Pandemic is Both Hard and Inescapable


Published: (A) Jan. 30, (B) March 11


 Views: (A) 451 (B) 229

 Description: These are terrifying times. In the future people may look back and wonder what happened. These two articles document how I got vaccinated against Covid-19 and my thoughts and feelings about the process, the pandemic, and life in general.


 Fun Fact: It hasn’t even been a full year since I wrote these pieces but they somehow feel like they were written a million years ago. So much has changed – and so little.

3) What is Taught in Public Schools? Volunteer as a Substitute Teacher and See for Yourself! 

Published: Oct. 20


 Views: 733


Description: Pennsylvania Republican state legislators were whining that they didn’t know what teachers were doing in public school. So they proposed a BS law demanding teachers spend even more of their never-ending time giving updates. I suggested legislators could just volunteer as subs and see for themselves.


 Fun Fact: So far no Republicans have taken me up on the offer and their cute bit of performative lawmaking still hasn’t made it through Harrisburg.

2) We Don’t Need More ADVICE on How to Safely Reopen Schools. We Need RULES.


Published: July 29


 Views: 1,180 

Description: When it comes to stopping a global pandemic, we need federal action. This can’t be left up to the states, or the counties, or the townships or every small town. But all we get from the federal government about Covid mitigation in schools are guidelines. Stand up and do your F-ing jobs! Make some rules already, you freaking cowards!


 Fun Fact: As I write this, President Joe Biden just came out and said there is no federal solution to the pandemic. It’s not that I think the other guy would have done better, but this was a softball, Joe. History will remember. If there is a history after all this is over.


1) What I Told My Students About Yesterday’s Attempted Trump Coup


Published: Jan. 8


 Views: 2,297 

Description: On January 6, a bunch of far right traitors stormed the Capitol. This articles documents what it was like to experience that as a public school teacher with on-line classes during the pandemic.


 Fun Fact: Once again, history may want to know. Posterity may have questions. At least, I hope so. The article was republished on CommonDreams.org.


Gadfly’s Other Year End Round Ups

This wasn’t the first year I’ve done a countdown of the year’s greatest hits. I usually write one counting down my most popular articles and one listing articles that I thought deserved a second look (like this one). Here are all my end of the year articles since I began my blog in 2014:

 

2021:

Gadfly’s Top 10 Articles of 2021 – Shouts in the Dark

2020:

The Most Important Education Articles (By Me) That You Probably Missed in 2020

Outrunning the Pandemic – Racing Through Gadfly’s Top 10 Stories of 2020

 

2019:

Sixteen Gadfly Articles That Made Betsy DeVos Itch in 2019


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2018:

A Gadfly’s Dozen: Top 13 Education Articles of 2018 (By Me)

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2017:

 

What’s the Buzz? A Crown of Gadflies! Top 10 Articles (by Me) in 2017

 

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Hidden Gadfly – Top 5 Stories (By Me) You May Have Missed in 2017

 

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2016

Worse Than Fake News – Ignored News. Top 5 Education Stories You May Have Missed in 2016

 

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Goodbye, 2016, and Good Riddance – Top 10 Blog Post by Me From a Crappy Year

 

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2015

 

Gadfly’s Choice – Top 5 Blogs (By Me) You May Have Missed from 2015

 

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Who’s Your Favorite Gadfly? Top 10 Blog Posts (By Me) That Enlightened, Entertained and Enraged in 2015

 

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2014

 

 

Off the Beaten Gadfly – the Best Education Blog Pieces You Never Read in 2014

 

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Top 10 Education Blog Posts (By Me) You Should Be Reading Right Now!

 

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Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Reducing Students to Their Test Scores Will Only Increase Their Pandemic Wounds 

 

Read the following as quickly and accurately as you can:

‘I know I withought all by he middle on, ” said a between he name a buzzing, he for began open he the only reason for making.”

Very good, you’re told as your teacher clicks a stopwatch and writes on a piece of paper.

Now try this one:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:

All mimsy were the borogoves, And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The teacher frowns and writes for a minute straight without comment.

Okay. Give this one a shot:

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elity, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.”

No, this isn’t a crash course in some foreign language.

It’s the DIBELS test.

Students as young as Kindergarten (and sometimes younger) are asked to read a text aloud in a given time and each mispronunciation is recorded and marked against them.

And, yes, the texts are often pure nonsense.


My first example was from a nonsense generator of Winnie the Pooh, the second was from “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll and the last an example of Lorem ipsum, a placeholder text commonly used in the graphic, print, and publishing industries.

To my knowledge none are actually used on the DIBELS test but they give you an idea of what an adult version might be like if given to people our age and not just the littles.

Can you imagine being a child, feeling the pressure of a test and being presented with something that looked like those passages!?

The fear! The sense of urgency to say something before the time runs out! The feeling of inadequacy and confusion as you finished knowing you got it wrong!

And the assurance that this meant there was something wrong with YOU!

That’s reading assessment in the standardized testing age.

Decoding – or working out the actual pronunciation of words – is given primacy over actual comprehension.

Why? Because that way we can break reading down into simple, quantifiable tasks that can be used to sort and rank children.

You know. The goal of standardized testing.

It’s highly controversial among people who study reading acquisition, but extremely common in elementary and middle schools.

And extremely lucrative for the makers of the DIBELS test.

Today I was forced to leave my class of 8th grade students with a sub so an “expert”from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit could lecture me and the rest of my school’s English department in using DIBELS as a gatekeeper assessment for all students.

That way we can group the students more easily based on their reading deficiencies.

I literally had to stop teaching for THAT.

I was bopping around the classroom, reading students’ writing, helping them organize it, helping them fix their explanations and craft sophisticated essays on a short story.

But I had to STOP, so an outside contractor could explain to ME how to teach.

ME, a Nationally Board certified teacher with two decades of classroom experience.

And the rest of the department with similar experience and education. In the group was also the holder of a doctorate in education. Almost all of us at least held a masters degree.

It boggles the mind.

In this time of pandemic stress when just keeping enough teachers in the building to staff our classrooms is a challenge, administration is wasting our time with this.

Before Covid-19, I could almost imagine it.

We did a lot of stupid things back then. But now a deadly virus rages across the country. Several students and staff get sick every week.  


 
There is a shortage of teachers, aides, subs, bus drivers, and other staff. 


 
And even though most school buildings are open, most students are still suffering from the social and emotional effects of the never-ending disaster.  


 
Yet the people who set school policy refuse to see any of it.  


 
They’re like ostriches – in suits – with their heads planted firmly in the ground. 


 
Covid safety protocols, reducing teacher workload, providing counselors for students – none of that is even on their radar.  


 
All they want to do is reinstitute the policies that weren’t working well before the pandemic hit.  


 
The only difference is their sense of urgency.  


 
In fact, the only impact they even recognize of the last year and a half is the dreaded LEARNING LOSS.  


 
Kids weren’t in class consistently. They were in on-line classes, or hybrid classes or maybe they didn’t even show up to class at all.  


 
That means they don’t know as much today as they would have known had the pandemic not happened.  


 
So – we’re told – they’ve lost learning. 


 
Oh no!  


 
But what these decision makers don’t seem to understand is that this whole concept is kind of meaningless.  


 
All people learn at different rates. If you don’t know something today, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it tomorrow.  


 
There’s no time table for understanding. It’s not a race. It doesn’t matter when you learn something only that you continue making progress. 


 
However, you’d need a classroom teacher to explain that to you. And these are more business types. Administrators and number crunchers who may have stood in front of a classroom a long time ago but escaped at the first opportunity. 


 
They look at a class full of students and don’t see human children. They see numbers, data.  


 
And they are just itching to get back to sorting and ranking students based on standardized test scores.  


 
After all – say it with me – LEARNING LOSS!!!! 


 
Unfortunately there’s a whole world of reality up here above ground that they’re ignoring. And up here continuing with their willful fantasy is doing real harm.  


 
When I look at my classes of students, I don’t see overwhelming academic deficiencies.  

Even their test scores don’t justify that myth.


 
According to the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA), they’re pretty much where I’d expect them any other year.

 
 
But their behaviors are off the hook


 
They simply don’t know how to interact with each other without conflict.  


 
My students are desperate for attention – any kind of attention – and will do almost anything to get it.  


 
They’d prefer to be respected, but they don’t understand how to treat each other respectfully. So they aim for any kind of response.

 
 
To a large extent this is due to a disruption in the social and emotional development they would have received at school. But robbed of good role models and adequate consequences, they’re somewhat at sea.  


 
Moreover, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their support systems at home. Parents, family members and guardians have lost jobs, become sick and some have even died.


 
They don’t know who to trust and who they can rely on.  


 
So when they get to school, we’re going to meet their needs with more standardized tests!?  


 
That’s one of the worst things we could do. 

Take a child who already has trust issues and force them to read nonsense sentences while we judge them with a stopwatch?


 
Erase their individual identities and try to see them primarily as their scores?


 
These are in the low group. These are in the middle group. These are in the high group.  


 
Instead of giving them robust pieces of literature to read, they’ll get nonfiction scraps devoid of any connection to their lives, interests or aptitudes.  


 
We’ll drill and kill them, make every day about teaching to the test instead of teaching to the student.  


 
We’ll let data drive the instruction instead driving it based on the actual living, breathing, human beings we’re supposed to be serving.  
 


And instead of relying on teachers – highly trained people with decades of experience in how children learn effectively – we’ll put our trust in mega corporations that make more money the less effective their materials are.  


 
Prepare for a test – they make money. 


 
Take a test – they make money. 


 
Fail the test and have to remediate – they make money.  


 
It’s a scam – an endless cycle – and administrators and policy makers keep falling for it.  


 
Will this help meet kids social needs?  


 
Absolutely not. They’ll be segregated by ability and forced to repeat confusing and mind numbing tasks as if that’s what education was.  


 
Will it help meet kids emotional needs?  


 
No way! Being forced to do the same thing over and over and continually told you’re a failure won’t teach anything except a kind of learned helplessness.  


 
Kids will learn “I’m bad at math” or “I’m bad at reading” rather than the joy that can be found in both activities.  


 
They’ll learn to give up.  


 
And they’ll take out the negative feelings all this generates on each other and their teachers.  


 
It doesn’t have to be this way.  


 
A new world is possible.  


 
The pandemic offers us a chance to stop repeating the same mistakes of the past.  


 
We can scrap standardized testing and focus on authentic assessments – teacher constructed assessments the are suited to the individual context, the individual students.  


 
We can focus on lessons that engage students and encourage them to learn intrinsically.


 
We can focus on what students know instead of what they don’t so they learn that they are capable, that they have the power to do the lesson.  


 
We could help students understand how to interact with each other and heal some of the social and emotional wounds of the past year and a half.  


 
But we can’t do that if we’re forced to continue with the same mistakes of the past. 

We have to recognize the reality teachers, students and parents are living through.

And we have to make decisions based on that reality, not the same old preconceptions that have never gotten us anywhere.


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

Thank you, Gov. Wolf, for Reissuing a Mask Mandate for PA Schools. Time for Next Steps

My daughter’s school has been open for seven days so far this year.

The school where I teach has been open three days.

Masks optional at both.

Do you know how terrifying that is for a father – to send his only child off to class hoping she’ll be one of the lucky ones who doesn’t get sick?

Do you know how frustrating it is for an educator like me trying to teach while unsure how long your students will be well enough to stay in class? Unsure how long you will?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns we should wear masks in school to protect from Covid-19, especially the more virulent delta variant.

So does the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Nationwide Children’s Hospitals Care Connection, the Allegheny County Department of Health…

And just about every doctor, immunologist and specialist at UPMC as well as the Pennsylvania State Education Association, and the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Heck! Even the Pittsburgh Post Gazette’s editorial board – not always a bastion of good sense – called the decision to mask in schools a “no brainer.”

But somehow my duly elected school board couldn’t find the courage to enact that advice.

The school directors where I work refused to even explain their reasoning behind denying the precaution.

But BOTH groups promised to abide by any mandates handed down from on high.

It seemed that neither group had the courage to make the decision, themselves. They just passed it on to parents knowing full well that there would be no consistency.

Gather together a large enough group of anyone and it’s doubtful they’ll all agree on anything. And all it takes is one or two people to come to school unmasked to infect everybody there!

Thank goodness for Governor Tom Wolf.

Today he announced a mask mandate at all preK-12 schools, both public and private, and licensed child care centers beginning next Tuesday.

The mandate comes after three weeks of Wolf refusing to take this step.

At first, he said he was going to leave this up to the individual school boards – but they dropped the ball.

Only 36.8% of districts throughout Pennsylvania enacted some form of mass mandate on their own, though they serve 53.25% of students.

That’s 184 districts with some form of mask requirement, 307 optional and 9 unknown.

What a disgrace!

It just goes to show that the great majority of school directors in the Commonwealth are cowards, stupid or both.

If the voters don’t rise up and replace these fools, we will only have ourselves to blame.

They have betrayed the public trust.

They should be hounded from our midst, unfit to even show themselves in society.

To put kids lives at risk because you haven’t the guts to take the responsibility! Or worse, to be so idiotic as to distrust nearly every medical professional, scientist, immunologist or specialist!

As a state, and as a country, we have been given an intelligence test – and our leaders have mostly failed.

I am thankful Governor Wolf acted.

Finally.

Wolf’s emergency powers to sustain a state disaster declaration were curtailed by voters in the May election.

Another failure of voters to turn out and support one of the few people with the courage to protect our children.

However, May’s referendum did not affect the Wolf administration’s ability to implement a masking order or other public-health rules under the state’s disease-control law. The Pennsylvania Department of Health has the authority to issue a statewide mask order for K-12 schools under a state law that empowers the department to take appropriate measures to protect the public from infectious diseases.

To his credit, Wolf tried to work with the legislature to get this done.

He asked the Republican-controlled state House and Senate to come back in session and vote on the matter. But since they prefer politics to safeguarding children they refused.

We are fortunate to have at least one adult in Harrisburg – and he lives in the Governor’s mansion.

However, we can’t get complacent.

This mask mandate is only step one of what needs to be done.

As many other states have done, we need to require all school employees to get the Covid vaccine or provide proof of regular negative COVID tests just to enter educational buildings.

Right now children younger than 12 are not eligible to be vaccinated. We need to require those young people who are eligible to get the vaccine or provide them with an alternative like remote learning. And when the vaccine has been cleared for all children, we need to add it to the long list of other vaccines children already need to get to enter school.

We need an influx of funding to make it possible to keep kids in school and still keep them socially distanced. As it is now, this is nearly impossible – I speak from experience.

The school where I teach has hardly any social distancing, and frankly we can’t have in-person school without more classrooms, more teachers, more space.

We need to bring back cleaning protocols to make sure every classroom is properly disinfected between periods. We need to ensure that school buildings are properly ventilated.

Will this be expensive? Probably, but if we could waste $300 million a day for two decades in Afghanistan that resulted in NOTHING, we can afford to properly fund our schools for once!

But most of all, we have to come to an understanding – the pandemic is not over – and it will not be over until enough of the general population is vaccinated.

Are you frustrated by masks? Are you frustrated we have to keep going back to these safety precautions?

Me, too.

But these precautions can’t go away just because we’re frustrated. People have to understand that the only way they will go away is if everyone does their part.

Going out in public unmasked should bring severe social consequences.

People who recklessly put the lives of others in danger just because they don’t feel like being bothered deserve the cold shoulder.


They should be stigmatized, rebuffed and ostracized.

Let me be clear. I’m not talking about physical violence. I’m talking about social consequences for acting like an Asshole.

We need to grow up.

Actions have consequences.

We need a functioning society.

And communities that can’t even come together to protect their own children are nothing of the sort.

It’s way past time we took action.

Gov. Wolf has put us on the path, but this is not over.

This is just the beginning.


 

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School Leaders Refusing to Mandate Masks Are Responsible for the Coming Storm

I would love for this to be a normal school year.

I would relish the opportunity to teach my classes of middle school students without a mask covering my face and obscuring my voice.  


I would enjoy being able to see the expressions on their faces as I welcomed them to class and got to know them.

 

But I am not stupid.  

I know that doing so would not be worth the cost.

The pandemic is not over – not in Pennsylvania. Covid-19 cases are on the rise in my community and an increasing number of children have gotten sick, been hospitalized or died. 

Forgoing masks would risk more. It’s just not worth it.

Only a month ago child Covid cases numbered in the zeroes or low single-digits each day in my home of Allegheny County, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. During the past two weeks there have been as many as 30 to 40 new child cases a day. 


 
Some of these are kids 11 and younger who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are  those 12 and older who have not been vaccinated. And a few are break-through cases among vaccinated kids, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, clinical director of infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 


 
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are recommending everyone in schools – students, staff, visitors, etc. – wear masks whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. 


 
As a school director, why would you take a chance with the children in your care? 


 
There are so many questions I have about this situation that all seem to boil down to variations on that one


 


Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, an independent pediatrics practice with several locations in the region, put it this way: 


 
“We’re here to ask one question to school districts not doing universal masking: Why is your situation safer [without a mask mandate] than what is recommended by the AAP and the CDC?” 


 
Why is it safer to forgo this precaution?  


 
Wearing a mask is not all that hard. We all did it throughout most of the last year and a half. 


Why is it so hard to just continue doing it a little while longer? 


 
I asked a similar question of Bryan Macuga, Assistant Superintendent of Steel Valley School District where I work.  


 


He mentioned at a district wide meeting that the new health and safety plan approved by the school board makes masks optional this year. I asked him why.  


 
He refused to give me an answer. He simply said that’s what’s been decided and would say no more.  


 
Superintendent Ed Wehrer was there at the meeting wearing a mask to – as he put it – “model” that behavior. Wehrer said he was empowered by the school board to mandate masks if it became necessary. He hasn’t done so nor did he find it necessary to answer my question, either. 


 
I can’t imagine it.  
 


If these leaders really think it is better not to mandate masks, why not explain their reasoning. We may agree or disagree with them, but they can’t even show us the courtesy of a straight answer to a fair question. 


 
Whatever their reasoning, most Allegheny County school directors must disagree with it.  


 
The majority of the county’s 43 school districts – 70% – have mandated masks in their schools. It’s heartening to see so many school leaders putting children over politics this way. I just wish I lived and worked in one of their communities.  


 
Only 13 county districts are making masks optional and most of those are clustered on the southeastern border with more rural (and Republican) Westmoreland County. 


 

I don’t understand how ideology makes people risk the lives of their own kids.  


 


Masks and vaccines should not be political.  


 
They should be the purview of science and reason


 
Throughout the rest of the state, the situation seems even worse.  


 
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Of 474 that submitted health and safety plans by July, only 59 reported plans to mandate masks for the 2021-22 year. This number is certainly higher now as districts changed their plans based on increases in Covid cases through August. But the situation is still incredibly frustrating. 


 
This week Gov. Tom Wolf called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a motion to mandate masks in Commonwealth schools.  


 
However, Wolf is a Democrat and the legislature is controlled by Republicans so this request was soundly rejected.  


 
It’s unclear whether Wolf will try to do this on his own under his authority as governor especially since voters just limited his ability to do so in a referendum in May.  


 
Politics. Stupid politics while our children are in danger.  


 
Elections have consequences but so do boneheaded decisions by elected leaders.  


 
The choice to make masks optional needlessly puts so much in jeopardy.  


 
Not just healthy and safety but the ability of schools to function well.  


 
One of the major takeaways of the last pandemic year was how ineffective and frustrating remote schooling is. Even under the best of circumstances in-person classes are far superior.  


 


However, refusing to put in place safety precautions like universal masking puts in-person learning at risk.  


 
If Covid infections are high enough, schools must close and go back to remote instruction.  


 
Why would school directors risk that?  


 
If their main concern is academics, why not install the kinds of provisions that at least allow for the best method of instruction?  
 


There seems to be a cynical calculus here – various games of chicken with local government against higher state and federal authorities.  


 
Republicans refuse to legislate safety precautions. Democrats often are too afraid to do so.  


 
The result is our current fractured map of diverse reactions to the same disaster.  


 
In short, it may take a larger disaster to break the political gridlock.  


 
Certainly kids will get sick. Without a doubt they will bring the virus home to parents, friends and family.  


 
But will the net result be bad enough to force – and I do mean FORCE – lockdowns, quarantines and remote schooling? 


 
I don’t know the answer. And neither do anti-maskers, but they are recklessly betting that the consequences won’t be bad enough to force their hand.  


 
Honestly, in a sane society this careless attitude endangering children and families would be enough to bring condemnation and shame.  


 
But in our broken system it will take a true catastrophe of epic proportions. Judging from last year, mask optional districts will do whatever they can to obscure the level of damage their policies are doing and stay the course unless the explosion is so big as to be impossible to hide.

We’re talking kindergarten classes full of Covid patients, tiny tots attached to ventilators, lawsuits and funerals in equal measure.
 


I don’t know if it will come to that, but if it does, we know who to blame.  


 
Any disruptions in education, any illnesses, any long-term effects must be laid at the feet of the decision makers who could have protected us from it but refused to do so. 


 
They have a responsibility that is being ignored.  


 
I can only hope that one day they receive the justice their actions today make them so richly deserve.


 

The following is a list from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of public school districts in Allegheny County and their position on universal masking for the 2021-22 school year (as of Wednesday, Aug. 25): 


MASKS REQUIRED 


Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships) 


Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township) 


Bethel Park 


Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms) 


Clairton City 


Cornell (Coraopolis, Neville Island) 


East Allegheny (East McKeesport, Wall, Wilmerding, North Versailles) 


Fox Chapel Area (Fox Chapel, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, O’Hara, Blawnox, Indiana Township) 


Gateway (Monroeville, Pitcairn) 


Hampton 


Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree) 


Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village) 


Moon Area (Crescent, Moon) 


Mt. Lebanon 


North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action. 


Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon) 


North Hills (Ross, West View) 


Penn Hills 


Pine-Richland 


Pittsburgh Public Schools (Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver) 


Quaker Valley (Sewickley, Leetsdale, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Hills, Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, Haysville, Glenfield, Leet, Aleppo) 


Riverview (Oakmont, Verona) 


Shaler Area (Shaler, Etna, Millvale, Reserve) 


South Fayette 


Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe) 


Upper St. Clair 


West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale) 


West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker) 


Wilkinsburg 


Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins) 


OPTIONAL 


Baldwin-Whitehall 


Brentwood 


Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott) 


Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer) 


Duquesne City 


Elizabeth Forward 


Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison) 


McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak) 


Plum 


South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln) 


South Park 


Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead) 


West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)   

 


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!