The Teacher Trauma of Repeatedly Justifying Your Right To Life During Covid

I am a public school teacher and my life has value.

That shouldn’t be controversial.

But every few weeks in 2020-21 as the global Covid-19 pandemic continues to spread unabated, I have to go to a staff meeting and justify my right to continue breathing.

Administration and the school board want to stop distance learning and reopen the school for in-person classes.

Yet the Pennsylvania Department of Health recommends all schools be fully remote in any county with a substantial level of community transmission of Covid-19. As of today, that’s every county in the whole state.

Allegheny County – the area near Pittsburgh where I live – has averaged about 600 new cases a day since the beginning of December. More than 1,100 people have died – 149 just in January, alone.

Meanwhile, teachers and other frontline workers have to wait to get vaccinated because UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the vaccine, is giving preference to its own office workers who do not come into contact with infected people.

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.

So my life goes back on the scales with student learning, and I’m asked to explain why my employer and community should care more about me than their kids chances of increased educational outcomes.

It’s not even a valid dichotomy.

Risking teachers lives does not mean students will learn more.

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.

No matter what we do, these will not be optimal learning conditions. Even if students and teachers meet in-person, it will be in an environment of fear and menace – jury rigged safety measures against the backdrop of mass infections, economic instability and an ongoing political coup.

You may see it as a simple calculus – teacher vs. students – but the world doesn’t work that way.

You need teachers to teach students. If something is bad for teachers, it’s also bad for students.

Sick teachers don’t teach well. Dead teachers are even less effective.

But every few weeks, we’re back to square one. And nothing has changed to make in-person learning any safer.

In fact, scientific consensus has undergone a massive shift away from it.

A study released this week from the Université de Montréal concluded schools are spreading the virus in Canada and reopening would undermine any benefits from partial lockdowns.

We’re seeing the same thing in the US where Massachusetts schools reported 523 students and 407 staffers tested positive for COVID in just the last week.

We’ve seen similar outbreaks in Georgia and Mississippi, but the reason they have not been reported nationally is due to two factors. First, the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos refused to keep track of such data, though being a central repository for education statistics is one of the main functions of the job. Second, many students do not show symptoms of the virus even when infected. That means nearly all contact tracing studies show merely the tip of the iceberg and are potentially concealing massive infections.

And this is evident when we take a more national view of the facts. The Covid hospitalization rate for children has increased by 800 percent in the last six months.

More than 250,000 students and school staff contracted the disease between August 1 and the beginning of December, according to The COVID Monitor, a US News database that tracks Coronavirus cases in K-12 schools. That doesn’t even factor in the surge of cases since the Christmas holidays. Add to that the American Academy of Pediatrics report of more than 1 million child cases in the US.

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.”

However, the most comprehensive national study was done by US News and World Report. It concluded:

-The high school student case rate (13 per 1,000 students enrolled for in-person classes) is nearly three times that of elementary school students (4.4 per 1,000). 

-The higher the community case rate, the higher the school district case rate.

-Case rates for school districts are often much higher than case rates in the community. Meanwhile, these schools are often under reporting the cases of students and staff.

-The more students enrolled for in-person classes, the higher the case rate in the school district. Likewise, reducing in-person classes can reduce the case rate.

Despite all this evidence, many local districts act as if reopening is a fact free zone. Everyone has an opinion and each is equally as valid.

Wrong!

This time around, even some teachers have internalized the illogic.

We don’t have to behave like lemmings, all jumping off the cliff because the person in front of us jumped.

I understand that this is all being driven by economic factors.

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.

How will I ever trust my administrators again when they force me to ride this merry-go-round?

How will I ever respect the school board when they can’t put petty politics aside for the good of their own kids?

How will I continue to serve the community when, as a whole, it can’t agree that my life matters?


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

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

The moment I had been dreading happened.

Student names started popping up on my screen waiting to be admitted into this morning’s first Zoom meeting.

What was I going to say to them?

Yesterday in Washington, DC, thousands of Trump supporters charged into the Capitol Building at his urging in an attempt to stop Congress from certifying his Presidential defeat.

What would I tell my middle schoolers?

What COULD I say?

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.

The truth.


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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!

Kids Are NOT Falling Behind. They Are Surviving a Pandemic

 
 


 
Everyone is worried about how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting children. 


 
And it IS affecting them.  


 
But so much worry is being wasted on the wrong things. 


 
Instead of agonizing about kids being put in danger of infection at in-person schools where the virus is out of control, we’re told to worry about academic regression. 


 
Instead of feeling anxiety about abandoning kids at home as outbreaks close their schools and parents still have to go in to work, we’re told to agonize over failing test scores.  


 
In nearly every case, the reality is papered over by concern trolls clutching their pearls and demanding we point our attention away from the real dangers in favor of papier-mâché boogeymen. 


 
It’s almost as if the rich and powerful don’t want us to solve the real problems because that would cost them money.  


 
Stimulus checks, rent moratoriums, universal healthcare, aide to small businesses – none of that is in the interest of the one percent. 


 
Better to persuade the rest of us it’s better to suck up our pain and that doing so is really for our own good. 


 
And one of the ways they do it is by crying crocodile tears over our children’s academics. 


 
Kids are falling behind, they say.  

Hurry up, Kids. Get going.  


 
You’re behind! 


 
You have to catch up to where you would be if there hadn’t been a global pandemic! 


 
Hurry up! We’ve got this time table and you’re falling behind! FALLING BEHIND! 


 
It’s utter nonsense


 
I’m not saying that kids are learning today what they would have learned had COVID-19 not spread like wildfire across our shores.  


 
But the idea that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed – that is pure fantasy. 


 
Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning


 
At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.  


 
People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 


 
And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 


 
You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 


 
For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool. 


 
That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.  


 
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. 


 
That’s why Common Core Academic Standards were such a failure. They tried to map what schools teach like a train schedule, and then blamed educators when children’s brains didn’t match up with corporate expectations. 


 
The key is providing people with the opportunities and the circumstances that maximize the likelihood of learning. Not pedantically checking off skills and benchmarks. 


 
None of this is new. 


 
I am not putting forward a radical theory of cognitive development. 


 
Every teacher with an education degree is taught this in their developmental psychology courses. That’s why so many educational leaders don’t know anything about it.  


 
Policymakers rarely have actual education degrees. In fact, many of them have never taught a day in their lives – especially at the K-12 level.  


 
For example, Teach for America takes graduates from other fields of study (often business), gives them a couple weeks crash course in basic schoolology before throwing them in the classroom for a few years. Then they leave pretending to know everything there is about education, ready to advise lawmakers, work at think tanks, or otherwise set policy.  


 
Imagine how things would change if we expected our educational leaders to actually comprehend the field of study they’re pretending to steer. 


 
Meanwhile, people with 4-5 year degrees in education, like myself, have internalized things like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  


 
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. 


 
But for most kids the pandemic has been particularly hard on these primary needs. Food, shelter and safety are not nearly as certain today as they were just a year ago. 


 
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. 


 
In-person school, hybrid or distance learning? They don’t really care. 


 
The economy is what they’re really worried about. They want to keep it chugging along so they can continue siphoning profit off of the working class and into their pockets.  


 
And if they have any genuine concern for our children at all, it is merely that our kids get through the academic system and enter the workforce on time so that our kiddos can inject more money (more value) into the gross domestic product.  


 
We don’t need their disingenuous advice. 


 
Our children are suffering, but they’re doing as fine as can be expected under the circumstances.  


 
Yes, their educations have been disrupted by the virus. But a global pandemic will do that.  


 
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.  


 
Schools are not daycare centers. In fact, we shouldn’t have to resort to daycare centers, either, when faced with a deadly airborne virus.  


 
Parents should be allowed (and encouraged!) to stay home and take care of their own kids. We should literally pay them to do so! 


 
These appeals to keep the economy running full steam ahead no matter the cost are nothing less than class warfare. And many of us have been brainwashed that we’re on one side when we’re really on the other.

 
 
Let’s get one thing straight: none of this means learning will stop.  


 
Kids are learning quite a lot, thank you.


 
They see us, adults, fighting over pandemic precautions like wearing face masks when in public. They see us denying science, calling the virus a fake as millions of people get sick and die. They see our President refusing to accept the results of the election. And sometimes they see the same people who should be keeping them safe sending them to school as if nothing is happening


 
The media mogul marketeers would be wise to fear the lessons this generation is learning about the gullibility of adults and the willingness of the ruling class to sacrifice the common folk.  


 
But even though much of the curriculum in 2020 has been unscripted, our schools still function.  


 
In fact, teachers are working harder than ever to provide some continuity. 


 
Where classrooms are closed, distance learning is taking up the slack


 
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?  


 
Absolutely not.  


 
They’ll do the best they can. And this will largely depend on the environmental factors in their homes.  


 
When you have children left to their own devices forced to navigate a virtual learning platform, they will inevitably hit roadblocks. They need their parents to help navigate the rough spots

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.

There’s a reason the kids with the best grades often have the most involved parents – parents with the economic freedom to invest more time into their children.

 
That’s something else the marketeers don’t understand. Most of the problems of Covid America aren’t that different from Pre-Covid America. It’s a matter of degree. 


 
Schools have always struggled to overcome the socioeconomic problems of their students. The only difference is that now we can’t just point to standardized test scores and blame it all on teachers.  


 
The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.  


 
A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.  
 


 
So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.  


 
Our children aren’t falling behind.  


 
They’re surviving a pandemic.  


 
 
Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.  


 
 
Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.  


 
 
But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart. 


 
Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.


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!

For Teachers, “Silence of Our Friends” May be Worst Part of Pandemic

“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.

In most cases that means remote instruction – teaching students via the Internet through video conferencing software like Zoom.

However, numerous leaders and organizations that historically are supportive of teachers have refused to support them here.

The rush to keep classrooms open and thus keep the economy running has overtaken any respect for science, any concern for safety, and any appeal to compassion.

Many Democratic lawmakers, school directors, union leaders and even public school advocates have repeatedly turned away, remained silent or promoted policies that would continue to put educators in danger.

Thankfully, some districts have been accommodating, worrying about the safety of children as well as adults.

But many others have refused to go this route even demanding educators with compromised immune systems and other increased risk factors either get in the classroom and teach or seek some sort of financially burdensome leave.

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.

Answer: crickets.

As a result, more than 300 U.S. teachers and other school employees have died from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

In New York City, alone, 72 school employees died of the virus, according to the city Department of Education.

And since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has refused to collect data on how the pandemic is affecting schools and school employees, this count is probably woefully under-representative of the full tragedy.

About 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from the Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my own Western Pennsylvania community in the last few weeks, we buried high school employee Terri Sherwin, 60, of Greater Latrobe School District and elementary school employee Dana Hall, 56, of Jeannette City School District.

The assertion that children cannot get the disease, which was popularized by the Trump administration, has been proven false.

More than 1 million kids nationwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics .

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms but are still capable of transmitting the virus to others. This – along with the lack of a national database – makes it incredibly difficult to accurately trace the source of an outbreak through the schools.

However, in November the CDC quietly removed controversial guidelines from its website promoting in-person learning, and instead lists it as “high risk.”

“As new scientific information has emerged the site has been updated to reflect current knowledge about COVID-19 and schools,” a spokesperson said.

Yet there has been no subsequent change in the policy positions of most lawmakers, school directors, union leaders or education activists.

A prime example of this is New York City’s plan to reopen most schools to in-person learning at the beginning of this month despite rising infection rates and an average of more than 2,000 new cases a day.

The plan has the full support of most teachers unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said the plan “combines the best of what we have learned nationwide during COVID about how to keep staff and students safe and how to instruct young kids.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) agreed.

He said:

“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 we know that contract tracing is inadequate. We know people are getting sick. Hospitals are filling up. People are dying.

Why aren’t the unions standing up more for their employees here? Why is the request for a safe work environment too much?

Answer: politics.

With President-elect Joe Biden about to announce his pick for Secretary of Education, few union leaders have the courage to go against the party line and disqualify themselves from consideration.

Biden’s plan right now seems to be keeping the schools open with an influx of cash.

Former President of the National Education Association (NEA) Lily Eskelsen García hasn’t said much recently on the issue to my knowledge.

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.”

In an interview in May she said:

“The stakes of doing it wrong is that someone dies. It’s not just that someone doesn’t graduate or someone doesn’t learn their times tables — someone could die.”

I wonder what she would say today – and why she hasn’t spoken out as vocally.

In my neighborhood, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey has continually asked districts to follow state safety guidelines.

“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.

Since then, Wolf has issued tons of guidance but not much else.

I assume Wolf would say he hasn’t done more because his hands are tied.

I assume Askey would say the same.

But such platitudes taste like ashes in your mouth when faced with the everyday reality that almost everyday the state is breaking its previous record for Coronavirus cases. Today we had nearly 13,000 new cases and 149 deaths! Yes, that’s just today!

Will their hands still be tied when daily cases reach 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

The decision about whether to keep buildings open to in-person classes or go with remote instruction has mostly been left with school directors.

And their decisions have been all over the place.

These are not public health officials.

These are not people used to making life and death decisions.

They’re used to deciding whether to remodel the library, buy books from this or that vendor or declare Friday a holiday because the football team won the state championship.

I don’t mean to diminish what they do.

Some have been going above and beyond every day to ensure the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

But far too many pay lip service to that idea while making sure their local business gets to keep operating with employees who don’t have to sit home with their children.

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?

We should be on the same team, but too many school directors are far too willing to sacrifice our lives and safety to safeguard their own bank accounts.

When will school directors admit the cost is too high? How many staff have to get sick? 20? 50? 100? How many have to die?

However, as much as the silence and disregard of lawmakers, union leaders and school directors hurts – it is the reaction from many education activists that stings the most.

When our schools are attacked by charter schools and voucher schools, we organize and fight it together.

When high stakes testing unfairly labels our children and is used to defund and loot our budgets, we organize and fight together.

No matter what the issue – the school-to-prison pipeline, Common Core, racist discipline policies, value added teacher evaluations, runaway ed tech – we’ve come together to fight as one.

But suddenly when it’s an issue of teachers vs. the economy, our allies go silent.

They’re afraid remote learning will lead to more ed tech solutions, that it will embolden parents to enroll in charter or voucher schools, that it will hurt student learning. And to be fair there is reason to fear.

However, instead of standing together and fighting these new challenges as they come (as we’ve always done) many of our activist allies have abandoned us.

They champion articles about a non-existent consensus that it’s safe to reopen schools. They champion the work of a discredited economist over epidemiologists and virologists. They side with the same neoliberals and corporate education reformers we used to battle together.

Or they simply remain silent.

That’s the one that really hurts the most.

One day this pandemic will end.

One day – I hope it’s soon – it will be safe to return to the classroom and begin again.

But the wreckage of the virus will pale in comparison to the damage we have done to each other and our relationships.

Coalitions may crumble and fall.

Trust may disappear.

And the way forward – if any will be left – may be much different than it was only a year ago.

No one who refuses to defend your right to life is your true ally.

We won’t forget who spoke up and who remained silent.


 

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Contact Tracing Does NOT Prove Schools Are Safe During a Pandemic

“No close contacts were identified within the school district.”

That’s what it says on today’s email from my district reporting that two elementary staff and one student tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s what it said on Tuesday’s email about a different elementary staff member testing positive.

And the email from last Sunday about two elementary staff, and last Monday about a middle school staff member, and the one from Nov. 19 about an entire Kindergarten class and its teachers being quarantined.

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.

In fact, that’s not really its point.

Contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing the further spread of an infectious disease. Its goal is to limit spread beyond this point.

We already know Ava has the virus (or is suspected of having it). We’re trying to find out who she may have spread it to – as much as, if not more than – who she got it from.

In the process of doing that we may be able to trace the spread of the virus back to its source before Ava. But probably not.

Why Does Contract Tracing Often Fail to Lead Us Back to the Source of an Outbreak?

If we had rapid and ubiquitous COVID tests, perhaps we could achieve that goal. But we don’t.

Moreover, we’re relying on individuals to voluntarily cooperate with contact tracers and to provide detailed information about who they came into contact with over a wide period.

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.

His response:

“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone. Because people do not realize how important it is to give the information we need to make certain we can control disease.”

To make matters worse, most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though they are still capable of spreading the disease, they go undetected by contact tracing entirely.

So it is entirely disingenuous to claim contact tracing proves much of anything about how the virus is spread. It’s usefulness is in stopping COVID-19 from going any further.

How Contact Tracing is Used to Make Wild Claims

Students, teachers and other school staff have come down with the virus in significant numbers.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released last week.

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.

They’re pretending that the failure of contact tracing to find a direct link means there is no link.

Since contact tracing has rarely been able to identify the source of an outbreak to a particular person in school, they assume that means the virus isn’t spreading much in our schools.

Nonsense!

First of all, there have been significant contact tracing studies that have found these direct links.

In fact, the largest contact tracing study ever conducted shows that children and young adults are potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified.

The study of more than half a million people conducted by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is much greater than previously believed.

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.

Balderdash!

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.

Add to that the absence of a standard national database of school cases, and it’s beyond absurd.

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.

She told CNN:

“It is totally bananas. I think we are doing as good a job as we can. This is not my field. It’s crazy.”

She later clarified in a series of Tweets, “…it is bananas that there isn’t a better federal effort to get these data….”

“Our data is, I think, the best available. It’s not perfect, and I’ve said that elsewhere many times…”

Besides the case of COVID-19 in schools, Oster is best known for making outrageous and often disproven claims such as that drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy is safe.

What About When Outbreaks Happen?

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

However, this highlights another danger of keeping schools open while infections are high.

Even if viral spread was low in schools, keeping buildings open minimizes the danger of the pandemic.

If Ava can see her friends in school, why shouldn’t she get together with them after school, too?

In-person learning enables more in-person extra-curricular activities, sporting events, parties and other social gatherings outside of school.

Under normal circumstances, this would be great. When there’s a raging pandemic – not so much.

With kids, it’s not always what you say. It’s what you do. And if it’s safe enough to have in-person schooling, kids aren’t as likely to social distance outside of school.

Conclusions

The point isn’t that school cannot exist during a pandemic.

In communities where infection rates are low, even in-person classes can be conducted in relative safety with proper precautions and adequate funding.

However, if the community infection rate is moderate to high, classes should be conducted remotely.

We have to take the virus and the risks it poses seriously.

We have not been doing that.

Helen Bristow, MPH, program manager of Duke’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides schools on COVID-19 safety, cautions:

“We’re nine to 10 months into a brand-new disease. We’re regularly learning something we didn’t know before.”

We have to stop pretending that the partial data we have is enough to make broad and reckless decisions about keeping students and staff safe during this crisis.

Decisions should be made with an abundance of caution.

Protecting life and health have to be the overriding concerns.

We need a national database of COVID cases in schools for students and staff.

We need free, quick and ubiquitous viral screenings done frequently for all students and staff.

And darn if a working and safe vaccine wouldn’t be helpful, too.

But in the absence of all of these things, we should not be rushing to open schools to in-person classes.

The virus definitely is spreading in our schools.

In most communities, it’s not where the contact tracing leads. It’s the sheer number of cases, the quarantines, staffing shortages and, yes, even funerals.

For all its faults, remote learning is far preferable while the virus runs free.


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Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

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

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

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

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

SCHOOL BOARDS

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

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

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is very personal to me.

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

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

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

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

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

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

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

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

I just wish my local did, too.

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

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

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

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

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

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

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

This after months of…. Nothing.

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

Nothing…. So far.

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

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

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

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

My God! That’s a human right!

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

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

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

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

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

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

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

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

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

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

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

But that’s obviously false.

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

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

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

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

That’s nonsense, too.

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just not THESE duly elected members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have failed us all.


 

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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!

I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

Therein lies the back to school nightmare I’ve been living through for most of the summer and fall.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

Folks like me with pre-existing conditions are at greater risk from the virus than others.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

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.

So what am I to do?

The western Pennsylvania district where I work, Steel Valley, is reopening next week with a hybrid model.

The United States recorded more than 98,000 coronavirus cases yesterday – the highest single day count since the pandemic began. Two dozen states – including Pennsylvania – are reporting their worst weeks for new cases — and none are recording improvements.

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

The district originally opened in September with virtual instruction for all students, and it was a huge success.

I taught my classes online, we’ve bonded and made academic gains I wouldn’t have believed possible with this model just a year ago.

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.

School directors said that this schedule was just a test to see if in-person instruction was feasible. They plan to reevaluate the measure in three weeks and decide whether to fully reopen in December or go back to virtual instruction for all students.

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

Being in the school building, being in the classroom in close proximity with tens of middle school students – especially during a time when COVID cases are surging throughout the county – puts my life in danger.

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?

Except…

…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.

I’ve already built a rapport with them. I know what their academic deficiencies are and what they missed as we went to remote learning in March when Coronavirus cases were much fewer than they are now.

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’m a heck of a teacher! I’m Nationally Board Certified. I was nominated for the Champions of Learning Award from the Consortium for Public Education in 2018. I won the Ken Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award last year. In fact, the University of Arizona was going to fly me out to Tucson to accept the award but had to cancel due to the pandemic.

I gave a TED talk on education at Central Connecticut University in 2018. I wrote a book called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” in 2017 and have written a nationally recognized blog since 2014.

Wouldn’t everyone be better served with me instructing my students rather than being thrown to the side?

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

I have people who care about me and whom I care about.

I have a wife and daughter.

I can’t roll the dice with my life or chance taking an infection home to my loved ones.

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

On Friday, Johns Hopkins University reported the highest number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

That’s 83,757 new cases and 943 new deaths.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

This comes after 77,000 cases were reported the day before – which, itself, had been the record.

At this rate, the US will have 100,000 new cases and 1,000 new deaths a day very soon.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

I don’t know how to say it any other way.

You just have to look at the facts.

The second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping across the nation, Pennsylvania, and our communities of Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.

Nearby district McKeesport had an outbreak of at least 9 cases in a little over a week. Baldwin-Whitehall and Hempfield schools closed just last week because of outbreaks.

Steel Valley Schools haven’t had to deal with such problems because the district has been closed to in-person classes since March.

The school board wisely decided to continue virtual instruction for all students at the beginning of the school year. Its plan has been a model other districts should follow – especially those with 1:1 devices like ours.

But now district decision makers are putting forward a new plan to bring students back in the building on a half day basis starting the first week of November.

The school board will review the plan at its work session meeting on Monday in the high school auditorium at 7:30 pm. The meeting also will be live streamed on YouTube.

The board is expected to vote on the plan at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 pm.

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

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 the price for all this breathless activity will be increased risk of infection and bringing it home to family and friends. Not to mention the cost on teachers like me who will be exposed to hundreds of children in enclosed spaces with few windows and poor ventilation on a daily basis.

But parents will be given a choice whether to subject their children to this schedule or not.

Parents will have to decide whether they want their children to attend in-person or receive virtual instruction.

However, the virtual instruction being offered under this new model is not in many cases the same as what children receive now.

Remote students in K-5 would still meet with a classroom teacher on video platforms.

However, remote students in 6-12 would have to enroll in the district cyber program. This is a canned ed tech initiative modeled on credit recovery. They will have minimal to no interactions with classroom teachers or lessons taught by district educators.

This would replace an exemplary district-designed curriculum with a subpar service to parents and students in the hope that they will opt for in-person instruction instead.

No matter which option you choose for your child, from an academic standpoint, this new proposal is a step backward.

Most students would receive less instruction from classroom teachers – either half of what they’re receiving now (but in-person) or next to nothing on-line in grades 6-12.

This plan does not solve any academic problems. It only partially solves the problem of child care.

Let’s be honest. That’s what the priority is here.

With many parents having to leave the home to work, they need babysitting options for their kids.

With school buildings closed, this incurs an additional cost for parents.

Moreover, local business owners find it more difficult to justify keeping their own establishments open to the public – bars, restaurants, etc. – while schools are closed.

But we already know what the result of such a plan will be.

District buildings were open exactly two days to students since the pandemic began – Sept 8 and Oct 6.

These were transition days where only 5th and 9th grade students were in the buildings. Both instances resulted in a teacher testing positive for COVID-19.

Imagine this large scale.

I’m sorry, but there are things more important than childcare right now.

The reason we are experiencing a second wave of COVID is because of plans like this one.

You can’t have some schools and businesses doing the right thing and others doing whatever they want.

That’s not how you stem the spread of a deadly virus.

Sensible districts like ours put safety first. Others reopened their classrooms with hybrid or other models.

The result is an increase in infections.

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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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 Superintendent: Keeping District Open During COVID Outbreak is Following Recommendation of County Health Department


 
 


McKeesport Area School District (MASD) has been rocked with nine positive cases of COVID-19 in a little more than a week.  


 
According to guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, affected schools should be closed for somewhere between 5 days and two weeks.  


 
Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman says the district ignored these guidelines on the recommendation of the Allegheny County Health Department. 


 
“The County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in [the] County,” Holtzman said at last night’s school board open agenda meeting


 
“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.  

Kristen and I are district fathers, old friends and former journalists from the McKeesport Daily News before the paper closed.


 
“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.” 


 
On Monday, Baldwin-Whitehall school board voted to close three elementary schools for the rest of the week due to a substitute teacher who tested positive and worked in all the buildings. 
 


 
If Holtzman is correct, this decision was made against the recommendation of the county health department.  


 
 
On the same day, the Hempfield Area School District announced its high school would close until Oct. 26 after 12 students tested positive for COVID-19 over the past eight days. 


 
 
Holtzman said the district in nearby Westmoreland County has no county health department to advise it on whether to open or close. 


 
 
School Director Mindy Lundberg Sturgess said she was uncomfortable with the McKeesport district ignoring CDC guidelines.  


 
“I just want the parents and the staff to know that I personally am concerned about your health and safety,” she said. 


 
“I know I would not feel comfortable.” 


 
Sturgess is a teacher at nearby Pittsburgh Public Schools where students have been on 100% remote instruction since the beginning of the year. She was one of two McKeesport board members – along with Jim Brown – who voted against MASD reopening its buildings to students in September. The motion passed without them. 


 
“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. 


He said:  
 
 
“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: 



 
 
Kristen:  


 
“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.” 


 
MY COMMENTS: 


 
“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.” 


 
 
Holtzman: 


 
“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.]


 


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!

Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

Teaching today is not the same as it was just a year ago.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to change the way they do almost everything.

With infection rates moderate to high in most areas of the country, many schools have resorted to full virtual instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model incorporating a mix of cyber and in-person classes.

Only in the most sparsely populated, secluded or reckless areas have schools been allowed to reopen 100% without safety precautions.

For many districts trying to juggle both in-person and virtual classes, the online component has been left to ed tech companies like Edmentum often specializing in credit recovery.

These have been an absolute disaster.

Corporate America has no business educating our youth – and moreover they’re terribly bad at it.

However, in many districts, virtual instruction has come to mean something else entirely.

It has meant classroom teachers creating their own online instruction and assignments while teaching synchronously through applications like Zoom.

I want to be clear that I think this is the best possible model under current circumstances.

It is the best way to balance the needs of safety for students and staff with the needs of academics.

However, this isn’t to say it is trouble free or even preferable if the world were ever to snap back into the shape it was before the pandemic.

The people best situated to tell us this are classroom teachers.

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:

Pros

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.

And that’s not all bad.

As a teacher, I love being able to go to the restroom whenever I need – something that I cannot do in my school building. Back there, I have to literally train my bladder to be ready when I have breaks in my schedule.

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.

This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t incredibly stressed by the pressure to create new curriculum, using new technology and new district rules that are being rewritten by the hour. But at least the day-to-day instruction, itself, is more low key.

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

We’ve all been there. An unruly student or two brings a dispute to class and picks on each other back and forth.

In the physical classroom, this can be a real problem requiring a lot of effort to resolve. You have to de-escalate the situation or else it could turn into an exchange of fists.

Online it’s a snap. You can simply mute the participants. The teacher has much more control over what communication enters the classroom space and physical violence is impossible.

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.

But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ll bet disciplinary referrals have dropped to record lows. And without them, virtual learning may have all but dismantled the school-to-prison pipeline.

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.

When it comes to parents, just having the contact information at your fingertips is a plus. Also teachers have more time to communicate with them when you remove lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension and other necessities of the physical classroom. When teachers don’t have to function as security guards, we get more time to be teachers.

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.

We’ve created a culture of care and understanding. I think that’s a positive thing even if it doesn’t emphasize due dates and time frames as much.

Cons

1) Student Absences

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.

Second, though some students have neither attended many (or any) Zoom meetings or handed in many (or any) assignments, this was true in the physical classroom, too.

Some parents do not provide the structure necessary to ensure their children are doing their school work. This is true no matter how that work is presented – physically or virtually.

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 related to the previous point.

The problem of the camera is particularly pernicious for students with special needs. I can’t tell you how many IEPs and service plans want me to monitor students with ADHD and bring them back when they lose focus.

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.

I still don’t quite understand what happened. The Today Show was in the neighborhood doing a live broadcast that morning. Perhaps that had an effect.

For whatever reason my Mac laptop could not connect to the Internet. I had a barely functional PC that for reasons I cannot explain was able to connect.

So that’s what I did. I connected with the PC and taught my classes. The connection was still spotty and I got kicked out of my own Zoom meeting once.

When I got back on moments later, the students were terrified. But we got on with it and managed.

I don’t know why, but the issue seemed to fix itself about 2 hours later and I was able to get onto my laptop and experienced no further problems.

I suppose the point is that we have to realize technology issues will crop up. We need contingency plans. Lots and lots of contingency plans. For ourselves, as teachers, and for our students.

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

Ed tech companies have been trying to take over public education for years.
Unscrupulous business people have been trying successfully to privatize and profitize education.

The pandemic has made that possible to degrees never before imagined.

Charter and private schools are packed with students these days. This is partially because their smaller size and greater resources allows them to more easily meet in-person safety standards. Where public schools have recklessly reopened, cyber schools have swooped in to provide a safer option, too.

When even many public schools become less focused on doing the right thing than on doing the popular thing, they open the door to privatization.

It’s the wild west out there and no one can really tell how this will all affect what the future of education will be.

If the pandemic ended tomorrow, I would like to return to the physical classroom. But I can’t say I’d willingly leave every innovation of virtual instruction on the cutting room floor.

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

I like being free to contact parents and students easily and not being tied to duties more suited to school security officers.

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

But I don’t want to lose the best aspects of the physical classroom.

I don’t want to lose autonomy and have everything micromanaged and predetermined by ed tech companies.

I don’t want ridiculously large class sizes justified by a digital space.

I don’t want to have to teach live on-line and in-person at the same time, curating and managing the virtual space and the physical classroom.

I don’t want to be under constant digital surveillance.

These are all dangers of the new normal.

I don’t know what the future will be, but I know it will not be what it was before all this started.

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

But right now teachers really can’t afford to worry about it too much.

We’re too busy trying to get through the current crisis.


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