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.
For a moment there, I thought things might go differently.
With Covid-19 cases exponentially more numerous today than they were when schools closed in March, last night McKeesport Area School Directors voted whether to reopen buildings to half day in-person classes.
And it really looked like they might decide against it.
For about 10 seconds.
The first vote was from Jim Brown, and it was a “No.”
He has made no secret that he champions in-person reopening. Since no residents came before the board to praise the plan – either at tonight’s meeting or last week’s work session – he read aloud a letter he said he received from someone advocating for it.
But when the time came to vote, Donato stopped. He paused.
And for a moment things looked like they might come out right.
Then he voted in favor of the reopening plan.
The final vote was 7-2 in favor with Brown and Mindy Sturgess voting against.
Donato, Joseph Lopretto, Tom Filotei, Ivan Hampton, Steven Kondrosky, Jim Poston and Diane Elias voted in favor of it.
I was there at the meeting in my hometown western Pennsylvania district, one of four people who signed up to speak.
Also last week school directors didn’t enforce any time limit on public comments. This week, Donato started the meeting with a warning that anyone who spoke for more than 3 minutes would be stopped.
In both cases, there were only a handful of people who signed up to speak. And no one spoke at great length.
The first speaker tonight went over her time but was allowed to finish. The next was brief.
Then it came to me.
I knew my comments asking to start the school year remotely wouldn’t fit in a 3 minute time frame, but I was not about to be silenced.
I made my comments (which I reproduce in full below) and when the timer went off, I kept going.
Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman said, “Mr. Singer, your time is up.”
I responded, “I’m sorry. I thought my duly elected representatives would want to hear what I had to say. I’ll continue…”
When I was again challenged, it was Sturgess who came to my defense.
She was fearless the entire meeting with questions and comments about the reopening plan and how she thought it was ill considered.
When she spoke up asking for me to be allowed to finish, Lopretto became visibly upset.
“Mindy, why don’t you just take the president’s seat!?” he said.
Lopretto got into an argument with her about it, which ended when he gave up and allowed me to finish.
It’s surprising that even after such antagonism, board members like Donato later seemed to almost reconsider their votes when the time came.
If anything I said seemed to get through to them, it may have been how I concluded:
“If I’m wrong about this, maybe kids will get a slightly less effective academic experience than they would otherwise. But if you vote for in-person classes and you’re wrong, kids will get sick, teachers will get sick, family members will get sick and many will die.
I can live with the consequences of my decision.
Please consider all these things carefully before casting your vote. There are many lives depending on it.”
In the end, we lost.
The district will reopen to in-person classes.
Frankly, before the meeting I had thought it a lost cause.
But now that it’s over, I think if just a few more parents had come to the meeting and spoken against the plan, we might have won.
If the teachers union had been clearer about educators’ concerns and not allowed the superintendent to rhapsodize on the bravery of district employees putting their lives on the line for students, we might have won.
However, the parents I talked to were too frightened of speaking out, too scared of reprisals against their children, and too certain that they wouldn’t be heard anyway.
The teachers I talked to complained about their comments to administration being gas lit and pushed aside. Fear or reprisal, silencing and the good ol’ boys network.
To be honest, it was not easy to sign up to speak at all.
There was a link online to sign up last week, but I had great difficulty finding it, myself, just seven days later. And if you didn’t have your name down by 3 pm on the day before the meeting, you were told sign ups were closed.
These are not the actions of a school board that welcomes public comment.
If just a few more of us could have persevered, I think we could have changed directors’ minds.
But it was not to be.
All that’s left is to see after you and yours – and remember.
Remember the names of those who voted in favor of reopening. Write them down.
If the epidemic brings a tragedy down on McKeesport, we know who to blame.
“Thank you for allowing me to address this board for the second week in a row.
I am here again to ask you to reconsider administration’s school reopening plan. I think it is imperative physical classrooms remain closed and students begin the year with distance learning.
That may fall under the bar of Gov. Wolf’s new guidelines for districts to mandate remote learning, but it comes awfully close to hopping over it. And it certainly puts online learning as a viable option for county districts.
McKeesport Area School District has been hit harder than most. According to the county Website, there have been 189 cases in McKeesport for a case rate of 95.8 per 10,000. There have been an additional 31 cases in White Oak for a case rate of 39.4 per 10,000.
To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,000 are children.
And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.
Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.
The fact is – if we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick. Staff will get sick. And they’ll bring it home to their families.
Last week, Dr. Holtzman told me I was welcome to utilize a virtual option for my daughter and that this personal parental choice is all that should matter.
I disagree for several reasons.
First, the virtual option on offer for parents at this time is not as effective as the online learning the district could provide if all classes were meeting remotely. As Dr. Holtzman outlined, if the buildings were closed, classroom teachers could conduct synchronous lessons online for all students. This would increase social interaction with real, live people and increase learning outcomes.
By contrast, the existent cyber program is asynchronous, do-at-your-own-pace and less socially interactive.
Obviously, in-person classes would be better academically. But (1) they put children at undue risk of death or permanent health problems as a result of complications from the virus, and (2) what is on offer is not traditional in-person schooling but rushed 20 minute classes behind face masks, plexiglass barriers and a cloud of well-earned fear and anxiety.
So if you insist on reopening the school buildings at this time, I will have to enroll my daughter in the cyber program.
However, a decision to have in-person classes will still affect me and my family.
There is Coronavirus in our community. If you have in-person classes – even on a half day basis – you would be inviting it into our schools where it could infect others and be brought back to their homes. You would effectively be increasing the amount of infection in our community – both in and out of the schools.
When I go to the local Giant Eagle to do my shopping, I would be more likely to become infected because of what you decide here tonight.
When I go to gas up my car, if I pick up take out, if I even go for a walk in my own neighborhood, I would be more likely to be exposed to a person infected with the Coronavirus and thus get sick, myself, because of your decision tonight.
Finally, let me speak for the staff because few others seem willing to do so.
The teachers, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, support staff and others do not get to make a choice. They have to either accept the plan you’re voting on tonight or look for employment elsewhere. They have to decide whether to put – not just themselves – but their own children and families at risk just to continue receiving a paycheck.
They have done so much for us. They are the lifeblood of this district. Don’t they deserve more consideration than this?
I know administration has worked tirelessly on it. And that effort has not been wasted.
There will come a time to go to a hybrid reopening plan. But that time is not now.
When the spread has been contained, when everyone who wants to be tested can do so in a timely manner, when we can adequately contract trace infections, hopefully there will be a vaccine but even if not when Allegheny County has had close to zero new cases for two full weeks, then it will be time to start reopening buildings.
But let’s not jump the gun now. Let’s wait and see how things go. Wait until the new year and see what happens at other districts that are not so safety minded. At least wait 9-weeks.
If I’m wrong about this, maybe kids will get a slightly less effective academic experience than they would otherwise. But if you vote for in-person classes and you’re wrong, kids will get sick, teachers will get sick, family members will get sick and many will die.
I can live with the consequences of my decision.
Please consider all these things carefully before casting your vote. There are many lives depending on it.”
DR. HOLTZMAN’S RESPONSE:
“Mr. Singer, I’d like to address you with a few of my own statistics. Allegheny County at this particular point anyone under the age of 40 the mortality rate is zero. Anyone under the age of 50 there’s been two fatalities due to Covid. Currently reference to CDC. There’s a current study on the CDC Website right now that clearly states that children or young adults under the age of 19 are five times more likely to die from the flu than Covid-19. These are statistics that go along with the statistics you’re sharing that are often one-sided when you think about those processes.
I think when you talk about coming to a meeting tonight, going to the grocery store, getting take out, we’re putting ourselves at risk every day. It’s an unfortunate scenario. It’s an unfortunate situation. Many people are having people at their homes, they’re going to Kennywood, they’re playing sports out in the community, and that risk of spread is just as big of a risk without a reward. So I think in our case we’re looking for an opportunity to educate children that need desperately positive adults in their life and the opportunity to be educated. We’re not taking a risk for no reward as many do as they go on vacation this summer and consider the spread differently.
So I would take those as part of your comments about some of the things you shared with us so that we’re both on the same page. There’s no easy answers to this solution. And many districts are doing different things based on their community and their community needs. We’re just trying to do what’s best for children.
I appreciate your comment. I appreciate your continuing to blog about me on social media. I’m not a social media person, but it’s something that you do regularly, and we’re here to do what’s best for your children, my children and all the children in the school district. So thank you.”
Moreover, his assertion that “children or young adults under the age of 19 are five times more likely to die from the flu than Covid-19” is misleading because children have been mostly quarantined since March and many who do get infected with Coronavirus are asymptomatic. That’s why there have been fewer reported cases until recently. Former Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said, “The reality is that flu last year infected 11.8 million kids. We have not infected anywhere near that number of kids with Covid, and we don’t want to find out what it might look like if we did… We really do want to prevent outbreaks in the school setting.”
(My comments are at 29 minutes left in the video.
Holtzman’s response comes at 20 minutes left.
The vote takes place at 10 minutes left.)
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As a parent of a child in the district and a teacher in a neighboring district, I find the plan you put forward to be absolutely terrifying. It is badly reasoned, based on unproven facts, and takes unnecessary risks with students and staff.
In short, you propose reducing social distancing by half, requiring students to wear masks only occasionally, having zero temperature screenings and keeping schools open when students, staff and/or family get sick.
This is unacceptable.
And given that you said all superintendents in Allegheny County are meeting weekly to discuss reopening, my concern about McKeesport’s plan extends to all other local districts working under similar miscalculations.
Be assured I will send my concerns to the email hotline you provided because it was impossible to have public meetings to discuss this matter. Which brings me to my first concern – how can it be unsafe to meet in-person with the public to discuss reopening schools yet still be safe to open them for our kids?
I am an alumni of McKeesport. So is my wife, my brother and most of the people in my family. I’ve lived here my whole life.
My daughter is set to enter 6th grade this year. Up to this point I have been extremely happy with the education she has received in the district.
I am thankful that you’ve decided to give parents the option of virtual learning for their kids if they do not feel it is safe for them to return to school buildings, but your reopening plan will have impacts far beyond our individual households. A spike in COVID-19 throughout the community due to a bad school reopening plan will not be in anyone’s interests.
You say you’re relying on facts as provided by the the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and health departments of Allegheny, Chester and Bucks County. However, almost everything you cite on the video is from one source – Bucks County.
Frankly, I do not feel comfortable basing almost our entire reopening plan on data provided by one county in the Commonwealth that may or may not have done a good job handling this pandemic.
We need to base our plan on county specific data from Western Pennsylvania and guidelines for the entire state.
In short, the plans provided by Bucks County are reckless and based on sketchy facts.
For instance, in the video you said people only get COVID-19 if they have been within 6 feet of someone not wearing a mask for 15 minutes consecutively. That or there has to be an exchange of fluid – someone sneezing, spraying spittle, etc.
I am extremely upset that you plan to reduce social distancing in district schools from 6 feet to between 3 and 4 feet.
You again cite Bucks County to justify the position.
“…SARS-CoV-2 is spread most commonly through large respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes. A minimum three-foot distance is clearly associated with significant reductions in infection via respiratory droplets, as most droplets do not travel more than 3 feet due to gravity. This is the current standard used by the World Health Organization (WHO) successfully in many countries throughout the world today.”
While it is nice to be assured that respiratory droplets don’t travel beyond three feet, experience tells us otherwise. It shouldn’t take much imagination or memory to recall a time when one of your own droplets traveled further in a moment of excitement. As a classroom teacher, I can tell you this happens often. When kids get excited, teachers better back up.
Be honest. This has nothing to do with Bucks County. You let slip the real reason here:
“Our classrooms are not very large – to put children 6 feet apart in school buses, classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, will be next to impossible with the overall square footage of those particular areas.”
I get it. You’re probably right. But that’s not a reason to skimp on safety. There are other alternatives to in-person classes.
Then we get to temperature screenings – a precaution you say will not be taken when students enter our buildings at the beginning of the day.
This is highly imprudent.
It takes seconds to gauge someone’s temperature with an infrared thermometer – significantly less than getting through a metal detector – something we do routinely everyday at all district schools.
Yes, there is the problem of kids getting backed up in long lines, but that is not insurmountable. Staff can at least try to keep kids separated – perhaps having a staggered start for each grade would help.
Yes, I know the absence of a temperature does not guarantee someone is not infected. But any sense of safety is good. You know the metal detectors are not 100% accurate either.
You say it is up to the parents to make sure their kids don’t come to school with a raised temperature. Now that IS unreasonable. It is unfair to put the health concerns of an entire population on one or two parents who may not comply with the expectation.
I think the bigger concern is something you didn’t mention. What do you do with a child who has a temperature? How will you send him home? Who will see to him until a parent can come and get him? And will that person be at risk of getting sick?
These are hard questions to answer, but going in ignorance of a symptomatic student is worse.
Your position on masks is one of the most problematic in your entire reopening plan.
You propose to have children wear masks on buses but not in their classes. And the reason – because it’s just too hard to make kids wear them.
This is unfair to district children and the staff who serve them.
Look. I understand it would be incredibly difficult to get kids to wear masks. But if you cannot do it, pursue a different kind of schooling. Do not have in-person classes if you cannot do so safely.
Then we come to your position on what to do if someone gets sick.
First, it is telling that both you and your advisors in Bucks County are pretty sure this WILL eventually happen.
You do not think the precautions you’re taking will stop people from getting sick. You simply find it acceptable if the number of sick people is low.
“As COVID-19 will likely be with us for an extended period of time, and given that all school districts will almost certainly have cases, we want school districts to begin treating it similarly to the way we have successfully handled other communicable diseases in our schools, including pertussis (whooping cough), measles, strep throat, mumps, influenza, and meningitis. It is our strong intention to keep all classrooms, schools, and districts open, in the event of confirmed cases of COVID-19. One closure decision can lead to a potential crippling, and precedent setting domino effect of closures…”
Moreover, we cannot prioritize keeping schools open over public health and safety concerns. But that is what you are proposing here.
“We won’t close schools if someone gets infected. It takes 6-8 days to get an accurate result from a COVID test. So that disease will have passed through and will no longer exist on any surfaces, classroom areas, people, etc. in the school by the time the COVID is confirmed. Therefore, there’s no reason to close schools. We’ll clean every inch of our classrooms on a daily basis.”
This does not mean that the danger is any less. It means that the danger may have passed by the time we know about it. How many people may be sick by then?
Mark, this is a bad plan. Let me give you a better one.
Start school this year with universal distance learning.
You already mentioned how the district will make sure all students have a one-to-one iPad initiative. You mentioned how virtual learning will be revamped to include face-to-face instruction.
Take it a step further.
Have all teachers develop their own unique distance learning initiatives.
I took them to my empty classroom and read the first one:
“Hello Mr. Singer, I just thought you should know that you are the greatest teacher I’ve had since Kindergarten all the way to my freshman year of High School and probably will remain that way forever. You always helped me with my work when I was behind and gave me extra time to finish it. Your class was the class I looked forward to every day. You were always a nice and funny man. Thank you for being there for me and everyone else in your classes. I’ll be sure to visit you after school every now and then…”
I picked up another:
“You have no idea how much I miss you… I quite miss our talks after class about video games, movies and musicals. As cheesy as it sounds, I always looked forward to them; especially during the days I was having problems with other students, your wise words always helped…”
“…we had fun times in your class. There wasn’t one non-fun day that we had because if we was going to have a bad day you made it better and way more fun. You also helped us a lot even when we didn’t ask for it. When people didn’t want to do our work, you got them happy and got them to do their work. Thanks for everything and thanks for helping me be a smarter kid.”
I felt a lump forming in my throat.
My cheeks were hot.
And why was my face wet?
I hadn’t expected any of this.
After a semester of distance learning, I’d come back to school to return all the materials I had hastily marauded from my own filing cabinets and book shelves.
I had stopped in the office merely as a matter of course.
With the school year at a close, I had gathered the odds and ends in my mailbox including this bundle of correspondence.
Now as I sat at my desk smiling, laughing and crying – experiencing each letter like a warm hug on a winters day – I remembered something Ms. Williams had said in an email.
She had assigned a thank you letter to her high school business classes. Her students had to write a formal thank you to a previous teacher. But that was all that was required. Who they wrote to and what they said was entirely up to them.
She had written to me months ago to let me know these letters were coming.
It was just bad luck that the assignment was due just as the global pandemic closed everything down so I was only reading them now.
While just about everyone will tell you this is important, we’re often talking about different things.
Some policymakers will insist on limiting that relationship to connections that increase academic outcomes. Others advise a more holistic approach.
Both are backed by research.
A review of 46 educational studies concluded that strong student-teacher relationships are associated with positive outcomes in everything from higher student academic engagement, attendance and grades, better behavior and fewer suspensions to higher graduation rates. And this is true of both short term and long term effects and even after controlling for differences in student backgrounds.
However, many studies disregard everything but standardized test scores. That is the primary goal and arbiter of effectiveness. As such, in those cases the relationship they are looking for is much different than in those with broader aims.
Some programs prioritized an “instrumental focus” with students where teachers were encouraged to use personal information on students to get them to behave and do their work. The goal was compliance not autonomy or problem solving.
Other programs valued a more “reciprocal focus” where students and teachers exchanged information to come to a mutual understanding and shared knowledge. Here the goal was free thought, questioning, and engagement with authority figures.
Moreover, the study found that the differences in focus corresponded to where aspiring teachers were expected to get a job after the training was complete. The instrumental focused teacher prep programs invariably trained incoming educators for low-income and high-minority schools. The reciprocal approach was preferred for teachers preparing for wealthier and whiter students.
Teachers have to help kids become their best selves. And the definition of what counts as your best self is largely defined by the student, his- or herself.
How telling that we implicitly understand this when it comes to high socioeconomic kids with lighter skin! How pathetic that we lower our sights when it comes to poor kids and children of color.
I teach mostly minority students in a low income school in Western Pennsylvania. Like many of my colleagues, I’ve always fought against this prescription to see student relationships as instrumental to their outcomes.
And the results are evident in what they wrote to me.
“…now that I’m no longer in your class I’ve decided it was about time that I give you a proper thank you for all you did, putting up with me and dealing with me in class… You helped me learn how to write essays. But most important of all, for two years you made school fun for me again, which was something I thought was impossible.”
“…Everyday I was always looking forward to having your class because I knew that having your class would be thrilling. I miss having your class because you made me laugh and in return I made you laugh a couple of times.”
“…Being in your class made me enjoy learning and reading more. It was almost always something I looked forward to throughout my day. We were always learning about interesting topics and I was never bored in your class… Thank you for being the greatest teacher ever and a cool dude.”
“…I’ll never forget you as long as I live.”
“You were my favorite teacher because your class was always fun and we were always doing fun things and fun projects in your class and your class was never boring. You also taught us a lot of useful things… we’ve been using them so far this year. You were also never in a bad mood and always were positive in the morning so you always brought my energy up… I never looked forward to a morning class besides your class because I knew that we were going to do something fun.”
“…Your class was the only class that I got excited for because we always read good stories and did fun things… I also wanted to say I’m sorry for talking and disrupting the classroom when I was carrying on. I should have been paying attention to what you had to say and what you were trying to teach me.”
“You have had some pretty good accomplishments in your life if I may say so. Like your book “Gadfly on the Wall”, and I have to say it’s a pretty good book. I read some of it and I get what you’re saying.”
“…middle school was hard for me. I had difficult days with tons of IXLS piled [on from other classes] but instead of you giving them to me you actually taught me by yourself. Also we were able to joke around a lot about books and just random things in class.”
“…you taught me how to write and put punctuation in my sentences and in my paragraphs. Coming into your class in the beginning of 7th grade I didn’t know how to read that good or consistent… My vocabulary and speech increased in your class.”
“…You always had a way to make the class fun or easy. Also you always had a way to keep me on track and prepared… If I didn’t have you for 7th and 8th grade I don’t think I would be able to handle 9th grade… I’m glad to of had you for two years because I learned double the stuff and was double ready for 9th grade. I’m doing well [now] because of you…”
“I wanted to write to you because you’re honestly my favorite teacher and you kept my spirits up. I had your class for two years [7th and 8th grade]; the first year I wasn’t sure how I felt about you but overtime I realized you’re pretty cool. I loved Socratic Seminars . They were a way to voice your opinion and that’s always fun… You helped me find a few of my favorite books like “The Outsiders”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “The Diary of Anne Frank” which my friends and I still mention to this day… I’m in the musical this year and… without you I don’t think I would have been able to build up the courage to try out… You made me the person I am today. You taught me to challenge things that are unfair and to treat people with respect.”
Those are just some of the highlights.
I think more than anything I could say, they prove the point.
But to put a cherry on top, I’ll add one last thing.
In my 8th grade poetry unit, we watch “Dead Poets Society.”
Last year my students threatened to reenact the ending of the film where the kids stand on their desks to honor Mr. Keating, their English teacher who taught them to think for themselves instead of being cogs in the machine.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to make sure that the health and welfare of our students is first and foremost, front and center. And we’re not going to allow and ask students to return to school in an unsafe environment. We’re preparing for the best, but we’re planning for the worst.”
Turzai was so infuriated by this statement that he wrote a letter to Rivera – which the Pittsburgh area representative immediately shared with the media – he went on right wing talk radio to complain, and he posted a video on his Facebook page.
You know a Boomer is really mad when he goes on the social media.
Though his comments include his usual greatest hits against public schools and those greedy teachers, Turzai’s main point was simply science denial.
On Facebook, after a long list of activities that he said kids enjoy doing like sports and lab experiments, he said this:
“All of those can be done safely, and [kids] are not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue. The fact of the matter is kids can develop herd immunity, and if you [Rivera] have not yet developed a plan where we can safely educate kids in schools, then you are going to have to rethink education forward…”
So there you have it, folks.
Turzai wants Pennsylvania to reopen schools on time whether scientists and health experts think it’s safe or not because – Turzai knows best.
Pennsylvania’s village idiot thinks he knows best about schools.
“Pediatric COVID-19 patients might not have fever or cough. Social distancing and everyday preventive behaviors remain important for all age groups because patients with less serious illness and those without symptoms likely play an important role in disease transmission.”
So if we reopen schools before it is safe to do so, we run the risk of (1) kids dying, (2) kids becoming carriers and bringing the disease to any adults they come into contact with who are much more susceptible and (3) teachers and school staff getting sick and dying.
He’s trying to show he’s just as stupid as Donald Trump. The President says we should all drink bleach to get rid of COVID-19? Well Turzai says we should let our kids get sick and die or make us sick.
Republicans truly have become the party of stupid.
The media helps covidiots like Turzai by uncritically reprinting his outrageous lies.
Turzai is like a man who calmly says it’s not raining outside while a thunderstorm beats down on the neighborhood. Instead of pointing out the truth, the media simply reports what Turzai said and at most gives equal weight to a meteorologist. But there is no OPINION about facts! And whether scientific consensus holds with his crackpot conspiracy theories about how the Coronavirus spreads or not IS a fact.
Where’s that movie?
The history of charter schools reads like a who’s who of hucksters and thieves!
Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) the largest charter school in Ohio was forced to shut down and auction off all its taxpayer funded property because administrators grossly inflated its students body of 12,000 online students to the state.
New Jersey charter schools spent as much as $800 million of taxpayer dollars to buy property that they then charged taxpayers additional money to rent from the charter schools, according to an IRS investigation.
The Network for Public Education published a report in 2019 detailing more than $1 billion in federal dollars misappropriated by charters – including hundreds of millions spent on charters that never even opened or that closed soon after opening.
I think those would make good movies. Don’t you?
But let’s not forget the other vulture industries that prey on our public school system without providing much of value in return.
If you want REAL fraud, you have to go to the standardized testing and ed tech industry sucking away billions or taxpayer dollars while providing services that are either unnecessary or downright destructive.
Why do we give every public school child high stakes tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school? Because the federal government says so.
These tests don’t tell us how well students are doing in school. We have at least 180 days of classroom grades that tell us that.
And for this prized data we pay billions of dollars to big businesses every year.
It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.
Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.
So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.
Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.
In it, I criticized Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and a Walton Family Foundation advisor who lambasted social distancing efforts as a response to the Coronavirus global pandemic, especially here in the United States. To varying degrees, they each thought it was acceptable to sacrifice children’s safety by reopening schools early if it would get businesses back up and running again.
I think that’s beyond ridiculous.
Here’s an excerpt:
The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to risk my daughter’s life so that the stock market can open back up.
As a public school teacher, I’m not willing to bet my students lives so that the airlines and cruise industry can get back in the green.
Nor am I willing to gamble with my own life even if it means the NBA, NFL and MLB can start playing games and Hollywood can start premiering first run movies again.
My article seemed pretty reasonable to me, as it has to the more than 17,000 people who have read it since I first hit publish about 24 hours ago.
However, on Twitter, there was a vocal minority who took issue with me.
Someone from an account I won’t name (though he has more than 65,000 followers and the word “Libertarian” in his handle) retweeted my blog with the following comment:
“For the love of God. Students are more at risk of losing their homes and watching their parents split up or succumb to addiction or depression over losing their jobs than they are at risk of ever contracting this virus.”
He had lots of folks who agreed with him.
Their comments seemed to fit into two categories: (1) quarantine sucks, or (2) they’re MY kids you stoopid gubmint Skool teacher!
At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of such comments.
How can anyone really be against keeping children safe from a deadly virus?
Hey XXX thanks for sharing my blog post to so many people who probably would not have seen it otherwise. However, I think your criticism is unfounded. You seem to be saying that quarantine sucks. Yes, it DOES suck. But putting kids lives at risk is worse…
…While it’s true that kids are often asymptomatic, they do get COVID-19 and become carriers. If we reopen the schools too soon, most kids won’t die, but they’ll bring the virus home to mom, dad and the grandparents who are much more susceptible…
…What’s worse is that when you get COVID-19 you’re often asymptomatic for the first week or so. Even adults become carriers though they have a greater chance of eventually getting much worse. That’s why we’re doing social distancing now – to stop the spread…
…We want to give hospitals a chance to treat sick people as they come in and not all at once. Even discounting the effect on children, schools are staffed by adults – many over 55 and with existing health conditions. It’s unfair to make them risk their lives…
…Teachers shouldn’t have to risk their lives – and their families lives – to do their jobs. Seems to me that’s actually a pretty libertarian position. Your political freedom and autonomy seem pretty constrained in a coffin. Thanks for listening.
I don’t know if it will do any good, but I thought the readers of my blog might like to know about it.
After all, if there’s anything more viral than COVID-19, it’s ignorance.
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