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us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated.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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Mike Turzai is Willing to Sacrifice Pennsylvania’s Students and Families to the Economy

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Mike Turzai says he’s furious with Pedro Rivera.

 

Why is the highest ranking Republican in Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives so angry with the state Secretary of Education?

 

Rivera said the Commonwealth’s public schools, which have been closed since mid March due to the Coronavirus pandemic, would not reopen until it was safe to do so.

 

If that means schools don’t reopen on time in the Fall, so be it.

 

Specifically, on Wednesday, Rivera said:

 

“At the end of the day, we’re going to make sure that the health and welfare of our students is first and foremost, front and center. And we’re not going to allow and ask students to return to school in an unsafe environment. We’re preparing for the best, but we’re planning for the worst.”

 

Turzai was so infuriated by this statement that he wrote a letter to Rivera – which the Pittsburgh area representative immediately shared with the media – he went on right wing talk radio to complain, and he posted a video on his Facebook page.

 

You know a Boomer is really mad when he goes on the social media.

 

Though his comments include his usual greatest hits against public schools and those greedy teachers, Turzai’s main point was simply science denial.

 

On Facebook, after a long list of activities that he said kids enjoy doing like sports and lab experiments, he said this:

 

“All of those can be done safely, and [kids] are not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue. The fact of the matter is kids can develop herd immunity, and if you [Rivera] have not yet developed a plan where we can safely educate kids in schools, then you are going to have to rethink education forward…”

 

 

 
So there you have it, folks.

 

Turzai wants Pennsylvania to reopen schools on time whether scientists and health experts think it’s safe or not because – Turzai knows best.

 

Pennsylvania’s village idiot thinks he knows best about schools.

 

And as usual he’s as wrong as you can get.

 

The COVID-19 virus is relatively new. That’s what the 19 in its name means. It was only discovered in 2019.

 

It’s already killed more Americans than the Vietnam War (69,579 vs. 58,220). There’s no vaccine. And we really don’t know with much certainty how it will affect people in the long term.

 

And as to herd immunity, Sweden tried that – eschewing social distancing and letting people just get the virus – and the result is a death rate twice that of the US.

 

While it is true that children seem to be mostly asymptomatic, thousands have contracted the disease and several have died.

 

However, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) points out the bigger issue in the organization’s April report on its Website:

 

“Pediatric COVID-19 patients might not have fever or cough. Social distancing and everyday preventive behaviors remain important for all age groups because patients with less serious illness and those without symptoms likely play an important role in disease transmission.”

So if we reopen schools before it is safe to do so, we run the risk of (1) kids dying, (2) kids becoming carriers and bringing the disease to any adults they come into contact with who are much more susceptible and (3) teachers and school staff getting sick and dying.

 

Turzai has no problem with any of that.

 

He thinks the risk is worth it.

 

Why?

 

Well, that’s the party line he’s been handed by the Trump administration, and he does whatever he is told by his bosses.

 

Oh? The taxpayers thought THEY were his bosses?

 

No. You are just the chumps who kept re-electing him.

 

He doesn’t work for you.

 

He works for the Republican Party machine which is trying to turn people against Democratic governors like our own Tom Wolf.

 

And, man, does he want to be the next GOP challenger to Wolf. That’s really what this whole business is about – casting Turzai as even more radical than Scott Wagner, the last far right dope who tried for the governors mansion and was soundly defeated by voters.

 

He’s trying to show he’s just as stupid as Donald Trump. The President says we should all drink bleach to get rid of COVID-19? Well Turzai says we should let our kids get sick and die or make us sick.

 

Republicans truly have become the party of stupid.

 

The media helps covidiots like Turzai by uncritically reprinting his outrageous lies.

 

Turzai is like a man who calmly says it’s not raining outside while a thunderstorm beats down on the neighborhood. Instead of pointing out the truth, the media simply reports what Turzai said and at most gives equal weight to a meteorologist. But there is no OPINION about facts! And whether scientific consensus holds with his crackpot conspiracy theories about how the Coronavirus spreads or not IS a fact.

 

 

Is social distancing fun?

 

No.

 

If I could push a button and magically make the Coronavirus go away, I would.

 

But you have to live in the real world.

 

We have to get rid of the virus.

 

We need real tests to be able to tell if people have the virus. The Trump administration has completely botched that. This is why countries like South Korea are seeing hardly any new cases at all while our numbers are still extremely high.

 

Not to mention the fact that we have a bunch of morons who value their freedom to put themselves at risk without any thought to their responsibilities to the rest of society who they will also be endangering.

 

Until we can truly tell who has the virus, who had the virus, who is immune, and how to cure it, the prospect of reopening schools or the economy will be grim.

 

We should not put people at risk unnecessarily.
And we certainly shouldn’t put children at risk.

 

Don’t let fools like Turzai use a global pandemic to hawk their political agendas.

 

He goes on in his video to say that if the state’s public schools don’t open on time, we should consider things like universal cyber schooling, and (non sequitur alert!) charter and voucher schools.

 

It’s his everyday wish list wrapped in a Coronavirus-bow.

 

That’s how dumb this dummy thinks Pennsylvanians are.

 

I sure hope he’s wrong about that, too.


MYTHBUSTERS: A quick rebuttal to the other lies spewed in Turzai’s Facebook video

 

-Does Pennsylvania spend more than most other states on education?

 

We’re in the top 10 for over all spending, but we don’t distribute it equally. Kids in rich districts get tons of money. kids in poor districts get scraps. That’s why there’s a lawsuit demanding the state ensure all kids get an equitable education.

 

-Are pension payments high?

 

Yes, because while teachers and schools paid into the program, the state legislature deferred to pay its share for years and years. Now it’s due. We agreed to give state workers benefits when we hired them. We can’t go back on that now.

 

-Do administrators know if teachers are teaching online during the pandemic?

 

Yes. Parents, students AND administrators know because it’s all online. Administrators can monitor teachers MORE closely via the Internet – not less. That’s why there’s an overwhelmingly increased appreciation of what educators are doing now – it’s out in the open.

 

-Should educators call special needs students for three hours everyday?

 

Only if they aren’t already spending the majority of their days actually teaching students on-line. I’m on ZOOM meetings most days interacting with students on video conferences for almost as much time as I would in person if schools were open. And if you add in the amount of time it takes to come up with new lessons on learning platforms we’re unfamiliar with, program them in and troubleshoot them, most teachers are putting in MORE hours than usual.

 

 


 

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HBO’s “Bad Education” Aims at Public School Theft While Ignoring More Frequent Fraud at Charter Schools & Testing Companies

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“Bad Education” is a frustrating movie to watch as a public school teacher.

 

It does a fine job telling the true story of a wealthy New York district where administrators stole millions of dollars for themselves.

 

But it ignores the far more frequent waste and malfeasance caused by school privatization, high stakes testing and runaway ed tech.

 

Maybe I’m being too sensitive, but there is no subject more political than public schools.

 

During the current Coronavirus pandemic, teachers and schools are finally getting some respect from people who are trying to “home school” their own kids while the nation’s classrooms are shuttered.

 

But education budgets are still routinely slashed, and every policymaker from Betsy DeVos to Barack Obama still thinks there is nothing better than closing public schools and replacing them with charter and/or voucher schools.

 

Pundits continually decry low test scores while applauding every means to increase racial and economic segregation. They push every policy to increase the school to prison pipeline for black and brown students.

 

And now HBO drops this movie about Rosalyn School District Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) who embezzled $11 million from taxpayers.
What happened in Rosalyn was scandalous. But it’s an outlier.

 

Such misappropriation and outright theft rarely happens at public schools. After all, the records are all public. It just takes someone to check up.

 

For REAL theft you have to go to charter and voucher schools where the law literally allows them to spend our money without most of that public oversight.

 

Viewers like me from Pennsylvania still remember Nick Trombetta. The founder and former CEO of the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School stole a similar sum (at least $8 million), and got much less prison time (20 months vs. Tassone who served 3 years). Trombetta used taxpayer dollars to buy a$300,000 private jet for goodness sake! He bought a $933,000 condo in Florida! He bought $180,000 houses for his girlfriend and mother in Ohio. He did all this and more – and his lawyers got the charges down to tax evasion! Why is there no movie about THAT?

 

Or how about June Brown?

 

As the head of Agora Cyber Charter School, which was part of the K12 Inc. charter empire, she was indicted for stealing $6.5 million from taxpayers. She and her executives were indicted on 62 counts of wire fraud, obstruction of justice and witness tampering. She had a reputation for claiming large salaries and filing suits against parents who questioned her.

 

Where’s that movie?
The history of charter schools reads like a who’s who of hucksters and thieves!

 

Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) the largest charter school in Ohio was forced to shut down and auction off all its taxpayer funded property because administrators  grossly inflated its students body of 12,000 online students to the state.

 

New Jersey charter schools spent as much as $800 million of taxpayer dollars to buy property that they then charged taxpayers additional money to rent from the charter schools, according to an IRS investigation.

 

The Network for Public Education published a report in 2019 detailing more than $1 billion in federal dollars misappropriated by charters – including hundreds of millions spent on charters that never even opened or that closed soon after opening.

 

I think those would make good movies. Don’t you?

 

But let’s not forget the other vulture industries that prey on our public school system without providing much of value in return.

 

If you want REAL fraud, you have to go to the standardized testing and ed tech industry sucking away billions or taxpayer dollars while providing services that are either unnecessary or downright destructive.

 

Why do we give every public school child high stakes tests in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school? Because the federal government says so.

 

These tests don’t tell us how well students are doing in school. We have at least 180 days of classroom grades that tell us that.

 

These tests taken over a period of a few days tell us what the corporation making them thinks is important. And they nearly always show that richer kids are doing better than poorer kids, and that whiter kids are somehow “smarter” than blacker kids.

 

And for this prized data we pay billions of dollars to big businesses every year.
It’s one of the largest captive markets in existence. That’s some 50.4 million children forced to take standardized assessments. The largest such corporation, Pearson, boasts profits of $9 billion annually. It’s largest competitor, CBT/ McGraw-Hill, makes $2 billion annually. Others include Education Testing Services and Riverside Publishing better known through its parent company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

If many of these companies sound like book publishers, that’s because they are or their parent companies are. And that’s no coincidence. It’s another way they bolster their own market.

 

Not only do many of these testing corporations make, provide and score standardized assessments, they make and provide the remedial resources used to help students pass.

 

So if your students are having difficulty passing the state test, often the same company has a series of workbooks or a software package to help remediate them. It’s a good business model. Cash in before kids take the test. Cash in when they take it. And if kids fail, cash in again to remediate them.

 

Ever wonder why our test scores are so low? Because it’s profitable! The money is all on the side of failure, not success. In fact, from an economic point of view, there is a disincentive to succeed. Not for teachers and students, but for the people who make and grade the tests.

 
In fact, when I sat down to watch “Bad Education” I thought it was going to be about high stakes testing cheating scandals. I thought it was going to be about how the pressure to have students score well on the tests have in some cases resulted in teachers and/or administrators changing answers to inflate the scores.

 

But no. That’s not mentioned at all. There’s talk about test scores but their value is never questioned for one second.

 

Hugh Jackman’s superintendent dreams of leading his schools from getting the 4th highest test scores to having the 1st highest. But nowhere does anyone mention how these tests were literally developed by Nazi eugenicists or how they have been challenged countless times for violating children’s civil rights or even the sizable parent-led opt out movement in the same New York suburbs where the film takes place.

 

Okay.  Maybe I AM being too sensitive.

 

The film does seem to have a theme about how we expect everything from schools and teachers and don’t reward them well enough. But this is undercut by the obvious villainy of people who use that discrepancy to take advantage of the trust the public has placed in them.

 

Public schools rarely act this way.

 

I fear that many people will miss that point.

 

Instead it will be more fuel to the fire that public schools are bad and must be replaced.

 

There’s even a parting shot about Jackman’s character’s pension.

 

I’m all for drama.
But when filmmakers bend over backward to ignore the elephant in the room, I tend to lose my appetite for popcorn.

 

 


 

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Trumpsters are Furious Over My Refusal to Sacrifice Students to the Economy

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You can’t make this stuff up!

 

I published an article yesterday on my blog with the title “You Can’t Have My Students’ Lives to Restart Your Economy.” 

 

In it, I criticized Dr. Oz, Dr. Phil and a Walton Family Foundation advisor who lambasted social distancing efforts as a response to the Coronavirus global pandemic, especially here in the United States. To varying degrees, they each thought it was acceptable to sacrifice children’s safety by reopening schools early if it would get businesses back up and running again.

 

I think that’s beyond ridiculous.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

 

The rich need the poor to get back to work. And they’re willing to put our lives on the line to do it.

 

What’s worse, they’re willing to put our children’s lives on the line.

 

I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to risk my daughter’s life so that the stock market can open back up.

 

As a public school teacher, I’m not willing to bet my students lives so that the airlines and cruise industry can get back in the green.

 

Nor am I willing to gamble with my own life even if it means the NBA, NFL and MLB can start playing games and Hollywood can start premiering first run movies again.

 

 

My article seemed pretty reasonable to me, as it has to the more than 17,000 people who have read it since I first hit publish about 24 hours ago.

 

However, on Twitter, there was a vocal minority who took issue with me.

 

Someone from an account I won’t name (though he has more than 65,000 followers and the word “Libertarian” in his handle) retweeted my blog with the following comment:

 

“For the love of God. Students are more at risk of losing their homes and watching their parents split up or succumb to addiction or depression over losing their jobs than they are at risk of ever contracting this virus.”

 

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He had lots of folks who agreed with him.

 

Their comments seemed to fit into two categories:  (1) quarantine sucks, or (2) they’re MY kids you stoopid gubmint Skool teacher!

 

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At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of such comments.

 

How can anyone really be against keeping children safe from a deadly virus?

 

After some soul searching, I decided to reply:

 

Hey XXX thanks for sharing my blog post to so many people who probably would not have seen it otherwise. However, I think your criticism is unfounded. You seem to be saying that quarantine sucks. Yes, it DOES suck. But putting kids lives at risk is worse…

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…While it’s true that kids are often asymptomatic, they do get COVID-19 and become carriers. If we reopen the schools too soon, most kids won’t die, but they’ll bring the virus home to mom, dad and the grandparents who are much more susceptible…

 

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…What’s worse is that when you get COVID-19 you’re often asymptomatic for the first week or so. Even adults become carriers though they have a greater chance of eventually getting much worse. That’s why we’re doing social distancing now – to stop the spread…

 

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…We want to give hospitals a chance to treat sick people as they come in and not all at once. Even discounting the effect on children, schools are staffed by adults – many over 55 and with existing health conditions. It’s unfair to make them risk their lives…

 

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…Teachers shouldn’t have to risk their lives – and their families lives – to do their jobs. Seems to me that’s actually a pretty libertarian position. Your political freedom and autonomy seem pretty constrained in a coffin. Thanks for listening.

 

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I don’t know if it will do any good, but I thought the readers of my blog might like to know about it.

 

After all, if there’s anything more viral than COVID-19, it’s ignorance.

 


 

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Bernie Sanders Supporters Have Every Right to Be Furious

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Dear non-Bernie Sanders supporters,

 

Shut up.

 

Seriously.

 

Sit down, and shut the fuck up.

 

You’ve been doing an awful lot of talking lately, and there’s a few things you need to hear.

 

We, the Bernie supports, are sick and tired of the never-ending flow of bullshit coming out of your mouths.

 

For the past five years you’ve called us Bernie Bros, Bernie’s Internet army, Russian bots, naive, sexist, racist, privileged, pigs.

 

Yet women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, social, racial and ethnic minorities make up a sizable portion of our numbers, but somehow we’re prejudiced.

 

You didn’t listen to us in 2016 when we said Hilary Clinton was unelectable. You didn’t listen to us when we said Donald Trump had a real chance at winning. But you blamed the entire catastrophe on the handful of us who didn’t vote for your candidate.

 

And now the second Bernie Sanders suspends his 2020 campaign, you’re all over us to commit to your boy, Joe Biden.

 

We’ve been here before. We have a pretty good idea how this story ends. Maybe you’d do well to listen to us for once.

 
We’ve spent years of intense effort changing the narrative of politics in America. We’ve held live streams, phone banked, knocked on doors, overfilled arenas. We’ve pushed Medicare for all, raising the minimum wage, universal college, a Green New Deal.

 

And the only thing you can say is “I told you so”?

 

All you have to say is “blue no matter who”?

 

It’s just “Get in line or you’ll be responsible – again.”

 

Let me ask you a question: what are YOU responsible for?

 

When Bernie was winning state after state, the media acted like it was a literal invasion of brownshirts. When Biden was winning, it was the best news since sliced bread.

 

Who’s responsible for that?

 

Bernie was running away with the primary until nearly all the other candidates mysteriously dropped out all at once right before Super Tuesday. And now we find out Barack Obama gave them each a call before hand – putting his finger on the scale.

 

Who’s responsible?

 

The Democratic National Committee literally pushed to continue primaries in Illinois, Florida and Arizona during a pandemic in case waiting might bolster Bernie – the candidate with policies tailor made to fight COVID-19. And the result has been a flood of sick people and a nearly insurmountable delegate lead.

 

Who’s responsible?

 

Once again – no one.

 

Not a single establishment Democrat, Hillary or Biden supporter has ever said, “We fucked up.” It’s only what everyone else did. No accountability for your actions at all.

 

Don’t Bernie supporters have a right to be pissed off about it?

 

Can we just have a moment to express our authentic human rage?

 
This may come as a shock but almost all Bernie supporters want to beat Trump in November.

 

And now we have no choice but Biden with which to do it.

 

We have a candidate with a long history of outrageous and provable lies – including statements only a month old that he was arrested while visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

 

We have only a candidate with a history of inappropriate touching of women and a credible rape allegation.

 

We have a candidate who degraded Anita Hill to help far right Republican Clarence Thomas get on the Supreme Court.

 

We have a candidate who wrote the bankruptcy bill that stopped protection from millions right before a recession.

 

We have a candidate who has repeatedly been willing to cut social security.

 

We have a candidate who refuses to support Medicare for all – even during a global pandemic.

 

And you think Berners are somehow out of line for expressing anger over this shit?

 

You need to wake up.

 

At this point, we need unity more than ever.

 

We need to come together and defeat Trump.

 

But to do that, we need more than just hatred of the incumbent.

 

Sure we need someone who will nominate sane Supreme Court justices, but we need a base that will give him the support to get these nominees approved and not leave them in the wind like Merrick Garland.

 

We need real policies that people can get behind. And even if Bernie came up short on delegates, his policies are still incredibly popular – more popular than he is.

 

If you want some of us to pull the lever for your boy in November, you’d do a lot better fixing Biden’s policy positions than gaslighting Bernie folk.

 

You’d do a lot better getting Biden to pick strong progressives for cabinet positions and leadership positions in his electoral campaign than trying to bully us into obedience.

 

You’d do a lot better committing to Bernie as a second choice if Biden somehow demonstrates he’s unable to continue with the campaign (and you KNOW what I mean).

 

And perhaps more than anything – you’d do well to give us a little fucking space.

 

Berners need time to mourn.

 

I said that before and someone thought I was joking. I’m not.

 

If Bernie folk have a weakness, it’s that we’re believers.

 

We believed in our political revolution.

 

We believed in the idea of “Not me. Us.”

 

We believed a better world was possible.

 

Now that better world is further out of reach.

 

And all you have to offer us is one that’s slightly less fucked.

 


 

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

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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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Top 10 Things I Want My Students to do During the Coronavirus Quarantine

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Dear Students,

 

A schoolteacher without a classroom is kind of like a firefighter without a fire.

 

Or a police officer without crime.

 

But here we are – self-quarantined at home.

 

Our classroom sits empty, and everyday this week we sit here at home wondering what to do.

 

I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about all of you.

 

I hope you’re doing alright during this unprecedented moment in history. It probably seemed like a lot of fun when it first happened.

 

No school for the foreseeable future!

 

The whole thing came together so quickly that our district didn’t even have time to get together work to send home with you. And like most schools throughout the country, many of you don’t have home internet access so we can’t fairly give you on-line lessons, either.

 

So you’ve been at home with little guidance from us. Sure we have free breakfast and lunches available for pick up at the school, but you’re probably growing a bit stir crazy.

 

I know I am. (And I’m sure your folks are, too!)

 

I’m at home with my daughter trying to keep her busy.

 

We’ve been creating Mario Maker boards for each other on our Nintendo 3DS and Switch.

 

We keep trying to stump each other, and me, being a teacher, I keep trying to get her to think outside of the box.

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where you have to get a mushroom through a maze?”

 

Or

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where the walls close in?”
Or

 

“I wonder if you could beat a Thwomp in a race down a pit?”

 

We were having a really good time until I tried to get her to watch a science video. I put on the original Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the early 1980s.

 

My daughter loves looking up at the stars and asking me questions about the constellations. I thought this would be a perfect fit – after all, Sagan was an astronomer and can answer her questions way better than I can.

 

However, the old school effects were simply no match for today’s aesthetic. She revolted after about 20 minutes.

 

Today I won her over though with the new Cosmos series featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. She turned to me after about five minutes and said, “Much better.”

 

We’ve been drawing and reading and playing video games and having a good ol’ time.

 

I hope you have people at home who can help you get through all this, too.

 

I’ve been getting a lot of emails recently from your folks.

 

They want to know what they should be doing to help you academically.

 

Whenever this whole thing is over – and it will be over someday soon I hope – they want to make sure you won’t fall too far behind.

 

Let me start with a word of caution.

 

We don’t know how long this self-quarantine will last.

 

We’re trying to stay home to stop the spread of this virus – COVID-19. It can be deadly to some people – even some young people like you.

 

It’s in everybody’s best interest that we wait this thing out so that the hospitals can deal with the people who get sick.

 

Then when the disease has passed, we can continue our normal lives.

 

But no one knows how long that will take. It could be a few more weeks – but more likely months.

 

It is very possible that we will not go back to school again until after the summer.

 

So it’s hard to say exactly what you should do to keep yourself in the best academic shape because we don’t know what you’ll be coming back to.

 

We DO know that we won’t have to make up some or all of the days we missed.

 

And we know we won’t (here in Pennsylvania) have to take the PSSA or Keystone tests this year.

 

But when this is over, what grade will you be in? Will you just move on to the next grade or will there be a bit of mopping up to do first? And if you don’t finish the curriculum, will you be ready for the challenges ahead?

 

We don’t know any of that yet.

 

But here are a few guidelines and some things you might want to do while you’re at home.

 

You don’t have to do all of them, but they’re some things to think about.

 

So here’s my top 10 things for my students to do during quarantine:

 

1) Finish Whatever School Work You Can

 

You may have some outstanding school work with you in your book bag. I know I sent my seventh graders home with their poetry projects. My eighth graders should either be done or have taken their projects home to finish.

 

So if you have work that’s not done, finish it to the best of your ability. You certainly have enough time.

 

2) Read a Book

 

I ask all of may students to have a self-selected book handy for sustained silent reading in class. Hopefully you brought it home. If not, take a look around the house. Maybe you’ve got a dusty tome hanging out in some corner. Or – hey – if you have Internet access, you probably have the ability to get an ebook.

 

Read something – anything you want.

 

It will while away the hours, relax you and maybe get your mind to thinking about things above and beyond how much mac and cheese you’ve got stored in the cupboard.

 

3) Keep a Journal

 

Do you realize you’re living through a moment of history? People will look back on this and wonder how people got through it. You could fill in the blanks for some future researcher. Just a description of your everyday activities, what you’re thinking and feeling, your hopes and dreams – all of it has historical value. Plus, you’ll get some practice expressing yourself in writing. And just think – a simple story about how you survived the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 could end up being taught in the classrooms of the future!

 

Make it a good one!

4) Take a Break from Video Games

 

I know some of you have built a fort out of sofa cushions, covered it in blankets and are nestled in this hideaway doing nothing but playing Fortnite or Roblox or Minecraft with friends on-line. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. You go ahead and do that.

 

Just remember to take breaks for more than just food and the bathroom. Getting lost in a fantasy world is great so long as you leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back out again.

 

Don’t forget the trail. Don’t forget there’s a world out there that needs you. Set definite limits for how long you spend in there and try really hard to adhere to them.

 

5) Watch Something Educational on TV or the Internet

 

Education isn’t limited to something a teacher told you to do. Find a video or TV show that explains something you never knew before. Youtube is great for this if you know what to look for.

 

I don’t mean to find some rant by your favorite Youtuber. I mean find something about science, history, art, literature, math, etc. Make it something you care about but might not watch just for fun.

 

You’ll be surprised at what you can find out there. The channel CrashCourse with author John Greene (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and his brother Hank is particularly informative, entertaining and far reaching. I also love John Michael Godier for all things astronomy and Composer David Bruce for discussions of music.

 

6) Watch/Read the News

 

There are extraordinary things happening every day. Knowing about them can help you prepare for what’s next and think about what we can and should be doing to make things better.

 

7) Listen to Music/ Draw/ Do Something Creative

 

I know you. You’re a bundle of creative energy bound together waiting to explode. Go do that. Whatever you enjoy doing, create something. Write a song, make a comic book, paste together a collage. Express yourself, and if you’re not in the mood for that – enjoy the expressions of others. Listen to music, read a poem, watch a movie.

 

8) Help Out Your Folks

 

We, adults, can seem like we’ve got it all under control. We don’t. We’re just as anxious, fearful and uncertain as you about this whole self-quarantine thing. None of us were around the last time something like this happened (the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic). Anything you can do – helping take out the trash, cleaning up messes, even just trying extra hard not to argue with your siblings – can be a big help.

 

9) Talk to Friends and Family about How You’re Feeling

 

No one expects you to be a robot. These are trying times. It’s okay to feel a certain way about that. Share those feelings with someone you trust. And be a sympathetic ear for them to do the same. The best way we can get through all this is with each other’s help.

 

10) Know That You Are Loved

 

My dear precious little students! There are people out there who love you so much. There are people who would move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. I know you’re scared and bored and anxious. But remember we’re in this together. And no matter where you are or what you’re doing there’s at least your crazy English teacher who loves you very much and can’t wait to see you all again.

 

Stay safe!

 

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Bernie Sanders Would Be the First Jewish President – What That Means to Me

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Being Jewish is not something I advertise.

 

Some of my earliest memories are trying to explain to school friends that no, I didn’t kill Jesus – and, yes, I do eat matzo but it isn’t made with baby’s blood – and would they like to come over to my house and play Legos?

 

I’ve been called “yid,” “kike,” “heeb,” even just plain “Jew” with the lips curled and the word hurled at me like a knife.

 

Heck. When I was a kid even the bus driver called me “moneybags,” though my family was far from rich.

 

So it makes sense to me that Bernie Sanders isn’t running for President as a Jew first.

 

He’s running on his policies and experience.

 

But it still hurts when pundits complain that there are now just two white men vying for the democratic nomination.

 

Um. Okay.
 
Sanders IS Jewish. You know that, right? If he were elected, it would not be business as usual. It would be unprecedented.

 

Yet that fact is almost always glossed over because it doesn’t fit the media narrative they’re selling.

 

Sanders is the “crazy socialist,” not the “historic Jew.”

 

This constant erasure is a slap in the face.

 

And I mean MY face, not just Sander’s.

 

I doubt it feels too good to him, either, but it feels personal to me, as well.

 

My family and I live just outside of Pittsburgh, about a half hour away from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill where just two years ago 17 people were gunned down in perhaps the worst act of violence against Jews in our nation’s history.

 

 

I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” to middle school children less than 15 minutes away.

 

 

I have relatives who belong to that congregation, though I didn’t know any of the 11 people who died.

 

 

Let me ask – were they white?

 

 

I’ll bet they thought they were, but all it took was an anti-Semite with a gun to challenge that.

 

Like Bernie, I lost my extended family in the Holocaust – great grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins,  who I will never meet. I grew up with only the closest of familial relations.

 

 

Before I was old enough to get in to see a PG-13 movie, I knew about mass graves, ghettos, cattle cars and crematoriums.

 

 

Generation upon generation of European Jewry never expected to be singled out for extermination. They probably thought of themselves as regular, everyday people, too – an US not a THEM.

 

Bernie would meet that same standard. Like all of us, he knows we’re white only until someone decides we’re not.

 

 
So when talking heads decide to erase the fact of Bernie’s ancestry, they aren’t just playing politics. They’re engaged in naked prejudice.

 

Let me be clear. I don’t bring this up out of some sense of political tokenism. Bernie shouldn’t be recognized just for appearances sake. He needs to be seen for who and what he is.

 

 

This isn’t about identity politics. It’s about basic truth.

 

 

When some folks complain about the way Bernie speaks or that he yells too much, they’re really showing a xenophobic bigotry.

 

 

Bernie is a Jewish man who grew up in New York.That is how people from there talk.

 

 

I’ve known scores of people who speak like that – often at the dinner table during family gatherings. Just because it isn’t a part of your personal experience doesn’t make it acceptable to dismiss.

 

 

If you belittled someone for speaking with a Spanish accent, it would be called out for what it is – prejudice.

 

 

But by ignoring Bernie’s Judaism, you allow all kinds of discriminatory preconceptions to pass as little more than valid criticisms.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

 

I don’t think Bernie’s Judaism is the most important thing about him or his campaign.

 

 

I wouldn’t support just any Jew who was running. For example, I wouldn’t back Joe Lieberman or Jared Kushner if they were seeking elected office.

 

 

But it DOES mean something that Bernie is in the hunt for the Democratic nomination and is Jewish.

 

 

For me, he typifies what is best about us.

 

 

He embodies the spirit of doing good for others and trying to make the world a better place. He seeks justice in economic, social, racial, gender and political relationships. He tells truth even when it’s uncomfortable to hear. And that includes the truth about the Israeli government’s reprehensible treatment of the Palestinian people.

 

 

In his 30 years in Congress he passed mountains of bipartisan legislation as the amendment king. He refused to support the Iraq War or cuts to social security. He supports unions, workers, public schools and universal healthcare.

 

 

Being Jewish does not take precedence to those things. But I hope supporting those things will help redefine what people think of when they think of Judaism.

 

 


 

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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!”

 

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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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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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