If you’re like me, you don’t want these questions to come as a surprise on May 18 or before (if you’re casting a mail in ballot).
These queries can change the state for better or worse in dramatic ways, yet for some reason, they don’t write these things in the way everyday people talk.
This is lawyer speak. You have to wear a long black robe and put on a white haired wig (called a peruke) just to understand these things.
But don’t get your gavel in a tizzy.
As a public service, I’m going to translate each question and make a suggestion on how you should vote.
“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”
Translation:Allow the legislature to second guess the governor and terminate an emergency disaster declaration without just cause
We have three branches of government for a reason – checks and balances. Robbing the executive to boost a dysfunctional legislature would make the declaration of emergencies and natural disasters a matter or politics not facts.
Emergencies could be terminated at a moment’s notice without cause sending our first responders into chaos. Emergency managers could lose precious time and resources, communities could lose relief and recovery funding from the state and federal governments, all while our chuckleheaded legislature debates reality.
The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over yet. We’re working overtime to distribute vaccines and combat threats from emerging variants. The last thing we need is a political show prematurely eliminating masking, social distancing and other safety precautions so performative ideologues can win points on Fox News.
“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”
Translation:Limit an emergency disaster declaration to 21 days regardless of the severity of the emergency
Suggestion: VOTE NO
Disasters do not come with time limits. But randomly limiting them all to 21 days again takes power away from the Governor and gives it to the legislature. The only way to extend emergency declarations would be passage of a resolution by the state House and Senate.
Do we really want our emergency responses tied to the endless back and forth of legislators who rarely even pass their annual budgets on time? This is unnecessary bureaucracy so politicians can grandstand while emergency personnel wait for the go ahead to save lives.
“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”
Translation: Make it illegal to deny or cut short anyone’s rights because of race or ethnicity
Suggestion: VOTE YES
This should be a no brainer. No one should be able to deny a person’s civil rights because of race or ethnicity. Or any other reason!
However, we just lived through four years of a reality TV show President who packed the federal courts with dozens of questionable and unqualified judges who made their careers discriminating against people of color, people of different creeds, religions, etc.
So it makes sense to enshrine equal protection for all at the state level and protect Commonwealth residents from federally sanctioned prejudice especially focused around workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing and healthcare.
Moreover, as a part of the state Constitution, this amendment would stop even our own state legislature from passing any laws inconsistent with it.
“Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”
Translation: Allow municipal fire departments and EMS companies to apply for state loans to modernize critical safety equipment
Suggestion: VOTE YES
Both municipal fire departments and EMS companies with paid employees and volunteer departments and companies would be able to apply for state loans.
This vital funding could be used to modernize or purchase necessary safety equipment for first responders. It would keep fire fighters up to date and able to serve residents – especially those in rural areas. It would make sure every fire department could have up to date equipment.
Question 5 (Allegheny County Only):
“Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205. Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, as set forth below, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?”
Translation: Should we prohibit solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail except in extreme emergencies?
Suggestion: VOTE YES!
Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleges that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care. Recent research from Cornell University demonstrates that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.
Question 6 (Pittsburgh residents only):
“Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended and supplemented by adding a new Article 10: Powers of the Pittsburgh Police, containing Section 1001, which shall bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”
Translation: Should we eliminate no-knock warrants?
Suggestion: VOTE YES!
This would require all Pittsburgh Police to physically knock and announce themselves before gaining entry to execute a warrant.
No knock warrants are dangerous and often a component of racial discrimination in law enforcement.
Briana Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, during the execution of a “no knock” warrant clearly shows how this practice recklessly endangers human life. Many municipalities now have banned no-knock warrants including Louisville, KY. Pittsburgh City Council also introduced legislation to ban the use of no-knock warrants by Pittsburgh Police officers.
So those are my suggestions for this race’s ballot initiatives.
NO. NO.YES. YES. YES.
And if you happen to be a Democrat living in Allegheny County’s District 9, please vote for me for County Council.
Together we can build a better world.
Do you live in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania? I’m running for County Council in District 9
So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.
I know I’m not qualified to do so.
I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.
I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.
As such, they need down time.
They need time to regroup and recharge.
This pandemic has been hard on everyone.
As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.
As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.
They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.
We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.
We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.
In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”
If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.
As many chances as they need.
I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.
It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.
Kids AND their parents.
I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.
So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.
There will be no assignments over the summer from me.
It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure.
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).”
What an improvement that would be!
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform…. We could just look at the score and vote accordingly.
But who would we get to make and grade the tests?
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners.
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests.
But the flood of emotions I felt that accompanied that tiny pinch in my arm was totally unexpected.
It was like I gasped for breath and hadn’t realized until then that I was suffocating.
I looked up at the volunteer who had injected me to see if she’d noticed, but it’s hard to read someone’s expression under a mask.
So I found myself shrugging the feeling off, giving her a brisk “Thank you” and heading off to file my paperwork, get another stamp on my vaccination card and plopping in a chair for 15 minutes of observation before heading on my way.
As I sat there, I started to feel this growing sense of excitement in my chest.
Thankfully waiting an extra 7 days isn’t supposed to have any ill effects. But that’s a week more I have to be out of the classroom and burning my sick days, trying to do 40 hours worth of work in the handful of hours the district allows me.
It’s just that this isn’t an anomaly. All through this process those in charge have dropped the ball.
“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”
True, much of his domestic agenda was blocked by Republicans. But even when they couldn’t stop him from getting things done, the results were often disappointing. His foreign policy was hawkish full of drone strikes, his immigration policy unduly cruel and his education programs were the fever dreams of Milton Friedman made real – charter schools, high stakes testing and ed tech handouts.
You think Trump was bad!? He was the logical consequence of dashed hopes and neoliberal triumphs. You can’t run, as Obama did, as a once-in-a-lifetime transformational candidate and then legislate to support a status quo that is destroying the majority of Americans.
…If you’re learning reading, writing and arithmetic.
What the heck is going on here!?
I thought the anti-science Trump CDC was a thing of the past.
Less than a month ago, health memos from the organization were being edited by Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. In September the White House blocked the agency from issuing a nationwide requirement that masks be worn on all public transportation.
Now with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, you’d expect something different.
First, the average Super Bowl party only lasts a few hours. When not in remote or hybrid mode, schools typically are open 7-8 hours a day for five days a week, over 9 months.
You receive much more exposure to Covid-19 at school than at any Super Bowl party.
At both venues, people will be eating and drinking – the most dangerous time for infection. At parties, people may be snacking throughout the event. At school, students at least will eat lunch and probably breakfast not to mention possible snacks between meals. That’s approximately 180 breakfasts and lunches at which you are exposed to Covid compared with a few hours of nachos and pizza.
Moreover, the people attending these parties are mostly adults. Even with the likelihood that people will be drinking at these events, if you have responsible friends, these adults are much more likely to take precautions against infection than children. Kids are constantly fidgeting with their masks. Younger kids and some special needs students at many schools are even given mask breaks or excused from wearing them altogether. And that’s if the school in question has a mask mandate at all!
The idea that Covid doesn’t spread at school or is unlikely to spread is magical thinking.
Walensky, herself, went on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show where she repeated her controversial statement but added that other steps need to be taken to lower risks for teachers and students, as well, including masking, social distancing and more viral testing.
“Schools should be the last places closed and the first places opened,” Walensky said.
Again, that is not a scientific statement. It’s a political one.
For someone who claims to be separating science and politics, she sounds much more like a Biden surrogate than a science advisor.
But it’s not just Walensky. The organization she oversees has made some huge missteps on this same issue since Biden’s inauguration – emphasizing some studies and completely ignoring others that don’t support the party line.
CDC scientists published an article last week in the journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that claimed some schools were able to reopen safely by following safety precautions. In fact, this one article is the cornerstone of Walensky’s assertion that “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.”
However, it was roundly criticized by the scientific community because the study was based on only 17 rural Wisconsin schools. Moreover, the data was based primarily on contact tracing. And considering that most children are asymptomatic even when infected with Covid-19, contact tracing is a poor method of determining how many people are infected in schools.
It’s not that the data is contradictory as much as the method the CDC is relying on is a poor indicator of infection.
Large-scale prevalence studies or antibody testing of students and teachers would much more accurately determine the relationship between educational settings and community transmission. But to date the CDC has not conducted any such studies.
The European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) have acknowledged that children of all ages are susceptible to and can transmit Covid-19. Moreover, the organization admitted that school closures can contribute to a reduction in infections though by themselves such closures are not enough. It takes all of society working together to halt the spread of the virus.
Even England’s prime minister Boris Johnson conceded, “The problem is schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”
But that’s not all. Take this study from southern India, published in the journal Science on November 6, which found children were spreading the virus among themselves and adults. Using both contact tracing and viral testing the study indicated that super-spreading events predominated, with approximately 5 percent of infected individuals accounting for 80 percent of secondary cases.
Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, member of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi, India, told NPR, “What we found in our study is that children were actually quite important. They were likely to get infected, particularly by young adults of the ages 20 to 40. They were likely to transmit the disease amongst themselves … and they also go out and infect people of all age groups, including the elderly. Many kids are silent spreaders in the sense that they don’t manifest the disease with symptoms. They happen to get infected as much as anyone else, and then they happen to spread it to other people.”
Why is none of this being considered by the CDC?
If the goal is to remove politics from science, shouldn’t the organization follow the evidence even if it goes against Biden’s school reopening policy?
Are these other studies invalidated because they were conducted in other parts of the world?
● A JAMA study published July 29 concluded that statewide school closures in the first wave of the pandemic led to a 62 percent decline in the incidence of COVID-19 per week. Similarly, the death rate saw a 58 percent decrease. States that closed earlier saw the most significant weekly reductions.
● According to a study published in Science, the combination of the closure of schools and universities, limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, and closing most nonessential businesses reduced the reproductive number (R0) to below one. These efforts reduced the number of infections in the community. Among the interventions listed, school closures and limiting gatherings to 10 people had the highest impact on slowing the infections.
● A Nature study published in November ranked the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 interventions. It concluded that the cancellation of small gatherings, closure of educational institutions, border restrictions, increased availability of PPE and individual restrictions were statistically significant in reducing the reproductive number (R0).
Where are these studies in the CDC’s analysis?
Because this is not about science. It is still about politics.
On most weekends back in the 1980s, you’d probably find me at TILT, the mall’s crowded video game arcade.
When I was about 12 – around ’86 or so – one of my favorite games was “Outrun” by Sega.
Ever play it?
In a cherry red Ferrari convertible with the wind blowing through my virtual hair, I’d race through various summer style environments from beach to forest, to mesa to mountains.
I even got to pick which song to play on the highway – something Latin, Caribbean, or just smooth and easy.
But the real kicker – the thing that really sold this wish fulfillment fantasy – wasn’t the cool car, clement weather or soundtrack.
It was the long haired swimsuit model sitting next to me in the passenger seat.
Not only was I a real badass racing through a summer dream, but I had someone by my side, reclining at ease, sharing the journey.
And if I crashed – which often happened cresting a hill – after the car flipped multiple times in the air – my digital 80s crush and I both ended up somehow unhurt on the road. She’d sit on the white lane marker staring at my dazed avatar with all the reproach that could be programmed into a mere 16 bits.
Sometimes I think that’s a good metaphor for blogging.
I’m still in the drivers seat, steering through the twists and turns of education, equity and politics. Yet sometimes I can’t help but hit an obstacle and go flying. Through it all there’s been one constant: you – my readers – relaxed and belted in for whatever may come.
I’ll admit, this year has been one heck of a bumpy ride.
From the global COVID-19 pandemic to the critical failure of government to deal with it at nearly every level, it’s been like some sort of science fiction fantasy more than anything else.
From the spectacular sore losership of Donald Trump to the science denial of his followers and the death cult of capitalism poisoning all in-between, it’s been a year to test the hopes of just about anyone.
So much pain, confusion and death. So much isolation, betrayal, bone deep exhaustion and depression.
I’d rather imagine myself parked on an overlook, leaning back in my red sports car watching the sun set with a good friend by my side.
Since we’re stopped for the moment waiting for the last zero on the dial to scroll up to a 1 and become that terrifying number of numbers, 2021, let’s take a look back at the year that was in blogging.
I’m not sure how to characterize it other than to say it must have been some kind of success.
About 49,000 more people read my articles this year than in 2019.
The site had around 347,700 hits this year – the most since 2017. My cumulative total in 5 and a half years even hit the 2 million mark (2,080,000 to be more precise).
Not bad for a school teacher, a laptop and a dream.
A lot of what I had to say in this year’s 72 posts focused on the pandemic and how our leaders were blowing it.
That sounds like rational criticism, but it was really just me pointing out what things looked like on the ground and begging the people in power not to put myself and the people I care about in jeopardy – with mixed results.
The other major theme was the Presidential election. The Democrats had their last chance to nominate and elect Bernie Sanders, the candidate best equipped to meet the times we live in. And they blew it again.
Neoliberalism triumphed. Only time will tell the price we’ll have to pay for that blunder. Will we destroy the neofacist architecture of the Trump years only to return to the corporatist utopia of Obama and George W Bush? And if so, will we still have any chance to tear that Hellscape down in favor of a world that actually values the people living in it more than the value they can create for the one percent?
On top of that were a smattering of articles about school issues, equity and how we might fix things.
Over all, I’d say I crashed the Ferrari more often than I navigated the hairpin turns. But every now and then I feel like I was heard, that I helped stop something even worse from coming our way.
And at the end of the day, we made it to the checkpoint.
We got an extended time bonus, and a chance to do it all over again next year.
Hopefully, it will be a more clear path.
Hopefully, we’ll still have a chance to cross the finish line.
And hopefully, you’ll still accept my invitation for another ride into the sunset.
Here are my top 10 articles of 2020 based on popularity:
Description: When Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 Democratic Primary, I could think of only these 10 reasons to vote for Joe Biden in the November general election: 1-10 were “He’s not Donald Trump.”
Description: When the COVID-19 pandemic first crashed down on us, I was one of many saying that high stakes testing made no sense as schools nationwide were closing. The best way to allow teachers to make up for lost time with their students was to prioritize learning over assessment.
Fun Fact: It worked. We actually cancelled the big standardized test in 2019-2020. And now here we are a year later in a similar position making similar arguments and the testing companies and their lackeys are fighting against us tooth and nail.
Description: The most depressing thing about the pandemic has been how uniform the attack has been on educators. Demanding a safe work environment for ourselves and our students has been seen as unreasonable by lawmakers, school directors, union leaders and even some public school advocates.
Fun Fact: If anything has the potential to unravel the ties made by pro-public school forces in the last few decades, it is this. I know people are scared that closing school buildings in favor of remote learning may give the upper hand to the ed tech industry when the pandemic is over. But if you can’t stand behind teachers’ right to life now, you cannot expect us to continue to fight for the profession, local control and your children later.
Description: COVID-19 has shown a failure of leadership at every level – including our public schools. The damage has been enough to make anyone doubt everything – including the coherency of the public school project altogether.
Fun Fact: The biggest difference between this and the previous article is that this one is more a mark of despair. The other is more a mark of anger.
Description: When more than 19 million people have caught COVID-19 and 330,000 have died, it does not make sense to keep public schools open. This is an airborne virus that can cause life-long debilitating conditions even in those who survive or are asymptomatic. Yet you need a school teacher to explain to you why distance learning is better under these circumstances.
Fun Fact: Simple truths told simply. Ammunition to save lives. The fact that it’s necessary tells us more about human intelligence than any standardized test ever could.
Description: One of the major media criticisms of the Bernie movement was that it was racist, sexist and homophobic. Yet a substantial portion of supporters were female, racially diverse and/or LGBTQ. For example, women under 45 made up a larger share of Sanders’ base than men of the same age. Two women of color, Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, were co-chairs of the campaign, along with Indian-American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. Sanders’ campaign manager was longtime progressive activist Faiz Shakir.
Fun Fact: File this in the history books under Gas Lighting.
Description: Don’t tell me this primary was fair. When Bernie was winning state after state, the media acted like it was a literal invasion of brownshirts. Yet when Biden was winning, it was the best news since sliced bread. Bernie was running away with the primary until nearly all the other candidates mysteriously dropped out all at once right before Super Tuesday. And now we find out Barack Obama gave them each a call before hand – putting his finger on the scale. The Democratic National Committee literally pushed to continue primaries in Illinois, Florida and Arizona during the pandemic in case waiting might bolster Bernie – the candidate with policies tailor made to fight COVID-19. And the result was a flood of sick people and a nearly insurmountable delegate lead.
Fun Fact: Was this the moment my heart died? No, I think it was already on life support from 2016. And the subsequent response to the pandemic only took out another ventricle.
Description: When the pandemic began, many of us didn’t expect it to last that long. Certainly we wouldn’t still be in the same situation as summer rapidly came to a close and school was about the begin again! Right? What would we do? What should we even hope for?
Fun Fact: Despite heavy doses of despair, I think I saw clearly what needed to be done even this far back. Many policymakers still don’t see it as a New Year is about to dawn.
Description: When the pandemic began, far right ideologues threatened to reopen schools to keep the economy going. Almost everyone jumped on them for being uncaring idiots willing to sacrifice children on the altar of commerce.
Fun Fact: What was an unpopular opinion in April became mainstream by the end of August as the media bombarded readers with unsubstantiated (and subsequently disproven) reports about how children couldn’t be hurt by the Coronavirus. Subtext: And who gives a crap about the teachers who would have to put their lives on the line to educate these children?
Description: Everyone knows distance learning cannot equal in-person instruction. However, we often ignore the fact that in-person instruction is not the same during the pandemic as it was before COVID-19. Social distancing, limited mobility, plexiglass barriers, cleanliness protocols – all have an impact on academics. Reopening physical school buildings is not returning to the kind of face-to-face instruction students enjoyed as recently as January and February. It is a completely new dynamic that presents as many difficulties – if not maybe more – than learning on-line.
Fun Fact: More ammunition to explain the simple truths of this brave new world where we find ourselves these days. Sadly, it has been ignored as often as it has been heeded. Perhaps more.
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State Governors must have a different definition of safety than the rest of us.
The message was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Delaware Governor John Carney, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.
Only Baker is a Republican. The rest are all Democrats.
“Medical research as well as the data from Northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates.”
This is just not true.
It is based not on research by epidemiologists, not on studies conducted by doctors, scientists or pharmacologists.
She wrote her dissertation explaining that there were less women in China not because of the one child policy and traditional attitudes toward girl children, but instead because Hepatitis B skewed sex ratios.
Oster is not a serious academic. She is someone who constantly says something controversial to court the media and public opinion.
She is a contrarian, an attention seeker, a celebutante – the economist version of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded movie theater and then sells fire extinguishers to those rushing for the exits.
Since providing this cover story, various county departments of health have claimed that contact tracing rarely indicates students or teachers catch the virus at school. However, these conclusions are based on voluntary anecdotes, not hard data. At the local level, there is often a lot of pressure to find the cause of an outbreak somewhere else when childcare is at stake or administrative coercion involved.
“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”
Talk about overstating the issue!
So kids can’t learn if their instruction is interrupted? It’s a good thing we never take any time off school, say during the summer months.
But it’s the callousness with which these governors paper over health concerns that really sounds like Oster, herself.
“There are people who would say if even one teacher acquires COVID at a school and dies, then it would not have been worth it to open schools,” Oster said. “I think that argument is complicated because people are going to suffer tremendously from schools being closed, but that is a tricky calculus.”
What kind of mental health issues do children experience whose teachers die suddenly and preventably? How do kids suffer with the loss of a loved one knowing full well that they may have inadvertently been the cause of that person’s death?
We cannot make bold statements of certainly about its effects without being deeply dishonest. There’s a lot we don’t know about it and how it affects people. And in light of that uncertainty it makes more sense to be extra cautious than reckless.
It’s high time our government passed a new round of Covid relief. We need to pay people to stay home so they don’t spread the virus. We need mortgage protection, universal healthcare and a host of services to help people weather the storm.
“So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools.”
The response was in answer to citizens comments.
Greg Kristen and I went to the board meeting hoping to get answers – and we did.
“Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the County Health Department,” Holtzman said.
“They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.”
“I am in a large public school system… I am hearing and seeing two different approaches. I am very appreciative of what the board’s efforts in Pittsburgh have been to keep us safe and keep our students safe. I just want to be an advocate that we are doing everything we can even if it’s erring on the side of caution.”
District Solicitor Gary Matta was concerned about the issue as well.
“We’re getting some mixed signals between the state and the county,” he said.
“The state is directing us to deal with the county health department if we have one.”
He suggested the district get recommendations in writing from the county health department before following any of its advice.
In addition to questions about whether it was safe to keep district buildings open during a COVID-19 outbreak, Holtzman addressed district transparency.
I asked him to compile a dashboard on the district Website with the following information:
“1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began?
2) How many are students? How many staff?
3) How many are located at each school building?
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.”
He could not give me all I asked for at the meeting.
Holtzman said that 10 people have tested positive in the district since school opened – 9 of them recently. He said there have been cases at all four buildings – the high school, Founders Hall, Twin Rivers and Francis McClure elementary schools.
He was able to break down 8 of the 10 cases.
“In the last 7 days…. We’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one maintenance/support employee.”
Holtzman admitted that having a dashboard on the district Website was a good idea but fell short of committing to providing that ongoing data.
“A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion,” he said.
“It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret – it’s a challenging situation… A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’s something we’re going to take into consideration.”
Kristen brought up the issues of contact tracing and increasing class sizes at Twin Rivers that may make it difficult for students to engage in social distancing.
“Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov. 2,” he said.
“They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.”
Holtzman said some students whose parents had chosen remote learning had decided to return them to the physical classroom at the start of the new grading period. However, others had decided to remove their children from the physical buildings and put them on remote.
“We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.”
About a third of district students have been doing remote lessons since the year began.
Kristen said his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be within 3 feet.
Holtzman disputed this:
“That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best.”
Kristen asked about contact tracing at Twin Rivers where teachers had tested positive.
He wanted to know if students had been tested, and Holtzman responded that they had not.
“Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number.” He said.
“At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed…
“When we do interviewing – when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing – we ask them, ‘Where you in somebody’s personal space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. So-and-So, then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.”
He admitted that the effectiveness of this process depends on how honest and detailed those testing positive are when listing the people they have come into contact with while contagious.
Below is a transcript of our public comments and Dr. Holtzman’s responses:
“Dear school board members. Thank you for letting me speak here tonight. As a resident of this district for 15 years, as well as having a daughter a Twin Rivers Elementary School, I am deeply, deeply concerned with the lack of transparency about the Coronavirus infections. As of today, MASD has 9 positive cases… We have a right to know [who they are] not their names but their positions. According to CDC guidelines if there are two cases within a school, it is to be shut down for 5-7 days. For 5 or more cases, the building should be shut down for up to 14 days. Why is that not happening? Is the health and safety of the students, teachers, administrators, staff and maintenance not important to you? When positive cases happen in the building, who was in charge for contract tracing and notifying the Allegheny County Health Department? If they did not notify the health department, are they being held accountable? And I mean terminated. Were the parents of the students notified of the teachers and staff who were affected in the schools? Were the students tested? Is there any contract tracing with them? Also why is there not a healthcare professional a part of the Coronavirus task force?
Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov.2. They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.
This Coronavirus is not a hoax. People are dying every day. As of today, 222,000 people have died, and people like myself who have an underlying health condition are concerned about people transferring the virus to me or to someone close to me. In this county alone there 14,396 cases and 416 deaths. On Oct 14 which was just a week ago Rachel Levine, the state health secretary announced a second wave of Coronavirus has arrived here. Now that the flu season has arrived, what is MASD doing? Does a student, teacher, administrator, staff or maintenance person have to die for someone to take this serious? Thank you very much.”
Dr. Mark Holtzman:
“Mr. Kristen, I’m happy to address a couple of your concerns. A few things.
We’ve had 8 positive tests in the last 7 days. So that is correct. The CDC guidelines are recommendations by the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Education and state health department. (muffled) The Alleghney County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in Allegheny County. So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools. I will ensure to tell you positively I have spoke to the Alleghney County Health Department probably just this week once a day. The head epidemeologisr Dr. Luann Brink and the director of the health department Dr. [Debra] Bogen and I have conference calls with her every Tuesday at 2 o’clock. Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the Allegheny County Health Department. They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.
The concerns are the issues with Allegheny County Health Department are the rate of positivity here in the city of McKeesport and the surrounding communities. That’s number 1. Transmission is a huge piece of it. Is it being transmitted in the schools? Is it being brought into the schools from the outside? Contract tracing does occur on each and every case. All that information is submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department with details, time stamped, dates, everything we could possibly provide to those individuals. Fortunately or unfortunately we have to rely on that individual. For example, if you’re an employee that tests positive for COVID, we have to interview you. The information that you share with us, we have to then share with the Allegheny County Health Department. Whether you’re honest, dishonest , whether you’re detailed, whether you forgot someone, you didn’t include anyone as part of your contact tracing, that becomes your prerogative. We as a district just have to report that information to the health department and they make a final determination.
So at this particular time unfortunately we’re at the bottom of the document that’s been referenced many, many times, it states that when an entire school is recommended to be closed, closure time will vary depending on level of community transmission, and number of cases. Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number. ‘This allows public health staff the necessary time to complete case investigation and contact tracing and to provide schools with other appropriate public health advice like cleaning and disinfecting.’ At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed.
So at this particular time, I know there is frustration, I know there’s contradictory information out there, but we are working closely with the health department and they have done an outstanding job guiding us and every school district has a tough decision to make. So I appreciate you expressing your concerns this afternoon, this evening, later than it should be we appreciate it and if there’s anything we can do moving forward, we’d be happy to help.”
[Holtzamn said three teachers tested positive at Twin rivers Elementary. All students in those classes were not tested. Each student Is placed 6 feet apart. A close contact has to be within 6 feet for 15 consecutive minutes.]
Holtzman: “When we do interviewing, when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing, we ask them ‘[Where you in somebody’s person space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. so-and-so then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.
Now we could absorb those things. As Superintendent I’m in the schools daily, and I’m able to see some of the teachers and [their actions]. The students are already placed 6 feet apart, so therefore they are already socially distanced. We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.
[Kristen says his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be 3 feet.]
Holtzman: “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best and will hold all those expectations considering the fact that we have to educate the children that are interested in returning to school. We can’t just turn them away…. As many kids that are coming in, many are leaving for online learning for many reasons.”
“Thank you for letting me address the board this evening.
As a lifelong resident and the father of a child who attends the district, I am alarmed by news about an outbreak of COVID-19 at our school buildings, a lack of transparency about that information and a lack of proper safety response to the outbreak.
First, when I am finished with my comments, I ask that you clarify for me some facts about the outbreak.
1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began?
2) How many are students? How many staff?
3) How many are located at each school building?
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.
That information should be constantly available on the district Website throughout the pandemic. It should not just be on alerts that come and go, robocalls or emails.
Every taxpayer has the right to that information – which is easy to compile – and necessary so parents and community members can make smart decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe in the McKeesport Area.
Next, I am concerned about the district’s blasé response to these life threatening conditions.
According to the state Department of Education Website, in a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days.
Haven’t we met this threshold?
According to your recent alerts, at least 9 people have tested positive in the district in the last week – 3 students and 6 teachers. And this is spread throughout all district buildings.
There is no way to divide that up without at least one of our four buildings in the danger zone.
Doesn’t that mean that at least at some buildings – probably Twin Rivers, Francis McClure and/or the the High School – we have met this benchmark? Don’t each of those schools have two or more cases?
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?
Moreover, according to the PDE Website, if there are multiple cases at multiple schools where the infected are not household contacts, the schools are supposed to be closed not just for 5-7 days but a full two weeks.
Have we met that threshold? And if so, why are the buildings not closed?
I do not understand what precautions you are taking to keep students and staff safe.
I understand that PDE defines “Close Contact” as being within 6 feet for at least 15 consecutive minutes of a person who has tested positive. However, the Website cautions that this should not be taken as the ONLY definition of such contact: “In some school situations, it might be difficult to determine whether individuals are contacts or whether an entire cohort, classroom, or other group (extracurricular activity members) might need to be considered exposed, particularly if people have spent time together indoors.”
You say these cases have all been contained. But you have done very little to assure the public of this and could be taking much greater precautions on our behalf.
We’re talking about children here. We’re talking about our staff – people who have served generations of families and who often have families of their own.
Can’t you do better for the people in this district?
I would suggest that you at least follow PDE recommendations in the effected buildings.
Furthermore, I think you should cancel all in-person classes and go to a fully remote education plan until the infection rate in the county and the community is designated as low.
Have the classroom teachers make the online curriculum and let students and families choose whether they wish to go through that curriculum synchronously or asynchronously. And do not outsource the virtual program to ed tech companies looking to cash in on their credit recovery programs – as you are currently doing with Edmentum.
Going to a fully virtual plan would be in the best interests of students, families and the community.
Please do your duty.”
“Mr. Singer, Thank you. I appreciate you spending some time with us again today. I don’t know, Dr. (muffled) do you have the numbers he’s requesting off hand? I only have the last seven days in front of me. If not, I’ll make sure you get them.
Voice: I don’t have them with me.
Holtzman: Prior to this situation we’ve had very few so… the difference between staff and students, we currently have in the last 7 days… we’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one mainatance/support employee. Furthermore, I feel that we’ll agree to disagree that instruction in person is the priority for engaging children. Our students have received progress reports. You as an educator I’m sure are quite aware that the online learning platform is not engaging all children. Many children are struggling and failing courses, here ate McKeesport and all over the Commonwealth. I think it’s a big issue for all school leadership trying to find new creative ways to engage children whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. So for us here at McKeesport we’re very fortunate to have had this huge donation of devices. We are going to consider doing some flexible instruction in the very near future to kind of make sure we have all of the pieces in place to provide synchronous instruction affectively. But sadly a lot of our students have chosen either to not log in or not be consistent in the work they’re trying to perform online. So we’ll continue to encourage our children to be in schools, we’ll continue to do our very best
ME: Would you commit to putting the information I asked for before onto the district Website?
Holtzman: You bring a good point because you know there are some districts using… a ticker to keep track. To be honest I didn’t know it would be necessary so that’s something we need to consider. A dashboard is a better description. It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret it’s a challenging situation… Also to answer your question, we’ve had a total of 10 cases since the start of the school year. We’re still waiting for confirmation on two of those but we’re pretty confident. A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion. A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’something we’re going to take into consideration.
[Holtzman admitted there was at least one case at every building but not elementary students.]
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The western Pennsylvania district located southeast of Pittsburgh reopened on a hybrid schedule on Sept. 2 with about a third of parents opting to keep their children out of the buildings and in the district-run cyber program.
Since then, finding concrete information about Coronavirus infections at our public schools – MASD or others – has not been an easy task.
“A Founders’ Hall staff member tested positive for COVID-19.”
So that’s one case at Founders Hall and five spread out between the High School and Twin Rivers Elementary School.
Though in both cases, the district Website claimed, “We have worked directly with the Allegheny County Health Department and consider this case to be contained,” it is telling that the district obfuscated about exactly how many cases were from each building.
However, buildings were opened just twice to students – both times for transition days. And both times, a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 soon after.
On Oct 7, a letter issued by Bryan Macuga, Secondary Campus Principal, said that a high school teacher tested positive. The day before, the district had students in grades 5 and 9 in the middle school-high school complex for a half day schedule to test the district’s wi-fi.
Though the teacher had participated in the program, he had not been within 6 feet of students for 15 minutes at a time – PDE’s definition of close contact.
On Sept 8, students in the same grades were in the same building for a half day transition program, and a middle school teacher who had participated in the program tested positive for COVID a day later.
School directors are actively considering moving from the virtual schedule – where no one has gotten sick – to a hybrid schedule in November.
Your choice not to wear a mask in public increases the infection rate in my community. Your decision to eat in a restaurant, go to a bar or spend a weekend at an amusement park puts not just you and your family at risk, but me and mine as well.
But this is what I see in the light shinning through the crack in the maelstrom of nonsense we have been living in lately.
We can all come together and create schools that serve everyone regardless of race, religion, creed, sexuality, gender or difference. We can teach facts, thought, history, science, arts and humanities.
And armed with such tools, we can recreate society in that image.
That is the lesson of Trump’s diagnosis.
You can lie and cheat and steal.
You can fool people into believing that you’re not a liar and a cheat and a thief.