Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

But that’s life as we try to overcome the Covid-19 pandemic and somehow get back to normal.

I come into the room every day and sit behind a glass barrier.

My kids either stumble in from the hall wearing masks (often below their noses) or they log in to Zoom and participate on-line.


It’s far from ideal, but we get things done.

Right now we’re reading the play version of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The kids were reticent at first.

With the unreliable schedules of in-person vs remote learning, it took us months to get through our last text, “The Outsiders.”

Now we’re speeding through scenes of the play with each person required to read a part aloud.

The results have been amazing.

In any normal year, I have to stop the class at various points to discuss what’s happening in the play.

This week, the students, themselves, stop us with questions, comments, and more curiosity than I’ve seen since the pandemic hit last year.

It’s as if they’re starving to learn something, and this play is nourishing their hearts and minds.

I laugh because my first thought was to come down on the shouting out and side commenting until a deeper part of me realized this was all okay. They were on-task, if unrestrained.

It’s something, going from the near silence of a Zoom chat room with its black boxes instead of student faces to a classroom full of rambunctious teenagers getting excited by the lesson.

We’re having a great time as we discuss WWII, parental relationships, racism, dating etiquette, and Hitler’s genitalia.


(Hey! They brought it up!)

We only have about a month or so left of actual instruction time because the Biden administration is demanding we take standardized tests.

That’s weeks of class I could be teaching and they could be learning.

But whatever.

I’m tired of fighting for things that make sense in the classroom.

No one listens to teachers. That’s why I’m running for office.

I figure as a member of Allegheny County Council, people will have to listen to me. And I’ll bring all of the concerns of those around me out in the open, too.

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

Let the Children Play – My Prescription for Covid “Learning Loss”

As my students and I are racing to learn something in the classroom, the same folks who demand we waste that precious time on high stakes tests are also bemoaning kids learning loss.

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

“How many years and months are they getting behind because of this pandemic!?”

It’s like a flat Earther complaining that we need to build a fence around the planet’s edges so no one can fall off.

What these fools fail to understand is that there is no learning loss.

Comprehension is not a race. There is no one ahead or behind. Everyone goes at their own pace. And if you try to force someone to go more quickly than is best for them, they’ll stumble and fall.

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

These folks pretend that learning is all about numbers – test scores, specifically.

You need to hit this score before you’re ready for the next grade. That score’s required before high school. This one before college.

It’s all nonsense, and I can prove it with one question:

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

Okay. I lied. That was three questions. But you get the point.

Learning is not quantifiable in the way they pretend it is and teaching is not the hard science they want it to be.

You can’t look into someone’s mind and see what they’ve learned and what they still need to know.

You can give a test that tries to assess understanding of certain subjects. But the more complex the knowledge you’re testing for, the more tenuous the results of that test will be.

And an assessment made by someone miles away who never met the person taking it is less accurate – not more accurate.

But let’s be honest, these learning loss champions are not really worried about children. They’re representatives of the standardized testing industry.

They have a vested interest in selling tests, selling test prep materials, software, etc. It’s just a pity that so many of our lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are persuaded by their arguments (or the hefty campaign contributions that come with that persuasion).

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.

But being in the classroom with kids day-in, day-out for all that time, I have observed some things about children and how they learn.

Most importantly – children are people.

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.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

The best things kids can do is go out and play.

Have fun.

Recharge.

The corporate testing drones will tell you that’s a waste of time. Our kids are getting behind doing things like that.

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

It is an independent study in whatever they are curious to discover.

Play is the mind’s way of finding out how things work, what a person can do, how it feels to do this or that.

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

Taken moment-by-moment, there is more learning done during play than in any classroom. Because play is self-directed and driven entirely by curiosity.

I want all of my students to go play this summer.

And I want the children who will be in my class next year to have had a fantastic summer of fun and excitement.

That way they’ll come into the classroom energized and ready to learn what I have to show them.

They won’t be ahead. They won’t be behind.

They’ll just be.

And that’s my prescription for a productive 2021-22.




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Reckless School Reopenings Cause Long-Term Academic Deficits

The American education system is under attack.

And just like at the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, it’s an inside job.

At nearly every level of government – from Presidents to Congress to state legislatures all the way down to local school boards – decision makers have ignored science and sound policy to prioritize anything that will give the economy a quick boost.

It didn’t have to be this way. We could have put humanity first. We could have taken every step possible to protect our children from a deadly virus whose full effects on the human body are unknown. We could have protected their teachers and teachers families who by all accounts are even more susceptible.

But that would mean socialism – giving everyday people survival checks so they can stay home and not go into unsafe work environments. That would mean providing money to parents so they could stay home with their own kids and ensure they were doing their best academically in remote learning.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that kind of country. We have no problem spending $1.8 trillion on tax breaks for the ultra rich, but $2,000 a month for the working class is too extravagant.

Better to make us unnecessarily congregate at non-essential jobs and spread Covid-19 all over the place. No wonder we only have 4% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s Covid cases. No wonder we have about 20% of the world’s Covid fatalities.

Instead of acting like responsible adults, we’ve invariably reopened schools while infection rates are high in surrounding communities.

And efforts at mitigating spread of the disease have been inadequate to lax to nonexistent.

The main excuse for such irresponsible behavior has been that it is in the best interests of children’s academic success.

Kids learn better in-person. So we should reopen schools to in-person instruction.

However, this kind of thinking is hypothetical to a fault. It ignores the specific facts of the situation and pretends they don’t exist.

In-person learning IS better under normal circumstances. But a global pandemic is not normal circumstances.

At so many levels, rushed, unsafe reopenings have already caused long-term academic deficits that will haunt our school system for decades if not longer.

In the short term, most academic programs being practiced during the pandemic are not as effective as alternative plans that would also safeguard student health and safety.

In the long term, factors such as faith in the school system, devastation of the teaching profession and potential lingering health effects of the virus may spell absolute disaster in the coming years even if Covid, itself, becomes nothing but a bad memory.

SHORT TERM EFFECTS

The kind of academics parents are accepting from their duly elected school directors is a national embarrassment.
It’s not that too many schools are providing instruction remotely. It’s that not enough are.

Instead, about 47% of students attend schools providing some kind of in-person instruction, according to a poll by Education Next. That’s about 19% of the districts in the country providing some kind of substandard hybrid program and 28% trying to run blindly as if the pandemic wasn’t happening. Moreover, those open to in-person instruction are most often located in communities with the highest Covid infection rates!

Let’s start with hybrid models. Most involve some kind of in-person instruction combined with remote learning. Partial groups of students come to the buildings certain days and stay remote on others. Meanwhile, a significant percentage of the student body refuses to participate and remains remote entirely.

The result is inconsistent programs. Students switch from one method to another – either because of changes at home or schools rapidly going from one model to another. Kids get used to learning one way and then have to change to another. They have to keep track of elaborate schedules and often fall through the cracks.

No wonder grades are tanking. We’re asking students to do things that are simply too complicated for their ages. And parents who are struggling with their own Covid-inspired juggling acts are often just as confused.

As a parent, it’s hard to make sure your child attends in-person or remote learning sessions when you aren’t even sure when these sessions are. The result is a spike in student absences which can come as a surprise to both parents and students.

And since only a portion of students remain remote – even if that portion is half or more of the total student body – their needs are usually ignored in favor of those willing to attend in person. Time and resources are prioritized for in-person students and taken away from remote students. This should be no surprise since students who remain on remote are much more likely to be poor and/or minorities while those attending in person are more likely to be wealthier and white.

Critics of remote instruction complain that it exacerbates existent inequalities. However, the hybrid model does so to an even greater degree – all with the sanction of the school board. And once inequalities are no longer the result of federal or state legislators or lack of resources but come directly from decision makers in your hometown refusing to care about all students, you have a deep systemic problem that no amount of moving students around from place-to-place can fix.

Even when everyone is on the same page and in the school building for instruction, the normal benefits of having students in-person are outweighed by necessary mitigation factors in schools.

Teachers help students by observing their work and stepping in if students are making mistakes or need help. However, teachers who are attempting to stay outside of 6 feet of their students cannot help because they cannot adequately see what their students are doing.

Moreover, kids benefit by working with each other in small groups. But this cannot be easily accomplished when they have to stay 6 feet apart.

In fact, both situations are best remedied by some kind of remote instruction. Students can share work through devices with both teachers and other students. They can collaborate virtually and get help. Being in-person gives no benefit. In fact, it just obscures the real solution.

IN-PERSON AND REMOTE SIMULTANEOUSLY

Then we have the unreasonable demand that teachers attempt to instruct students in-person while also instructing those on-line at the same time.

This has been an absolute disaster.

Either teachers burn themselves out trying to address the needs of two different groups with two different styles of instruction simultaneously, or they teach the entire group as if it were meeting remotely.

This results in one of two possibilities. One, teachers pay more attention to those in-person and mostly ignore those on-line. Two, they have to spend so much time dealing with technological issues that crop up or that they didn’t have time or training to anticipate that they end up ignoring in-person students.

This is a method that looks good on paper. It makes school boards seem like they are trying to meet the needs of all learners. But what they’re really doing is meeting the needs of none.

And there’s the added benefit that some children and staff may get sick in the process.

BENEFITS OF REMOTE

In the time of high infections, it’s best to keep all students remote. Not only is this the safest option for the health of everyone involved, it provides the best available education.

Academics can be consistent and schedules predictable. Problems can be anticipated, planned for and best solved. And the needs of the most students can be met. Districts can ensure everyone has the necessary technology and wi-fi. They can make sure teachers are trained and have help.

But too many decision makers see this as a defeat. We’re giving in to the virus instead of molding it to our will.

The sad fact is, if we want to defeat Covid, we need to defeat THE VIRUS. Pretending it doesn’t exist will not help anyone.

LONG-TERM EFFECTS

The short-sightedness of current academic plans that try to circumvent remote learning when infections are high will have lasting consequences on American education for years to come.

When politicians and school boards promote reckless policies, it destroys public faith in self-governance. There are plenty of private corporations just chomping at the bit to take over our schools. How can we forestall them when our duly-elected representatives repeatedly show themselves to be unfit for the job? If parents lose their faith in school boards, the beneficiaries will most likely be private corporations.

The same goes for larger government institutions like the President, Congress, the CDC and state legislatures. The Trump administration was a never ending dumpster fire. The hope was that a new administration would be better – and the Biden administration has been more efficient in many ways.

However, it is nearly as pro-corporate as the previous regime. The CDC under Trump commonly rewrote scientific guidance to agree with whatever mad dictate the idiot in the Oval Office just tweeted. Under Biden, the CDC has been more constrained, but it still ignores the world consensus on school closings and countless scientific studies.

Biden needs to rebuild faith in government. That won’t happen when his CDC issues official policy stating that teacher vaccinations are not necessary to reopen schools.

TEACHERS

And that brings me to the teacher shortage.

First, it’s not a shortage. It’s an exodus. Highly trained professionals refuse to submit to ill treatment, loss of autonomy and lack of adequate wages and benefits.

This is not a new problem. Educators have been leaving the profession in droves long before Trump or Biden.

But the current situation is finishing the job.

Few people are going to want to be teachers when they’re treated like this. Their health and safety is taken completely for granted. It isn’t even considered part of the equation or a certain amount of educator deaths are considered acceptable.

Teachers are expected to do multiple jobs at the same time in dangerous conditions at the drop of a hat and accept all the blame and none of the credit for what happens.

Ed tech companies have been waiting in the wings to take over the job of educating children. And the result will not be a superior education. It will be the complete dumbing down of American academics. Instruction will become a way corporations can sell products to students and families. It will not be centered on what is best for individual children.

As much as some people scream and foam at teachers who have the audacity to stand up for their own health and safety, they will miss us when we’re gone.

HEALTH ISSUES

And finally, there’s the lingering health issues caused by ignoring safety protocols for students and staff.

The problem with Covid isn’t just the possibility that you’ll die. Even if you survive, the most common long term effects are fatigue, shortness of breath, cough, joint pain, and chest pain.

However, other reported long-term symptoms include difficulty with thinking and concentration, depression, muscle pain, headache, intermittent fever and heart palpitations.

Long-term complications can include cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological and/or psychiatric problems.

We don’t know how serious or widespread these issues will be. However, we could be dooming a generation of children to increased depression, anxiety, changes in mood, smell and taste problems, sleep issues, difficulty with concentration, or memory problems.

How will the job market be impacted by large numbers of young people on disability due to inflammation of the heart muscle, lung function abnormalities, acute kidney damage or even crippling rashes and hair loss?

There could be thousands of Covid’s Kids who have to pay the rest of their lives for the recklessness of adults today.

Not to mention adults suffering from these conditions and having to leave the workforce immediately.

So rushing to reopen schools is a bad idea.

It robs kids of the best possible education given pandemic conditions. It increases racial and economic inequality. It erodes faith in government at all levels. And it gambles with the health and safety of everyone – adults and children – caught in the middle.

The best way to promote student learning isn’t to attack the very system providing it. Nor is it to endanger the lives of those who do the work and provide instruction.

The current crisis can be a temporary situation to survive with a minimum of risk and a maximum of support and caution.

Or we can recklessly pretend it isn’t happening and put the future of our children and the nation at large in unnecessary jeopardy.

 


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CDC Director Employing Magical Thinking About School Reopenings

Dr. Rochelle Walensky wants you to know it is not safe to go to any Super Bowl parties this weekend.

“We must take prevention and intervention seriously,” the Center for Disease Control (CDC) Director said at a White House briefing on the Covid-19 pandemic Wednesday.

“Whichever team you’re rooting for and whichever commercial is your favorite, please watch the Super Bowl safely, gathering only virtually or with the people you live with.”

However, on the same day at another Washington briefing she said we can reopen schools safely as infections soar without even waiting to vaccinate teachers first.

“There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen,” she said, and “safe reopening does not suggest that teachers need to be vaccinated in order to reopen safely.”

WHAT!?

One doesn’t need to be an epidemiologist to know that these two statements are contradictory.

On the one hand, gathering in-person in a large group of people with whom you don’t live is a danger.

…If you’re watching a football game.

On the other, gathering in-person with an even larger group of people not in your personal pod and staying with them for an even longer period of time somehow IS safe. And in fact you don’t even need to be vaccinated against the virus before doing so.

…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.

In fact, Walensky claims her mandate is to remove politics from science.

“Political people cannot influence science,” she says. “If they do, I won’t be there.”

Then why are you promoting incoherent policies at the CDC? Why are you cherry picking data?

Why are you going on all the major news networks in transparent support of Biden’s proposal to reopen schools by April?

Why are you using your platform as head of the CDC to promote magical thinking?

Because that’s exactly what this is – magical thinking.

It’s not science.

Science doesn’t offer policy. It looks at very narrow questions and determines what may have caused what.

It works hand-in-hand with logic and reason. Otherwise, it’s invalid.

And the fact that your statements don’t add up disproves at least one of them.

Either large groups are a danger or they’re not.

If they’re not, then we can reopen schools AND go to Super Bowl parties.

If they are a danger (as a preponderance of evidence shows), then what is it about schools that makes them safer than Super Bowl parties?

Answer: Absolutely nothing!

In fact, schools are MORE dangerous for several reasons.

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.

Even if masks are worn more routinely at school because teachers enforce the rules, that doesn’t remove the danger. Few schools are large enough to socially distance children 6 feet apart. Many administrators don’t even try anymore – they simply promise to do the best they can. Add to that poor ventilation and inadequate cleaning of buildings and you have a recipe for disaster.

Pushback against the CDC has been huge, especially from teachers.

Things got so bad this week, that White House press secretary Jen Psaki distanced the Biden administration from Walensky’s remarks. Psaki said that Walensky had been speaking “in her personal capacity” and there would be “official guidance” and “final guidance” on the issue coming next week.

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.

Heck! At the same time the CDC published another contact tracing study during the same week as the JAMA study which came to the opposite conclusion – that thousands of Covid cases were, in fact, linked to schools. I wonder why Walensky didn’t talk about that one at her White House briefing!

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.

In fact, despite such a full throated media blitz on the matter based on the JAMA article, the piece includes a rather telling disclaimer that its conclusions “do not necessarily represent the official position” of the CDC.

Walensky is right about one thing at least.

World scientific consensus is increasingly coming together around whether schools should be reopened in communities with high infections.

And it’s going in the exact opposite direction of Walensky and the CDC.

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.

In Europe, evidence obtained through antibody surveys conducted in various nations showed that the coronavirus equally infects school children, said Antoine Flahault, director of the University of Geneva’s Institute of Global Health. The results were repeated in Switzerland, Austria, and England.


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?

Okay. Here are a few others from the US:

● 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?

Answer: nowhere.

Because this is not about science. It is still about politics.

After the criminal negligence of the Trump administration spreading lies and disinformation through government channels, what the Biden CDC is doing is beyond reckless.

We need to have facts. We need to be able to trust our scientific organizations again.

This kind of willful negligence won’t just result in more Covid deaths, it will enable the next Trump to do much worse behind a banner of fake news and science denial.

And how will science defenders fight back when both sides play with the data to make it say whatever they want?

Sadly, this new CDC is far too similar to the old CDC.

I had hopes Biden would be better than this.

He still has time to turn back from these games.

Next week’s new CDC guidelines will likely signal whether he is changing course or doubling down.

In the meantime, teachers, students and communities desperately in need of valid science and facts have to turn to the rest of the world for guidance.

Our lives are not expendable to ensure a robust economy.

That lesson will be a lot less expensive now than after the next neo-fascist coup.

We can’t afford magical thinking at the CDC.


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

How I Got the Covid Vaccine: an Immunization Odyssey

So there I was standing out in the cold – miserable but happy.

My jacket was buttoned up to my nose on top of my mask.

My hood was up and my glasses were becoming a white screen of fog where my hot breath escaped into the chill.

In my pocket, my left hand wiggled into a glove, then sneaked out to hold my glasses away from my face.

It was the only way I could see whether the line was moving.

And deep inside me, as I stood shivering through the gusts of bitter wind, somewhere I was happy.

Because I was in line to be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Despite it all, I knew I was one of the lucky ones.

It had been a long journey to this place, the Brentwood Volunteer Fire Department. And not just in miles.

I had spent the better part of a week trying to find a place here in Western Pennsylvania where I could even get the vaccine.

On Sunday, a teacher I’ve worked with for 15 years left me a message that she was going to Bloomfield with her husband. She had heard Wilson’s Pharmacy was giving out the vaccine. Like me, her husband has a heart condition and so qualified for the shot.

In the Keystone state, only medical personnel, people 65 and older or those with certain health conditions have been prioritized to get the vaccine so far.

Of course, UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the injections in the Pittsburgh area, has taken this to mean all their employees – even those who don’t interact with patients.

They can cruise up to nearly any hospital and get a dose.

The rest of us have to make an appointment somewhere else – if we can find one.

I sat up in bed trying to decide if I wanted to drive all the way to Bloomfield on the off chance that they’d have a shot with my name on it. Considering that it was about an hour away if I left right then and the message from my co-worker was about a half hour old, I doubted my chances.

But as I showered and the sleep left me, I started to think I might roll the dice.

However, when I called the pharmacy on my way out the door, I was told they had run out of the medication.

And for most of that week, this was the closest I got.

I went on-line every day trying to find somewhere to get the vaccine. I tried Giant Eagle, Rite Aide, Allegheny County, various pharmacies, etc. All nada.

Sometimes I had to keep a browser window on my computer open for hours just to be turned down. Sometimes a hopeful page would pop up asking for information, and I’d fill it all in only to get the same negative message.

It was so discouraging.

So was my job.

The school district where I teach has been on remote learning since November when an outbreak in multiple schools (but most notably in an entire kindergarten class) closed us down.

Now – for no discernible reason – school directors wanted to open back up.

Infections are still high throughout the county and the state. There is no justifiable reason to reopen except that decision makers are bored. That and they are tired of hearing people complain that we are taking too many precautions to protect kids. And those darn teachers and their all-powerful unions!

I knew I couldn’t go back to the classroom.

I hadn’t been back since March when we closed down the first time.

I have both a heart condition and Crohns disease. Both my cardiologist and gastroenterologist told me that if I got Covid it could be a death sentence.

My only choice was to stay home using sick days or get fully vaccinated before returning to the classroom.

I wanted to do the later. I wanted to be there for my students. But that was looking like an impossibility.

Frankly, I don’t think it’s safe for the kids even if I am vaccinated. But after almost a year of fighting with school directors, administrators and some angry parents, I was willing to concede the point. These are their kids, after all. If parents think it’s safe, that’s their choice.

Mine is much different.

Even though my home district is open, my daughter has been learning at the dinning room table throughout the crisis. Her pap pap and I (but mostly her pap) help her make sense of a terrible cyber curriculum day-in-day-out. Most of the time, he takes math and science. I take English and social studies.

We don’t do this because we think it’s the best way to learn. We do it because we love her and don’t want to put her life in jeopardy.

I had about given up on ever getting back to the classroom, myself, when my cousin, Lora, texted me.

Her family and mine used to be fairly close when we were kids, but I hadn’t really talked to her much in recent years.

“Hi Steve. I wanted to see if you were able to get a vaccine appointment for yourself. My sister-in-law has been helping people in [group] 1A get appointments, and I know she wouldn’t mind looking for you… I’m worried about you with your heart condition…”

I was struck dumb.

I remembered Lora as this skinny little girl who tagged along after my brother and me. We used to put on little plays in my grandmother’s basement. I gave her some of my stuffed animals when I grew out of them.

When she was a teenager we didn’t get along very well. It was my fault. I was jealous of the time she took from my mom.

Frankly, I was a jerk to her. I know that now, and I’d felt terrible about it long before I got this text.

But here she was now – a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. She was no longer that little girl. She was no longer that annoying teen. She’s a grown woman with command of her field and the respect of her colleagues.

I’d already known that. What I didn’t know was that she had such a big heart. Big enough to encompass an asshole like me.

We texted back and forth and she gave me so many more avenues to explore to find a site to be vaccinated.

I think it was only a day later, maybe that very night that I got the email from Spartan Pharmacy that I had an appointment for the following afternoon.

I had signed up for Spartan’s waiting list before Lora contacted me. But she and her sister-in-law, Caity, knew I had an appointment almost before I did.

Lora says Caity is her “vaccine Angel.” I don’t think I’ve ever met her, but the two of them helped me through every step of the way.

I had to fill out a form before going to my appointment and the Website simply wouldn’t load. Too many people were probably trying to access it at the same time. Someone told me the next day that 15,000 people had signed up.

Lora and Caity sent me a copy by email an hour later.

I don’t see how I could have done any of this without them.

So the next day when I got to the Brentwood VFD, found one of the few available parking spaces and got into the long line in the bitter cold, I couldn’t really be upset by the discomfort of the situation.

Even when it started to snow, and my glove felt like it was almost nonexistent, I couldn’t get too down.

In about an hour or so, I knew I’d have the vaccine.

I had hope again – something that had been missing for far too long.

It wasn’t trouble free for those in line. Most of the people there were elderly. Many were in wheelchairs or had walkers.

One gentlemen fell on the cracked pavement and people from the crowd helped him back up. I remember his daughter kept asking him if he’d cracked his head.

But I was at the front of the line and entered the building then.

It was warm at least.

And the people there were very friendly.

Once inside, it didn’t take long at all before I was taking off my coat and rolling up my sleeve.

There was a slight pinch and that was it.


I gave them my paperwork, they gave me an appointment a month hence for my second dose and I was told to sit and wait for 15 minutes before leaving.

I had no side effects.

The next morning the injection site was a little sore but I’ve had worse bug bites.

And so here I am.

Some people worry about the vaccine because of how quickly it was developed, but not me.

I’ve seen the pictures and videos of our lawmakers and celebrities getting the shot. Even the disingenuous Covid deniers who claim the pandemic is all a hoax don’t let their “conviction” stop them from getting a dose.

That more than anything proves the vaccine’s veracity for me.

I know that once I get the second dose, I can still bring Covid home to those I love. But from what I’ve read, even if that happened it would be a weakened form of it.

There’s a lot of uncertainty – new strains of the disease that the vaccine may or may not protect against.

In a perfect world, we’d wait until the majority of people were as safeguarded as I am before getting on with everything. But we don’t live in a perfect world.

If anything, the virus has shown us how imperfect it is.

But it has also shown us the exact opposite – the power of kindness and love.

I get down about all that’s messed up in this world. I get depressed about all the missteps people have made dealing with this crisis.

And when that happens now, I try to think about my cousin – my sweet cousin, Lora.

There are people like her all over this country looking out for others.

There are people who are caring and don’t condition that feeling on what someone has done for them lately.

They just do what they can because it’s the right thing to do. Because they see the good and want to increase it.

I am so grateful for having this second chance – and it does feel like a second chance.

I am thankful, thoughtful and hopeful.

If there are people like Lora in this world, maybe there’s hope for all of us.

 


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Want to Appreciate Teachers? Vaccinate Us Before Reopening Schools

This year I don’t need a free donut.

I don’t need a Buy One Get One coupon for school supplies.

I don’t need a novelty eraser or a mug with a happy saying on it.

I just need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before being asked to teach in-person.

You want to say you appreciate teachers? Great! Then provide us with a minimally safe environment to work in.

That is LITERALLY the least you can do.

Not a banner or an advertisement or even a sentimental greeting card.

Give us the minimum protections so we can meet the demands of school directors, administrators and the community.

Not a cookie. A Covid vaccine.

Not a demand that we teach in an unsafe environment or go look for work elsewhere.

Give us the tools we need to meet your demands without putting our lives at unnecessary risk.

And we’re not even talking about ALL the tools necessary.

Minimum 6 feet social distancing? Ha! You know you can’t fit all the students in the building that way!

Low rate of infections throughout the community? Ha! You don’t have the patience to wait for that!

Equitable funding with schools in higher income communities? The freedom and autonomy to forgo high stakes standardized testing? Not having to compete with charter and voucher schools that get to play by different rules skewered in their favor?

Ha!

Ha!

And Ha!

No, if you’re going to do the least thing possible – the absolute slightest, minimal, tiniest thing you could possibly do – make sure your staff has the chance to be fully vaccinated before thrusting us back in the physical classroom.

Many of us have been teaching online for months now. We didn’t survive this long just to be kicked out of quarantine when protections exist but are not yet available.

However, in many districts that is exactly what’s being done.

Though vaccines are slowly being rolled out, few school boards are waiting for staff to be protected before throwing open the doors and restarting in-person instruction.

Some districts never stopped in the first place.

So why the discrepancy?

Why have some districts remained open and why are others refusing to wait before reopening?

It’s not because they’re in communities with lower infection rates. In fact, just the opposite.

In most parts of the country, Covid-19 is on a rampage through our communities making people sick, filling up ICUs and graveyards.

More than 400,000 people nationwide have died already from the disease and many health experts expect that number to reach 500,000 before the end of February.

That’s about 4,000 people a day.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, infections are considered substantial if more than 10% of Covid tests in a county come back positive. As of today, that includes every county in the Commonwealth. In fact, our statewide average is 12.7%!

The danger is real and widespread. It’s just that some districts and communities care more than others for their teachers and the students they serve.

It’s not that districts that remain open to in-person instruction have avoided outbreaks.

My home district of McKeesport, located in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, has been open on and off since September 2.

According to the district’s own Website, out of about 3,000 students and 200 teachers, there have been 106 cases of Covid – 61 among staff and 45 among students.

That’s roughly 21 cases a month.

Keep in mind these numbers don’t include people quarantined or those who get sick and either don’t report it or don’t know it because they’re contagious but asymptomatic. If we added all the people impacted by the decision to keep the district open, the numbers would be much higher.

In any case, decision makers at McKeesport apparently think there’s nothing wrong if every month at least 21 people (adults and children) get the virus, risk their health, and potentially suffer life long consequences.

They don’t mind if having the schools open drives up the infection rate in the community.

They don’t mind if moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, even people with no kids in the district have a greater chance of getting sick because decision makers can’t be bothered to look out for the common good.

That’s not an example anyone should be emulating. It’s one we should be avoiding.

Don’t get me wrong.

It’s not that I don’t want to get back to the classroom. There are few things I’d rather do.

Teaching on-line is awkward and strange. Spending all day talking to blank boxes on your computer screen each one representing a child who may or may not be there at that particular moment in time.

Trying to find or recreate classroom materials and rethink how they can best be used in a virtual environment.

Troubleshooting technological issues, answering hundreds of emails and instant messages a day all while having to attend pop up virtual staff meetings that hardly ever deal with the problems of the day but are instead focused on how to return to an in-person method of instruction without ANY concern for the health and safety of the people who would have to enact it!

If people cared at all about teachers, they wouldn’t demand we do that.

They’d look out for us the same way we look out for their children every day in the classroom whether it be physical or virtual.

But where I live, teachers and other frontline workers aren’t even on the top of the list to be vaccinated. Even those at the top of the list can’t be seen because UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the vaccine, is giving preference to its own office workers who do not come into contact with infected people.

You want to get kids back in school buildings? Talk to the people messing up the vaccination process. Don’t shrug and demand teachers take up the slack – AGAIN!

When I took this job it wasn’t to be a police officer or a soldier. I never volunteered to put my health on the line treating sick people in the hospitals.

I chose to be a public school teacher.

I mentor needy children. I inspire the dispirited, I stoke the curious, I enlighten the ignorant.

I don’t sacrifice my life because you can’t be bothered to provide the most basic resources possible I need to even attempt to do my job.

That’s not too much to ask.

In fact, it’s not much at all.

I’m not saying vaccines are a panacea.

Just because you take the vaccine doesn’t mean POOF you’re immune. It takes at least a month to reach full 90-95% immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require you take two doses (at least 21 or 28 days apart, respectively). The level of protection increases dramatically – from 52% to 95% – but you need both doses to get there.

Moreover, there are other more virulent strains of Covid out there. Preliminary studies seem to suggest that these two vaccines are effective against them, but only time and further study will tell for sure.

In addition, being vaccinated protects you, but not your unvaccinated family. You can still be contagious and bring the virus home with you – though studies suggest any disease you spread after vaccination would be of a much weakened form.

Even if every teacher who wanted a vaccine got one, the pandemic would not be over.

According to some epidemiological estimates, as many as three-fourths of Americans must become immune to COVID-19 – either by recovering from the disease or by getting vaccinated – to halt the virus’s spread.

However, recent polls suggests that 29% to 37% of Americans plan to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine – even some teachers.

So we can’t just allow educators to be vaccinated. We need to encourage everyone to get one. Otherwise, it may protect individuals but not the community.

Education is vital to ensure that everyone knows the risks and benefits of taking the vaccine and how to protect themselves and their children.

And if you want people to be educated you’re going to need some teachers to do it.

We don’t need a pat on the back or even a “Thank You” to get the job done.

What we need are the basic protections necessary to both meet your expectations and survive the endeavor to teach another day.

So stop the badgering and bullying.

Make sure all teachers have the chance to be fully vaccinated before returning to the in-person classroom.

It is the least you can do.


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

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

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

That shouldn’t be controversial.

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, hospital beds in local Intensive Care Units (ICUs) are filling up. On average in the state, ICUs are at 81% capacity, slightly higher than the national average of 79%. That means UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside is at 104% capacity, UPMC East is at 94% capacity, Allegheny General Hospital is at 92% capacity, West Penn Hospital is at 91% capacity – heck! Even Magee Women’s Hospital, which mostly focuses on births, is at 81% capacity.

Meanwhile, the last time our district was open for in-person classes – a period which only lasted about 8 days – at least 30 people (both students and staff) were diagnosed with the virus and more than 70 had to quarantine. Covid-19 spread throughout our buildings like wildfire including an entire kindergarten class and almost every single adult in the high school office.

Yet it’s that time again!

Time to justify keeping things closed up tight!

It’s insane! They should have to justify opening things back up!

But, no, that’s not how things work in post-truth America.

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

It’s not even a valid dichotomy.

Risking teachers lives does not mean students will learn more.

People complain about student absences and disengagement online – issues that we can certainly improve if we focus on them with half the vigor of figuring out ways to reopen school buildings when it is not safe to do so. But swinging open the doors won’t solve these problems.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fact that the disease can go undetected but still be infectious is exactly the factor driving its spread according to a report from the beginning of January from The Guardian:

“A key factor in the spread of Covid-19 in schools is symptomless cases. Most scientists believe that between 30% and 40% of adults do not display any Covid symptoms on the day of testing, even if they have been infected. For children, however, this figure is higher. “It is probably more like 50% for those in secondary school while for boys and girls in primary school, around 70% may not be displaying symptoms even though they have picked up the virus,” says Professor Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

The super rich want the economy to keep chugging along and taking the kind of precautions that would put the least lives in danger would hurt their bottom line. That’s why Congress has been unable to find the courage to pay people to stay home and weather the storm. It’s against the interests of the wealthy.

As usual, teachers are being forced to pay for all of Society’s ills. Schools aren’t adequately funded, so teachers are expected to pay for supplies out of pocket. Districts can’t afford to hire enough staff, so educators have to try to do their jobs in bloated classes and work ridiculous hours for no extra pay.

I knew all that coming into the job. But demanding I put my life and the lives of my family at risk because the government refuses to protect its citizens during a pandemic!? I didn’t sign up for that!

And the worse part is that it’s the same thing every few weeks.

We try to reopen, it’s a fabulous disaster, we close and then the clock starts over.

This isn’t good for the kids, the parents or the teachers.

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

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

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


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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

INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Remote Teaching is Better Than In-Person Instruction During a Pandemic

Hundreds of teachers have died from Covid-19.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with the disease.

Yet a bipartisan group of seven state Governors said in a joint statement Thursday that in-person schools are safe even when community transmission rates are high.

Safe – despite hundreds of preventable deaths of school employees.

Safe – despite mass outbreaks among students.

Safe – despite quarantines, staffing shortages, longterm illnesses and mounting uncertainty about the longterm effects of the disease on children and adults.

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.

We expect such blatant untruth from the Trump administration, and Vice-President Mike Pence was quick to add his voice to the septet.

But the facts remain.

More than 300 teachers and other school employees have died across the country from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

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

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

More than 250,000 people have died nationwide.

More than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease at an ever increasing rate. One million of those cases came about over just six days last week.

In many states like Pennsylvania, hospitalizations have passed their peak in April.

That is not safety.

And it is beyond reckless that these Governors would make such a counterfactual statement.

FACT: It is NOT safe to have in-person schooling in any community where infections are high.

FACT: It is BETTER to have remote education unless the virus has been contained.

But these are inconvenient truths that business leaders, politicians and policymakers are doing everything in their power to ignore.

The Governors’ statement begins:

“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.

It comes from the work of an economist – Emily Oster.

The Brown University professor analyzed data from all 50 states over a two week period in September and came to the conclusion that when students or teachers get Covid, they rarely catch it at school.

And her analysis has become the Gospel truth for supply-side marketeers all over the country.

However, Oster has been wrong before.

Notoriously wrong.

Oster is infamous for publishing a paper advising women that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is safe. WRONG, says the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. WRONG, says a slew of recent studies from the University of Bristol, Oxford, the British Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

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.

And then after that paper made her famous, she published another one proving herself wrong.

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.

It is because of people like her that Mark Twain is reported to have remarked, ”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

She was shopping her thesis around about people not catching Covid at school back in May before there was any data one way or another.

Moreover, she homeschools her own children. She has nothing to lose getting us to believe her latest economic whopper.

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.

There has, however, been actual science done on the matter that sheds increasing doubt on Oster’s findings and those like her.

A study of more than a half-million people who were exposed to Coronavirus suggests that the virus’ continued spread is driven by only a small percentage of those who become infected.

Moreover, children and young adults were found to be potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified, according to the study by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley.

This was the largest contact tracing study for any disease ever conducted.

It suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is also much greater than previously believed.

The evidence is so convincing that the CDC took down controversial guidance pushing for schools to remain open during periods of increased infections.

This is a lot more important than what some dipshit economist said.

However, the Governors’ statement continues:

“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.

And way to use poor and special needs kids as props to drum up support. Funny how you never seem to care so much about them when issuing budget priorities or school funding formulas.

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.”

One would have hoped only an economist would weigh people’s lives vs the cost of health care and boosting standardized test scores. But apparently Democratic Governors feel the same way.

In-person schooling IS preferable to remote instruction if everything else is equal. But everything else is not equal right now.

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?

What is the longterm cost to children or adults who have their lungs, digestive system or brains suffer irreparable damage as a result of Covid complications?

This disease was only discovered two years ago.

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.

The fact is remote learning can be done effectively.

We can focus on ensuring that all students have the technology, infrastructure and training to access instruction on-line.

We can prioritize virtual curriculum created by classroom teachers and taught synchronously over video platforms like zoom instead of canned ed tech credit recovery programs like Edmentum.

Administrators and academic coaches can be of more use helping struggling students stay on track than endlessly spinning their wheels about how best to reopen schools.

Bottom line: No one should have to go to school in an unsafe classroom.

Students shouldn’t feel like the only way to get a quality education is to risk their health and put their families in jeopardy.

Teachers shouldn’t be bullied into working in unsafe environments where they or their loved ones may get sick – especially since educators are more susceptible to the virus and often suffer worse consequences of getting ill.

But despite all these arguments, it is the daily reality of schooling during a pandemic that is winning the argument.

Schools simply can’t operate in-person when large segments of the staff are sick and/or quarantined.

No one is buying the argument that in-person schooling is safe when whole kindergarten classes are quarantined as happened at my district this week.

The problem of childcare and other economic hardships are very real. But we will not solve them by closing our eyes to reality and putting our kids and teachers into unsafe classrooms.

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.

It is embarrassing that so many Governors don’t have the courage to do that and instead indulge in the deranged fantasies of an economic death cult.

It sad that so many Governors lack the courage to issue real Stay-at-Home orders, close schools, bars and restaurants, and issue stiff penalties for those who disobey them.

We do not need in-person learning while Covid runs wild.

Until the danger has passed, we need quality remote learning conducted, planned and supported by educators.

And we need Governors with the guts to listen to science, not B.S. economists.


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

Five Reasons to be Cautiously Optimistic About the Biden Presidency

President-elect Joe Biden.

Go ahead and say that aloud once.

“President-elect Joe Biden.”

How does it feel?

If you’re like me, it feels pretty good.

And to be honest I never expected that it would.

Sure, I voted for Joe. I gave money to the campaign. I volunteered.

But Biden was far from my first choice. In fact, looking over the field of Democrats seeking the party’s nomination, he might have been my last pick.

I was a Bernie Sanders guy and probably will be until the day I die.

But damn if it doesn’t feel good to say “President-elect Joe Biden!”

Before today, I would have said the best thing about Joe was that he isn’t Trump. And, frankly, I think that is mainly the fact that won him the election.

It was a repudiation of Trump more than a celebration of Biden.

However, now that the dust has cleared and all the states but Georgia, Alaska and North Carolina have been called, I’m starting to have some thoughts about what a Biden administration might actually look like.

And it might not be too bad.

So here are what I see as the five main hurdles coming up for the Biden administration and why we might be cautiously optimistic about their outcomes:

1) Trump Will Fail to Successfully Challenge the Election Results

As of this writing, Biden has 290 electoral votes to Trump’s 214.

Alaska will probably go to Trump and North Carolina is a bit of a toss up. Georgia will almost certainly go to Biden.

It actually doesn’t really matter.


The world and the media have already accepted the results.

Biden has been elected the 46th President of the United States.

In the absence of solid evidence of massive voter fraud in multiple states – many of which are controlled by Republican governments – it is unlikely that these results can be successfully changed.

Many Republican leaders like Pat Toomey, Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney have already accepted this fact. Far right leaders of other countries like Boris Johnson and Benjamin Netanyahu have already congratulated Biden.

It’s over.

And if there were any doubt about it, the Trump administration accidentally booking a press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia instead of the Four Seasons hotel – and then pretending that’s what they intended all along – should put the final nail in the coffin.

You don’t know Four Seasons Total Landscaping? It’s a landscape gardeners located between a crematorium and a dildo shop.

That is not the work of people capable of running an effective challenge to a national election.

Yes, there are enough far right justices on the Supreme Court to pull off this Coup d’état. But I don’t think even they would have the guts to do it in light of the world’s acceptance of Biden, the acceptance of many in the GOP and the blatant incompetence of the Trump administration.

I admit that I could be wrong. And I certainly don’t think we should underestimate these neofacists.

Trump is a cornered rat, and that is when rats are at their most dangerous.

However, I think there is good reason to think he will not be able to steal this election no matter how many tantrums he throws on the floor of the Oval Office or Mar-a-Lago.

2) Control of the Senate Rests on Georgia

It appears that the election will not, by itself, change the balance of power in Congress.

The Democrats have lost seats in the House but not enough to lose a majority. They do not appear to have picked up enough seats in the Senate to rest control away from the GOP.

However, on January 5th there will be runoff elections for both U.S. Senate seats in Georgia.

Yes, you read that right – Georgia!

If Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Osoff both win, Joe Biden will have a congressional majority to actually get his policies passed.

No more Mitch McConnell as Senate Majority Leader.

No more obstruction.

It would be HUGE.

And it is incredibly positive that this is taking place in Georgia where Stacey Abrams has done an amazing job organizing grassroots efforts to turn the state blue.

We have a real chance here.

No doubt Republicans will try to throw whatever they have left to stopping the Dems in these races. But how much do they really have after being beaten nationwide?

Will momentum and an existent grassroots network be enough to flip the script for Dems?

Chances are good. It all depends on what we do in the next few months.

3) Progressives Will Not Let Neoliberals Ignore Them

A huge hurdle for the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party will be how we try to move forward together.

Biden won a huge national majority of votes – 75 million – the most any candidate ever has received.

However, a similar record was true of Hillary Clinton in 2016 and she still lost because of the electoral college.

Thankfully things are not playing out that way in 2020. But they could have very easily.

Frankly, the fact that Biden didn’t beat Trump by an even greater margin is extremely troubling.

Almost half of the voting public – 71 million – support this racist, neofacist, incompetent fool. And only a slight majority oppose him.

I believe firmly that this is because of the Democrats’ strategy in this campaign.

Both this year and in 2016, there was very little positive policy being offered – very little popular positive policy positions that would have directly impacted the majority of Americans.

Many folks voted for Trump out of despair. They wanted a change – any change – burn it all down if necessary.

Had Medicare For All or the Green New Deal been on the ballot, things might have gone differently – or more emphatically – our way.

But, instead, it was all about getting rid of Trump.

Thankfully, that was enough. But had the party actually offered voters something more – things that are overwhelmingly popular with everyday people but unpopular with party elites and their wealthy backers – the results could have been a landslide in Biden’s favor.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke for many progressives in a New York Times interview.

She said that every candidate that co-sponsored Medicare for All in a swing district was reelected. Even Mike Levin, who many thought had committed political suicide by co-sponsoring the Green New Deal, kept his seat.

Supporting progressive policies did not sink anyone’s campaigns. In fact, that’s how insurgent Democrats have been unseating centrists across the nation.

“I’ve been unseating Democrats for two years,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I have been defeating D.C.C.C.-run campaigns for two years. That’s how I got to Congress. That’s how we elected Ayanna Pressley. That’s how Jamaal Bowman won. That’s how Cori Bush won. And so we know about extreme vulnerabilities in how Democrats run campaigns.”

This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic party.

We cannot continue to move to the right and expect the base – which are much further left – to continue to vote for increasingly conservative candidates.

There is already a party for that – it’s the Republicans.

“I need my colleagues to understand that we are not the enemy,” she said. “And that their base is not the enemy. That the Movement for Black Lives is not the enemy, that Medicare For All is not the enemy. This isn’t even just about winning an argument. It’s that if they keep going after the wrong thing, I mean, they’re just setting up their own obsolescence.”

We will see if the Biden administration learns these lessons or not.

I think there is good reason to be cautiously optimistic here. It is in the party’s own self interest.

But only the future will tell.

4) Biden will Take Steps to Control the Coronavirus

Unlike his predecessor, Biden has been a consistent voice of sanity on the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yesterday, he tweeted:

“We cannot repair the economy, restore our vitality, or relish life’s most precious moments — hugging a grandchild, birthdays, weddings, graduations, all the moments that matter most to us — until we get this virus under control.”

And true to his word, this appears to be the first thing on his agenda.

Tomorrow he is expected to name a group of leading scientists and experts as transition advisers so his administration can get started combating the virus on inauguration day, Jan. 20, 2021.

The Coronavirus Task Force is expected to be led by former Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy and Dr. David Kessler, who led the Food and Drug Administration during the 1990s.

Specifically, Biden’s plan calls for empowering scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help set national guidance based on evidence to stop outbreaks, work on a vaccine, testing, contact tracing and other services.

His administration would use the CDC to provide specific guidance — based on the degree of viral spread in a community — for how to open schools and businesses, when to impose restrictions on gathering sizes or when stay-at-home orders may be necessary.

He would create a national “pandemic dashboard” to share this information with the public.

He would work with every governor to make mask-wearing in public mandatory in their state – a measure that, alone, could save more than 100,000 lives.

He would make sure that everyone has access to regular, reliable, free testing.

He would hire 100,000 additional public health workers to coordinate with local organizations around the country to perform contact tracing and other health services. These people would help with everything from food insecurity and affordable housing to training school officials about when and how to make it safe to reopen buildings.

He proposes the federal government cover 100% of the cost of Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA) coverage for the duration of the crisis for people who get sick from the virus. If someone loses employer-based health insurance, they would still have health insurance through this plan.

He also will push to strengthen the Affordable Care Act, expanding coverage by making more people eligible.

He’d use the Defense Production Act to increase production of masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment so that supply exceeds demand.

I don’t know about you, but to me this seems a breath of fresh air. It is what the federal government should do and what it hasn’t been doing under Trump.

And I see no reason why the Biden administration can’t get it done.

5) Biden Can’t Afford to Re-up Betsy DeVos’ Education Policies

When it comes to public education, neither party has really been an ally to teachers and students.

Betsy DeVos was worse than President Obama’s Education Secretaries – Arne Duncan and John King. But let’s not fool ourselves that these Democratic functionaries were any good, either.

They all supported charter schools, high stakes testing, increased segregation, the school-to-prison pipeline, evaluating teachers on student test scores, targeted disinvestment to schools in poor neighborhoods serving mostly students of color, and more.

Duncan and King were competent at destroying public education while hiding behind neoliberal rhetoric. DeVos was incompetent in every conceivable way and could barely hide her glee at the prospect of destroying public education.

Since Biden’s wife, Jill, was an actual teacher, he has more to lose than previous chief executives if he gets this wrong. He can’t take schools for granted and he can’t appear to be doubling down on the same policies of Trump and DeVos – which to be honest were mostly the same as those of Obama and Bush but on steroids.

Biden promised a public school teacher would be his next education secretary and Politico is already making predictions. The media outlet suggests ex-National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten or Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond.

Frankly, we could do much worse than any of these people. Hammond, in particular, was Obama’s education policy advisor UNTIL he was elected and changed courses to the neoliberal set.

Of all the hurdles coming his way, I have the least hope Biden will overcome this one.

Pressure will be huge for him to pick another supply side hack with little actual education experience.

But who knows? The stakes are high. Jill has his ear.

We can make our voices heard, cross our fingers and hope for the best.

At a time when teachers are struggling just to have a safe environment in which to work, actual education policy is almost a distant luxury.

For the meantime, I’ll give Joe a chance and remain cautiously optimistic.

The ball is in Biden’s hands. He deserves the right to make a shot.

And if he misses, at least we can celebrate the end of the Muslim ban, reinstating the DREAM Act, rejoining the Paris Climate Accords, rejoining the World Health Organization and the restoration of a functioning federal government to the USA.


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

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

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

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

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

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.

So what am I to do?

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

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

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

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

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

However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.

Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.

The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.

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

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

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

So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.

I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.

In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.

Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.

Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.

If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

…I’LL STILL BE PAID WHEN I’M ON LEAVE.

It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.

So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.

In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.

So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.

But no. He said he knew all about it.

He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.

I couldn’t believe it.

I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.

I got the same answer.

So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.

Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.

So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.

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

But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.

I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.

And that’s what I’d really like to do.

I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.

Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.

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

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

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

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

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

I have a wife and daughter.

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

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

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

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

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

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

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

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

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

You just have to look at the facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

I don’t want to have to contradict the school board and my administrators.

I don’t want to have to insert myself into this debate.

But I feel like I have no other choice.

Since I don’t live in the district, I can’t go to the school board meeting and speak.

And when I have expressed my concerns to those in charge, they have been repeatedly brushed aside.

So I am putting them out there in the public space.

This is what a Steel Valley teacher really thinks about this proposed plan.

This is what I feel I must say even at the risk of my job and future in this district – the proposed plan should not be adopted. We should continue with virtual instruction until infection rates in the county are extremely low.

The proposed plan would have students dividing into two groups – one would attend in the mornings and the other in the afternoons.

Both groups would have all of their classes for 20 minutes each for four days a week – Monday – Thursday. Friday would be a half day virtual learning day.

Consider that students currently have their full classes on-line for four days a week. Wednesday is an asynchronous learning day.

So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.

And this is true even for double period classes. Two 20 minute in-person classes is better than one, but not as good as two 40 minute virtual classes.

Just imagine it.

If this plan is approved, students and staff would be rushing here-and-there for the tiniest fraction of possible instruction in-person, and then rush home to do the mountains of classwork that would be necessary to move forward at all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine this large scale.

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

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

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

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

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

The result is an increase in infections.

And that will continue to happen until we work together to provide a coordinated defense against the pandemic.

You can’t have half of the schools close their doors and the other half keep them open and expect the virus to just stop. You can’t have some people wear facial masks in public and others go without and expect the virus to disappear.

We need to work together or else prepare ourselves to hunker down for a very long COVID season. Or – even worse – a very short one.

If you are a resident of Munhall, Homestead or West Homestead and you feel the same way I do, I am begging you to go to the school board meetings.

Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.

It will result in many, many people getting sick.

Some may die. Others may have life-long debilitating complications as a result of the virus.

That’s just not worth it.

That’s just not worth a little more in-person instruction and a little less out-of-pocket childcare costs.

Healthcare, hospital stays and funeral preparations are much more expensive.

Thank you for hearing me out.


 

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