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


 
 


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


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


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


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


 
“So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools.” 


 
The response was in answer to citizens comments.  


 
Greg Kristen and I went to the board meeting hoping to get answers – and we did.  

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


 
“Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the County Health Department,” Holtzman said. 


 
 “They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.” 


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
“I know I would not feel comfortable.” 


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


 
“I am in a large public school system… I am hearing and seeing two different approaches. I am very appreciative of what the board’s efforts in Pittsburgh have been to keep us safe and keep our students safe. I just want to be an advocate that we are doing everything we can even if it’s erring on the side of caution.” 


 
District Solicitor Gary Matta was concerned about the issue as well.

 
 
“We’re getting some mixed signals between the state and the county,” he said. 


 
“The state is directing us to deal with the county health department if we have one.”  


 
He suggested the district get recommendations in writing from the county health department before following any of its advice. 


 
In addition to questions about whether it was safe to keep district buildings open during a COVID-19 outbreak, Holtzman addressed district transparency. 


 
 
I asked him to compile a dashboard on the district Website with the following information: 


“1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began? 
 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  
 
3) How many are located at each school building?  
 
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.” 


 
He could not give me all I asked for at the meeting.  


 
Holtzman said that 10 people have tested positive in the district since school opened – 9 of them recently. He said there have been cases at all four buildings – the high school, Founders Hall, Twin Rivers and Francis McClure elementary schools.  


 
He was able to break down 8 of the 10 cases. 


He said:  
 
 
“In the last 7 days…. We’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one maintenance/support employee.” 


 
Holtzman admitted that having a dashboard on the district Website was a good idea but fell short of committing to providing that ongoing data. 


 
“A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion,” he said. 


 
“It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret – it’s a challenging situation…  A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’s something we’re going to take into consideration.”


 
Kristen brought up the issues of contact tracing and increasing class sizes at Twin Rivers that may make it difficult for students to engage in social distancing. 


 
“Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov. 2,” he said. 


 
“They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.” 
 
 
Holtzman said some students whose parents had chosen remote learning had decided to return them to the physical classroom at the start of the new grading period. However, others had decided to remove their children from the physical buildings and put them on remote. 


 
 
“We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.” 


 
About a third of district students have been doing remote lessons since the year began.  


 
Kristen said his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be within 3 feet.  


 
Holtzman disputed this: 


 
 “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best.” 


 
Kristen asked about contact tracing at Twin Rivers where teachers had tested positive. 


 
He wanted to know if students had been tested, and Holtzman responded that they had not. 


 
“Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number.” He said. 


 
“At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed… 


 
 “When we do interviewing – when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing – we ask them, ‘Where you in somebody’s personal space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. So-and-So, then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.”  


 
He admitted that the effectiveness of this process depends on how honest and detailed those testing positive are when listing the people they have come into contact with while contagious. 


 
Below is a transcript of our public comments and Dr. Holtzman’s responses: 



 
 
Kristen:  


 
“Dear school board members. Thank you for letting me speak here tonight.  As a resident of this district for 15 years, as well as having a daughter a Twin Rivers Elementary School, I am deeply, deeply concerned with the lack of transparency about the Coronavirus infections. As of today, MASD has 9 positive cases… We have a right to know [who they are] not their names but their positions. According to CDC guidelines if there are two cases within a school, it is to be shut down for 5-7 days. For 5 or more cases, the building should be shut down for up to 14 days. Why is that not happening? Is the health and safety of the students, teachers, administrators, staff and maintenance not important to you? When positive cases happen in the building, who was in charge for contract tracing and notifying the Allegheny County Health Department? If they did not notify the health department, are they being held accountable? And I mean terminated. Were the parents of the students notified of the teachers and staff who were affected in the schools? Were the students tested? Is there any contract tracing with them? Also why is there not a healthcare professional a part of the Coronavirus task force?  


 
Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov.2.  They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.  


 
This Coronavirus is not a hoax. People are dying every day. As of today, 222,000 people have died, and people like myself who have an underlying health condition are concerned about people transferring the virus to me or to someone close to me. In this county alone there 14,396 cases and 416 deaths.  On Oct 14 which was just a week ago Rachel Levine, the state health secretary announced a second wave of Coronavirus has arrived here. Now that the flu season has arrived, what is MASD doing? Does a student, teacher, administrator, staff or maintenance person have to die for someone to take this serious? Thank you very much.” 


 
 
 Dr. Mark Holtzman: 


 
“Mr. Kristen, I’m happy to address a couple of your concerns. A few things.

 
 
We’ve had 8 positive tests in the last 7 days. So that is correct. The CDC guidelines are recommendations by the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Education and state health department. (muffled) The Alleghney County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in Allegheny County. So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools. I will ensure to tell you positively I have spoke to the Alleghney County Health Department probably just this week once a day. The head epidemeologisr Dr. Luann Brink and the director of the health department Dr. [Debra] Bogen and I have conference calls with her every Tuesday at 2 o’clock. Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the Allegheny County Health Department. They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.  


 
The concerns are the issues with Allegheny County Health Department are the rate of positivity here in the city of McKeesport and the surrounding communities. That’s number 1. Transmission is a huge piece of it. Is it being transmitted in the schools? Is it being brought into the schools from the outside? Contract tracing does occur on each and every case. All that information is submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department with details, time stamped, dates, everything we could possibly provide to those individuals. Fortunately or unfortunately we have to rely on that individual. For example, if you’re an employee that tests positive for COVID, we have to interview you. The information that you share with us, we have to then share with the Allegheny County Health Department. Whether you’re honest, dishonest , whether you’re detailed, whether you forgot someone, you didn’t include anyone as part of your contact tracing, that becomes your prerogative. We as a district just have to report that information to the health department and they make a final determination.  


 
So at this particular time unfortunately we’re at the bottom of the document that’s been referenced many, many times, it states that when an entire school is recommended to be closed, closure time will vary depending on level of community transmission, and number of cases. Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number. ‘This allows public health staff the necessary time to complete case investigation and contact tracing and to provide schools with other appropriate public health advice like cleaning and disinfecting.’ At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed.  
 


So at this particular time, I know there is frustration, I know there’s contradictory information out there, but we are working closely with the health department and they have done an outstanding job guiding us and every school district has a tough decision to make. So I appreciate you expressing your concerns this afternoon, this evening, later than it should be we appreciate it and if there’s anything we can do moving forward, we’d be happy to help.” 
 


[Holtzamn said three teachers tested positive at Twin rivers Elementary. All students in those classes were not tested. Each student Is placed 6 feet apart.  A close contact has to be within 6 feet for 15 consecutive minutes.] 


 
Holtzman: “When we do interviewing, when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing, we ask them ‘[Where you in somebody’s person space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. so-and-so then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.  


 
Now we could absorb those things. As Superintendent I’m in the schools daily, and I’m able to see some of the teachers and [their actions]. The students are already placed 6 feet apart, so therefore they are already socially distanced. We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.  


 
[Kristen says his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be 3 feet.] 
 


Holtzman: “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best and will hold all those expectations considering the fact that we have to educate the children that are interested in returning to school. We can’t just turn them away…. As many kids that are coming in, many are leaving for online learning for many reasons.” 


 
MY COMMENTS: 


 
“Thank you for letting me address the board this evening.  


 
As a lifelong resident and the father of a child who attends the district, I am alarmed by news about an outbreak of COVID-19 at our school buildings, a lack of transparency about that information and a lack of proper safety response to the outbreak.  


 
First, when I am finished with my comments, I ask that you clarify for me some facts about the outbreak.  


 
1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began? 


 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  


 
3) How many are located at each school building?  


 
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned. 


 
 
That information should be constantly available on the district Website throughout the pandemic. It should not just be on alerts that come and go, robocalls or emails. 


 
Every taxpayer has the right to that information – which is easy to compile – and necessary so parents and community members can make smart decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe in the McKeesport Area.  


 
 
Next, I am concerned about the district’s blasé response to these life threatening conditions.  


 
According to the state Department of Education Website, in a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days. 


 
Haven’t we met this threshold?  


 
According to your recent alerts, at least 9 people have tested positive in the district in the last week – 3 students and 6 teachers. And this is spread throughout all district buildings.  
 


There is no way to divide that up without at least one of our four buildings in the danger zone. 


 
Doesn’t that mean that at least at some buildings – probably Twin Rivers, Francis McClure and/or the the High School – we have met this benchmark? Don’t each of those schools have two or more cases?  


 
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?  


 
Moreover, according to the PDE Website, if there are multiple cases at multiple schools where the infected are not household contacts, the schools are supposed to be closed not just for 5-7 days but a full two weeks.  


 
Have we met that threshold? And if so, why are the buildings not closed? 


 
I do not understand what precautions you are taking to keep students and staff safe.  


 
I understand that PDE defines “Close Contact” as being within 6 feet for at least 15 consecutive minutes of a person who has tested positive. However, the Website cautions that this should not be taken as the ONLY definition of such contact: “In some school situations, it might be difficult to determine whether individuals are contacts or whether an entire cohort, classroom, or other group (extracurricular activity members) might need to be considered exposed, particularly if people have spent time together indoors.” 


 
You say these cases have all been contained. But you have done very little to assure the public of this and could be taking much greater precautions on our behalf.  


 
We’re talking about children here. We’re talking about our staff – people who have served generations of families and who often have families of their own.  


 
Can’t you do better for the people in this district?  
 


I would suggest that you at least follow PDE recommendations in the effected buildings.  


 
Furthermore, I think you should cancel all in-person classes and go to a fully remote education plan until the infection rate in the county and the community is designated as low.   


 
Have the classroom teachers make the online curriculum and let students and families choose whether they wish to go through that curriculum synchronously or asynchronously. And do not outsource the virtual program to ed tech companies looking to cash in on their credit recovery programs – as you are currently doing with Edmentum.  


 
Going to a fully virtual plan would be in the best interests of students, families and the community.  


 
Please do your duty.” 


 
 
Holtzman: 


 
“Mr. Singer, Thank you. I appreciate you spending some time with us again today. I don’t know, Dr. (muffled) do you have the numbers he’s requesting off hand? I only have the last seven days in front of me. If not, I’ll make sure you get them. 


 
Voice: I don’t have them with me. 


 
Holtzman: Prior to this situation we’ve had very few so… the difference between staff and students, we currently have in the last 7 days… we’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one mainatance/support employee. Furthermore, I feel that we’ll agree to disagree that instruction in person is the priority for engaging children. Our students have received progress reports. You as an educator I’m sure are quite aware that the online learning platform is not engaging all children. Many children are struggling and failing courses, here ate McKeesport and all over the Commonwealth. I think it’s a big issue for all school leadership trying to find new creative ways to engage children whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. So for us here at McKeesport we’re very fortunate to have had this huge donation of devices. We are going to consider doing some flexible instruction in the very near future to kind of make sure we have all of the pieces in place to provide synchronous instruction affectively. But sadly a lot of our students have chosen either to not log in or not be consistent in the work they’re trying to perform online. So we’ll continue to encourage our children to be in schools, we’ll continue to do our very best   
 
 
 
ME: Would you commit to putting the information I asked for before onto the district Website? 


 
Holtzman: You bring a good point because you know there are some districts using… a ticker to keep track. To be honest I didn’t know it would be necessary so that’s something we need to consider. A dashboard is a better description. It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret it’s a challenging situation… Also to answer your question, we’ve had a total of 10 cases since the start of the school year. We’re still waiting for confirmation on two of those but we’re pretty confident. A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion. A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’something we’re going to take into consideration.  


 
[Holtzman admitted there was at least one case at every building but not elementary students.]


 


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The Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

Teaching is one of the few things in life that is not concerned with now.

It is essentially about the future.

We put all this time and energy into helping kids learn. Why?

Not so that they’ll be able to do anything today. But so that they’ll be able to do things tomorrow.

Sure they may be able to read better or solve math problems, but the reason we want them to know that isn’t so much about what they’ll do with it as adolescents. It’s how those skills will shape the people they grow up to be.

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

We take a bit of today and invest it in tomorrow.


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

The west is on fire. Storms are threatening our southern coasts. Police brutality is out of control and bands of neofascist thugs are given free rein to beat and murder protesters. We’ve separated immigrant families and put their kids in cages. The President has lied to us, disparaged our troops, bragged about breaking countless laws and the government is powerless to stop him. Our political system and social fabric is coming apart at the seams. And everyone from the average Joe to the lawmakers who represent him can’t get up the gumption to take precautions against the killer virus that has already put more Americans in their graves than every war since WWII.

You look at the raging dumpster fire around you and wonder – how do we invest in the future when we aren’t sure there will be one?

I’ve had students in my on-line class for only two days so far.

And it’s been great.

They show up in record numbers smiling and ready to learn.

We talk, they tell me about their summers, and I remember how much I love teaching.

But I had to fight almost every day from June through August just so the school building wouldn’t become an incubation center for COVID-19 and classes could be conducted through the Internet.

I’m not saying it was all me that did it, but I fought and worried and cajoled and wrote and begged and did everything I could think to do. And it very nearly didn’t happen.

Summer is supposed to be a break after the stresses of a long school year. And 2019-20 was perhaps the most difficult year I’ve ever had teaching.

But 2020-21 has already promised to be much more challenging.

After all, when you have to fight just for the safety of your children and yourself as a prerequisite to everything that happens in your class, how much strength is there left for actual teaching?

My district has committed to being on-line only through September, so the fight continues month-by-month.

Where are the local newspapers that would have reported on each school district as people test positive for the virus and others are contact traced? We closed most of them and downsized the newsrooms of others to make up lost advertising revenue.

If you’re not a supersized district serving millions, they only report on bed bugs, poorly trained security guards or whatever public relations statement the superintendent released today.

So we trudge on in silence just hoping to get through the day.

And what days they are!

Teaching on-line is a heck of a lot more work.

You’ve got to plan for just about everything. You put the assignments on Google Classroom and set up the Zoom meetings and make your handouts into PDFs and try to digitize your books and figure out how classroom policies designed around a physical space can be revised for cyber space. You answer countless questions and concerns, videotaping your lessons for those who can’t be there in person. You try to make things interesting with new apps, new software, new grading systems, new approaches to the same material you’ve been teaching for over a decade.

And it never ends.

By the time the day is supposed to be over, the emails are still rolling in, the assignments are still being submitted, administrators are making pronouncements, and you haven’t even finished all the things you have to do to get ready for tomorrow yet.

When is there time for my family? When do I have time to make dinner or check on my own child’s progress in her own online experience?

What’s worse is that when things go wrong, I’m afraid to bring them up for fear that some decision maker long removed from the classroom will simply shoot from the hip and end on-line instruction.

We had all summer to plan how to do this better, but we spent all that time diddling about WHETHER we should teach on-line or not. We should have just bit the bullet and worked on improving the quality of instruction instead of putting all our chips on the gambit that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Now – as usual – it’s all in the hands of everyday classroom teachers. We’re left to just figure it out.

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

I love finding new ways of doing things and seeing if they’ll work out better. I’m excited about seeing how my students will react to a Bitmoji classroom or a new Kahoot or this video or not being hassled if they keep their cameras off in Zoom.

I know on-line teaching can never really hold a candle to in-person instruction. But that’s not an option right now. And pretending like reality is something different than it is will do no one any good.

But just saying something positive about cyber schooling gets the technophobes coming down on you.

They’re so scared that online teaching will replace real, live educators that they can’t admit of any positive qualities to the new normal.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with them. I fear that, too. But it’s a war we have to wage later. Just like the election.

Biden is not great on education. Trump is worse. So we have to support Biden while we prepare to fight him in January. And that’s IF we can both defeat Trump at the polls and somehow avoid a constitutional crisis if he refuses to leave the Oval Office willingly.

Everything is one fight after another. We have to win this battle before we can wage the next one.

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

Everyone is worn out, but no one more so than classroom teachers.

We’re caught at the crossroads of nearly every conflagration in America.

I sit here on a Sunday afternoon and my bones feel like boulders under my skin.

I sleep like a beaten boxer – all bruises under the sheets.

But I’ll wake up on Monday, make myself a cup of tea and trudge back to my computer screen ready to begin again.

Because despite it all, there is a core part of me that still believes.

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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Top 10 Reasons to Vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 General Election

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With Bernie Sanders dropping out of the 2020 Democratic Primary, I can think of only these 10 reasons to vote for Joe Biden in the November general election:

 

10) He’s not Donald Trump.

9) He’s not Donald Trump.

8) He’s not Donald Trump.

7) He’s not Donald Trump.

6) He’s not Donald Trump.

5) He’s not Donald Trump.

4) He’s not Donald Trump.

3) He’s not Donald Trump.

2) He’s not Donald Trump.

1) He’s not Donald Trump.

 


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How Did America’s Schools Cope with Spanish Flu vs. Coronavirus?

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They say history repeats itself.

 

And if you’ve read any accounts of the bygone days of yesteryear, the current crisis certainly appears like a rerun.

 

Look at all the closed businesses, frightened people venturing out wearing face masks or self quarantined in their homes. It sure looks a lot like 1918.

 

The Spanish Flu epidemic that swept the nation a little more than a century ago bares more than a passing resemblance to COVID-19, the coronavirus. And the ways we are trying to cope with the situation are in many cases modeled on what worked a hundred years ago.

 

For instance, when our ancestors enacted social distancing policies to flatten the curve of infection, their infrastructures were better able to save lives. When they didn’t enact such policies, death tolls were greater.

 

That’s one of the major reasons many of us today are shut in our homes waiting this whole thing out. We want to give the hospitals a chance to deal with the cases that come in without people all getting sick at once and making a run on ventilators.

 

However, history has less to say about how we handle things like education.

 

After all, our forebears didn’t have as unified a response.

 

In general, closing schools was better to stop the spread of disease than keeping them open.

 

But what about actual academics? How did our progenitors make up missed work?

 

There-in lies a tale.

 

America’s school system seems to have met the crisis in three separate ways.

 

They either closed entirely, remained open or forced teachers to educate at a distance.

 

Wait. Educate at a distance? In 1918?

 

Yep.

 

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

PITTSBURGH

 
Let’s begin in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

 
City officials didn’t take the matter seriously enough and as a result, Pittsburgh ended up with the highest death rate of any major city in the country. The Spanish Flu killed at least 4,500 people – a smaller total than cities like Philadelphia, but it represented more than 1 in every 100 residents. Nearly 24,000 people sought treatment at local hospitals.

 

According to reports made to the city health department, things got so bad that at the epidemic’s worst, someone in Pittsburgh got the flu every 70 seconds and someone died from it every 10 minutes.

 

This resulted in a casket shortage across Western Pennsylvania as far away as Greensburg. Even in distant Ligonier, signs were posted along Lincoln Highway warning motorists, “You stop at your own peril.”

 

City officials were at least partly to blame.

 

Though local colleges and universities such as the University of Pittsburgh, Duquesne, and Carnegie Tech all closed their doors near the start of the outbreak, city public schools initially were kept open.

 

In early October, State Health Commissioner B. Franklin Royer made the decision not to close public schools, though Pittsburgh school administrators decided that anyone who was coughing or sneezing should be sent home.

 

However, as Kenneth White put it in his 1985 article “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918”:

 

“Enterprising students quickly discovered that a pinch of snuff or pepper, inhaled in school, provided a sure passport to freedom.”

 
By October 22, city council reviewed a report that 27,357 children – about one-third of the student body – were absent from school. Of this number, council knew of 6,070 students who had the flu and 53 who had died. In addition, many parents kept their children home for fear they’d get sick.

 

Only then were city schools closed – about three weeks after the epidemic took hold in the area.

 

Some surrounding districts like Ben Avon had closed schools as early as October 5. But many had followed the city’s example and suffered similar consequences.

 

Pittsburgh schools reopened on November 18. Though the Spanish Flu was not completely gone, it came back in two more waves through the area – however, neither was as devastating as the first crash.

 

I can find nothing specific about how surviving students made up missed academic work. Only that they missed 19 school days of class during the closure.

 

NEW YORK CITY

 

New York City reacted in a similar fashion as Pittsburgh but with different results.

 

While Pittsburgh’s mortality rate was nearly 1 in 100, New York’s was 4.7 per 1,000. City officials recorded approximately 30,000 deaths out of a population of roughly 5.6 million resulting from influenza or pneumonia.

 

However, just like Pittsburgh, New York kept its schools open.

 

In an October 5th New York Times article, Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland explained his logic behind the controversial decision to keep students in class:

 

“New York is a great cosmopolitan city and in some homes there is careless disregard for modern sanitation… In schools the children are under the constant guardianship of the medical inspectors. This work is part of our system of disease control. If the schools were closed at least 1,000,000 would be sent to their homes and become 1,000,000 possibilities for the disease. Furthermore, there would be nobody to take special notice of their condition.”

 

In short, Copeland figured the schools could do a better job of ensuring children’s safety than their parents.

 

In class, teachers were expected to give each student a daily medical inspection and report the results to the school nurse and/or medical professionals.

 

According to Francesco Aimone in “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in New York City: A Review of the Public Health Response”:

 

“School nurses and medical inspectors were instructed to follow up on teacher inspections and conduct home visits on absentee students to determine whether “… they or members of their family are sick, that physical examinations be carefully made, and that dry sweeping [in their home] be discontinued and ventilation sufficient.”

 
Many disagreed with Copeland’s decision including the Red Cross of Long Island.

 

Former Health Commissioner Dr. S.S. Goldwater put the blame squarely on the teachers who inspected students with “almost criminal laxity” and found the follow-up inspections “lamentably weak.”

 

CHICAGO

 

However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.

 

Keeping schools open in the Windy City more closely emulated the situation in Pittsburgh.

 

According to a timeline of preventive measures published in the American Journal of Public Health by Chicago’s Health Commissioner Dr. John Dill Robertson, city schools weren’t closed because officials didn’t think children were getting sick more than adults. They thought it would be better to keep students indoors where they could be watched for symptoms.

 

However, children ended up dying from the flu in Chicago at a higher rate than their parents.

 

Like in Pittsburgh, any student who coughed or sneezed was immediately sent home – though eventually this also came with a mandatory home quarantine.

 

SMALLER TOWNS

 
Officials were more sensible in smaller towns like Adrian and Tecumseh, Michigan.

 

In both municipalities all schools were closed by the end of October when the epidemic began there.

 

By Dec. 12 there was a plan to reopen, however that was revised as the death toll continued to rise. Schools ultimately remained closed until January 1919.

 

Schools made up the missing days of class by extending the remaining year.
They stayed open for 30 minutes beyond their usual dismissal time and held half-day sessions on Saturdays.

 

Another small town that wasn’t taking chances was Pontiac, Illinois.

 

Not only did officials close the schools, they ended up using them as field hospitals for the sick.

 

Moreover, when classes were cancelled, school age children were forbidden from leaving their homes unless they had to run an errand. Anyone with the flu was immediately quarantined in his or her home.

 

Schools were closed on October 15 for what was originally supposed to be just five weeks. However, when the second wave of the flu hit, the closure was extended.

 

Things got so bad that from December 3rd through January 1st, school buildings were used as a hospital to treat those with the flu.

 

By early January, the worst had passed and schools were reopened. Beginning on January 10, 1919, the high school held an extra session on Saturday to help make up some of the missed class work.

 

This seems to be the general pattern. Larger cities tried to push on and keep things as normal as possible – with usually disastrous results. Smaller towns took more serious precautions and limited the death toll.

 

LAKELAND, FLORIDA

 

And then there’s Lakeland, Florida.

 
Leave it to this district in Polk County to be the oddball.

 

On Oct. 10, the schools were officially closed. But not really.

 

Superintendent of Lakeland Schools Charles Jones and Polk County Board of Public Instruction Superintendent John Moore ordered teachers to continue to report to work so they could help any students who needed remediation.
Jones wrote in the local Ledger newspaper:

 

“While the teachers will meet at the school building each day for the purpose of assisting any child who is deficient in certain subjects or all subjects, yet I want it understood that the pupils may see the teachers at their homes any time for instruction.”

 

Such instruction could be given over the telephone, if necessary, he added.

 

Moore took the matter a step further saying in a resolution published in the paper that teachers who failed to report to school or help students could have their pay docked.

 

Much of this proto-distance learning involved communication in the local paper.

 

Its pages included assignments from teachers to students and even teachers home phone numbers if students needed help.
 Examples of these assignments included reading passages from Shakespeare to drawing a map of North America.

 

IMPLICATIONS

 

The strangest thing about this incomplete survey of school responses is how much our current system is acting like Lakeland, Florida.

 

Almost all present day schools are closed with students supposedly self quarantined at home. This helps flatten the curve and minimize the chances of infection.

 

However, instead of waiting for the crisis to pass before addressing any academic deficiencies, many districts are requiring distance learning.

 

Teachers are being made to go in to school buildings or work from home creating online courses from scratch with little to no training.

 

True, this doesn’t expose educators to an added risk of catching the virus, themselves, but it does seem a bit mercenary.

 

We’re in a public health crisis where thousands of people are getting sick and dying. And the thing ourschool administrators are most concerned about is continued academic performance. They’d rather keep going with whatever quality of instruction can be provided in slapdash fashion than wait until it can be provided in the best possible circumstances.

 

They’d rather risk leaving behind those students without Internet access or whose special needs can’t be met online. Anything rather than extending the school year?

 

It’s interesting to compare today’s solutions to those of yesteryear.

 

Why didn’t more districts in 1918 try to make teachers instruct students through the newspaper and over the phone? Why didn’t more districts make teachers go to school buildings and even students homes during an epidemic?

 

Are we really doing the right thing by emulating those solutions?


 

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There Are No Bernie Bros, Just Diverse Supporters Being Made Into What They’re Not

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It’s time to call the whole “Bernie Bros” phenomenon exactly what it is – racist, sexist, homophobic propaganda.

 

 

I don’t mean that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are any of those things.

 

 

I mean that the term used to lump us all together is.

 

 

There is no monolithic group of angry straight men backing the Vermont Senator’s bid for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020. Nor was there in 2016.

 

 
A substantial portion of Sanders’ supporters are female, racially diverse and/or LGBTQ.

 

 

Women under 45 make up a larger share of Sanders’ base than do men of the same age, according to February findings from The Economist.

 

 

Moreover, women have given more money to his campaign than to any other candidate.

 

 
In November, Sanders raised about $17.1 million in itemized contributions, or 40% of his total funds from women, according to Nicole Goodkind of Fortune.

 

 

In particular, that’s more than $13 million in small donations from nearly 280,000 suburban women. And he took in more than $2 million more from suburban women in large donations.

 

 

Women support him just as much as men do, “if not more,” according to a Vox analysis of polling between November 2018 and March 2019.

 

 

But he’s also extremely popular with people of color.

 

 

In fact, the same Vox analysis found that Sanders is more popular among people of color than among white people.

 

 

Heck! Sanders’ polling numbers with black voters were double that of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) who was also seeking the nomination before dropping out in December, according to a March Morning Consult poll – and Harris actually is a person of color.

 

 

Both The Economist’s latest numbers and Univision Noticias poll found Sanders was the second choice of Latino and Hispanic voters after former front runner Joe Biden. Moreover, 39% of Latinos in California said they prefer Sanders, compared to 21% for Biden and 5% for Warren, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

 

 

Meanwhile, he also has strong support in the LGBTQ community.

 

 

Sanders is the first-choice for 34 percent of Democratic primary voters who identify as LGBTQ, according to the latest Morning Consult poll. That’s more than Elizabeth Warren at 19%, Joe Biden at 18%, Michael Bloomberg at 7%, even Pete Buttigieg at 12% – and Buttigieg is openly gay.

 

 

Sanders has a long record of supporting gay rights. In the 1980s as Burlington mayor, he proclaimed a Gay Pride Day, while during his tenure in the House, he opposed both the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – a law that barred gay and lesbian military service members from proclaiming their sexual orientation. And in 2009, Sanders endorsed marriage rights for gay couples — three years before then-Vice President Biden did the same.

 

 
If that’s not enough, the Sanders campaign has women and people of color in prominent leadership positions.

 

 

Two women of color, Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, are co-chairs of the campaign, along with Indian-American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. Sanders’ campaign manager is longtime progressive activist Faiz Shakir.

 

 

Are all these women and minorities really Bernie Bros?

 

 
The term was coined four years ago by Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer to characterize those backing the Vermont Senator as mansplaining internet trolls – a sexist mob who refused to support Hillary Clinton because of her gender and not her neoliberal policies and anti-progressive history.

 

 

And that’s really the crux of it.

 

 

The Bernie Bros phenomenon is an attempt to use identity politics to minimize the beliefs of people – to paste over their actual identities as real, live women and men, to erase the opinions of diverse people – to create a fake picture of who these people are.

 

 

But don’t take my word for it. Take that of Barbara Smith, the black feminist author who coined the term “identity politics” and has thrown her support behind Sanders in 2016 and 2020:

 

 

“It was absolutely meaningful for Bernie Sanders or for anyone else to say, ‘No, I’m going to step away from that white-skin privilege, I’m going to interrogate what is going on here around race. And then I’m going to do what most people never do: I’m going to actually put my body on the line and take a stand and work with those whose oppression we are committed to ending,’ That’s what Bernie Sanders did.”

 

 

Bernie’s opponents are trying to weaponize the language of civil rights activism against that very same movement.

 

 

To dismiss his supporters as “Bernie Bros” is just not true.

 

 

It is merely tone policing – an attempt to silence passionate political advocacy because it is too loud, too enthusiastic and – frankly – too nonwhite, lower class and ideologically progressive.

 

 

To be sure there are some belligerent Bernie supporters out there – just as there are for every candidate running.

 

 

But to suggest that Bernie’s supporters are somehow more ill-tempered, rude or unwilling to compromise is to display your own prejudices.

 

 

Clinton is not even running for anything in 2020, yet she misses no opportunity to attack Sanders as unliked and has even said she would not support him if he won the nomination. She repeatedly criticizes him as unsupportive once she locked up the party’s nomination in 2016, yet Sanders relentlessly campaigned for her in the last two months before the election – appearing at 39 rallies in 13 states on her behalf.

 

 

In fact, her supporters tried a similar bit of propaganda back in 2008 when she was running against Barack Obama where Clinton supporter Rebecca Traister ran an article in Salon entitled, “Hey, Obama boys: Back off already!”

 

thumbnail_IMG_9317

 

This is just more establishment propaganda meant to divide progressive voters who actually care about social justice issues so that the big money candidates can more easily get the party’s nomination.

 

 

It is insinuation, libel and slander. It is racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ.

 

 

And though most of the remaining Democratic candidates are white, Bernie is also a minority. He’s Jewish.

 

 

Their carping on his irritating voice and mannerisms border on the anti-Semitic.

 

 

But no one talks about that – least of all Bernie who is too busy talking about policies that would benefit us alloften in a Jewish Brooklyn accent.

 

 

Moderates complain that regardless of the primary, in the general election we must vote blue no matter who. It is imperative we end the Trump presidency in any way possible.

 

 

Erasing the voices of the most energetic and committed constituency in the election is not the way to accomplish this.

 

 

A significant share of Sanders supporters — myself included — consider Warren their second choice, and if she wins the party’s nomination, would cast a ballot for her with little to no hesitation. And this despite her own foray into bogus accusations of sexism against Sanders that backfired actually increasing his support among women and minorities.

 

 

Sanders’ supporters willingness to consider other nominees besides their top choice will probably depend to a large degree on the fairness with which the primary is conducted.

 

 

As we saw in Iowa, the Democratic Party has not committed itself to ensuring this goal.

 

 

If anything is likely to derail a Democratic victory in 2020, it is that partisanship and incompetence.

 

 

If we want any chance at uniting behind a common candidate – Sanders or otherwise – we need to stop deleting our strongest allies under such a false characterization.

 

 

Let the people decide who they want to represent them against Trump.

 

 

And when they support Sanders, respect that decision without degrading them behind a prejudicial and politically convenient lie.

 

 

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Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

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Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

 

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Public School Teacher Questions for 2020 Dem Presidential Candidates

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What happens when you give a microphone to a public school teacher?

 

 

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know, because we so rarely let educators speak in any context other than the classroom.

 

 

Maybe that’s why it’s so refreshing that MSNBC is hosting “Public Education Forum 2020: Equity and Justice for All”on Saturday, Dec. 14, in my hometown of Pittsburgh.

 

 

Public policy is usually made by billionaires who tell their think tanks what to write up and then give it to legislators to vote it into law.

 

 

But ask parents, students, community members or – God forbid! – school teachers about what we should do with something as mundane as education!? That’s crazy talk!

 

 

Well, the Democrats, at least, are taking it seriously.

 

 

The candidates who are expected to attend Saturday’s forum include: Former Vice President Joe Biden; Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana; billionaire businessman Tom Steyer; and Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

 

 

All the presidential candidates who either qualified for the October debate or hold statewide office were invited to attend, according to organizers.

 

 

And guess who else will be there?

 

 

ME!

 

 

Somehow your humble edu-blogger got an invite to the party – limited to an audience of about a thousand.

 

 

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to actually ask a question. I might spend the whole time listening, but that would be far from wasted.

 

 

Forcing candidates to tell educators to their faces what they intend for public schools is a worthwhile endeavor in itself.

 

 

But I must be honest – there is a possibility I may get the microphone and have the opportunity to ask something.

 

 

So I’ve prepared the following questions – one for each candidate expected to be at the forum:

 

 

 

Joe Biden

 

Biden

 

Your education plan triples the amount of money the federal government spends annually on low-income schools from about $16 billion to about $48 billion. That money is supposed to go to raising teachers’ salaries, Pre-K, and “more rigorous coursework.” My question is this: will you tie federal spending to standardized testing, Common Core and school privatization initiatives like your former boss Barack Obama did, and how does your position differ from Race to the Top and Obama’s other top down corporate education reforms?

 

 

Pete Buttigieg 

 

Mayor-Pete

 

You are infamous for taking money from some terrible people who want to destroy public schools – Reed Hastings, for example, the billionaire founder of Netflix, who wants to replace authentic public schools with charter-schools so that all schools are run by corporations and not elected school boards. Hastings has hosted fundraisers for you. He set aside $100 million to promote the privatization of public schools by charter-school expansion as well as served on the California State Board of Education, where he used his influence to minimize any regulation of charters. My question to you is this: how are any of us to take you seriously when you allow yourself to be bought and sold by the school privatization industry? How can we believe a thing you say when your vote has so obviously been up for sale to the highest bidder?

 

 

 

 

Amy Klobuchar

 

Amy-Klobuchar

 

You’ve said that you support national testing standards and that schools should be held to the highest benchmarks. You’ve also said you’ll work to help schools better measure comprehensive achievement. My question is this: how much and in what ways does your education policy differ from the reductive and corporate-driven policies of Barack Obama and George W. Bush? Would you continue to use biased and unscientific standardized assessments to measure student learningand then hold schools responsible for scores predicated on economic inequality and white supremacy?

 

 

Bernie Sanders

 

Bernie-Sanders

 

Along with Sen. Warren, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best any candidate who has sought the Democratic nomination has ever put forward. However, the weakest part of your plan concerns standardized testing. As recently as 2015, you voted to keep the same test and punish bogus accountability initiatives as Barack Obama and George W. Bush. My question is this: what happened to change your mind and would you please explain if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing fits in with your education policies?

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Warren

 

 

Elizabeth-Warren

 

Along with Sen. Sanders, you have one of the most progressive and comprehensive education plans of any candidate running in 2020. In fact, it’s one of the best of any candidate who has ever sought the Democratic nomination. However, you seem to equivocate on standardized testing and national academic standards. On the one hand, you say that you’re against high stakes testing, but on the other you speak about putting an emphasis on student careers, and aligning high school graduation requirements with that of colleges. You even say you’d direct “the Department of Education to issue guidance on how schools can leverage existing federal programs to facilitate education-to-workforce preparedness.” This sounds a lot like Barack Obama’s Race to the Top which held school funding hostage to regressive reforms and Common Core which used standardized tests to determine what would be taught in schools. My question is this: please explain exactly if and exactly how high stakes standardized testing and Common Core fit in with your education policies?

 

 

 

Tom Steyer

 

Tom_Steyer_by_Gage_Skidmore

 

Your campaign Website takes no stand on many issues important to educators, families and students including charter schools and standardized testing. Yet you’re a hedge fund billionaire who has donated at least $100,000 through your foundation to Teach for America in 2009. My question is this: what is your position on these policies – standardized testing, charter schools and Teach for America? Do you still think that a few weeks of a crash course is equal to a full teaching degree? Do you still think we need fake temporary teachers who are only committed to the classroom for a few years? Or is it better to have teaching be a respected vocation with highly educated and valued professionals?

 

HONORABLE MENTION

 

 

Finally, here’s a question I could ask to any and all of the candidates:

 

 

I want to ask you about charter schools. Why do we need them at all? Why do we need schools that are publicly funded but privately run? Shouldn’t public schools that accept public money have to accept public administration – elected school boards, transparency and accountability? Shouldn’t all public schools be required to accept all student who live in their coverage areas and not be allowed to cherry pick students? Wouldn’t it be better to close all charter schools that can’t meet the same requirements as authentic public schools and transition those that can to becoming fully public schools?

 

 

Well, those are my questions.

 

If anyone has any other suggestions, please post them in the comments. And if someone else this weekend or later in the campaign season happens to get a chance to query one of the candidates, feel free to use one or all of what I have compiled here.

 

My hope is that this interest in education isn’t just a political stunt but will translate to better school policies no matter who wins the election in 2020.

 


Livestream the education forum here on Saturday, Dec. 14, beginning at 9:45 am.


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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Pittsburgh School Board Candidate Anna Batista Takes Big Money From Special Interests

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“Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder.”

-George Washington

 

Anna Batista, a corporate consultant at Highstreet Consulting running for Pittsburgh School Board, is taking thousands of dollars in donations from big money interests.

 

A quick look at campaign finance reports on Allegheny County’s Website shows Batista took beaucoup bucks from school privatization lobbyists, real estate developers, lawyers, and financial advisors.

 

Meanwhile, her opponent Pam Harbin, a public school watchdog, is supported almost exclusively by grassroots donations.

 

 

Both candidates are running for District 4, which serves parts of Squirrel Hill, Point Breeze, Shadyside and North Oakland. Since they’ve cross filed and will appear on both the Republican and Democratic primary ballots, the seat should be decided in the May 21 primary.

 

Batista and Harbin have raised similar amounts for their campaigns. Harbin has $33,412.95 while Batista has $32,414.

 

Batista has support from at least two troubling industries – school privatizers and corporate crusaders – which are nowhere to be seen in her opponents financials.

 

Particularly troubling to me are the charter school and voucher advocates.

 

Someone shouldn’t be running for a public school board with backing from the same vultures demanding public schools be dismantled and their assets and funding siphoned away to private industry. Charter schools cost the Pittsburgh Public district more than $85 million per year in tuition payments. While the district has no plans to open new public schools, it is forced to open new charter schools every time one of these publicly financed but privately run institutions appeals to the state Charter Appeal Board, further draining resources away from remaining public schools.

 

In fact, Batista is using “Students First” as a title on her campaign mailers. This is the name of a well-known school privatization group founded by infamous public school saboteur Michelle Rhee. The education justice movement across the country and here in Pittsburgh has been fighting Students First for years. They are infamous for dumping money into Pennsylvania politics to back legislators friendly to school privatization. No one who is serious about education justice would use this title: either Batista does not know about Students First, she knows and doesn’t care, or she is being intentional in signaling to privatizers that she is on their side.

 

Students First merged with 50CAN, a national group focused on vouchers and school privatization that grew out of ConCAN, started by Connecticut hedge fund managers. Betsy DeVos, now U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the merger and has done similar work for years through her own organization with the same privatization agenda. Here in Pennsylvania, the local branch is PennCAN. Their director, who also sits on the board of a local charter school asking for approval to set up shop in Pittsburgh, is one of Batista’s donors.

 

The largest donations are noted below. Chief among these are:

 

-Rachel Amankulor, PennCAN and Catalyst Charter School board member. (Pittsburgh Public School Board denied Catalyst’s application citing problems with its plan to accommodate students with disabilities, among other issues, but the state Charter Appeal Board overturned the board’s decision and the case may now go to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.)

 

-Catherine Axtman, spouse of William Axtman who sits on the Propel Charter School Board

 

-Kirk Burkley ($500) and Robert Bernstein ($250), of Bernstein- Burkley, a Pittsburgh law firm specializing in Business Law, Creditors Rights, Oil & Gas, Bankruptcy, & Real Estate. (Burkley ran against school board member Lynda Wrenn in 2015 – a race fought in large part around privatization issues!)

 

-Allison McCarthy, Vice President of Teach for America; Catalyst Charter School Board Member; and Broad Academy graduate (Eli Broad is a major privatizer who started the Broad Academy of which Devos is a graduate.)

 

-Nathaniel Yap, spouse of Brian Smith, Catalyst Charter Founder and CEO ($1,000)

 

And then we come to the big business partisans.

 

Many of these advocate for tax deferment programs to entice businesses into the Pittsburgh area on the condition that they are allowed to escape paying taxes or pay at a reduced rate for a certain number of years. Programs such as Tax Incremental Financing (TIFs) put a heavier burden on the schools than other public resources. They cost the school district 50% as opposed to the county and city, which only lose 25% of their owed taxes each.

 

Local politicians like County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto  – though Democrats – are chief advocates of these types of neoliberal, business friendly programs. While the city and county have nothing to do with Pittsburgh Public Schools, they do often expect the School Board to rubber stamp TIFs. The School Board is an independent taxing body, but they are rarely brought to the table at the beginning of the process.

 

Corporate donors include:

 

-Friends of Rich Fitzgerald ($500)

 

-People for Bill Peduto ($2,000)

 

-Gregg Perelmann, Walnut Capital ($1,000)

 

-Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital (Developers of Bakery Square and other projects that have received a number of TIFs)

 

-Helen Casey, CEO of Howard Hanna

 

-John Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000 plus in-kind) (His office in the Squirrel Hill business district is worth thousands)

 

-Paul Katz, Brandywine Agency ($250)

 

-Patricia Katz, Brandywine Agency ($1,000)

 

-Rod Werstil, McKinney Properties ($500)

 

-Kevin McKeegan, Meyer, Unkovic & Scott LLP (Pittsburgh Real Estate Law)

 

-Luke Meyers, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP and Affiliates (New York Real Estate Law)

 

-Nancy Finkelstein, Schulte Roth & Zabel (Finkelstein’s Linkedin Profile includes this quote: “I have concentrated my practice on representing private equity funds, investment banks, hedge funds, financial institutions, finance companies and high-net-worth individuals in a wide variety of transactions, including financings, debt restructurings, leveraged acquisitions, and collateralized loan facilities.”)

 

-Steven Massey, Federated Investors

 

-Richard Lerach, Gateway Financial

 

-William Sheridan, Reed Smith LLP (“Represented managed care defendants in obtaining dismissal of antitrust conspiracy and monopolization claims.”)

 

All of this is truly troubling for someone running to serve as a school board director.

 

Compare Batista’s financials with that of her opponent Harbin.

 

In at least two instances, Harbin won endorsements and donations from organizations Batista had been courting.

 

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers gave Harbin $5,000 instead of Batista.

 

Likewise, Unite! Pittsburgh gave Harbin $1,500 over Batista. This is State Rep. Summer Lee’s PAC. The organization supports candidates running on a criminal justice slate who are committed to ending the school-to-prison, poverty-to-prison, and addiction-to-prison pipelines.

 

Other notable donations to Harbin’s campaign include:

 

-Women for the Future Pittsburgh ($500)

 

-Friends of Chelsea Wagner ($500) (Wagner is Allegheny County Controller and one of the founders of Women for the Future Pittsburgh)

 

-Michael Fine ($2,800) physician for the Veterans Administration

 

-Kathy Fine ($2,800)  Michael’s wife and long-time education justice activist who fought against the closing of Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School.

 

-Nancy Bernstein ($1,000) J Street Board Member (J Street organizes and mobilizes pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who want Israel to be secure and democratic.)

 

These are exactly the kind of donations you’d expect from a grassroots candidate – labor unions, progressive political promoters and activists.

 

Full disclosure: Though I live just outside of the Pittsburgh area, I am not unbiased in this race. I consider Harbin a friend and fully support her run for school board.

 

However, the donations outlined in this article are all facts. Feel free to go to the county Website and see for yourself.

 

Our children deserve better than Batista – a school director in the employ of the same forces out to sabotage education and pick the remains clean for their own individual ends.

 

Call me crazy, but I think children should be an end in themselves.

 

School board candidates who put themselves up for sale like Batista don’t deserve your vote. They’ve already sold theirs to the highest bidder.


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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Classroom Teachers are the Real Scholastic Experts – Not Education Journalists

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When you want an expert on health, you go to a doctor.

 

When you want an expert on law, you go to a lawyer.

 

So why is it that when the news media wants an expert on education they go to… themselves!?

 

That’s right. Education journalists are talking up a storm about schools and learning.

 

You’ll find them writing policy briefs, editorials and news articles. You’ll find them being interviewed about topics like class size, funding and standardized tests.

 

But they aren’t primary sources. They are distinctly secondary.

 

So why don’t we go right to the source and ask those most in the know – classroom teachers!?

 

According to a Media Matters analysis of education coverage on weeknight cable news programs in 2014, only 9 percent of guests on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News were educators.

 

This data is a bit out of date, but I couldn’t find a more recent analysis. Moreover, it seems pretty much consistent with what I, myself, have seen in the media.

 

Take Wyatt Cenac’s “Problem Areas,” a comedy journalism program on HBO. The second season focuses entirely on education issues. Though Cynac interviews numerous people in the first episode (the only one I saw), he put together a panel of experts to talk about the issues that he would presumably return to throughout the season. Unfortunately, only two of these experts were classroom teachers.

 

There were more students (3), policy writers (3) and education journalists (3). There were just as many college professors (2), civil rights leaders (2), and politicians (2). Plus there was one historian (Diane Ravitch).

 

I’m not saying Cynac shouldn’t have talked to these other people. From what I’ve seen, his show is a pretty good faith attempt to talk about the issues, but in under representing classroom teachers, we’re left with a false consensus. It’s like having one climate denier debate one scientist. They aren’t equal and should not be equally represented.

 

And that’s as good as it gets!

 

Turn to most discussions of education or scholastic policy in the news and the discourse is bound to be dominated by people who are not now and have never been responsible for a class full of K-12 students.

 

Allowing journalists who cover education to rebrand themselves as “experts” is just not good enough.

 

Take it from me. Before I became a classroom teacher, I was a newspaperman, myself. Yet it’s only now that I know all that I didn’t know then.

 

If anyone values good, fact-based reporting, it’s me. But let’s not confuse an investigator with a practitioner. They both have important jobs. We just need to be clear about which job is being practiced when.

 

Reporters are not experts on the issues they cover. Certainly they know more than the average person or some political flunkey simply towing the party line. But someone who merely observes the work is not as knowledgeable as someone who does it and has done it for decades, someone with an advanced degree, dedication and a vocation in it.

 

Moreover, there is a chasm between education reporting and the schools, themselves, that is not present between journalists and most fields of endeavor. In the halls of academia, even the most fair-minded outsiders often are barred from direct observation of the very thing they’re trying to describe. We rarely let reporters in to our nation’s classrooms to see what’s happening for themselves. All they can do most of the time is uncritically report back what they’ve been told.

 

It’s almost as if sportswriters never got to see athletes play or political reporters never got to attended campaign rallies. How could their ideas about these subjects be of the same value as the practitioners in these fields!?

 

It couldn’t.

 

Think about it. Journalists are rarely permitted inside our schools to see the day-to-day classroom experience. Legal issues about which students may be photographed, filmed or interviewed, the difficulty of getting parental permissions and the possibility of embarrassment to principals and administrators usually keeps the school doors closed to them.

 

In many districts, teachers aren’t even allowed to speak on the record to the media or doing so can make them a political target. So reporters often have great difficulty just disclosing the opinions of those most knowledgeable about what is going on.

 

At best, our nation’s education reporters are like aliens from another galaxy trying to write about human behavior without actually having seen it. It’s like a bad science fiction movie where some alien with plastic ears asks, “What is this thing you call love?”

 

Sorry. These are not experts. And if we pretend that they are, we are being incredibly dishonest.

 

Some of this obfuscation is by design.

 

Education reporting is incredibly biased in favor of market-based solutions to academic problems.

 

Why? The corporations that own the shrinking number of newspapers, news stations and media outlets are increasingly the same huge conglomerates making money off of these same policies. The line between news and advertising has faded into invisibility in too many places.

 

Huge corporations make hundreds of millions of dollars off of the failing schools narrative. They sell new standardized tests, new test prep materials, new Common Core books, trainings for teachers, materials, etc. If they can’t demonstrate that our schools are failing, their market shrinks.

 

Even when they don’t put editorial pressure on journalists to write what the company wants, they hire like-minded people from the get go.

 

Too many education journalists aren’t out for the truth. They’re out to promote the corporate line.

 

This is why it’s so important to center any education discussion on classroom teachers. They are the only people with the knowledge and experience to tell us what’s really going on.

 

And – surprise! – it’s not the same narrative you’re getting from corporate news.

 

Schools are being defunded and dismantled by the testing and privatization industry. Corporate special interests are allowed to feed off our schools like vultures off road kill. And all the while, it is our children who suffer the results.

 

High stakes standardized testing must end. Charter and voucher schools must end. Parasitic education technologies must be controlled, made accountable and in many cases barred from our schools altogether.

 

But that’s a truth you can only find by talking to the real experts – classroom teachers.

 

Until we prize their voices above all others, we will never know the whole truth.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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I Used to be a Reporter. Now I’m a Teacher. I’ve Become What I Used to Observe

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A long time ago, in a newsroom far, far away; your humble narrator was a respected journalist.

Today I am a beloved school teacher in a suburban middle school.

Okay. That may be laying it on a bit thick.

Like any human being whose job it is to get children to do their best and learn something, I’m beloved by some and beloathed by others. And if I’m honest, when I was a reporter, I was never all that respected. But I did win several state journalism awards.

The point I’m trying to make is that like a caterpillar into a butterfly or a tadpole into a frog, I made a startling transformation in career paths that flies somewhat in the face of popular wisdom.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “There are no second acts in American Lives.” Well, I’m on my third or fourth act and nowhere near ready for the curtain to come down yet.

It’s shocking how far I’ve come, though there’s a surprising amount of overlap between my two professions. In fact, the biggest difference is one of orientation.

I used to get up at 4 a.m., weave into the newsroom and type away for a few hours about the previous night’s school board or city council meeting before my deadline came down, the presses rolled and the morning edition went on sale.

Now I get up at 5 a.m., hobble into the classroom and go to meetings, grade papers or otherwise get ready for a 7-hour invasion by 12- and 13-year-olds, followed by more meetings and papers and planning.

I used to go into the classroom to interview teachers and students about special lessons, state and federal programs or standardized tests.

Now I’m in the classroom questioning myself about my students and what works best to help them learn, trying to navigate the state and federal programs so they get the best return and bang my head against the wall about the constant standardized tests.

I used to independently bebop all over my coverage area, asking questions, doing research, discovering things that many people would rather remain secret.

Now I independently plan my lessons, ask my students questions, do research on best practices and discover things about my children and their lives that many people would rather remain secret.

You’ve heard the old chestnut about education being a career for those unable to act. I’m living proof that it’s a lie.

As a journalist, I reported on. As a teacher, I do.

In my former job, I told. In my current one I show.

Perhaps that’s why I now find it so strange that many of my former colleagues have gone into public relations, communications or have become policy analysts.

I’m not surprised. I can’t say I didn’t know that that door was always open. But it’s peculiar.

In the newsroom, we all heard the stories about grizzled newspapermen and women with shelves stuffed full of awards and prized Rolodexes bursting with hard-earned sources who gave it all up for a 9-5 desk job writing the very press releases we disdained.

We all had friends who were making bank managing people like us and trying to get us to write what the company wanted or spin the story in the direction the advertisers liked.

There is no scorn, no disgust, no derision to match that of a journalist for a corporate sellout, and that’s because in our hearts we all secretly wondered if it wasn’t the better deal.

Every good reporter – like every good teacher – is a radical at heart.

You don’t get into either field to support the status quo. You want to rock the boat. You want to shake things up. You want to change the world for the better – all from the comfort of your swivel chair behind your computer screen or from the well worn tread of your classroom carpet.

Journalists live for the scoop, the big story, the article that shouts off the front page above the fold and which has everyone talking. Teachers live for the student epiphany, the moment the light comes on behind a child’s eyes, the transformation from ignorance to knowledge and – dare I say – wisdom.

But being a press agent or policy hack has none of that splendor.

You have to give it up – all for the right to have a chance at a life.

I loved being a reporter. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I got to do things, see things, talk to people, be there for things that I never would have been able to access otherwise. But I could barely pay my bills.

I was dirt poor in the newsroom. We all were.

We worked 50-60 hours a week, had no time for a second job, no time for a social life, no time for a family or kids, and we wanted more.

So I understand the allure of the steady paycheck and becoming a housebroken professional communicator of someone else’s message.

But being a teacher is different.

You still don’t get paid much. You still work long hours – though maybe not quite as long. But you can get that second job – often in the school, itself, tutoring students or in a summer or after school program.

And you get union protections that I only dreamed about as a reporter. A safe workspace, clean and tidy, no outrageous demands (or at least an upper limit on them), and a schedule you can predict and plan a life around.

Best of all, you still get to keep your idealism intact. Or you can try to keep it as you dodge this directive and that unfunded mandate and that deeply racist policy passed down from above.

Don’t get me wrong. Becoming a teacher was hard work. I didn’t go about it the easy way – no Teach for America, one-foot-in/one-foot-out, cheating for me. I dove in head first.

I went back to college and took an intensive, accelerated masters program designed exactly for people changing careers. To get there, I had to swallow a few prerequisites I’d missed in college the first time. Then they placed me in a high school where I watched and then took over multiple classes – all while enrolled in education courses at night and in the summers.

By the time it was all over, I still had the most important things left to learn – (1) whether I could actually teach a full schedule, and (2) whether I liked doing so.

For me, the answers were unequivocally positive. I took to it like I’d taken to journalism. I needed lots of fine tuning, but the basics came naturally. And I loved every exhausting minute of it.

I regret nothing about becoming a teacher. It’s the best job I’ve ever had and am ever likely to have.

As a journalist, I got to rock whole communities with exposes about corruption. As an educator, I get to impact individuals.

I no longer get to be the talk of the town, but I get to change lives all the same – one person at a time.

And there’s something deeply satisfying about it – to look in another person’s eyes and see the need right there in front of you, and to be able to heal it even a fraction of the way well.

This world is hard. It takes people, chews them up and spits them out. There is so rarely a helping hand, a smile, understanding. But to be able to offer your hand, to be able to share a smile, to attempt to understand – that’s pure magic.

When the day is done, I know it was well spent.

I’ve come a long way from the newsroom. And in doing so, I’ve broken journalism’s number one rule – don’t become the story.

I no longer report on the action.

I participate in it.

What a way to make a living!


 

Still can’t get enough Gadfly? I’ve 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!

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