Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



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

How to Vote on Ballot Measures in Pennsylvania’s 2021 Primary Election

Can you feel it?

The primary election is just a few weeks away.

Voters will decide all kinds of things like who will represent their respective parties for school board, judges, magistrates, county council, etc.

However, that’s not all.

There also will be four statewide ballot initiatives. All Allegheny County residents will get a fifth. And Pittsburgh residents will get a sixth.

If you’re like me, you don’t want these questions to come as a surprise on May 18 or before (if you’re casting a mail in ballot).

These queries can change the state for better or worse in dramatic ways, yet for some reason, they don’t write these things in the way everyday people talk.

This is lawyer speak. You have to wear a long black robe and put on a white haired wig (called a peruke) just to understand these things.

But don’t get your gavel in a tizzy.

As a public service, I’m going to translate each question and make a suggestion on how you should vote.

QUESTION 1:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”

Translation: Allow the legislature to second guess the governor and terminate an emergency disaster declaration without just cause

Suggestion: VOTE NO

This is yet another example of the endless far right hissy fit from science denying lawmakers still mad that Gov. Tom Wolf had the gall to close down the state because of the global Covid-19 pandemic. If passed, this would erode the powers of the governor and give them to our gerrymandered Harrisburg legislature.

We have three branches of government for a reason – checks and balances. Robbing the executive to boost a dysfunctional legislature would make the declaration of emergencies and natural disasters a matter or politics not facts.

Emergencies could be terminated at a moment’s notice without cause sending our first responders into chaos. Emergency managers could lose precious time and resources, communities could lose relief and recovery funding from the state and federal governments, all while our chuckleheaded legislature debates reality.

The Covid-19 pandemic may not be over yet. We’re working overtime to distribute vaccines and combat threats from emerging variants. The last thing we need is a political show prematurely eliminating masking, social distancing and other safety precautions so performative ideologues can win points on Fox News.

QUESTION 2:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

Translation: Limit an emergency disaster declaration to 21 days regardless of the severity of the emergency

Suggestion: VOTE NO

Disasters do not come with time limits. But randomly limiting them all to 21 days again takes power away from the Governor and gives it to the legislature. The only way to extend emergency declarations would be passage of a resolution by the state House and Senate.

Do we really want our emergency responses tied to the endless back and forth of legislators who rarely even pass their annual budgets on time? This is unnecessary bureaucracy so politicians can grandstand while emergency personnel wait for the go ahead to save lives.


QUESTION 3:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”

Translation: Make it illegal to deny or cut short anyone’s rights because of race or ethnicity

Suggestion: VOTE YES

This should be a no brainer. No one should be able to deny a person’s civil rights because of race or ethnicity. Or any other reason!

However, we just lived through four years of a reality TV show President who packed the federal courts with dozens of questionable and unqualified judges who made their careers discriminating against people of color, people of different creeds, religions, etc.

So it makes sense to enshrine equal protection for all at the state level and protect Commonwealth residents from federally sanctioned prejudice especially focused around workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, housing and healthcare.


Moreover, as a part of the state Constitution, this amendment would stop even our own state legislature from passing any laws inconsistent with it.

QUESTION 4:

“Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”


Translation: Allow municipal fire departments and EMS companies to apply for state loans to modernize critical safety equipment

Suggestion: VOTE YES

Both municipal fire departments and EMS companies with paid employees and volunteer departments and companies would be able to apply for state loans.

This vital funding could be used to modernize or purchase necessary safety equipment for first responders. It would keep fire fighters up to date and able to serve residents – especially those in rural areas. It would make sure every fire department could have up to date equipment.

Question 5 (Allegheny County Only):

“Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205. Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, as set forth below, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?”

Translation: Should we prohibit solitary confinement at Allegheny County Jail except in extreme emergencies?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

Solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. A lawsuit filed in September by ACJ inmates alleges that solitary confinement was being used as a punishment against inmates seeking mental health care. Recent research from Cornell University demonstrates that even a short amount of time in solitary confinement can increase recidivism rates, as well as unemployment rates.

Question 6 (Pittsburgh residents only):

“Shall the Pittsburgh Home Rule Charter be amended and supplemented by adding a new Article 10: Powers of the Pittsburgh Police, containing Section 1001, which shall bar employees of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police from executing warrants at any residence without knocking and announcing themselves?”

Translation: Should we eliminate no-knock warrants?

Suggestion: VOTE YES!

This would require all Pittsburgh Police to physically knock and announce themselves before gaining entry to execute a warrant.

No knock warrants are dangerous and often a component of racial discrimination in law enforcement.

Briana Taylor’s death in Louisville, KY, during the execution of a “no knock” warrant clearly shows how this practice recklessly endangers human life. Many municipalities now have banned no-knock warrants including Louisville, KY. Pittsburgh City Council also introduced legislation to ban the use of no-knock warrants by Pittsburgh Police officers.

So those are my suggestions for this race’s ballot initiatives.

NO. NO. YES. YES. YES.

And if you happen to be a Democrat living in Allegheny County’s District 9, please vote for me for County Council.

Together we can build a better world.


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

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

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

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

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

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

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


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

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

The kids were reticent at first.

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

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

The results have been amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Hey! They brought it up!)

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

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

But whatever.

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

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

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

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

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

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

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

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

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

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

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

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

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

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

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

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So as the school year rapidly comes to a close, I have a suggestion to make.

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

I’m just a public school teacher with 17 years experience. I’ve never sat on any think tank boards. No testing corporation has ever paid me a dime to hawk one of their high quality remediation products.

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

Most importantly – children are people.

I know that’s controversial, but I believe it to be true.

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

As of April 1, nearly 3.47 million children have tested positive for COVID-19, most with mild symptoms, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. A few hundred have died, mostly children of color. Many more kids probably contracted the virus but were asymptomatic spreaders of the disease to adults.

As a result, between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to USC research.

They have suffered through changes in routine, disruptions in learning, breaks in the continuity of their healthcare, missed significant life events like birthday parties, vacations and graduations. But worst of all they have suffered the loss of safety and security.

We should not be demanding they work harder at a time like this.

We should be providing them with kindness, empathy and love.

In the classroom, I no longer have a thing called “Late Work.”

If a student hands in an assignment passed the due date, there is no penalty. I just grade it. And if it isn’t done correctly, I give them a chance to redo it.

As many chances as they need.

I remediate. I tutor. I offer advice, counseling, a sympathetic ear.

It’s not that much different than any other year, except in how often children need it now.

Kids AND their parents.

I can’t tell you how many adults I’ve counseled in the last several months.

So when the last day of school arrives, I will close my books.

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

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

Have fun.

Recharge.

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

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

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

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

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

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

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

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

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

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

They’ll just be.

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




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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

A New Children’s Fund – Reducing Student Inequality Through Allegheny County Council

Public schools are not funded fairly.

Every child does not receive equitable resources or even close to what they need.

The state and federal government provide some funding, but they leave it up to each neighborhood to take the brunt of the burden.

So the majority of funding comes from local tax revenues – rich communities give their kids more than enough and poor ones struggle to give them enough to even get by.

This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.

It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but don’t look to the state or federal government to fix it.

No matter who has been in power in the Oval Office or held majorities in Congress, national lawmakers don’t seem to care much about public schools unless it has to do with standardized testing or school privatization – policies that only make things worse.

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Tom Wolf has been working his entire tenure to make the system more fair, but the Republican controlled legislature has blocked him at nearly every turn. And given our hopeless gerrymandered legislative districts, this isn’t about to be rectified anytime soon.

So what are we to do? Give up?

No.

In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.

Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.

And for good reason.

The proposal was an absolute mess.

As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.

But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.

The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.

We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons I’m running for county council. I want to increase our local investment in children and the future.

Here’s how we do it.

The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.

This was a terrible idea.

We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.

All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.

Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.

We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.

Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.

We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.

While food insecurity remains a problem for low income students and their families, I think there are better solutions such as increasing the minimum wage and creating more well-paying union jobs.

We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.

Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.

Though almost everyone agreed with the stated goals of the proposal, many organizations and government officials complained that they were not consulted and made a part of the process.

There’s an easy fix for that.

Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.

I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.

Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.

One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.

Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.

We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.


To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.

For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.

We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.

The new Children’s Fund should be barred from use in standardized testing preparation programs, it should not be available to buy new technologies or apps, and it should be used at the K-12 level ONLY at strictly public schools.

County residents cannot afford to bankroll people’s kids to private schools.

This money should not be available at any private schools even if those schools use school vouchers, Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs or other tax scholarship programs that function like school vouchers.

Moreover, county residents shouldn’t be pouring our tax dollars into schools that don’t have the same high fiscal accountability requirements as our fully public schools even if these schools claim to be fully public.

Unlike public institutions, charter schools do not have to be run by elected school boards, do not have to have school board meetings open to the public or even open their budgets to annual public review.

That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLY if those schools charters are in good standing AND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.

I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.

We have to face the facts.

Pennsylvania is one of the worst states in the country when it comes to educational equity for poor and non-white students.

The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.

The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.

A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.

And the list goes on and on.

Only the federal and state government can truly fix the problem long term. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

We can sit idly by as our children get left behind or we can stand up and do something about it.

If elected to county council, I will do everything in my power to right this wrong.

Our kids deserve more than governmental dysfunction, class warfare and de facto racism.

Please stand with me to enact a new children’s fund that helps support our kids.

Please help me gain a seat on Allegheny County Council.


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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

 

Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


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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!

Hope During a Pandemic is Both Hard and Inescapable

I cried when I got my second Covid-19 shot.

Not a lot.

Just a few drops.

But the flood of emotions I felt that accompanied that tiny pinch in my arm was totally unexpected.

It was like I gasped for breath and hadn’t realized until then that I was suffocating.

I looked up at the volunteer who had injected me to see if she’d noticed, but it’s hard to read someone’s expression under a mask.

So I found myself shrugging the feeling off, giving her a brisk “Thank you” and heading off to file my paperwork, get another stamp on my vaccination card and plopping in a chair for 15 minutes of observation before heading on my way.

As I sat there, I started to feel this growing sense of excitement in my chest.

Two weeks, I thought.

In two weeks I will be fully vaccinated.

Moderna is 94.1% effective at preventing infection. That means I should be able to return to school and teach my students in-person. Safely.

Some of them have been back in the classroom for weeks now, but I’ve had to stay remote putting up assignments in Google Classroom for the sub to teach.

My pre-existing health conditions make me too susceptible to the virus to take chances with stuffy classrooms and interacting with tens of students for prolonged periods every day.

So instead I spend my daylight hours grading virtual papers and writing digital comments, but I only get to hear student voices on Fridays when all classes are conducted remotely.

Rarely do I get to see a face in one of those austere Zoom boxes.

It’s a lonely life being sidelined this way.

But there seems to be an end in sight.

I can actually plot it on the calendar.

THAT day I can return.

And I wonder, is this hope?

I haven’t really felt anything like it in quite a while.

The world has been such a mess for so long.

A global pandemic that’s infected nearly 29 million Americans and killed 523,000 is bad enough. But it’s the constant bungling of local, state and federal governments response to the virus that has been absolutely demoralizing.

In fact, my second shot was delayed a week because health officials accidentally gave out the dose that had been set aside for me to someone else.

Thankfully waiting an extra 7 days isn’t supposed to have any ill effects. But that’s a week more I have to be out of the classroom and burning my sick days, trying to do 40 hours worth of work in the handful of hours the district allows me.

It’s just that this isn’t an anomaly. All through this process those in charge have dropped the ball.

At every step – bungled, mismanaged, and carelessly misjudged.

The school board refused to value my health and reopened recklessly even putting the community’s own children in danger. The state refused to mandate almost anything to keep people safe, instead offering a truckload of take-it-or-leave-it suggestions.

Hope, I thought. Is it possible to believe in hope anymore?

Barack Obama made it a campaign slogan. Hope and change.

His book was “The Audacity of Hope.”

He wrote:

“Hope is not blind optimism. It’s not ignoring the enormity of the task ahead or the roadblocks that stand in our path. It’s not sitting on the sidelines or shirking from a fight. Hope is that thing inside us that insists, despite all evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it, and to work for it, and to fight for it. Hope is the belief that destiny will not be written for us, but by us, by the men and women who are not content to settle for the world as it is, who have the courage to remake the world as it should be.”

These words ring so empty today after a presidency full of promises and very little else.

True, much of his domestic agenda was blocked by Republicans. But even when they couldn’t stop him from getting things done, the results were often disappointing. His foreign policy was hawkish full of drone strikes, his immigration policy unduly cruel and his education programs were the fever dreams of Milton Friedman made real – charter schools, high stakes testing and ed tech handouts.

You think Trump was bad!? He was the logical consequence of dashed hopes and neoliberal triumphs. You can’t run, as Obama did, as a once-in-a-lifetime transformational candidate and then legislate to support a status quo that is destroying the majority of Americans.

If you do, you get Trump.

At least now the pendulum has swung back the other way. We’ve got Biden.

Cool, smooth, dependable Biden.

He’s slowly reversing the catastrophes of Trump while quietly committing a few of his own along the way. (Reopening school buildings without mandating the opportunity for teachers to be vaccinated first!? Requiring standardized testing to tell if students have been affected by the pandemic!?)

How does one continue to hope in the wake of such disappointment?

The fabric of our society and our governmental institutions are frayed to the breaking point. They could fall apart any day now.

How does one continue to hope in light of all this?

My phone buzzes. I shake my head to dispel all these gloomy thoughts.

Well! Here’s some good news. Apparently there are no ill effects from the shot. Time to go.

I stand up and look around at the busy vaccination center.

Volunteers continue to welcome patients. They’re much more organized than when I got my first shot only weeks earlier.

Everyone is friendly and there’s even a sparkle in their eyes.

What is that sparkle?

Why does everyone smile?


Why did I cry?

There’s only one possibility.

It’s hope.

Goddamit.

It’s hope.

The teardrop that escaped my eye wasn’t a response to any pain from the injection. It was pain at the possibility that all this would end.

It was the feeling – the certainty – that the pandemic was only temporary and that I would come out the other side. We all would.

Because in the part of our hearts where hope grows, the past doesn’t matter.

What’s happened is always past.

The only thing that counts is the future.

And when you have a future you have to hope.

It’s simply built in. There’s no way around it.

It would be easier not to hope. But the only way to do that is to die, and apparently I’m going to live.

So you pick yourself up, you dust off your knees and you get to the work ahead.

Because no matter how disappointing the past, how demoralizing the events you’ve lived through, there is always the possibility that things will be better tomorrow.

If only you work to make it so.


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

How I Got the Covid Vaccine: an Immunization Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was so discouraging.

So was my job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine is much different.

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

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

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

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

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

I was struck dumb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was warm at least.

And the people there were very friendly.

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

There was a slight pinch and that was it.


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

I had no side effects.

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

And so here I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am thankful, thoughtful and hopeful.

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

 


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

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

Want to Appreciate Teachers? Vaccinate Us Before Reopening Schools

This year I don’t need a free donut.

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

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

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

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

That is LITERALLY the least you can do.

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

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

Not a cookie. A Covid vaccine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ha!

Ha!

And Ha!

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

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

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

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

Some districts never stopped in the first place.

So why the discrepancy?

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

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

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

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

That’s about 4,000 people a day.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s roughly 21 cases a month.

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t get me wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I chose to be a public school teacher.

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

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

That’s not too much to ask.

In fact, it’s not much at all.

I’m not saying vaccines are a panacea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So stop the badgering and bullying.

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

It is the least you can do.


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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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

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

That shouldn’t be controversial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet it’s that time again!

Time to justify keeping things closed up tight!

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

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

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

It’s not even a valid dichotomy.

Risking teachers lives does not mean students will learn more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Will PA Schools Ask Parents to Oversee CDT Testing at Home?

Should parents be asked to administer on-line tests to their own children at home?

Back in May someone at Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) had an idea.

Since a global pandemic had shuttered classrooms, no children were being forced to take the multi-billion dollar testing company’s products.

Federally mandated assessments like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) and Keystone Exams – which are made by DRC – were cancelled.

And local districts weren’t even making students take assessments like the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT) – an optional test to determine if kids were ready to take the mandatory tests.

If someone at DRC didn’t act quickly, the Commonwealth might ask for a refund on the $1.3 billion it spent on standardized testing in the last eight years.


 The Minnesota-based DRC, a division of CTB McGraw-Hill, wasn’t about to issue any refunds.

So someone had to figure out a way to keep children testing even though they were currently at home sheltering in place.

But that’s it!

Tests like the CDTs are taken online anyway. Theoretically, kids could access them in their own homes, they just need someone to help them sign in, navigate the Web portal and make sure they aren’t cheating.

Normally, that would be the job of classroom teachers, but educators can’t do that AND have students test at the same time.

During the pandemic with most schools shuttered, teachers only communicate with students remotely – through applications like video conferencing sites such as Zoom. If teachers proctored the tests, too, that would require students to take the tests on one Web accessible device and have the teachers communicate with them on another.

Can you imagine a child taking a test on her iPad while participating in a Zoom meeting on her cell phone? If she even had both devices? And the bandwidth to run both simultaneously?

That’s where parents come in.

Students can test on their computers or devices with their parents, in-person, troubleshooting and monitoring their behavior.

Thus, a truly stupid idea was born.

To my knowledge, not a single district in the Keystone state has yet taken advantage of this scheme.

And why would they?

Even the most data driven local administrator or test obsessed school director knows that a sure way to infuriate parents is to ask them to do something that is essentially the school’s job.

Moreover, in these difficult times, parents have their hands full just keeping food on the table. If they can somehow get their kids to log in to their online classes every day, that’s a plus. If they can get their kids to actually turn in the assignments, it’s a miracle.

But to add proctoring a test on top of everything else!? Districts would have to be nuts to even try!

However, DRC and the state Department of Education aren’t giving up.

As an increasing number of schools go on-line, the state extended the program through the 2020-21 school year, and some districts are actively considering it.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work.

Classroom teachers would provide parents with testing materials including a log-in ticket for each child in the home taking the test. Students would have to access the test online through the Chrome Internet browser. Then they’d have to copy and past the URL into the browser (which would be provided in the testing materials), and input their usernames and passwords.

Normally, the test is given in writing, science and math, has 50-60 questions and can last between 50 and 90 minutes. However, DRC is recommending districts give a new shorter version of the assessment that has 15-18 questions and can last between 20-30 minutes (10-20 minutes longer for the reading test).

During this time, you should watch your children as they take the tests. It is up to you to make sure they aren’t copying down any information from the test or cheating.


 You can let your child have scratch paper, highlighters and calculators. But no preprinted graphic organizers, cell phones, dictionaries, thesauri, grammar or spell checkers, other computers or devices.

And if you have any technical issues, DRC wants you to know the company has your back. Meaning that they can’t and won’t help – call your local school district.

Here’s what DRC’s Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide recommends for technical support:

“If technical issues arise during testing, parents/guardians are asked to contact the student’s teacher and/or the student’s school office for technical support. DRC customer service staff cannot directly support issues related to each home’s technology configurations.[Emphasis mine.]


 


 And this is true even if the test, itself, directs parents to contact the corporation:

“If a student receives an error message during the test administration that includes instructions to contact DRC for technical support, the parent or guardian who is assisting with the test administration should contact the student’s teacher or school office for additional instructions. Parents or students should not attempt to contact DRC’s customer service directly for technical assistance.

Teachers and/or a school’s technology staff will have the information needed to provide parents/guardians with the level of support to resolve most technology issues. If additional support is required, a school or district representative will reach out to DRC to determine a resolution.”


 However, technical problems are never much of an issue with the CDT – and by “never” I mean ALWAYS.

In the past five years that I’ve given the test to my students in the classroom, they are routinely kicked off the program, have trouble accessing it, and their answers are not always counted, requiring them to re-enter inputs numerous times.

Taking this test remotely is certain to put quite a strain on districts since these technological problems will occur not as they normally do within school buildings but potentially miles away in students’ homes.

Let’s be honest – this plan will not work well.

Few students will be able to take the tests and finish.

Of those that do, even fewer will give it their best effort outside of a classroom setting. In fact, there is no quicker way to turn off a student’s curiosity and motivation to learn than sitting them down in front of a standardized test.

Of those that do somehow manage to finish and score well, there will be no certainty that they didn’t cheat.

Many of my students have secondary electronic devices like cell phones that they use in addition to their iPads. In fact, that’s a part of my remote classes.

I often have them play review games like Kahoot where the questions are displayed through their Zoom screens and they input the answers on their cell phones.

A significant percentage of students will inevitably use these secondary devices to define unknown vocabulary, Google facts and anything else to get the right answers – if they care enough about the results.

In my own remote classes, tests are designed to either assess student skills or access information they already compiled in-class on several study guides which they are encouraged to use during the test. In short, cheating is more work than paying attention in class.

These CDTs will not be like that at all. The scores will be completely worthless – more so than usual.

And few parental proctors will be able to fully comprehend, control or participate in the process.

So why not just skip parents and have classroom teachers proctor the tests through Zoom?

Because of the physical distance involved.

On video conferencing sites, teachers can only see what their students are doing if the kids turn their cameras on. They rarely do.

And even if kids DO turn their cameras on, they have complete control over what those cameras are pointed at, how long they stay on, etc.

It would not take a very enterprising student to cheat while a teacher tried to monitor 20 students online at the same time.

So why not wait until in-person classes resume?

Because it is entirely uncertain when it will be safe to do so given rising infection rates across the country.

However, even if it were safe, most schools are running way below capacity and with hybrid schedules. Students have shortened periods or attend on alternate days. Giving a standardized test under these conditions would be piecemeal, disjointed, discourage kids from even attending school and eat up a tremendous amount of very limited class time.

It would be like taking a dehydrated person’s blood instead of giving him a drink of water.

No matter how you look at it, this is a project designed to fail.

Because it is not about academics. It is about economics.

This is about DRC saving its bottom line. That’s all.

And any administrator or school director who can’t see that is incredibly naive.

Why take these tests at all? Especially during a global pandemic?

We already know students are struggling.

Many are checked out and don’t participate in the remote instruction being offered. And many of those who do participate are having a hard time learning without as much social interaction and hands on activities.

We should be focusing on ways to improve remote instruction. We don’t need a standardized test to tell us that. We certainly don’t need a test before the test.

Most districts use CDT data to place kids in their classes the following year. Kids with high test scores are put in advanced classes, kids with low scores in remedial classes, etc.

We already have daily assessments of how kids are doing. They’re called classroom grades. We don’t have to halt all instruction to allow some corporation to take over for days at a time.

Parents should call their local administrators and school directors and demand the CDTs not be given this year.

In fact, not only should the CDTs not be given this year – they should not be given at all – any year. They’re a total waste of time that dampen kids curiosity and drive to learn.

Moreover, the federally mandated tests (in the Commonwealth, the PSSAs and Keystone Exams) should be cancelled again this year for the same reasons. In fact, they should be abolished altogether.

This is another reason why corporate education reformers have been so adamant that schools remain open during the pandemic. Remote learning means increased difficulty in giving standardized assessments. It’s not that pro-testing fanatics value schooling so much – they don’t want to have to go another year without testing companies making huge profits giving these assessments.

The worst school policies are driven by economics, not academics.

And that’s what we have here, too.

So will any district be stupid enough to attempt to save DRC by sacrificing students and parents?

Only time will tell.


 

Click here to see DRC’s Parent/Guardian Test Administration Guide

Click here to see DRC’s CDT Public Browser Option – Test and Technology Setup Guidance


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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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