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)   

 


 

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Why Does Your Right to Unmask Usurp My Child’s Right to a Safe School?

“Daddy, I’m afraid.”

My 12-year-old daughter just had a nightmare, and I was sitting on her bed trying to calm her down.

“What’s wrong, Sweetie?”

“I’m worried about school.”

That’s something with which I can certainly relate.

Even after teaching for 18 years, I always get anxious before the first day of school, and I told her as much.

“Really?” She said.


“Yeah. But I can understand why you might be even more nervous than usual. I’ll be teaching the same thing I’ve taught for years. I’ll be in the same classroom working with the same adults. Only the students will be different. But you will be in a new building with new teachers…. And you haven’t even been in a classroom in over a year.”

“That’s just it, Daddy. What if the other kids make fun of me for wearing a mask? What if I get sick?”

Our local district is reopening in a week with a mask optional policy and no vaccine requirements.

Her question was expected, but I had been dreading it.

I knew my answers and they sounded inadequate – even to me.

I explained how she would be wearing a mask and is fully vaccinated so it will be extremely unlikely for her to get sick. And even if she does, it will be extremely unlikely she’ll get VERY sick.

“And if the other kids make fun of you, just ignore it. You are going to be safe. If they take chances, they’ll just have to suffer the consequences.”

It seemed to satisfy her, but I left her room feeling like a bad parent.

Covid-19 cases are on the rise again.

Nationwide, nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

Even in the Pittsburgh region where we live, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week, according to KDKA. That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

My daughter is scared? So is her daddy.

I went to the local school directors meeting and asked the board to follow recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Allegheny County Health Department by requiring masking and vaccinations for eligible students and staff. They refused.

Now I’m stuck in the position of keeping my little girl at home for another year by enrolling her in the district’s terrible on-line program, Edmentum, or rolling the dice with in-person schooling.

I’m told there will be more synchronous teaching this year in the remote program, but I don’t trust it.

Last year, she only made it through because my father-in-law – a former math teacher – and myself basically taught her everything the on-line program struggled to get across.

We just couldn’t do it again this year. It was a full time job – several full-time jobs – too hard on him and me both.

I hope we won’t regret it.

And then there’s my own work situation.

I teach at a neighboring district that looks like it will reopen the same way with masks and vaccines mere options.

I’m fully vaccinated but immunosuppressed. Might I be putting my own health at risk teaching under these conditions?

Last year, even with masks a requirement, students and staff at both districts came down with the virus nearly every week.

With the more infectious and deadly delta variant on the rise, might it be even worse this year – especially if we are lowering precautions?

Last year I burned my sick days waiting to be vaccinated before returning to the physical classroom. This year I could take a leave of absence, but once again my district is making no accommodations for people like me. I have to work or else try to survive on a reduced salary.

When you’re already living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s not much of an option.

I just don’t understand it.

Don’t my daughter and I have rights?

We hear a lot about the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers. A lot about their rights. What about our right to safe schools?

Why is it that the right NOT to wear a mask supersedes the right to go to a school where everyone is required to wear one?

Because it isn’t – as I told my daughter – a matter of everyone having to deal with just the consequences of their own actions. My daughter and I have to deal with the consequences of everyone else’s actions, too.

Or to put it another way – if one person pees in the pool, we’re all swimming in their urine.

If someone else doesn’t wear a mask, hasn’t been vaccinated and hasn’t taken the proper precautions, they can spread the Covid-19 virus through the air and infect whole classrooms of people.

Everyone else could be wearing a mask. It just takes one person who isn’t.

Is it fair that everyone else has to pay the price for one person’s carelessness?

We talk about rights so much we seem to have lost entirely the idea of responsibilities. They go hand-in-hand.

Yes, you have the freedom to do whatever you like so long as it doesn’t hurt another person.

When your actions do hurt others, you have a responsibility to stop. And if you won’t do that, the government has a responsibility to stop you.

But in this anti-intellectual age, we’ve almost completely given up on that idea.

If people take precautions by masking up and getting vaccinated, the worst that will happen is they’ll be unduly inconvenienced. If my daughter and I are forced to exist in the same spaces with people not taking the proper precautions, we could get sick and die.

It’s not like we’re talking about two equal sides here. This is people who believe the overwhelming scientific majority vs. those who get their answers from YouTube videos and political figures. It’s doctors, researchers and immunologists vs. conspiracy theorists, internet trolls and the MyPillow guy.

I’m not even judging – believe what you like so long as it affects only you. But when it affects me, too, then we have a problem.

The lowest common denominator is allowed to run wild. They can do whatever they like and the rest of us just have to put up with it.

That’s why we’re beginning year two and a half of a global pandemic! Not enough of us got the vaccine by the end of the summer.

Now infections are rising and few policy makers have the courage to take a stand and protect those of us who took precautions from those of us who did not.

And don’t tell me our lawmakers don’t have the power. There is a mountain of precedent showing they have.

On the highway, you can’t just go wherever you want, whenever you want. There are lanes, speed limits, traffic lights.

Even vaccines! To enroll in Kindergarten, parents already have to prove their kids have been vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and a host of other diseases. Why is Covid-19 any different?

Public safety is a PUBLIC issue not a private one.

It just makes me feel so helpless.

I can’t do anything to protect my students.

I can’t do anything to protect myself.

I can’t do anything to protect my baby girl.

And I can’t wait for the school year to start!


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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!

McKeesport School Board Makes Masks Optional as Covid Infections Rise Among Children

When I got to the McKeesport School Board meeting last evening, I was relieved to see a vote to follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Pennsylvania and Allegheny County Health Department mandates about wearing masks in schools.

“Finally,” I thought. “The board is doing something sensible to keep our kids safe from Covid-19.”

Later I found out this motion didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

The district wasn’t mandating masks to protect kids during a global pandemic. It was vowing to follow any mandates put forth by higher authorities IF such mandates were passed.

In the meantime – in the absence of such mandates – the district passed a health and safety plan where masks would be entirely optional for students and staff.

The motion was approved 6-3, with only Mindy Sturgess, James Brown and Steve Kondrosky voting against it. Joe Lopretto, Diane Elias, Dave Donato, Tom Filotei, Ivan Hampton, and Jim Poston voted in favor.

I spoke to the board before the vote, during the public comment section, asking them to BOTH mandate masks and require eligible students and staff to be vaccinated.

Here are my comments in full:

“Thank you for allowing me to speak today.

Being a school director is a hard job. You give up time with friends and family every month to consider what’s best for the community’s children.

It’s especially hard during Covid-19. Decisions concerning public health should be made by the
President, the Governor and – honestly – scores of people before it gets to you. But during this global pandemic, the big dogs have continually passed the buck on down the line until it was on your desks.

It’s unfair.

You may all be nice people, but you aren’t experts on immunology or public safety. Nor do you have ready access to those experts.

But you are tasked with making decisions that directly impact the health and safety of district students and staff. You have an OBLIGATION to safeguard every child and adult.

So what is the best way to reopen schools this year?

Don’t ask me. I’m not an expert, either.

But I have heard from those experts.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all schools mandate masking and require vaccinations for all people 12 and older. The US Department of Education recommends the same. As does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a host of other organizations in prime positions to know what is best.

You have an obligation to listen to them.

Only 63% of Pennsylvanian adults are vaccinated against Covid-19.

Less than 30% of Americans ages 12 to 15, and only 41% of Americans 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. And since they are not eligible yet, all children 11 and younger are not vaccinated.

This means our kids are in danger of catching this virus. Every elementary student and many in middle school are completely unvaccinated. And a good percentage of those older.

According to the district’s own Covid Tracker, 132 students and 89 staff were diagnosed with Covid since the pandemic began.

That’s 221 people. Far too many if you ask me – and with the more infectious delta variant, we can’t allow such numbers to continue.

Nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the AAP and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

That’s not just Texas and Florida. That’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, too.

According to KDKA, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week.

That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

“The only way to protect these younger children under 12 is for those of us over 12 to get vaccinated and wear masks,” said Dr. John Williams, UPMC Chief of Infectious Diseases.

“The decisions that those who are leading our schools’ policies, I want them to think about masking and distancing together as possibilities for keeping people safe,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medical Director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology.

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to these people.

Mandate masks in McKeesport Area School District (MASD). It is not difficult. You did it last year. You can do it this year, no problem.

It is absolutely the LEAST you can do.

You should also mandate that all people 12 and older in district buildings be vaccinated and submit proof of vaccination.


If they refuse, you have remote options available.

Please put your politics and pride aside. This is not about which school district is tougher or proving a point about your independence and autonomy.

This is about keeping children safe.

Please do the right thing. Mandate masks and vaccinations at MASD.

When I was done, there was absolutely zero response.

They just went on with the meeting.

Every other person who spoke during public comments got some kind of response. For me – nothing.

I was still under the impression that the board was going to vote in favor of a mask mandate. I thought I had been too hard on them even bringing it up.

Ha!

The issue was finally addressed when the health and safety plan came up for a vote. Board member Sturgess asked Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman to address the issues and my comments.

It lead to the following interaction between Holtman and Sturgess before the vote:

Holtzman: “We will continue mitigation strategies, social distancing, managing the way in which children transition into the building, the way they eat lunch, things of that nature. It is recommended in the plan that masks are highly recommended for staff and students but they are optional so it’s the family’s choice, the students choice to wear a mask if they so choose, and if a mandate comes down from the Allegheny County Health Director then obviously we’d have to shift gears at that point. Masks also must be worn on transportation. That is part of a mandate that exists – children riding school transportation must wear masks. Approximately half of Allegheny County Schools at this point are providing optional opportunities for staff and students to wear masks based on the needs of the community. We have not seen the numbers rise in Allegheny County yet above the substantial level. That may change or shift the mandate so at this particular point that’s what’s recommended so we will continue to provide hand sanitizer, one way hallways, forward facing children in the cafeteria, and do everything that we can to continue to socially distance children based on how many children are in the classroom.”

Sturgess: “[Director of Allegheny County Health Department] Dr. [Debra] Bogen did highly recommend masks. If masks are not required and we are not able to maintain social distancing what does a close contact look like? Are we going to be putting a lot more of our students and teachers in isolation without having a backup plan?”

Holtzman: “The CDC’s recommendation is 3 feet right now. We’re able to provide 3 feet between children in our classrooms whether they’re full or not. So that’s helpful. Also if children and staff are vaccinated, they do not have to quarantine. Also if children choose to wear a mask, they don’t have to quarantine. So the rules have shifted and changed a little bit. Because we’ve had the best practice of probably any school district in Pennsylvania. I think we’ll be able to manage. I think we may run into a problem where it does become a big deal, but now Allegheny County Health Department has decided that they are going to manage the contact tracing, and we know how that’s going to turn out. That’s overwhelming for them. At some point they’ve given up on some things.”

“The other thing is when you ask for vaccinations, you don’t have a right to ask for vaccinations so… if you ask for a vaccination and someone is dishonest with you there’s no way to prove that. They have a right to do how they see fit. So even our staff members we don’t have a document that says who’s vaccinated, who’s not, who ignored the round that was available at the AIU, who decided to do it over the summer. So there’s also lots of examples of people vaccinated that become ill anyway. I think we have a number of different equations and a number of different views. Dr. Debra Bogen is outstanding. Allegheny County Health Department is outstanding, and we’re going to continue to talk with them every Thursday in our superintendent group. They’re going to continue to guide us…”

Sturgess: “What was her recommendation last week?”

Holtzman: “Recommending masks. I think from her explanations of it, they don’t know enough. So there’s not enough studies or details but they will admit or say it’s not impacting children the way it impacts adults…”

Sturgess: “She kind of backtracked that a little bit… Something I like about this [health and safety plan] that we did not have last year is the opportunity for that synchronous live instruction for students who choose the virtual option. I know as an educator I’m much more comfortable with having that available to our students when we didn’t have that available last year… K through high school – there’s been some arrangement for that live instruction to occur.”

Holtzman: “I think one of the challenges we face was determining how much of a negative impact is the virus having on our children vs. the fact that they may have gaps in their education for the past two years. On-line experiences have not been very robust or meaningful even when you provide live instruction in synchronous learning… What’s more detrimental, the illness? Is it truly going to reach the level of hospitalizing children regularly and those types of things? Or is this something that can be overcome for a slight couple days? …Not having kids in school for two years – for most districts not McKeesport – has been more detrimental for most children. We were very fortunate that our children who did have the virus were not hospitalized. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be that lucky but those are some of the things we have to consider.”

So they voted to make masks optional and do absolutely nothing about vaccinations.

In my opinion, it is a big mistake.


They are ignoring the recommendations of medical professionals and immunologists choosing instead to simply pass these recommendations on to parents. It makes every child susceptible to the recklessness of one or two.

It’s the cowards way out of a tough choice – simply pass it on to someone else and make them responsible.

As to requiring vaccinations, Holtzman is obviously wrong. The district already requires students to show proof of a plethora of vaccinations before they can start kindergarten. Measles, mumps, rubella… Covid is just one more.

And there IS a record of Covid vaccinations – the vaccine card you get when you are injected. I have mine, my wife has hers, my daughter has hers.

Holtzman is again taking the cowards way out.

And the worst part is he’s proud of it.

He’s proud of how long the district has stayed open during the pandemic and left it all to chance for district students.

I wonder if this reckless attitude is why a slight majority (5 of 9 members) had to resort to a special meeting last month to renew his contract early. He resigned and a day later was offered a new contract. Many of those voting for the contract are lame ducks who would not have a chance to vote when his current contract was up.

And far from showing any guilt over the matter, the same school directors did the same thing with Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo at this meeting. They accepted her resignation and then immediately rehired her with a new contract. The vote was nearly the same as that for Holzman – Lopretto, Elias, Hampton, Poston and Filotei voted in favor. Kondrosky, Brown, Sturgess and Donato voted against it.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. Of those voting in favor, only Lopretto and Elias will remain on the board in the new year.

Clearly many on the board are doing whatever they please and not letting issues of morality or legality stop them.

It is a sad statement on the nature of our district.

But even worse, it is the children who may have to pay the highest toll.

Video of the complete meeting:


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

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is full of advice about Covid-19.

It’s safe to do this. It’s not safe to do that.

But we don’t need advice. We need rules.

This week the CDC changed its advice to all staff, students and teachers when schools reopen. Instead of wearing masks in schools only when unvaccinated, people should wear masks regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.

This is necessary to protect children who aren’t eligible for the vaccine and slow the spread of new more infectious variants of the virus, representatives said.

The problem is that too many Americans don’t listen to advice – especially if it goes against their beliefs.

And there are a significant number of Americans who believe whatever crazy nonsense talk radio, Fox News or their savior Donald Trump tell them.

Immunologists talking about infectious disease just don’t rate.

So these people aren’t going to listen to the CDC’s advice.

That presents real problems both for them and for us.

First of all, they’re literally killing themselves.

More than 99% of people who die from Covid-19 these days are unvaccinated, and they make up almost the same percentage of recent hospitalizations.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky calls this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, but they aren’t the only ones paying for it.

We all are.

The Covid-19 pandemic would be effectively over in the United States if everyone who was eligible for the vaccine had received it.

About 56% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, but in many places — especially in rural areas — the number is under 20% despite widespread availability of the drug.

As a result, cases of Covid-19 are on the rise again in most of the United States. In fact, this country leads the world in the daily average number of new infections, accounting for one in every nine cases reported worldwide each day.

The majority of these new cases are the more infectious delta variant, a version of the virus that could jump start cases even among the vaccinated.

And the reason the virus had a chance to mutate and become more resistant to our existing treatments was a ready supply of easy hosts – anti-vaxxers who refused to protect themselves and now have put the rest of the country back at risk.

Their ignorance and selfishness has put all of us in danger.

That makes me mad, and not just at the anti-vaxxers.

I’m mad at the federal government.

You could have done something about this. You SHOULD have done something, but you didn’t.

The Trump’s administration badly bungled the initial stages of the pandemic with late and inadequate international travel bans, failure to use federal authority to supply Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), failure to require mandatory universal paid sick leave for those unable to work due to the virus, and failure to mandate standards for the health and safety of workers.

In contrast, President Joe Biden’s administration has done better in making the vaccine readily available, but still failed to fix many of the problems it inherited and still continually neglecting to mandate anything.

“Hey, Buddy, why don’t you try this?” – is NOT good enough!

We need – “Do this OR ELSE!”

You can’t just make the vaccine available and hope people are smart enough to take it.

They aren’t. Not in America.

Not after decades of allowing lies and disinformation to infect the airwaves. In the name of freedom we’ve let Fox News and the former President poison the minds of admittedly easily lead citizens until their ignorance impacts all of us.

And the antidote to such disinformation – a robust public education system – has been stolen from too many Americans by decades of under funding, rampant school privatization and high stakes testing.

What we need now is to make vaccines a prerequisite to participate in all kinds of social congress – shopping, dinning at restaurants, movies, sporting events, schools, etc. But our government -our FEDERAL government – won’t do that.

Instead it’s a never ending cycle of passing the buck – that’s been our lawmakers response whether Republican or Democrat – to this crisis.

Authority is left it up to the states, who often refuse to allow safety precautions to be regulated or passed the decision on to someone else until it’s being made separately by every minor representative, podunk flunky and school director this side of Mayberry.

What a disgrace!

And here we are again.

The experts are telling us what we should do in the best interests of keeping our children safe. But the federal government refuses to back it up with its full authority.

Just advice. No rules.

Will people be required to wear masks in public schools?

Maybe.

It all depends on what local officials somewhere down the line decide.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf announced yesterday that he is not even considering a statewide mask mandate as Coronavirus cases surge nor will he require masks in schools.

Wolf said his strategy to fight the spread of COVID-19 is the vaccine, itself, – the masking mandate was for when there was no vaccine.

“People have the ability, each individual to make the decision to get a vaccine,” Wolf says. “If they do, that’s the protection.”

Meanwhile, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald says he’d consider a mask mandate if infections were worse in the county, an area that includes the City of Pittsburgh. Though he suggests schools follow CDC advice, he’s not about to make that decision for them.

So it will be left to local school directors to decide what to do. Probably most of them will allow masks in school but not require them.

It’s a terrible situation with an incredible lack of leadership, but I get it.

School board directors do not have the power of the bully pulpit. They don’t have the power of Chief County Executives, Governors or the President.

If people challenge their decisions (as they probably would) that requires district finances for lengthy court battles and uncomfortable political confrontations for re-election.

None of these folks should have to make these kinds of life and death decisions.

That’s what the President is for. It’s what US Congress is for.

The buck has to stop somewhere. Right!?

But the matter has become so politicized and our representatives so spineless that our entire system hangs by a thread.

What if the federal government mandates masks and certain states or districts don’t listen?

Will its take the national guard to come in and enforce the mandate?

There was a time when lawmakers had the courage to do things like that – to legislate what was in the best interests of society and darn the consequences.

But today’s lawmakers do not have the courage to govern.

And once again, we’re paying for it.

Our society has failed to protect us. It barely functions anymore.

So get set for another rock ‘em sock ‘em school year where kids and adults will get sick.

In the few years since we discovered Covid-19, young children have rarely gotten as sick from the virus as adults. However, that is changing. Infections have increased this summer as the delta variant spread until approximately 4.1 million children have been diagnosed with the disease resulting in about 18,000 hospitalizations and more than 350 deaths. 

Add to that the facts that only 30% of kids ages 12 to 17 have been vaccinated, younger children are not eligible for the vaccine and probably won’t be until the end of the year at the earliest.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

The Delta variant is 225% more contagious, contains 1,000% higher viral loads from earlier variants, and hits those levels in just 3 ½ days. Delta has a stronger bond to ACE-2 receptors in nasal passages and lung cells.  

Vaccinated people can get infected if exposed to large enough viral loads.  Unvaccinated kids could easily have those high viral loads. This means that everyone is a possible link in the chain of transmission. 

But it’s not inevitable.

There is something we could do about it if we act now.

No more mere advice!

Pass some laws, make some rules to keep everyone as safe as possible and finally end this pandemic!

It just takes courage and common sense – two things in short supply in today’s United States.


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McKeesport Superintendent Gets 5 Year New Contract A Day After Resignation

McKeesport Area School Directors voted at a special meeting on Tuesday to give Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman a new five year contract – a day after he had resigned from the position.

A video of the entire five minute meeting was published on Youtube by the Pennsylvania district located just south of Pittsburgh.

The five board members who voted in favor of the new contract were Board President Joseph Lopretto, Vice President Diane Elias, Ivan Hampton, Jim Poston and Tom Filotei.

In fact, they were the only school directors at the meeting. Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order. Dave Donato was absent.

Holtzman’s new contract goes from July 7, 2021, to June 30, 2026.

Solicitor Gary Matta explained on the video that according to the state school code, the board couldn’t extend Holtzman’s old contract because he had more than a year left on it. The only way was for him to resign and then be given a new contract.

However, much about Holtzman’s performance and his new contract remain unclear.

The board had not yet completed an evaluation for the Superintendent for this school year and much about his new contract was not disclosed.

Many are speculating that this move was done to circumvent a change in power on the board after November.

Three of the five school directors voting for Holtzman’s new contract will be stepping down from the board in 2022.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. The other two board members – Lopretto and Elias – will be up for re-election in two years.

With five new candidates still in contention for four seats, much could happen politically.

Even if Matthew Holtzman, the Superintendent’s brother, wins a seat on the board in the fall, he wouldn’t be able to vote on the Superintendent’s contract because it would be a conflict of interest.


There is also a question about whether this week’s special meeting was legal at all.

On the YouTube video, it is announced that the meeting was advertised as being about “personnel.” Nothing more.

While that is true, it certainly goes against the spirit of the Sunshine Act. Most districts at least give the public a chance to comment on renewing a Superintendent’s contract.

Holding a last minute meeting right after a holiday with hardly any information about what is being voted on is not what most people would call good governmental transparency.

If the board had been secure that the public approved of Dr. Holtzman’s performance and wholeheartedly wanted his contract extended, it is doubtful any of these shenanigans would have been necessary.

Whether Dr. Holtzman did a good or bad job in his first contract with McKeesport will forever be overshadowed now by the shady way in which mostly lame duck school directors forced through his new contract.

Voters in the McKeesport Area School District deserve better.


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Pittsburgh Media Runs Right Wing Propaganda About Public Schools As If It Were Real News

The Commonwealth Foundation is not a reliable news source


 
It’s a right wing propaganda network that provides the motivation behind American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) sponsored bills.  


 
ALEC writes the laws. The Commonwealth Foundation justifies them. And GOP lawmakers pass them (often with help from neoliberal Democrats). 


 
So why are otherwise reputable Pittsburgh television and radio stations running stories based on Commonwealth Foundation reports?  


 
On May 25, WTAE-TV ran a story called “Pennsylvania school districts flush with federal cash, but many still considering tax hikes.” It was a love letter to the Koch Brothers funded ideological network. 

The basic thrust of the story is captured in the headline. It says that public schools throughout Pennsylvania have received an influx of funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but school directors are unnecessarily planning to increase taxes anyway.

For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has received $161 million in three rounds of federal disaster funding. Yet the district is still projecting a $38 million deficit this year. 


 
Ideologues at the Harrisburg based Commonwealth Foundation don’t understand how that’s possible. They want to know why districts can’t just use the disaster funding to pay for continuing expenses?

Because it’s illegal. Duh.

Pittsburgh Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet explains:


 

“That’s one-time dollars. That money cannot supplant the general fund so the general fund is different. These are supplementary dollars that can’t be used for personnel or anything like that.”

Most of those funds will go to pay for after-school or summer school programs to help students with declining academics after they spent much of the past year at home, he continues.

Moreover, if districts spent that money (illegally) to fill pre-existing budget holes, all they’d be doing is kicking the can of funding deficits down the road a year or two.

Ideologues at the Commonwealth Foundation know that.

In fact, later on in the exact same story, they worry about this very thing.

At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth Stelle, Director of Policy Analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, says, “We see no reason why the federal funding is not more than enough to cover the needs of districts today.”

But then later in the same story she says, “I’m very concerned they’re going to spend that money on ongoing needs and we’ll be in a very difficult situation a couple years from now.”

Well, which is it Stelle? Are you worried about districts REFUSING to use disaster funds to pay for ongoing needs or are you worried that they WILL use disaster funds for this exact purpose?

You can’t have it both ways.

Stelle made headlines in March lobbying to eliminate the minimum wage in Pennsylvania and allowing slave labor.

WTAE should have had the journalistic integrity to ask her about her blatant contradiction in this story and her reprehensible positions on record. Or perhaps have the integrity not to invite such members of the lunatic fringe on their network and legitimize her position with coverage.

Unfortunately, producers are content to broadcast clickbait to get low information voters agitated against schools without any good reason.

I suppose it gets ratings.

If it bleeds it leads, and if it antagonizes it televises.

Sadly, WTAE wasn’t the only local television station to do so.

On march 15, WPXI ran a similar story under the headline, “Study claims Pa. schools don’t need COVID-19 relief money, local districts pushing back.” 

This at least was a more skeptical look at the same Commonwealth Foundation report.

But why run anything on the report to begin with?

Were the Flat Earthers busy? Was Q-anon out of conspiracies? Has no one spotted the Illuminati lately? 

WPXI characterized the report less about COVID funding misuse than additional funds being unnecessary to begin with.

Reporters said the Commonwealth Foundation report concluded that state districts were not hurting from the pandemic in the first place. And then journalists went to local districts who flatly contradicted that statement with facts. 


Gateway School Board President Brian Goppman, for example, said the district cut $3 million from its operating budget due to the pandemic. Moreover, the tax base, itself, has suffered from COVID. When businesses close, that’s less tax revenue to fund social programs like schools.

“Monroeville and especially our district… we get a lot of money from the businesses. Every day that we’re in the pandemic with these restrictions is another day we’re wondering if that business will be around tomorrow,” Goppman said. 

And this doesn’t even factor in additional costs to hire more teachers and support staff to help students deal with a year and a half of less than ideal academics caused by quarantines and other safety measures.

However, the worst of all may have been the report on The KDKA Radio Morning Show with Larry Richert and Kevin Battle from May 27.

They had on Jennifer Stefano, Chief Strategist and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, to talk about public school funding. Stefano is a former Tea Party member and frequent talking head on Fox News and other radical right propaganda networks who famously attacked the Head Start Program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent services for low-income families.

She could not have found a more friendly audience in Richert and Battle.

KDKA is one of the oldest commercial broadcasting radio stations in the US with a more than 100 year history. However, in 2017, KDKA Radio split from the television station of the same name and was purchased by radio conglomerate Entercom. Since then it has become increasingly rightwing and reactionary.

Richert and Battle were pathetically begging for relevance and ratings while letting Stefano spout nonsense statistics about public schools for 8 minutes.

This may come as a shock, but a group like the Commonwealth Foundation that advocates for cutting governmental services doesn’t like public schools.

They think schools have too much money. Privatized institutions like charter and voucher schools need and deserve an influx of cash, but those pesky government schools are already rolling in it.  

Of course, this isn’t true at all. 


 
A real investigative journalist might have just walked into an inner city school to check it out. She would have seen that many schools are literally falling apart.  


 
Or she could look up actual statistics. A full 35 states provide less overall state funding for education today than they did in 2008. Most states still haven’t recovered from George W. Bush’s Great Recession and the subsequent state and local budget cuts it caused. And schools in 27 of those states actually saw per pupil funding fall even further.  


 
Moreover, Pennsylvania is one of the worst. The state government pays only 38% of the cost to educate children leaving the majority up to local communities to make up the difference.  That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%. 


 
In fact, our funding inequality is the worst in the nation. According to the U.S. Department of Education, poor schools in the Commonwealth spend 33 percent less on their students than rich ones. 


 
These are the reasons why the parents of six school children, six school districts, the NAACP and a rural schools group are suing the state over education funding.  


 
Not because public schools are “flush with cash” – a characterization right out of the mouth of Donald Trump. 

However, the Commonwealth Foundation plays with the numbers to mask this reality.

For example, they claim the US spends more per student than nearly any other country in the developed world. But that figure varies tremendously by state with some spending much more than others. Moreover, American schools have costs educational institutions in other countries don’t have such as security and other non-instructional costs.

As we’ve seen, even when you look at per pupil spending across the state, you’re masking funding inequalities from district to district. You’re looking at an average of all spending, which ignores how little we spend at lower income schools and how much we spend at districts catering to rich communities.

Moreover, if we compare the percentage of GDP spent on education with other countries, you’ll see the US spends much less than comparable nations. For example, we spend about 5% of our GDP on schools compared with 6.4% in New Zealand, 6.9% in Finland, 7.5% in Iceland and 7.6% in Denmark.

This has been the situation for decades and it relies on one basic fundamental catastrophe – much of American education funding is determined by local property taxes.

If you live in a rich neighborhood, your kids get all the best. If you live in a poor one, you don’t get comparable services.

Trolls like the Commonwealth Foundation feed off this burning dumpster fire by covering the inequity of our taxing system which relies too heavily on the poor and middle class and lets the wealthy get by without paying their fair share.

Instead of pointing out the real problem and demanding the rich do their part, the Commonwealth Foundation covers for their billionaire masters. Partisans at the foundation ignore low taxes on the wealthy and blame high taxes on the poor and middle class on things like public schools.

And stories like these only go to further enrage taxpayers so that they’ll support tearing down the very systems that help keep them and their kids afloat.

No news organization should be falling for these lies.

WTAE, KDKA and WPXI should know better.

They are helping tear down media trust in this post truth age.

How ironic that in doing so they are helping destroy education – the one tool essential to navigating through such a landscape.

Find out more about state education funding shortfalls HERE.


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

The best candidate doesn’t always win.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from running for office, it’s that.

This spring, I ran for Allegheny County Council in the Pittsburgh region of Pennsylvania – and got my butt handed to me.

My opponent was a 15-year incumbent, a nominal Democrat known for doing next to nothing, and he promised to do the same upon re-election.

I am a public school teacher, activist and blogger who ran on change and getting things done – education, infrastructure, transportation, jobs, justice.

Sounds like a slam dunk, right?

Wrong.

My opponent took majorities in nearly every community, nearly every ward or precinct. However, it was close in many of them. I even whipped him in a few places – mostly in White Oak and West Mifflin – my home town and his respectively.

But 41% to 58% just wasn’t enough to carry the day.

And if you’re wondering why that doesn’t equal 100%, there were about 1% write in voters, many of whom scribbled my opponent’s name so he could launch a Republican write-in challenge in the general election should he lose the primary.

That’s politics, I guess.

It wouldn’t be so bad if I hadn’t worked so hard.

Or if I had seen him getting out there, too, and actively fighting for votes.

However, other than a single mailer, some signs and a few ads, he didn’t seem to do much more than he does on council – which is to say nothing.

I definitely outworked him.

I knocked on more than a thousand doors. During Covid. With a pre-existing health condition. I’d be surprised if he knocked on one.

I sent out several mailers, posted signs all over, made more than 1,600 texts, hundreds of phone calls. And I went to more events, rallies and Meet the Candidate Forums.

At the closest thing we had to a debate, the Take Action Mon-Valley Candidate’s Forum – one of only two events he even attended – I mopped the floor with him. I’m not bragging about it. Watch the video. It is an objective fact.

He couldn’t get his camera to work in the Zoom meeting, when he finally got his audio to work, he couldn’t finish his sentences and when he did, he invariably stuck his foot in his mouth.

He literally told an audience of black voters that all lives matter.

That on top of his whining about not having the power to do anything in office so please vote for him.

I actually felt embarrassed for him.

That anyone could watch that forum and choose him is stupefying.

But only a few hundred voters saw it just days before the election.

I offered hope and change. He offered what? A familiar name and incompetence?

When it was all over, he called me.

Actually he returned my call when I offered my concession.

He was still complaining about someone he heard was passing out my cards on election day who he thought should have been committed to him. As if I knew what all of my supporters were doing and ruled them with an iron fist.

They were just a loose confederation of people who wanted more from county government. I wasn’t telling them what to do. Actually it was just the opposite.

But I’ll give him this – he’s a friendly cuss, the kind of guy with whom you’d probably enjoy having a beer.

Just not a person who should be representing people’s interests on council.

And he’s not representing voters’ interests. Not really.

County Council is supposed to be the legislative arm of county government. It’s supposed to be a check and balance on the County Executive.

Seems to me there’s a conflict of interest when year-after-year County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is your biggest donor.


But that’s just how we roll here.

Bias and impropriety grease the wheels of government.

Speaking of which, wasn’t this supposed to be a Democratic Primary?

My opponent and I were both seeking the party’s nomination.

We have closed primaries, which means only party members get to vote on each ticket.

So why are there Donald Trump supporters on the county Democratic Committee?

Really! According to an expose by the Washington Post, Allegheny County’s Democratic Committee is full of countless members in good standing whose social media accounts are full of right wing Trump memes and slanders on prominent Democrats. This includes the chair of the committee, herself.

There are 2,400 elected members – more than my opponent’s 1,800 margin of victory.

Sure, our district was the only part of the county that went to Trump in the last two Presidential elections – though just slightly.

However, nearly every elected official is a Democrat. Has been for as long as I can recall.

That doesn’t make sense.

Democrats don’t fill every legislative seat in districts that lean Republican…

Unless they’re not really Democrats.

Do right wing Democrats thrive here and Progressives like me face an uphill battle because the Democratic Committee has been compromised?

I don’t know.

I really don’t.

But I guess most people don’t seem to mind it much.

If they did, they missed their chance to do something about it.

For now…


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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!

PA Gov. Wolf Fires Charter School Appeals Board. Every. Single. Member.

Being Governor of Pennsylvania must be one of the most thankless but important jobs ever.

With a hopelessly gerrymandered legislature, a majority of Republican lawmakers representing a minority of voters stops nearly anything from getting done for the rest of us.

If it weren’t for a Democratic Governor to act as a check and balance on this lunatic fringe, the state would devolve into chaos.

Case in point: the Charter School Appeals Board (CAB).

It took Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, seven years to fire his predecessor’s appointments and nominate replacements to the CAB.

Yet the GOP legislature is crying crocodile tears that he’s exceeding his authority by doing so.

The board is supposed to be a place where charter schools can challenge decisions made by their local school boards.

Charters are schools that are funded by taxpayer dollars but can be privately operated.

They have to ask the local school board for permission to open a new school in their district. Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these requests.

But charters can bypass local government by going to the CAB. Or at least they could when the board still had sitting members on it.

The CAB consists of the Secretary of Education and six members who are appointed by the Governor and approved by the state senate.

However, closed door negotiations with the Republican controlled senate over who they would even consider approving over the years continually stopped Wolf from putting people forward as official nominees.

After all, why would Republicans work with Wolf? What incentive did they have to do so?

Refusing to work with the Democratic Governor kept the previous Republican Governor’s appointees in place long after their tenure should have expired.

This kept the CAB ideologically right wing so the members could rubber stamp charter schools left and right bypassing the will of duly elected school boards all over the Commonwealth.

Take the most recent approval in March of the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s Education Secretary.

She literally sat on the board and worked with several sitting members of CAB when she was part of the Corbett administration. Now all these years later she appears before CAB for a hearing asking them to overrule the Harrisburg School Board that had originally denied her charter school’s application.

Guess who won?

The CAB unanimously sided with Dumaresq over elected members of the local community.

So Wolf finally gave these privatization zealots their walking papers.

It’s a pattern we’ve become sickeningly familiar with in Pennsylvania.

A problem arises. The GOP legislature does nothing or has no power so the Governor takes action to fix it. Then the GOP throws a hissy fit.

The house was just on fire and you doused the flames! You shouldn’t be allowed a bucket of water!

We saw the same thing with COVID. Wolf closed the state down to stop a global pandemic. And Republicans are still crying “Tyrant” over his use of executive power.

The far right love crying “Wolf” and blaming everything on the Governor, but make no mistake –  gridlock is exactly what they want.

That’s why Wolf’s action on CAB is so clever.

By firing the remaining members of the board, Wolf has functionally erased it from existence.

If the senate wants there to be a charter school appeals board, lawmakers need to vote on his nominees.

Wolf has nominated the following people to the board:

-Jodi Schwartz, a school board member from the Central Bucks School District

-Shanna Danielson, a teacher in the East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County and former state senate candidate

-Stacey Marten, a teacher in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County

-Ghadah Makoshi, a business owner and former candidate for Pittsburgh’s school board

-Nathan Barrett, superintendent of the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County

 
One of the most exciting things about these nominees is how they might interpret the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

Previous CAB members have refused to let school boards consider the financial impact of opening a new charter school. However, the state constitution requires public schools to provide a quality education to students in their district. Therefore, if opening a new charter school would adversely affect a districts finances, doesn’t the constitutional necessity to provide a quality education take precedence?

Many school privatization critics think it does. Will Wolf’s nominees?

Unfortunately, they have several hurdles to clear before the senate would vote on them and we’d find out.

Senate Republicans are already throwing a tantrum because Wolf placed Pennsylvania in a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How dare he endanger short term fossil fuel profits just to provide a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids!

As a result, they’ve vowed to block the Governor’s appointment to a state utility commission. It’s doubtful they’d let CAB nominees through while blocking Wolf’s other appointment.

Moreover, there will doubtless be legal challenges to the Governor’s firing of previous CAB members.  

In the meantime, there are at least nine cases scheduled to be decided by CAB from Souderton, Southeast Delco, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And that’s not even counting a recent pair of charter schools in Philadelphia where backers said they would appeal the local school board’s decision to deny their request to open.

Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between waiting out protracted legal challenges while their pet charters languish in appeals limbo or swallowing their pride, doing their damn jobs and voting on Wolf’s nominees!



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Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



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!