But in each of these disasters, the majority of people thought they had somewhere to turn for knowledge and advice.
We had trusted authorities to tell us what to do, to counsel us how to handle these seemingly insurmountable disasters.
Today many of us face the Covid-19 pandemic feeling there are few sources to believe in – and that more than anything else – is why we are having such a difficult time coming together to overcome this crisis.
The media, government, science, religion – none hold a central place of confidence in most people’s lives. So when tough decisions about health and safety come into play, many of us aren’t sure what to do.
When we entered the fray, the US government organized new research initiatives targeting influenza, bacterial meningitis, bacterial pneumonia, measles, mumps, neurotropic diseases, tropical diseases and acute respiratory diseases.
And because there was an immense trust in government – after all, as a nation we had been attacked together as one at Pearl Harbor – there was enormous trust in these initiatives.
Before World War II, soldiers died more often of disease than of battle injuries. The ratio of disease-to-battle casualties was approximately 5-to-1 in the Spanish-American War and 2-to-1 in the Civil War. In World War I, we were able to reduce casualties due to disease through better sanitation efforts, but we could not protect troops from the 1918 influenza pandemic. During that outbreak, flu accounted for roughly half of US military casualties in Europe.
Much of the groundwork for innovation in vaccinations had already been laid before WWII. However, it was the organization of the war effort and the trust both the civilian and military population had in government that catapulted us ahead.
I’m not ignoring that some of this trust was misplaced. The US government has never been fully trustworthy – just ask the Asian American population forced into internment camps. However, the general feeling at the time that the government was a force for good, that we were all in this together and we all had to do our part had a vast effect on how we handled this crisis.
Today that kind of trust is gone.
In some ways that’s a good thing. It could be argued that “The Greatest Generation” put too much faith in government and the following years showed why too credulous belief in the good will of our leaders was unearned and unhealthy.
From Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal to Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct to George W. Bush lying us into a war of choice to Barack Obama’s neoliberalism to Donald Trump’s gross mismanagement and blatant racism – we can never go back to a WWII mentality.
Skepticism of government is kind of like seasoning. A certain amount is a good thing, but the inability to trust even government’s most basic ability to take care of its citizens and function in any meaningful way is hugely detrimental.
And this earned distrust has seeped into just about every source of possible certitude that might have helped us survive the current crisis.
The media used to be considered the fourth estate – one of the most important pillars of our society. After all, the freedom of information is essential to the free exercise of democracy.
However, the erosion of impartiality has been going on since at least the 1980s when the FCC under President Ronald Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine. Since 1949 this had required the media to present both sides’ of opinions. In 1987 a Democratic Congress passed a bill to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine but it was vetoed by Reagan.
This, along with the rise of talk radio and the insistence that news departments turn a profit, lead directly to the creation of more biased reporting skewed to a particular audience – Fox News and Sinclair Broadcast Group being the most prominent.
Finally, the loss of local newspapers and the purchase of those few that do exist by large media conglomerates further increase bias.
Few people feel they can trust the news anymore. They turn to the Internet, social media, Twitter and other sources that often are just echo chambers for what they already believe.
The irony is not lost on me that you are reading a blog by a public school teacher, not a professional journalist. But my aim is to use my experience in education to inform the debate.
It’s just too bad that I’m often forced to report the news when traditional news sources drops the ball.
Again skepticism of mass media is a good thing, but we should at least be able to count on the press as a reliable source of facts. However, these days few facts are free from bias, spin and editorial comment.
Another blunder was the guidelines on what counts as “close contact.” It went from “within 6 feet” to “within 3 feet”, and the duration went from 30 minutes consecutively to 30 minutes cumulatively. It’s not so much that the evidence changed, but that political pressure forced the CDC to lower its standards.
World scientific consensus now is that the coronavirus is capable of airborne spread without close contact between two people. Airborne droplets can linger in the air indoors and infect any number of people from one superspreading host subject.
The CDC’s advice on close contact is based on old scientific research that just isn’t as good as modern experiments.
And the organization has misjudged so much more from the importance of masking (at first they said it wasn’t important, now they say it is important), whether children can catch the virus (at first they said this was unlikely and now they admit it happens but is often asymptomatic), whether Covid spreads in schools (they used to say the limited protections in place at schools made this unlikely and now they admit it is happening), etc.
One could argue that these were simple mistakes that have changed as better science comes in. However, in each case they appear to have initially been politically motivated and justified with limited or flawed studies that could not continue to be supported as new data came in.
At first the CDC told us that masking wasn’t important not because it was true, but to hide a shortage of masks that needed to be prioritized for medical staff. These needs are understandable, but hiding the truth and then changing your messaging doesn’t engender trust.
The five board members who voted in favor of the new contract were Board President Joseph Lopretto, Vice President Diane Elias, Ivan Hampton, Jim Poston and Tom Filotei.
In fact, they were the only school directors at the meeting. Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order. Dave Donato was absent.
Holtzman’s new contract goes from July 7, 2021, to June 30, 2026.
Solicitor Gary Matta explained on the video that according to the state school code, the board couldn’t extend Holtzman’s old contract because he had more than a year left on it. The only way was for him to resign and then be given a new contract.
However, much about Holtzman’s performance and his new contract remain unclear.
The board had not yet completed an evaluation for the Superintendent for this school year and much about his new contract was not disclosed.
Many are speculating that this move was done to circumvent a change in power on the board after November.
Three of the five school directors voting for Holtzman’s new contract will be stepping down from the board in 2022.
Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. The other two board members – Lopretto and Elias – will be up for re-election in two years.
With five new candidates still in contention for four seats, much could happen politically.
Even if Matthew Holtzman, the Superintendent’s brother, wins a seat on the board in the fall, he wouldn’t be able to vote on the Superintendent’s contract because it would be a conflict of interest.
On the YouTube video, it is announced that the meeting was advertised as being about “personnel.” Nothing more.
While that is true, it certainly goes against the spirit of the Sunshine Act. Most districts at least give the public a chance to comment on renewing a Superintendent’s contract.
Holding a last minute meeting right after a holiday with hardly any information about what is being voted on is not what most people would call good governmental transparency.
If the board had been secure that the public approved of Dr. Holtzman’s performance and wholeheartedly wanted his contract extended, it is doubtful any of these shenanigans would have been necessary.
Whether Dr. Holtzman did a good or bad job in his first contract with McKeesport will forever be overshadowed now by the shady way in which mostly lame duck school directors forced through his new contract.
Voters in the McKeesport Area School District deserve better.
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The basic thrust of the story is captured in the headline. It says that public schools throughout Pennsylvania have received an influx of funding to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic but school directors are unnecessarily planning to increase taxes anyway.
For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools has received $161 million in three rounds of federal disaster funding. Yet the district is still projecting a $38 million deficit this year.
Ideologues at the Harrisburg based Commonwealth Foundation don’t understand how that’s possible. They want to know why districts can’t just use the disaster funding to pay for continuing expenses?
Because it’s illegal. Duh.
Pittsburgh Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet explains:
“That’s one-time dollars. That money cannot supplant the general fund so the general fund is different. These are supplementary dollars that can’t be used for personnel or anything like that.”
Most of those funds will go to pay for after-school or summer school programs to help students with declining academics after they spent much of the past year at home, he continues.
Moreover, if districts spent that money (illegally) to fill pre-existing budget holes, all they’d be doing is kicking the can of funding deficits down the road a year or two.
Ideologues at the Commonwealth Foundation know that.
In fact, later on in the exact same story, they worry about this very thing.
At the beginning of the story, Elizabeth Stelle, Director of Policy Analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, says, “We see no reason why the federal funding is not more than enough to cover the needs of districts today.”
But then later in the same story she says, “I’m very concerned they’re going to spend that money on ongoing needs and we’ll be in a very difficult situation a couple years from now.”
Well, which is it Stelle? Are you worried about districts REFUSING to use disaster funds to pay for ongoing needs or are you worried that they WILL use disaster funds for this exact purpose?
WTAE should have had the journalistic integrity to ask her about her blatant contradiction in this story and her reprehensible positions on record. Or perhaps have the integrity not to invite such members of the lunatic fringe on their network and legitimize her position with coverage.
Unfortunately, producers are content to broadcast clickbait to get low information voters agitated against schools without any good reason.
I suppose it gets ratings.
If it bleeds it leads, and if it antagonizes it televises.
Sadly, WTAE wasn’t the only local television station to do so.
This at least was a more skeptical look at the same Commonwealth Foundation report.
But why run anything on the report to begin with?
Were the Flat Earthers busy? Was Q-anon out of conspiracies? Has no one spotted the Illuminati lately?
WPXI characterized the report less about COVID funding misuse than additional funds being unnecessary to begin with.
Reporters said the Commonwealth Foundation report concluded that state districts were not hurting from the pandemic in the first place. And then journalists went to local districts who flatly contradicted that statement with facts.
Gateway School Board President Brian Goppman, for example, said the district cut $3 million from its operating budget due to the pandemic. Moreover, the tax base, itself, has suffered from COVID. When businesses close, that’s less tax revenue to fund social programs like schools.
“Monroeville and especially our district… we get a lot of money from the businesses. Every day that we’re in the pandemic with these restrictions is another day we’re wondering if that business will be around tomorrow,” Goppman said.
And this doesn’t even factor in additional costs to hire more teachers and support staff to help students deal with a year and a half of less than ideal academics caused by quarantines and other safety measures.
They had on Jennifer Stefano, Chief Strategist and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation, to talk about public school funding. Stefano is a former Tea Party member and frequent talking head on Fox News and other radical right propaganda networks who famously attacked the Head Start Program that provides early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent services for low-income families.
She could not have found a more friendly audience in Richert and Battle.
Moreover, Pennsylvania is one of the worst. The state government pays only 38% of the cost to educate children leaving the majority up to local communities to make up the difference. That’s the 46th lowest in the country. The national average is 51%.
As we’ve seen, even when you look at per pupil spending across the state, you’re masking funding inequalities from district to district. You’re looking at an average of all spending, which ignores how little we spend at lower income schools and how much we spend at districts catering to rich communities.
Moreover, if we compare the percentage of GDP spent on education with other countries, you’ll see the US spends much less than comparable nations. For example, we spend about 5% of our GDP on schools compared with 6.4% in New Zealand, 6.9% in Finland, 7.5% in Iceland and 7.6% in Denmark.
Instead of pointing out the real problem and demanding the rich do their part, the Commonwealth Foundation covers for their billionaire masters. Partisans at the foundation ignore low taxes on the wealthy and blame high taxes on the poor and middle class on things like public schools.
And stories like these only go to further enrage taxpayers so that they’ll support tearing down the very systems that help keep them and their kids afloat.
No news organization should be falling for these lies.
WTAE, KDKA and WPXI should know better.
They are helping tear down media trust in this post truth age.
How ironic that in doing so they are helping destroy education – the one tool essential to navigating through such a landscape.
Find out more about state education funding shortfalls HERE.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Monday, the district will close for three days while all students learn on-line. Buildings will remain closed through Thanksgiving Break. Classes are scheduled to begin in-person again on Tuesday, Dec. 1.
Meanwhile, two staff members – one at the high school and one at Founders Hall – were reported having undergone tests for the virus this morning, according to a source close to the school board.
Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has not yet returned results for these two staff members.
This potentially brings the district total to 21 cases since September – 11 students and 10 staff.
Since then, one negative test result was returned for a Twin Rivers staff member and one remains pending.
The district’s Covid Tracker on its Website has been updated to include one more case (bringing its total to 15) but district officials have not added the six additional cases reported on this blog over the last few days of which only three are pending test results.
“Our case tracker is live on our website. We receive documentation when a case is confirmed to us by the Allegheny County Health Department. Only after we receive that documentation can we update the tracker.”
However, the county health department does not limit itself so when reporting new Covid cases. It reports a total number and then differentiates between confirmed cases and those pending test results.
For instance, the ACHD reported today that there were 620 new COVID-19 cases in the county. Of those, 506 are confirmed and 114 are probable.
The district should do the same.
Parents cannot wait until cases are confirmed before making decisions about whether to send their children to school buildings or not. The mere fact that additional cases are suspected is enough for some parents to exercise caution.
After all, if your child is swimming in shark infested waters, the mere sight of a dorsal fin might be enough to call him or her back to shore. Cautious parents will not wait to see exactly what shark-like creature is gaining momentum swimming toward their child before removing him or her from danger.
“So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools.”
The response was in answer to citizens comments.
Greg Kristen and I went to the board meeting hoping to get answers – and we did.
“Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the County Health Department,” Holtzman said.
“They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.”
“I am in a large public school system… I am hearing and seeing two different approaches. I am very appreciative of what the board’s efforts in Pittsburgh have been to keep us safe and keep our students safe. I just want to be an advocate that we are doing everything we can even if it’s erring on the side of caution.”
District Solicitor Gary Matta was concerned about the issue as well.
“We’re getting some mixed signals between the state and the county,” he said.
“The state is directing us to deal with the county health department if we have one.”
He suggested the district get recommendations in writing from the county health department before following any of its advice.
In addition to questions about whether it was safe to keep district buildings open during a COVID-19 outbreak, Holtzman addressed district transparency.
I asked him to compile a dashboard on the district Website with the following information:
“1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began?
2) How many are students? How many staff?
3) How many are located at each school building?
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.”
He could not give me all I asked for at the meeting.
Holtzman said that 10 people have tested positive in the district since school opened – 9 of them recently. He said there have been cases at all four buildings – the high school, Founders Hall, Twin Rivers and Francis McClure elementary schools.
He was able to break down 8 of the 10 cases.
“In the last 7 days…. We’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one maintenance/support employee.”
Holtzman admitted that having a dashboard on the district Website was a good idea but fell short of committing to providing that ongoing data.
“A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion,” he said.
“It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret – it’s a challenging situation… A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’s something we’re going to take into consideration.”
Kristen brought up the issues of contact tracing and increasing class sizes at Twin Rivers that may make it difficult for students to engage in social distancing.
“Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov. 2,” he said.
“They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.”
Holtzman said some students whose parents had chosen remote learning had decided to return them to the physical classroom at the start of the new grading period. However, others had decided to remove their children from the physical buildings and put them on remote.
“We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.”
About a third of district students have been doing remote lessons since the year began.
Kristen said his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be within 3 feet.
Holtzman disputed this:
“That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best.”
Kristen asked about contact tracing at Twin Rivers where teachers had tested positive.
He wanted to know if students had been tested, and Holtzman responded that they had not.
“Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number.” He said.
“At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed…
“When we do interviewing – when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing – we ask them, ‘Where you in somebody’s personal space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. So-and-So, then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.”
He admitted that the effectiveness of this process depends on how honest and detailed those testing positive are when listing the people they have come into contact with while contagious.
Below is a transcript of our public comments and Dr. Holtzman’s responses:
“Dear school board members. Thank you for letting me speak here tonight. As a resident of this district for 15 years, as well as having a daughter a Twin Rivers Elementary School, I am deeply, deeply concerned with the lack of transparency about the Coronavirus infections. As of today, MASD has 9 positive cases… We have a right to know [who they are] not their names but their positions. According to CDC guidelines if there are two cases within a school, it is to be shut down for 5-7 days. For 5 or more cases, the building should be shut down for up to 14 days. Why is that not happening? Is the health and safety of the students, teachers, administrators, staff and maintenance not important to you? When positive cases happen in the building, who was in charge for contract tracing and notifying the Allegheny County Health Department? If they did not notify the health department, are they being held accountable? And I mean terminated. Were the parents of the students notified of the teachers and staff who were affected in the schools? Were the students tested? Is there any contract tracing with them? Also why is there not a healthcare professional a part of the Coronavirus task force?
Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov.2. They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.
This Coronavirus is not a hoax. People are dying every day. As of today, 222,000 people have died, and people like myself who have an underlying health condition are concerned about people transferring the virus to me or to someone close to me. In this county alone there 14,396 cases and 416 deaths. On Oct 14 which was just a week ago Rachel Levine, the state health secretary announced a second wave of Coronavirus has arrived here. Now that the flu season has arrived, what is MASD doing? Does a student, teacher, administrator, staff or maintenance person have to die for someone to take this serious? Thank you very much.”
Dr. Mark Holtzman:
“Mr. Kristen, I’m happy to address a couple of your concerns. A few things.
We’ve had 8 positive tests in the last 7 days. So that is correct. The CDC guidelines are recommendations by the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Education and state health department. (muffled) The Alleghney County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in Allegheny County. So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools. I will ensure to tell you positively I have spoke to the Alleghney County Health Department probably just this week once a day. The head epidemeologisr Dr. Luann Brink and the director of the health department Dr. [Debra] Bogen and I have conference calls with her every Tuesday at 2 o’clock. Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the Allegheny County Health Department. They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.
The concerns are the issues with Allegheny County Health Department are the rate of positivity here in the city of McKeesport and the surrounding communities. That’s number 1. Transmission is a huge piece of it. Is it being transmitted in the schools? Is it being brought into the schools from the outside? Contract tracing does occur on each and every case. All that information is submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department with details, time stamped, dates, everything we could possibly provide to those individuals. Fortunately or unfortunately we have to rely on that individual. For example, if you’re an employee that tests positive for COVID, we have to interview you. The information that you share with us, we have to then share with the Allegheny County Health Department. Whether you’re honest, dishonest , whether you’re detailed, whether you forgot someone, you didn’t include anyone as part of your contact tracing, that becomes your prerogative. We as a district just have to report that information to the health department and they make a final determination.
So at this particular time unfortunately we’re at the bottom of the document that’s been referenced many, many times, it states that when an entire school is recommended to be closed, closure time will vary depending on level of community transmission, and number of cases. Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number. ‘This allows public health staff the necessary time to complete case investigation and contact tracing and to provide schools with other appropriate public health advice like cleaning and disinfecting.’ At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed.
So at this particular time, I know there is frustration, I know there’s contradictory information out there, but we are working closely with the health department and they have done an outstanding job guiding us and every school district has a tough decision to make. So I appreciate you expressing your concerns this afternoon, this evening, later than it should be we appreciate it and if there’s anything we can do moving forward, we’d be happy to help.”
[Holtzamn said three teachers tested positive at Twin rivers Elementary. All students in those classes were not tested. Each student Is placed 6 feet apart. A close contact has to be within 6 feet for 15 consecutive minutes.]
Holtzman: “When we do interviewing, when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing, we ask them ‘[Where you in somebody’s person space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. so-and-so then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.
Now we could absorb those things. As Superintendent I’m in the schools daily, and I’m able to see some of the teachers and [their actions]. The students are already placed 6 feet apart, so therefore they are already socially distanced. We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.
[Kristen says his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be 3 feet.]
Holtzman: “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best and will hold all those expectations considering the fact that we have to educate the children that are interested in returning to school. We can’t just turn them away…. As many kids that are coming in, many are leaving for online learning for many reasons.”
“Thank you for letting me address the board this evening.
As a lifelong resident and the father of a child who attends the district, I am alarmed by news about an outbreak of COVID-19 at our school buildings, a lack of transparency about that information and a lack of proper safety response to the outbreak.
First, when I am finished with my comments, I ask that you clarify for me some facts about the outbreak.
1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began?
2) How many are students? How many staff?
3) How many are located at each school building?
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.
That information should be constantly available on the district Website throughout the pandemic. It should not just be on alerts that come and go, robocalls or emails.
Every taxpayer has the right to that information – which is easy to compile – and necessary so parents and community members can make smart decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe in the McKeesport Area.
Next, I am concerned about the district’s blasé response to these life threatening conditions.
According to the state Department of Education Website, in a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days.
Haven’t we met this threshold?
According to your recent alerts, at least 9 people have tested positive in the district in the last week – 3 students and 6 teachers. And this is spread throughout all district buildings.
There is no way to divide that up without at least one of our four buildings in the danger zone.
Doesn’t that mean that at least at some buildings – probably Twin Rivers, Francis McClure and/or the the High School – we have met this benchmark? Don’t each of those schools have two or more cases?
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?
Moreover, according to the PDE Website, if there are multiple cases at multiple schools where the infected are not household contacts, the schools are supposed to be closed not just for 5-7 days but a full two weeks.
Have we met that threshold? And if so, why are the buildings not closed?
I do not understand what precautions you are taking to keep students and staff safe.
I understand that PDE defines “Close Contact” as being within 6 feet for at least 15 consecutive minutes of a person who has tested positive. However, the Website cautions that this should not be taken as the ONLY definition of such contact: “In some school situations, it might be difficult to determine whether individuals are contacts or whether an entire cohort, classroom, or other group (extracurricular activity members) might need to be considered exposed, particularly if people have spent time together indoors.”
You say these cases have all been contained. But you have done very little to assure the public of this and could be taking much greater precautions on our behalf.
We’re talking about children here. We’re talking about our staff – people who have served generations of families and who often have families of their own.
Can’t you do better for the people in this district?
I would suggest that you at least follow PDE recommendations in the effected buildings.
Furthermore, I think you should cancel all in-person classes and go to a fully remote education plan until the infection rate in the county and the community is designated as low.
Have the classroom teachers make the online curriculum and let students and families choose whether they wish to go through that curriculum synchronously or asynchronously. And do not outsource the virtual program to ed tech companies looking to cash in on their credit recovery programs – as you are currently doing with Edmentum.
Going to a fully virtual plan would be in the best interests of students, families and the community.
Please do your duty.”
“Mr. Singer, Thank you. I appreciate you spending some time with us again today. I don’t know, Dr. (muffled) do you have the numbers he’s requesting off hand? I only have the last seven days in front of me. If not, I’ll make sure you get them.
Voice: I don’t have them with me.
Holtzman: Prior to this situation we’ve had very few so… the difference between staff and students, we currently have in the last 7 days… we’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one mainatance/support employee. Furthermore, I feel that we’ll agree to disagree that instruction in person is the priority for engaging children. Our students have received progress reports. You as an educator I’m sure are quite aware that the online learning platform is not engaging all children. Many children are struggling and failing courses, here ate McKeesport and all over the Commonwealth. I think it’s a big issue for all school leadership trying to find new creative ways to engage children whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. So for us here at McKeesport we’re very fortunate to have had this huge donation of devices. We are going to consider doing some flexible instruction in the very near future to kind of make sure we have all of the pieces in place to provide synchronous instruction affectively. But sadly a lot of our students have chosen either to not log in or not be consistent in the work they’re trying to perform online. So we’ll continue to encourage our children to be in schools, we’ll continue to do our very best
ME: Would you commit to putting the information I asked for before onto the district Website?
Holtzman: You bring a good point because you know there are some districts using… a ticker to keep track. To be honest I didn’t know it would be necessary so that’s something we need to consider. A dashboard is a better description. It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret it’s a challenging situation… Also to answer your question, we’ve had a total of 10 cases since the start of the school year. We’re still waiting for confirmation on two of those but we’re pretty confident. A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion. A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’something we’re going to take into consideration.
[Holtzman admitted there was at least one case at every building but not elementary students.]
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The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
However, a similar strategy in Chicago didn’t repeat New York’s success.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
“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.”
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!”