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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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Why is our government abrogating its responsibility to keep us safe?
It’s not like lawmakers aren’t already dedicated to protecting us in other ways.
The federal government has strict regulations to keep our foods and medicines safe. It has regulations to keep our motor vehicles and buildings safe. It even has specific regulations about which other vaccines children must have before they can enter the public school system.
Why is Covid-19 any different?
The government won’t let you drive without putting on a seat belt, it regulates your speed on the highway, and it won’t let you smoke a cigarette in a public place.
Why won’t it do the same kind of thing with Covid-19?
If the CDC is correct that unvaccinated people should wear masks in schools particularly in indoor and crowded settings, then our government should mandate we follow those guidelines.
“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports,” the CDC said in a statement.
This has often been interpreted as leaving room for fewer safety precautions.
But this goes against Walensky’s other statements that MORE RESTRICTIONS may be necessary, not less.
In areas with low vaccination rates, higher viral spread or with increasing cases of new strains of the virus, she has suggested universal masking and other measures.
Whether this miscommunication is a result of a cowardly Joe Biden administration or Walensky’s own fault, it has hurt the vaccination effort. Instead of meeting the goal of 70% of Americans fully vaccinated by the July 4th holiday, we’re stalled at nearly 50%.
If there were actual mandates about what vaccinated people were allowed to do and those mandates were enforced, it would probably incentivize more people to get the shots.
At very least we should mandate masks at every elementary school in the nation. After all, children 11 or younger aren’t even eligible for the vaccine because it hasn’t been cleared for that age group yet. No need to check medical records. Elementary schools will be filled with the unvaccinated.
But no. Nothing.
It’s not even like these new CDC guidelines are extreme.
They fall well short of safety guidance in other parts of the globe.
The CDC isn’t going that far because of confidence that the vaccines being used in the US – the ones made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson – are effective against new variants, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“We know from good studies that the Delta variant is protected against by the vaccines that fundamentally are being used here. And that’s the reason why the CDC feels at this point they should not change their recommendation,” he said.
If the CDC guidelines are sensible and moderate, why won’t the federal government enforce them?
The answer seems to be multifaceted.
First, the vaccine and even Covid-19, itself, have been politicized by the Republican Party.
This school year has been a failure in so many ways.
But don’t get me wrong.
I’m not going to sit here and point fingers.
The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the public school system like never before.
Teachers, administrators and school directors have been under tremendous pressure and I believe most really tried their best in good faith to make things work as well as possible.
But as the year comes to a blessed close, we need to examine some of the practices common at many of our schools during this disaster and honestly evaluate their success or failure.
Some things worked well. Many made the best of a bad situation. But even more were blatant failures.
We need to know which was which.
As a classroom teacher with 17 years experience who worked through these times, let me clarify one thing.
I am not talking about things that were specific to individual classrooms.
Teachers struggled and stretched and worked miracles to make things run. We built the plane as we were flying it. As usual, this is where policy meets execution and that can differ tremendously from place-to-place.
What I’m talking about for the most part is policy. Which policies were most unsuccessful regardless of whether some super teachers were able to improve on them or not in their classrooms.
Here are my top six administrative failures of this pandemic school year:
1) SOCIAL DISTANCING
Health officials were clear on one point – keeping space between individuals helps stop the spread of Covid-19.
Exactly how much space we need to keep between people has varied over time.
At first, we were told to keep 6 feet apart. Then as health officials realized there wasn’t enough physical space in school buildings to keep students that far apart AND still have in-person school, they changed it to 3 feet.
The same happened with violating social distancing.
At first, you were considered a close contact only if you were within the designated space for 15 consecutive minutes. Then that was changed to 15 minutes in total even if that time was unconsecutive.
In any case, classes were held in physical spaces. Many schools at least tried to make an effort.
Was it successful? Did we actually keep students socially distanced all day?
Walk into nearly any school during a class change and you will see the same crowded halls as you would have seen pre-pandemic. Observe a fire drill, and you’ll see the same students right next to each other, skin against skin as they try to quickly find an exit.
These times generally aren’t 15 minutes consecutively, but think about how many class changes there are a day. If you have 8 or 9 classes, with each class change averaging 3 minutes, that’s 24 to 27 minutes of exposure a day.
If it weren’t for the fact that most children are asymptomatic, what would the result of this have been? How many kids did we expose to Covid-19 because of the sheer difficulty of administering social distancing protocols?
Health officials told us it was important to wear masks on our faces to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the virus. True there was some discrepancy on this issue at the beginning of the pandemic, but over time it became an agreed upon precaution.
There was also some discrepancy about what kinds of masks to wear and whether one should double mask.
However, putting all that aside, did schools that had in-person classes abide by this policy?
It actually depends on what part of the country you’re in. Some schools were directed to do so and others were not.
However, even in districts where it was an official policy, it rarely worked well.
In my own classes, about a quarter of my students could never get their masks over their noses. No matter how many times I reminded them, no matter how often I spoke up, the masks always slipped below their noses – sometimes moments after I made a remark. Sometimes three, four or more times in succession to the point that I gave up.
Administration didn’t seem to take the matter as seriously as the school board written dress code policy, and teachers (including me) didn’t want to come down too hard on kids for neglecting to do something that many of them seemed incapable of doing.
Were we all exposed to respiratory droplets? Definitely. Without a doubt. Especially during lunch periods which were almost exclusively conducted in doors without even the possibility of opening a window.
Did partial masking have some positive effect? Probably. But I do not think we can call this policy a success.
3) CONTACT TRACING
How do you tell if someone has been exposed to Covid-19?
Health officials advised contact tracing. In other words, when someone exhibits symptoms and then tests positive for the virus, you identify people who came into close contact (within 3 feet for 15 minutes total).
However, this was conducted entirely on the honor system. So it was only as accurate as those reporting it were perceptive or honest. If someone was a close contact but didn’t want the hassle of quarantine, they could usually just refrain from reporting themselves.
This is nearly impossible to do well. It’s like trying to perform a play to two different audiences at the same time. What works in-person does not work as well on-line and vice versa.
I found myself catering to one group and then another. Often it lead to the on-line students being left more to their own devices. Since most of them had their cameras off and rarely responded to questions, I fear they got an even worse education than under fully cyber circumstances.
In-person students also had to exercise patience as the teacher divided his or her attention to the on-line group.
And the degree of technical wizardry expected of teachers was astronomical.
In every class I was required to post material to a central in class TV screen so my in-person students could see it, while also making sure it was displayed on-line for my cyber kids. Sometimes it wouldn’t work for one group and I’d have to trouble shoot the problem in real time.
There were often instructional videos or examples I wanted to show where the volume or video wouldn’t display for one group or another. And sometimes on-line students couldn’t hear the teacher or their classmates.
Then we had Internet connection issues where cyber students were inexplicably dropped or in-person students couldn’t access materials on Google Classroom.
It was a nightmare – an every day, every period, never ending nightmare.
But teachers just got on with it and achieved amazing things despite all the issues.
This pandemic year can be characterized by epic failures at all levels.
But the flood of emotions I felt that accompanied that tiny pinch in my arm was totally unexpected.
It was like I gasped for breath and hadn’t realized until then that I was suffocating.
I looked up at the volunteer who had injected me to see if she’d noticed, but it’s hard to read someone’s expression under a mask.
So I found myself shrugging the feeling off, giving her a brisk “Thank you” and heading off to file my paperwork, get another stamp on my vaccination card and plopping in a chair for 15 minutes of observation before heading on my way.
As I sat there, I started to feel this growing sense of excitement in my chest.
Thankfully waiting an extra 7 days isn’t supposed to have any ill effects. But that’s a week more I have to be out of the classroom and burning my sick days, trying to do 40 hours worth of work in the handful of hours the district allows me.
It’s just that this isn’t an anomaly. All through this process those in charge have dropped the ball.
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
True, much of his domestic agenda was blocked by Republicans. But even when they couldn’t stop him from getting things done, the results were often disappointing. His foreign policy was hawkish full of drone strikes, his immigration policy unduly cruel and his education programs were the fever dreams of Milton Friedman made real – charter schools, high stakes testing and ed tech handouts.
You think Trump was bad!? He was the logical consequence of dashed hopes and neoliberal triumphs. You can’t run, as Obama did, as a once-in-a-lifetime transformational candidate and then legislate to support a status quo that is destroying the majority of Americans.
Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.
If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.
This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.
Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.
Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.
Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.
You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?
You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?
Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.
After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.
Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.
Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.
Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.
And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.
Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!
If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.
There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.
But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.
Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.
Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.
Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.
It didn’t have to be this way. We could have put humanity first. We could have taken every step possible to protect our children from a deadly virus whose full effects on the human body are unknown. We could have protected their teachers and teachers families who by all accounts are even more susceptible.
Instead, about 47% of students attend schools providing some kind of in-person instruction, according to a poll by Education Next. That’s about 19% of the districts in the country providing some kind of substandard hybrid program and 28% trying to run blindly as if the pandemic wasn’t happening. Moreover, those open to in-person instruction are most often located in communities with the highest Covid infection rates!
Let’s start with hybrid models. Most involve some kind of in-person instruction combined with remote learning. Partial groups of students come to the buildings certain days and stay remote on others. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of the student body refuses to participate and remains remote entirely.
The result is inconsistent programs. Students switch from one method to another – either because of changes at home or schools rapidly going from one model to another. Kids get used to learning one way and then have to change to another. They have to keep track of elaborate schedules and often fall through the cracks.
No wonder grades are tanking. We’re asking students to do things that are simply too complicated for their ages. And parents who are struggling with their own Covid-inspired juggling acts are often just as confused.
As a parent, it’s hard to make sure your child attends in-person or remote learning sessions when you aren’t even sure when these sessions are. The result is a spike in student absences which can come as a surprise to both parents and students.
Critics of remote instruction complain that it exacerbates existent inequalities. However, the hybrid model does so to an even greater degree – all with the sanction of the school board. And once inequalities are no longer the result of federal or state legislators or lack of resources but come directly from decision makers in your hometown refusing to care about all students, you have a deep systemic problem that no amount of moving students around from place-to-place can fix.
Even when everyone is on the same page and in the school building for instruction, the normal benefits of having students in-person are outweighed by necessary mitigation factors in schools.
Teachers help students by observing their work and stepping in if students are making mistakes or need help. However, teachers who are attempting to stay outside of 6 feet of their students cannot help because they cannot adequately see what their students are doing.
Moreover, kids benefit by working with each other in small groups. But this cannot be easily accomplished when they have to stay 6 feet apart.
In fact, both situations are best remedied by some kind of remote instruction. Students can share work through devices with both teachers and other students. They can collaborate virtually and get help. Being in-person gives no benefit. In fact, it just obscures the real solution.
Either teachers burn themselves out trying to address the needs of two different groups with two different styles of instruction simultaneously, or they teach the entire group as if it were meeting remotely.
This results in one of two possibilities. One, teachers pay more attention to those in-person and mostly ignore those on-line. Two, they have to spend so much time dealing with technological issues that crop up or that they didn’t have time or training to anticipate that they end up ignoring in-person students.
This is a method that looks good on paper. It makes school boards seem like they are trying to meet the needs of all learners. But what they’re really doing is meeting the needs of none.
Academics can be consistent and schedules predictable. Problems can be anticipated, planned for and best solved. And the needs of the most students can be met. Districts can ensure everyone has the necessary technology and wi-fi. They can make sure teachers are trained and have help.
But too many decision makers see this as a defeat. We’re giving in to the virus instead of molding it to our will.
The sad fact is, if we want to defeat Covid, we need to defeat THE VIRUS. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not help anyone.
The short-sightedness of current academic plans that try to circumvent remote learning when infections are high will have lasting consequences on American education for years to come.
The same goes for larger government institutions like the President, Congress, the CDC and state legislatures. The Trump administration was a never ending dumpster fire. The hope was that a new administration would be better – and the Biden administration has been more efficient in many ways.
There could be thousands of Covid’s Kids who have to pay the rest of their lives for the recklessness of adults today.
Not to mention adults suffering from these conditions and having to leave the workforce immediately.
So rushing to reopen schools is a bad idea.
It robs kids of the best possible education given pandemic conditions. It increases racial and economic inequality. It erodes faith in government at all levels. And it gambles with the health and safety of everyone – adults and children – caught in the middle.
The best way to promote student learning isn’t to attack the very system providing it. Nor is it to endanger the lives of those who do the work and provide instruction.
The current crisis can be a temporary situation to survive with a minimum of risk and a maximum of support and caution.
Or we can recklessly pretend it isn’t happening and put the future of our children and the nation at large in unnecessary jeopardy.
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