Meanwhile, hospital beds in local Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are filling up. On average in the state, ICUs are at 81% capacity, slightly higher than the national average of 79%. That means UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside is at 104% capacity, UPMC East is at 94% capacity, Allegheny General Hospital is at 92% capacity, West Penn Hospital is at 91% capacity – heck! Even Magee Women’s Hospital, which mostly focuses on births, is at 81% capacity.
Meanwhile, the last time our district was open for in-person classes – a period which only lasted about 8 days – at least 30 people (both students and staff) were diagnosed with the virus and more than 70 had to quarantine. Covid-19 spread throughout our buildings like wildfire including an entire kindergarten class and almost every single adult in the high school office.
Yet it’s that time again!
Time to justify keeping things closed up tight!
It’s insane! They should have to justify opening things back up!
But, no, that’s not how things work in post-truth America.
People complain about student absences and disengagement online – issues that we can certainly improve if we focus on them with half the vigor of figuring out ways to reopen school buildings when it is not safe to do so. But swinging open the doors won’t solve these problems.
The fact that the disease can go undetected but still be infectious is exactly the factor driving its spread according to a report from the beginning of January from The Guardian:
“A key factor in the spread of Covid-19 in schools is symptomless cases. Most scientists believe that between 30% and 40% of adults do not display any Covid symptoms on the day of testing, even if they have been infected. For children, however, this figure is higher. “It is probably more like 50% for those in secondary school while for boys and girls in primary school, around 70% may not be displaying symptoms even though they have picked up the virus,” says Professor Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.”
The super rich want the economy to keep chugging along and taking the kind of precautions that would put the least lives in danger would hurt their bottom line. That’s why Congress has been unable to find the courage to pay people to stay home and weather the storm. It’s against the interests of the wealthy.
As usual, teachers are being forced to pay for all of Society’s ills. Schools aren’t adequately funded, so teachers are expected to pay for supplies out of pocket. Districts can’t afford to hire enough staff, so educators have to try to do their jobs in bloated classes and work ridiculous hours for no extra pay.
I knew all that coming into the job. But demanding I put my life and the lives of my family at risk because the government refuses to protect its citizens during a pandemic!? I didn’t sign up for that!
And the worse part is that it’s the same thing every few weeks.
We try to reopen, it’s a fabulous disaster, we close and then the clock starts over.
This isn’t good for the kids, the parents or the teachers.
We can’t offer you equitable resources. We can’t stop judging you with biased standardized tests. We can’t desegregate your schools. We can’t protect you from gun violence. We can’t even give you in-person classes because of a global pandemic the government has given up even trying to control!
And now I’m supposed to say that even the semblance of our democracy is up for grabs?
I started clicking on their names.
I only had a few moments before I had to speak.
I cleared my throat and began welcoming them, one-by-one as always.
And then it was time.
I stared at all these empty black boxes, and began.
“We’ve got to talk about yesterday,” I said.
“Not yesterday in class. That was fine. Everyone did an outstanding job on yesterday’s assignment.
“We have to talk about what happened yesterday in Washington, DC. Does anyone know what that was?”
And I waited.
Eventually I saw a few messages that individuals had their hands raised.
A few kids said that people had charged the Capitol. But that they didn’t know why.
So I explained it to them.
I told them how Trump was refusing to accept the results of the election. That he had lost, but continued to challenge it in the courts. Both Republican and Democratic judges had turned him down saying that he had no proof. So Trump spoke outside of the White House yesterday telling his followers to march on the Capitol, which they did.
At this point I noticed something strange on my screen.
The rows of empty boxes had turned into windows. No more memes or messages or generic names. Most of my kids had turned on their cameras and were meeting my eyes – in some cases – for the first time.
So that’s what Kelsey looks like, I thought. Wow! Marquis is really built. Is that little kid in the grey hoodie really Caulin?
I got flustered and stopped talking, but the students took up the narrative for me.
Some of them mentioned watching videos on-line of the riot. They saw a guy with horns in the President’s chair?
“No, I said. “That was the Vice-President’s chair in the Senate.”
“Wasn’t there someone at someone’s desk?”
“Yes, that was Nancy Pelosi’s desk,” I said. “A rioter broke into her office and put his feet up. She’s the Speaker of the House.”
And so it went on for a few minutes. They brought up things they had seen and I either clarified or supported them.
As a whole, they were wealthy in details but poor in meaning.
Most of the white kids seemed to be taking it ironically. The black and brown kids were more quiet and subdued.
A white boy wrote in the chat that it was “Civil War 2: electric bugaloo.”
I said, “Yes, you’ve hit on an important point. Some of these folks may have been trying to start a new Civil War.”
I tried to put the event in historical context.
I told them how nothing like this had ever happened in my lifetime. That the last time people broke into the Capitol Building like this was during the War of 1812 when the British tried to force the US to become a colony again. However, that was a foreign power invading our country. Wednesday was our own citizens seeking to overturn the results of an election, trying to overwrite the will of the people.
That’s when the first black student spoke up.
“Mr. Singer, why were they waving Confederate flags?”
“Yes! That’s true, Jamal. Many of them DID have Confederate flags and that’s really important.”
Before I could say more I got a series of rapid-fire questions from the same group who had been silent up to this point.
“Why didn’t the police stop them?”
“Why’d they steal stuff? I saw some guy walking away with a podium.”
“Why they so mad?”
I smiled and said that these were all excellent questions.
I asked if any of them knew who George Floyd was.
No one responded.
I told them he was a black guy who was murdered by police when an officer knelt on his neck.
After that happened, there were protests by Black Lives Matter activists and others in several cities including Pittsburgh. The police showed up in riot gear. As these protestors demonstrated almost entirely peacefully – certainly more peacefully than what we saw in DC yesterday – more than 14,000 people were arrested.
“How many people do you think were arrested yesterday?” I asked.
“Didn’t someone die?”
“Yes, a woman was shot in the Capitol and three others died of medical emergencies. How many people were arrested?”
“None,” said a student of color who hadn’t participated before.
“Why none?” I asked.
“Because they was white.”
I told him that he right and wrong. Out of thousands of rioters who broke into the Capitol, thirteen people were arrested. And the reason there were only 13 was because they were white.
I told them that this whole affair needed to be investigated. That we needed to know how and why the police responded the way they did. That we needed to hold the rioters accountable. That we needed to make sure those who instigated this violence were made to pay for it, too.
“Is Trump still President?” Someone asked.
“Yes,” I said. “For about two more weeks. But there are a lot of people who think he should have to step down sooner.”
So we talked about how he could be removed from office. We talked about impeachment and the 25th Amendment. We even talked about how Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook – how he couldn’t post or tweet but still could send a nuclear missile anywhere he wanted.
And then it quieted down.
I asked them if there was anything more they wanted to know or if there was anything else they wanted to say.
They were still.
A few cameras clicked off.
I told them that I was there if anyone needed anything, that their teachers were here if they were feeling anything and wanted someone to talk to.
And then that was it.
I made one of the most abrupt and inelegant transitions in my career and we returned to our normally scheduled lesson.
Did it help any?
I don’t know, but I told them what I could. I told them the truth as I saw it.
There was a time when I would have been more reticent about it.
But the day after domestic terrorists try to steal our system of government isn’t the time to hold back.
As a teacher, sometimes I feel so helpless.
There’s so much I’d like to do for my students.
I want them to get the resources they need. I want to stop the unfair testing, integrate their schools, keep them safe from gun violence and control Covid-19 so we can return to the classroom.
I want to live in a country where majority rule is cherished and protected, where no one thinks the collective will should be trumped by white privilege.
But when all those things are out of reach, I still have one thing left to give.
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Moreover, kids who live in stable, loving households who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, overcoming neglect or abuse, etc. have a greater chance of being ready more quickly than those trying to manage under a heavier load of problems.
And if a child isn’t ready today, that doesn’t mean she’ll never be ready.
The mind does not take ultimatums. You don’t have to fill up every shelf as soon as space becomes available. In fact, you could never fill it all up if you tried. There’s always more room – just maybe not right now.
If a child doesn’t learn a certain concept or skill as soon as he or she is ready for it, that doesn’t mean he or she will lose out on that opportunity.
Brains are flexible. They’re almost always ready to grasp SOMETHING. It’s just not up to society what those somethings are or when they’re achievable.
We know that learning is best achieved when a person’s foundational necessities are met. At base are physiological prerequisites like food, clothing and shelter as well as the need for safety and security. Then comes psychological requirements like relationships and self-worth. Once all these primary needs have been met, we can most effectively achieve academic goals.
Children’s physiological needs aren’t being met because their parents livelihoods are in jeopardy. And the very idea that children should be sheltered or kept safe is mocked by the economy first concern trolls demanding parents choose between their children or their jobs.
They pretend to care about our kids so they can get us to do the very things that undermine our children’s safety. And it’s all somehow for our own good.
You want to fix the problem, nothing short of ending the crisis ultimately will work.
We can mitigate the damage, but marching kids into the classroom – sending them into a dangerous situation where they may get sick and (even more likely) bring the virus home to friends and family – will not help anyone.
No, it will never be comparable to the quality of instruction you can provide in-person. But even the quality of in-person instruction is not the same during a pandemic. Hybrid models with necessary precautions of social distancing and mask wearing are, themselves, substandard.
The best that we can do in most cases is learning at a distance.
Will all kids respond?
They’ll do the best they can. And this will largely depend on the environmental factors in their homes.
Kids are just that – kids. They need adults to put them on a schedule, make sure they wake up on time, have breakfast, and hold them accountable for attending their classes – even if those classes are held on-line.
“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Martin Luther King Jr
Teachers want a safe place to work.
But in 2020 that is too much to ask.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic rages out of control throughout most parts of the United States, teachers all across the country want to be able to do their jobs in a way that won’t put themselves or their loved ones in danger.
Affected teachers often wonder where their union is, where their progressive representative, where the grassroots activists who were willing to organize against charter schools and high stakes testing.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) agreed.
“We are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place. This strategy – properly implemented – will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic.”
The plan is predicated on a bogus statistic that kids aren’t getting sick at school or spreading the virus from there, that only 0.2% can be traced back to school buildings.
But she was unafraid to contradict President Donald Trump before the election.
She appeared on CNN and challenged Trump to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”
In late April, she took to Twitter saying the NEA is “listening to the health experts and educators on how and when to reopen schools — not the whims of Donald Trump, who boasts about trusting his gut to guide him. Bringing thousands of children together in school buildings without proper testing, tracing, and social isolation is dangerous and could cost lives.”
“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority,” Askey said. “We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”
However, state guidelines are pretty weak. They suggest mask wearing and that districts close when community infection rates are high. But districts can choose to keep buildings open if they promise to follow safety guidelines to the best of their ability.
Gov. Tom Wolf originally issued an order for all schools to close and go to remote learning last March. However, state Republicans challenged his authority to do so and their position was upheld in court.
And these are people from the community. How many times have teachers called them to let them know how their kids were doing in class? How many times have teachers gone with them and their kids on school field trips? How many times have teachers accepted invitations to graduation parties and school board meetings?
Actually, that last email said the outbreak was limited to the Kindergarten class and teachers – that no close contacts were identified beyond its doors, in the building or the wider district as a whole.
However, considering that at least five more elementary teachers and another student tested positive later, I’m not sure I believe it.
All of which prompts the question – how accurate is contact tracing?
How Contact Tracing Works
Let’s say a little girl, Ava, gets COVID-19.
Where did she get it from?
Let’s do some contact tracing to find out.
We ask Ava to think back two days before she showed symptoms up until now. Who was she in close contact with (within six feet for at least 15 minutes)? She doesn’t remember much, but she gives us a list of two or three people who may fit the bill.
We call them, find that none of them are sick, none have been out of the state or country, ask them to quarantine and that’s it.
So where did Ava get the virus? Who did she get it from?
We don’t know.
And contact tracing rarely produces an answer to that question.
At best, people are scared and not as specific as they might be. At worst, they refuse to participate at all.
Michael Huff, Pennsylvania’s director of testing and contact tracing efforts, said that more than 34,000 new cases were reported over the past week, but case investigators were only successful in reaching about 8,332.
And of those they did reach, ninety-six people refused to quarantine.
No such estimate exists for school staff, but about 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
And though many thousands of school staff have contracted the disease, more than 300 district employees have died nationwide from the virus according to the Associated Press.
Where did all these people get COVID-19?
Contact tracing provides no definitive answer, however, policymakers are pretending that means something.
However, many policymakers overlook this evidence as contrary or inconclusive.
They insist that contact tracing’s inability to consistently find the causal link is enough to disregard the existence of that link.
That’s like sniffing the air and claiming with absolute certainty that there is no leak of carbon monoxide. The gas is odorless and colorless. A sniff test will never tell you if it’s present. You need special equipment.
The fact is Ava has only been to two places in the last two weeks – home and at school.
At home there’s just Ava, her three brothers and her parents.
At school, there are hundreds of students and 8-9 staff she comes into contact with every day.
She is probably in closer contact with the people at home than at school. But the sheer number of people she is in contact with at school multiplied by the number of hours and then days – is tremendous!
The likelihood that Ava caught the virus at school is quite high – no matter how good the precautions being taken.
Taking Advantage of Our Ignorance
It is ludicrous to assume that the lack of a direct causal link after only a few months of schools being open to reduced capacity means much of anything.
States don’t compile COVID cases at schools. The federal government doesn’t either. In fact, no one really does.
A few self-proclaimed experts have tried to put together what data they can – and used that data to make extreme claims.
Economist Emily Oster has used a mere two weeks worth of data in September to argue that the virus isn’t spreading much in schools.
And policymakers have jumped on that bandwagon all across the country including director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield.
Oster is now trying to have it both ways – defending her argument but chiding anyone for taking it too seriously.
Her Website incorporates data that school districts publish voluntarily, along with some data reported directly to the site. However, Oster says it’s far from complete, and she was surprised Dr. Redfield was citing it as fact.
But it’s not just Oster who wants to have it both ways.
Policymakers say kids aren’t getting COVID at school and then walk back such claims when outbreaks happen in communities with high levels of infection.
Salt Lake City, Utah, had one of the biggest outbreaks in schools in the nation. However, that happened as infection rates reached more than double the level at which the state recommended distance learning.
“You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” said Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine who has advocated for opening schools under strict safety measures.
Which kind of disproves his position.
If COVID doesn’t spread much in schools, the infection rate in the community shouldn’t matter. If it does, then the virus can and does spread significantly in schools.
The situation in Utah has been partly attributed to community resistance to safety precautions like mask wearing and social distancing. When parents won’t take precautions, neither will children.
Keeping Schools Open During a Pandemic Increases Reckless Behavior
But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.
I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.
They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.
In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.
So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.
There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.
They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.
And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.
There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.
Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.
We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.
I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.
So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?
The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.
The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.
Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.
That’s nonsense, too.
Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.
However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.
I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.
And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.
Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.
Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.
It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.
It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.
That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.
That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.
That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.
That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.
In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.
My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.
However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.
Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.
The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.
So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.
I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.
In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.
Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.
Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.
He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.
And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.
If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.
Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?
…I’LL STILL BE PAID WHEN I’M ON LEAVE.
It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.
So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.
In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.
So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.
But no. He said he knew all about it.
He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.
I couldn’t believe it.
I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.
I got the same answer.
So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.
Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.
This is not what I want.
It’s not good for anyone.
I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.
So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.
But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.
I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.
And that’s what I’d really like to do.
I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.
Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.
I don’t want to have to contradict the school board and my administrators.
I don’t want to have to insert myself into this debate.
But I feel like I have no other choice.
Since I don’t live in the district, I can’t go to the school board meeting and speak.
And when I have expressed my concerns to those in charge, they have been repeatedly brushed aside.
So I am putting them out there in the public space.
This is what a Steel Valley teacher really thinks about this proposed plan.
This is what I feel I must say even at the risk of my job and future in this district – the proposed plan should not be adopted. We should continue with virtual instruction until infection rates in the county are extremely low.
The proposed plan would have students dividing into two groups – one would attend in the mornings and the other in the afternoons.
Both groups would have all of their classes for 20 minutes each for four days a week – Monday – Thursday. Friday would be a half day virtual learning day.
Consider that students currently have their full classes on-line for four days a week. Wednesday is an asynchronous learning day.
So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.
And this is true even for double period classes. Two 20 minute in-person classes is better than one, but not as good as two 40 minute virtual classes.
Just imagine it.
If this plan is approved, students and staff would be rushing here-and-there for the tiniest fraction of possible instruction in-person, and then rush home to do the mountains of classwork that would be necessary to move forward at all.
And that will continue to happen until we work together to provide a coordinated defense against the pandemic.
You can’t have half of the schools close their doors and the other half keep them open and expect the virus to just stop. You can’t have some people wear facial masks in public and others go without and expect the virus to disappear.
We need to work together or else prepare ourselves to hunker down for a very long COVID season. Or – even worse – a very short one.
If you are a resident of Munhall, Homestead or West Homestead and you feel the same way I do, I am begging you to go to the school board meetings.
Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.
It will result in many, many people getting sick.
Some may die. Others may have life-long debilitating complications as a result of the virus.
That’s just not worth it.
That’s just not worth a little more in-person instruction and a little less out-of-pocket childcare costs.
Healthcare, hospital stays and funeral preparations are much more expensive.
Thank you for hearing me out.
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“So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools.”
The response was in answer to citizens comments.
Greg Kristen and I went to the board meeting hoping to get answers – and we did.
“Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the County Health Department,” Holtzman said.
“They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.”
“I am in a large public school system… I am hearing and seeing two different approaches. I am very appreciative of what the board’s efforts in Pittsburgh have been to keep us safe and keep our students safe. I just want to be an advocate that we are doing everything we can even if it’s erring on the side of caution.”
District Solicitor Gary Matta was concerned about the issue as well.
“We’re getting some mixed signals between the state and the county,” he said.
“The state is directing us to deal with the county health department if we have one.”
He suggested the district get recommendations in writing from the county health department before following any of its advice.
In addition to questions about whether it was safe to keep district buildings open during a COVID-19 outbreak, Holtzman addressed district transparency.
I asked him to compile a dashboard on the district Website with the following information:
“1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began?
2) How many are students? How many staff?
3) How many are located at each school building?
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.”
He could not give me all I asked for at the meeting.
Holtzman said that 10 people have tested positive in the district since school opened – 9 of them recently. He said there have been cases at all four buildings – the high school, Founders Hall, Twin Rivers and Francis McClure elementary schools.
He was able to break down 8 of the 10 cases.
“In the last 7 days…. We’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one maintenance/support employee.”
Holtzman admitted that having a dashboard on the district Website was a good idea but fell short of committing to providing that ongoing data.
“A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion,” he said.
“It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret – it’s a challenging situation… A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’s something we’re going to take into consideration.”
Kristen brought up the issues of contact tracing and increasing class sizes at Twin Rivers that may make it difficult for students to engage in social distancing.
“Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov. 2,” he said.
“They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.”
Holtzman said some students whose parents had chosen remote learning had decided to return them to the physical classroom at the start of the new grading period. However, others had decided to remove their children from the physical buildings and put them on remote.
“We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.”
About a third of district students have been doing remote lessons since the year began.
Kristen said his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be within 3 feet.
Holtzman disputed this:
“That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best.”
Kristen asked about contact tracing at Twin Rivers where teachers had tested positive.
He wanted to know if students had been tested, and Holtzman responded that they had not.
“Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number.” He said.
“At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed…
“When we do interviewing – when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing – we ask them, ‘Where you in somebody’s personal space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. So-and-So, then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.”
He admitted that the effectiveness of this process depends on how honest and detailed those testing positive are when listing the people they have come into contact with while contagious.
Below is a transcript of our public comments and Dr. Holtzman’s responses:
“Dear school board members. Thank you for letting me speak here tonight. As a resident of this district for 15 years, as well as having a daughter a Twin Rivers Elementary School, I am deeply, deeply concerned with the lack of transparency about the Coronavirus infections. As of today, MASD has 9 positive cases… We have a right to know [who they are] not their names but their positions. According to CDC guidelines if there are two cases within a school, it is to be shut down for 5-7 days. For 5 or more cases, the building should be shut down for up to 14 days. Why is that not happening? Is the health and safety of the students, teachers, administrators, staff and maintenance not important to you? When positive cases happen in the building, who was in charge for contract tracing and notifying the Allegheny County Health Department? If they did not notify the health department, are they being held accountable? And I mean terminated. Were the parents of the students notified of the teachers and staff who were affected in the schools? Were the students tested? Is there any contract tracing with them? Also why is there not a healthcare professional a part of the Coronavirus task force?
Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov.2. They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.
This Coronavirus is not a hoax. People are dying every day. As of today, 222,000 people have died, and people like myself who have an underlying health condition are concerned about people transferring the virus to me or to someone close to me. In this county alone there 14,396 cases and 416 deaths. On Oct 14 which was just a week ago Rachel Levine, the state health secretary announced a second wave of Coronavirus has arrived here. Now that the flu season has arrived, what is MASD doing? Does a student, teacher, administrator, staff or maintenance person have to die for someone to take this serious? Thank you very much.”
Dr. Mark Holtzman:
“Mr. Kristen, I’m happy to address a couple of your concerns. A few things.
We’ve had 8 positive tests in the last 7 days. So that is correct. The CDC guidelines are recommendations by the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Education and state health department. (muffled) The Alleghney County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in Allegheny County. So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools. I will ensure to tell you positively I have spoke to the Alleghney County Health Department probably just this week once a day. The head epidemeologisr Dr. Luann Brink and the director of the health department Dr. [Debra] Bogen and I have conference calls with her every Tuesday at 2 o’clock. Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the Allegheny County Health Department. They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.
The concerns are the issues with Allegheny County Health Department are the rate of positivity here in the city of McKeesport and the surrounding communities. That’s number 1. Transmission is a huge piece of it. Is it being transmitted in the schools? Is it being brought into the schools from the outside? Contract tracing does occur on each and every case. All that information is submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department with details, time stamped, dates, everything we could possibly provide to those individuals. Fortunately or unfortunately we have to rely on that individual. For example, if you’re an employee that tests positive for COVID, we have to interview you. The information that you share with us, we have to then share with the Allegheny County Health Department. Whether you’re honest, dishonest , whether you’re detailed, whether you forgot someone, you didn’t include anyone as part of your contact tracing, that becomes your prerogative. We as a district just have to report that information to the health department and they make a final determination.
So at this particular time unfortunately we’re at the bottom of the document that’s been referenced many, many times, it states that when an entire school is recommended to be closed, closure time will vary depending on level of community transmission, and number of cases. Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number. ‘This allows public health staff the necessary time to complete case investigation and contact tracing and to provide schools with other appropriate public health advice like cleaning and disinfecting.’ At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed.
So at this particular time, I know there is frustration, I know there’s contradictory information out there, but we are working closely with the health department and they have done an outstanding job guiding us and every school district has a tough decision to make. So I appreciate you expressing your concerns this afternoon, this evening, later than it should be we appreciate it and if there’s anything we can do moving forward, we’d be happy to help.”
[Holtzamn said three teachers tested positive at Twin rivers Elementary. All students in those classes were not tested. Each student Is placed 6 feet apart. A close contact has to be within 6 feet for 15 consecutive minutes.]
Holtzman: “When we do interviewing, when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing, we ask them ‘[Where you in somebody’s person space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. so-and-so then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.
Now we could absorb those things. As Superintendent I’m in the schools daily, and I’m able to see some of the teachers and [their actions]. The students are already placed 6 feet apart, so therefore they are already socially distanced. We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.
[Kristen says his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be 3 feet.]
Holtzman: “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best and will hold all those expectations considering the fact that we have to educate the children that are interested in returning to school. We can’t just turn them away…. As many kids that are coming in, many are leaving for online learning for many reasons.”
“Thank you for letting me address the board this evening.
As a lifelong resident and the father of a child who attends the district, I am alarmed by news about an outbreak of COVID-19 at our school buildings, a lack of transparency about that information and a lack of proper safety response to the outbreak.
First, when I am finished with my comments, I ask that you clarify for me some facts about the outbreak.
1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began?
2) How many are students? How many staff?
3) How many are located at each school building?
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.
That information should be constantly available on the district Website throughout the pandemic. It should not just be on alerts that come and go, robocalls or emails.
Every taxpayer has the right to that information – which is easy to compile – and necessary so parents and community members can make smart decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe in the McKeesport Area.
Next, I am concerned about the district’s blasé response to these life threatening conditions.
According to the state Department of Education Website, in a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days.
Haven’t we met this threshold?
According to your recent alerts, at least 9 people have tested positive in the district in the last week – 3 students and 6 teachers. And this is spread throughout all district buildings.
There is no way to divide that up without at least one of our four buildings in the danger zone.
Doesn’t that mean that at least at some buildings – probably Twin Rivers, Francis McClure and/or the the High School – we have met this benchmark? Don’t each of those schools have two or more cases?
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?
Moreover, according to the PDE Website, if there are multiple cases at multiple schools where the infected are not household contacts, the schools are supposed to be closed not just for 5-7 days but a full two weeks.
Have we met that threshold? And if so, why are the buildings not closed?
I do not understand what precautions you are taking to keep students and staff safe.
I understand that PDE defines “Close Contact” as being within 6 feet for at least 15 consecutive minutes of a person who has tested positive. However, the Website cautions that this should not be taken as the ONLY definition of such contact: “In some school situations, it might be difficult to determine whether individuals are contacts or whether an entire cohort, classroom, or other group (extracurricular activity members) might need to be considered exposed, particularly if people have spent time together indoors.”
You say these cases have all been contained. But you have done very little to assure the public of this and could be taking much greater precautions on our behalf.
We’re talking about children here. We’re talking about our staff – people who have served generations of families and who often have families of their own.
Can’t you do better for the people in this district?
I would suggest that you at least follow PDE recommendations in the effected buildings.
Furthermore, I think you should cancel all in-person classes and go to a fully remote education plan until the infection rate in the county and the community is designated as low.
Have the classroom teachers make the online curriculum and let students and families choose whether they wish to go through that curriculum synchronously or asynchronously. And do not outsource the virtual program to ed tech companies looking to cash in on their credit recovery programs – as you are currently doing with Edmentum.
Going to a fully virtual plan would be in the best interests of students, families and the community.
Please do your duty.”
“Mr. Singer, Thank you. I appreciate you spending some time with us again today. I don’t know, Dr. (muffled) do you have the numbers he’s requesting off hand? I only have the last seven days in front of me. If not, I’ll make sure you get them.
Voice: I don’t have them with me.
Holtzman: Prior to this situation we’ve had very few so… the difference between staff and students, we currently have in the last 7 days… we’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one mainatance/support employee. Furthermore, I feel that we’ll agree to disagree that instruction in person is the priority for engaging children. Our students have received progress reports. You as an educator I’m sure are quite aware that the online learning platform is not engaging all children. Many children are struggling and failing courses, here ate McKeesport and all over the Commonwealth. I think it’s a big issue for all school leadership trying to find new creative ways to engage children whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. So for us here at McKeesport we’re very fortunate to have had this huge donation of devices. We are going to consider doing some flexible instruction in the very near future to kind of make sure we have all of the pieces in place to provide synchronous instruction affectively. But sadly a lot of our students have chosen either to not log in or not be consistent in the work they’re trying to perform online. So we’ll continue to encourage our children to be in schools, we’ll continue to do our very best
ME: Would you commit to putting the information I asked for before onto the district Website?
Holtzman: You bring a good point because you know there are some districts using… a ticker to keep track. To be honest I didn’t know it would be necessary so that’s something we need to consider. A dashboard is a better description. It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret it’s a challenging situation… Also to answer your question, we’ve had a total of 10 cases since the start of the school year. We’re still waiting for confirmation on two of those but we’re pretty confident. A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion. A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’something we’re going to take into consideration.
[Holtzman admitted there was at least one case at every building but not elementary students.]
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Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.
After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:
1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day
Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.
You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.
For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.
Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.
Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.
It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.
True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.
However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.
Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.
If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.
3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually
There are many reasons for this.
In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.
You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.
All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.
Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.
In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.
I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.
4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together
As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.
For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.
Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.
In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.
Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.
If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.
5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace
This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.
Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.
Online it isn’t such a straight line.
Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.
And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.
I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.
I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.
No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.
For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.
However, there are two important points to be made.
First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.
I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.
In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.
That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.
We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.
2) The Camera Conundrum
To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.
Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.
The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.
Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.
Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.
I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.
Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.
There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.
But not always.
3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs
This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.
The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.
I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.
4) Technological Issues
Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.
Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.
The list is endless.
Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.
And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.
One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.