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!

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

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

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

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

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


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

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

The kids were reticent at first.

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

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

The results have been amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Hey! They brought it up!)

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

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

But whatever.

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

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

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

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

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

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

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

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

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

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

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

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

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

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

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

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

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

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

Most importantly – children are people.

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

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As many chances as they need.

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

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

Kids AND their parents.

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

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

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

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

Have fun.

Recharge.

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

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

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

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

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

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

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

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

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

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

They’ll just be.

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




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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 Year Without Standardized Testing

Last year was the first in nearly two decades that the US did not give standardized tests to virtually every student in public school.

Think about that.

Since 2001 almost every child took the tests unless their parents explicitly demanded they be opted out.

For 19 years almost every child in grades 3-8 and once in high school took standardized assessments.

And then came 2019-20 and – nothing.

No multiple guess fill-in the bubble questions.

No sorting students into classes based on the results.

No evaluating teachers and schools based on the poverty, race and ethnicities of the children they serve.

And all it took to make us stop was a global pandemic.

What are the results of that discontinuity?

We may never really know.

There are so many variables at play.

The Covid-19 pandemic closed school rooms across the nation for various lengths of time. Some are still closed. Some are beginning to close again.

Many classes were conducted remotely through conferencing software like Zoom and file sharing programs like Google Classroom. Others were conducted through a hybrid model combining in-person instruction and cyber instruction. While still others met in-person with numerous mitigation efforts like masks, social distancing and air purifiers.

Many students were absent, struggled to learn and experienced countless traumas due to the isolation, sickness and deaths.

About 561,000 people are dead in the United States because of Covid-19.

That’s more than Americans who died in the attack on Pear Harbor (2,403), the 9/11 terrorists attacks (3,000), WWI (116,000) or WWII (405,000).

Only the Civil War (600,000 – 850,000) has a larger death toll. For now.

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.

How do you sort through all these tragedies and traumas and say THIS was caused by a lack of standardized testing?

You probably can’t.

But you can ask questions.

For example, how many teachers really missed the data the standardized tests would have shown?

How many students and parents agonized over what last year’s test scores would have been?

How many government agencies really wanted to provide resources to schools but couldn’t figure out where they should go because they didn’t have test scores to guide them?

I’m not sure exactly how we could find answers.

We could survey teachers and staff about it.

We could survey parents and students.

We could even subpoena Congresspeople and ask them under oath if a lack of test scores determined their legislative priorities.

But we’re not really doing any of that.

It’s a prime opportunity to find out something valuable about standardized tests – mainly if people really think they’re valuable.

But we’re not going to stop and do it.

Instead we’re rushing back onto the testing treadmill this year while the Coronavirus pandemic still rages.

Is that logical behavior?

Not really.

We already have almost 20 years of data showing that annual testing did not improve student learning nationally. US kids were no better off from 2001-2019 having yearly tests than students in Scandinavia who were tested much less frequently. In fact, the countries with the highest academic achievement give far fewer assessments.

The effectiveness and fairness of standardized testing have come into question since before George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind legislation enshrined them into law.

They were designed by eugenicists to justify racism and prejudice. Their partiality for wealthier whiter students and discrimination against poorer browner students has been demonstrated time and again.

But in 2001 we created an industry. Huge corporations write the tests, grade the tests and provide the remediation for the tests. Billions of dollars in taxes are funneled into this captive market which creates monetary incentives for our lawmakers to keep the system going.

Yes, some civil rights organizations have waffled back and forth over this as big donors who value the tests make or withhold contributions. Meanwhile, many other more grassroots civil rights organizations such as Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, have continuously called for the abolition of high stakes testing.

It should be no surprise then that President Joe Biden – though as a candidate he promised to stop standardized testing if he were elected – did an immediate about face this year and insisted we reinstate the assessments.

A scientific mind would be empirical about this. It would examine the results as much as possible and determine whether moving forward made any sense.

This is especially true as the pandemic health crisis continues to make the act of giving the tests difficult at best and dangerous at worst.


There is no way a logical mind can look at the situation and not come to the conclusion that the status quo on testing is a triumph of capitalism over science and reason.

In a month or so, the year without testing will be just that – a single year.

To paraphrase Winston Churchill:

We shall go on to the end. We shall test during Covid, we shall test in the classes and on-line, we shall test with growing confidence and growing strength wearing masks, we shall defend our industry, whatever the cost may be. We shall test in the homes, we shall fill in bubbles on sanitized desks, we shall test in the fields and in the streets, we shall test in the hospitals; we shall never surrender!



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!

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.


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!

Standardized Testing During the Pandemic is Corporate Welfare Not Student Equity

We’ve got to be able to tell how badly the pandemic is affecting student learning.

So let’s give standardized tests.

That’s the rationale behind the Biden administration’s mandate that schools across the country still struggling just to keep buildings open somehow manage to proctor standardized assessments.

Nearly 29 million people have contracted Covid-19 in the United States. More than 514,000 people have died from the virus.

Only about half of the nation’s schools are open for in-person learning, and many of those are operating on a hybrid basis. The rest are completely virtual.

Children have lost parents, siblings, family members, friends, teachers. Families are struggling just to survive with some members still recovering from the longterm health consequences of contracting Covid.

It is absurd to claim that only standardized tests can show whether the pandemic has impacted student learning.

It has. Nearly everywhere.

Insisting on testing is like bringing a thermometer into a burning building to tell firefighters where to spray the hose.

But pay attention to the messenger.

In this case, it’s acting education secretary Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of pro-testing organization, the Education Trust.

He sent the letter to state superintendents on behalf of the Biden administration telling them that blanket waivers of the federal testing mandate would not be considered this year as they were in 2019-20.

Let’s be honest. Rosenblum is not an educator.

He is a corporate lobbyist given a government job where he has continued to lobby for his industry.

This has nothing to do with helping students overcome the problems of a pandemic.

It is corporate welfare. Plain and simple.

Standardized testing is a multi-million dollar business.

States spend more than $1.7 billion every year on testing. In 45 states, assessments at the primary level alone cost taxpayers $669 million.

This money isn’t going to mom and pop organizations. The four major testing companies are Wall Street heavy hitters – Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

In 2001 the first three agencies accounted for 96% of the tests administered, while Pearson was the leading scoring agency of those tests. And since then the market has exploded.

In 1955 the industry was valued at only $7 million. By 1997 it had ballooned to $263 million. This is a 3ooo% increase. Today the estimated worth of the industry is $700 million.

However, that only takes into account actual assessment.

When you consider that many of these companies (or their parent conglomerates) also provide remedial materials for students who fail the tests, the profits really start rolling in. It’s no coincidence that McGraw-Hill, for example, also publishes books and other materials many of which are used by schools to remediate the same students who fail the company’s tests.

It’s a captive market. The testing company makes and distributes the test (for a fee), scores the test so that a majority fail (for another fee), and then sells schools the materials it claims will help students pass next time (for an even further fee).

However, for the first time in two decades, the pandemic threw a monkey wrench into the machine.

Last year, the Trump administration cancelled all standardized tests as schools were closed to protect students from Covid-19.

Former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had already signaled that she would not cancel them again this year, but when Trump lost the election, many educators and families had hoped in-coming President Joe Biden would think differently.

He had, in fact, promised that if he were elected he would not continue forcing states to give standardized testing.

I was there at the Education Forum in Pittsburgh in 2020 when my friend Dr. Denisha Jones asked him about it point blank.

You can watch his full answer here, but the crux of it was “Teaching to a standardized test makes no sense.”

Unfortunately, caving to a powerful corporate lobby does. And that’s exactly what Biden has done here.

In fact, it goes a long way to explaining his perplexing rush to reopen schools in his first 100 days regardless of the level of community infection.

Biden, who ran on being friendly to teachers and that his wife Dr. Jill Biden was an educator, has pushed some extremely absurd education policies in his short time in office.

Not only has his administration decided to ignore community infections, he has insisted that schools can be opened safely if districts follow certain safety precautions like universal masking, contact tracing and social distancing.

However, many schools are not following these protocols and even more simply cannot because doing so would be exorbitantly expensive. For example, you can’t have all students return to a cramped school building AND have them be 6 feet apart. There simply isn’t the available space. Moreover, contact tracing doesn’t effectively track Covid cases since most students who contract the virus are asymptomatic.

Then there is the absurd prescription that schools don’t even have to prioritize teachers for the Covid vaccine before reopening. In many states educators aren’t even eligible yet to receive the vaccine. Yet the Biden administration expects them to enter the classroom without necessary protections to keep them, their families and students safe.

These are all perplexing policies until one looks at it from an economic vantage.

Waiting for all teachers to have the opportunity to take a two dose vaccine would take at least a month and a half – that’s if every teacher could start the process today.

In addition, if we wait for community infections of the virus to dissipate, testing season will be far from over. In fact, it’s likely the rest of the school year would be gone.

So if the Biden administration had prioritized safety, it would have been forced to cancel standardized tests again this year.

Instead, it has prioritized the testing-industrial complex.

The economy is more important to the powers that be once again.

As a compromise measure, Biden is allowing flexibility in just about every way the tests are given. They can be shortened. They can be given remotely. They don’t have to be given now – they can be given in the fall.

However, this completely erases any measure of standardization in the processes.

Standardization means conforming to a standard. It means sameness. A test taken by a student at home is not the same as one taken by a student in school. A short version of a test is not the same as a long one. A test taken with 180 days to prepare is not the same as one taken with 250.

And if standardization is not NECESSARY in this case, why can’t we rely on non-standardized assessments teachers are already giving to their students? For example, nearly every teacher gives her students a grade based on the work the child has done. Why isn’t that a good enough measure of student learning?

It’s based on a year’s worth of work, not just a snapshot. It’s in context. And it’s actually more standardized than the hodge podge of assessments the Biden administration is allowing this year.

Why isn’t that allowed?

Because the testing companies won’t make any money.

Moreover, it could ruin their future profits.

If student grades are enough to demonstrate student learning during a pandemic, why aren’t they enough at other times?

The very project of high stakes standardized testing is thrown into question – as it should be.

Educators across the country will tell you how worthless standardized tests are. They’ve been telling people that for decades but policymakers from Republicans to Democrats refuse to listen. It’s almost as if they’re distracted by another sound – the jingle of money perhaps?

Those who claim standardized testing is necessary to determine where students are struggling have the weight of history to overcome.

Standardized assessments were created as a justification of racism and eugenics. They have never shown learning gaps that couldn’t be explained by socio-economics. Impoverished and minority students score poorly on the tests while privileged and white students score well.

If one really wanted to invest more resources where these alleged deficiencies exist, one wouldn’t need standardized assessments. You could just look at the poverty level of the community and the percentage of minority students.

But even more telling is the fact that this has never happened. Testing has never resulted in more resources being provided to needy children other than providing more remedial test prep material purchased from – you guessed it – the testing industry.

Under normal circumstances standardized testing is a scam.

During a pandemic, it’s the most perverse kind of corruption imaginable.


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Reckless School Reopenings Cause Long-Term Academic Deficits

The American education system is under attack.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SHORT TERM EFFECTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN-PERSON AND REMOTE SIMULTANEOUSLY

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

This has been an absolute disaster.

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

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

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

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

BENEFITS OF REMOTE

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

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

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

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

LONG-TERM EFFECTS

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

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

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

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

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

TEACHERS

And that brings me to the teacher shortage.

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

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

But the current situation is finishing the job.

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

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

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

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

HEALTH ISSUES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So rushing to reopen schools is a bad idea.

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

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

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

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

 


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CDC Director Employing Magical Thinking About School Reopenings

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT!?

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

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

…If you’re watching a football game.

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

…If you’re learning reading, writing and arithmetic.

What the heck is going on here!?

I thought the anti-science Trump CDC was a thing of the past.

Less than a month ago, health memos from the organization were being edited by Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. In September the White House blocked the agency from issuing a nationwide requirement that masks be worn on all public transportation.

Now with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, you’d expect something different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answer: Absolutely nothing!

In fact, schools are MORE dangerous for several reasons.

First, the average Super Bowl party only lasts a few hours. When not in remote or hybrid mode, schools typically are open 7-8 hours a day for five days a week, over 9 months.

You receive much more exposure to Covid-19 at school than at any Super Bowl party.

At both venues, people will be eating and drinking – the most dangerous time for infection. At parties, people may be snacking throughout the event. At school, students at least will eat lunch and probably breakfast not to mention possible snacks between meals. That’s approximately 180 breakfasts and lunches at which you are exposed to Covid compared with a few hours of nachos and pizza.

Moreover, the people attending these parties are mostly adults. Even with the likelihood that people will be drinking at these events, if you have responsible friends, these adults are much more likely to take precautions against infection than children. Kids are constantly fidgeting with their masks. Younger kids and some special needs students at many schools are even given mask breaks or excused from wearing them altogether. And that’s if the school in question has a mask mandate at all!

The idea that Covid doesn’t spread at school or is unlikely to spread is magical thinking.

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

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

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

Walensky, herself, went on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show where she repeated her controversial statement but added that other steps need to be taken to lower risks for teachers and students, as well, including masking, social distancing and more viral testing.

“Schools should be the last places closed and the first places opened,” Walensky said.

Again, that is not a scientific statement. It’s a political one.

For someone who claims to be separating science and politics, she sounds much more like a Biden surrogate than a science advisor.

But it’s not just Walensky. The organization she oversees has made some huge missteps on this same issue since Biden’s inauguration – emphasizing some studies and completely ignoring others that don’t support the party line.

CDC scientists published an article last week in the journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that claimed some schools were able to reopen safely by following safety precautions. In fact, this one article is the cornerstone of Walensky’s assertion that “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.”

However, it was roundly criticized by the scientific community because the study was based on only 17 rural Wisconsin schools. Moreover, the data was based primarily on contact tracing. And considering that most children are asymptomatic even when infected with Covid-19, contact tracing is a poor method of determining how many people are infected in schools.

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

It’s not that the data is contradictory as much as the method the CDC is relying on is a poor indicator of infection.

Large-scale prevalence studies or antibody testing of students and teachers would much more accurately determine the relationship between educational settings and community transmission. But to date the CDC has not conducted any such studies.

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

Walensky is right about one thing at least.

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

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

The European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) have acknowledged that children of all ages are susceptible to and can transmit Covid-19. Moreover, the organization admitted that school closures can contribute to a reduction in infections though by themselves such closures are not enough. It takes all of society working together to halt the spread of the virus.

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


Even England’s prime minister Boris Johnson conceded, “The problem is schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”

But that’s not all. Take this study from southern India, published in the journal Science on November 6, which found children were spreading the virus among themselves and adults. Using both contact tracing and viral testing the study indicated that super-spreading events predominated, with approximately 5 percent of infected individuals accounting for 80 percent of secondary cases.

Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, member of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi, India, told NPR, “What we found in our study is that children were actually quite important. They were likely to get infected, particularly by young adults of the ages 20 to 40. They were likely to transmit the disease amongst themselves … and they also go out and infect people of all age groups, including the elderly. Many kids are silent spreaders in the sense that they don’t manifest the disease with symptoms. They happen to get infected as much as anyone else, and then they happen to spread it to other people.”

Why is none of this being considered by the CDC?

If the goal is to remove politics from science, shouldn’t the organization follow the evidence even if it goes against Biden’s school reopening policy?

Are these other studies invalidated because they were conducted in other parts of the world?

Okay. Here are a few others from the US:

● A JAMA study published July 29 concluded that statewide school closures in the first wave of the pandemic led to a 62 percent decline in the incidence of COVID-19 per week. Similarly, the death rate saw a 58 percent decrease. States that closed earlier saw the most significant weekly reductions.


● According to a study published in Science, the combination of the closure of schools and universities, limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, and closing most nonessential businesses reduced the reproductive number (R0) to below one. These efforts reduced the number of infections in the community. Among the interventions listed, school closures and limiting gatherings to 10 people had the highest impact on slowing the infections.


● A Nature study published in November ranked the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 interventions. It concluded that the cancellation of small gatherings, closure of educational institutions, border restrictions, increased availability of PPE and individual restrictions were statistically significant in reducing the reproductive number (R0).

Where are these studies in the CDC’s analysis?

Answer: nowhere.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had hopes Biden would be better than this.

He still has time to turn back from these games.

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

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

Our lives are not expendable to ensure a robust economy.

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

We can’t afford magical thinking at the CDC.


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How I Got the Covid Vaccine: an Immunization Odyssey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was so discouraging.

So was my job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine is much different.

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

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

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

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

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

I was struck dumb.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was warm at least.

And the people there were very friendly.

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

There was a slight pinch and that was it.


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

I had no side effects.

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

And so here I am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am thankful, thoughtful and hopeful.

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

 


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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.

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

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

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

That shouldn’t be controversial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet it’s that time again!

Time to justify keeping things closed up tight!

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

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

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

It’s not even a valid dichotomy.

Risking teachers lives does not mean students will learn more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wrong!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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!