Students and Staff are Catching COVID at School. What Does That Mean? 

 
 
Everyday people catch Covid-19 at my school


 
Sometimes you can only tell by the vanishing students and teachers or the everyday need to sub for staff members mysteriously absent for days or weeks in a row.  


 
Sometimes a student will stop by the room to tell you she’s leaving and will be quarantined for the next five days.  


 
Sometimes a fellow teacher will cough and sneeze their way through hall duty and then disappear for the next week or so.  


 
But always, ALWAYS the emails and phone calls: 


 
“We have learned that two High School students, two High School staff members, three Middle School students, six Elementary students and one Elementary staff member have tested positive for COVID-19.  Close contacts have been identified and notified.  Thank you.” 


 
What does it all mean? 


 
One thing’s for sure – we aren’t taking this pandemic very seriously.  


 
Gone is any attempt to keep people from getting sick


 
No mask mandate. No vaccine mandate. No random testing to see if anyone even has the disease.

 
 
Now it’s a constant game of chicken between you and a global pandemic. 


 
Will you beat the odds today?  


 
Given enough time and high infection rates, you probably won’t. And no one seems too worried about that.  


 
We’re acting like this virus is just a cold. People get sick. They convalesce at home. They come back. No problem.  


 
But that is just ableism.  


 
The consequences of getting sick vary from person-to-person.  Some people have symptoms that last for months. Others have permanent damage to their hearts, lungs or other organs.  


 
And someone like me who is triple vaccinated but immunosuppressed because of existing medical conditions could have severe complications.  


 
That’s why I’m afraid. I don’t know if getting sick will mean the sniffles, a stay at the hospital or the morgue. 


 
And no one seems to care.  


 
In fact, nothing seems to make anyone do a thing about the dangerous conditions in which we’re working.  


 
Judging by the emails in the last week and a half, alone, there have been at least 60 people in my small western Pennsylvania district who tested positive for Covid. That’s 17 in the high school (10 students and 7 staff), 22 in the middle school (17 students and 5 staff), and 21 in the elementary schools (16 students and 5 staff). And this doesn’t include close contacts. 


 
However, with the new CDC guidelines that people who test positive only need to quarantine for 5 days, some of these people are probably back at school already. Though it is almost certain they will be replaced by more people testing positive today.  


 
I have a student who just came back a day ago who’s coughing and sneezing in the back of the room with no mask. And there’s not a thing I can do – except spray Lysol all over his seating area once he leaves.  


 
The imperative seems to be to keep the building open at all costs. It doesn’t matter who gets sick, how many get sick – as long as we have one or two adults we can shuffle from room-to-room, the lights will be on and school directors can hold their heads high that they weren’t defeated by Covid.  


 
The daycare center – I mean school – is open and parents can get to work.  


 
But this isn’t the number one concern of all parents. Many are keeping their kids at home because they don’t want them to get sick.  


 
We have a Catholic school right next door. It’s closed and classes have moved on-line.  


 
Don’t get me wrong. I hated teaching remotely on and off during the last few years. But safety is more important to me than being as effective as I can possibly be.  


 
When the Titanic is sinking, you get in the life boats and don’t worry that doing so might mean you won’t dock on time.  


 
Somewhere along the line in the past few years we’ve come to accept the unacceptable: 


 
We’re not in this together. 


 
I don’t have your back. You don’t have mine. 


 
When it comes to a disease like Covid – you’re on your own. 


 


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Don’t Blame Teachers for Covid Quarantines and Closures

 
This week the US reported more than a million Covid-19 cases in one day – a new global record! 


 
As this latest surge in the pandemic hits, schools all over the nation are closing up again and returning to on-line classes.  


 
People everywhere are wondering if teachers are to blame


 
Here are some things for school directors and administrators to consider:  


 
 
If you don’t require all students and staff to wear masks – don’t blame teachers. 

If you don’t regularly test students and staff for Covid – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require all students and staff to be vaccinated – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If your classrooms are not well ventilated – don’t blame teachers. 

If you force staff to come into the building for professional development and don’t allow them to attend remotely – don’t blame teachers.


 
If you don’t provide K95 masks to all students and staff – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you didn’t devise a schedule to keep students socially distanced – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t deep clean each classroom and other student spaces between classes – don’t blame teachers.  


 
If you don’t have lunches outdoors or in some other extremely well-ventilated space – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If you don’t require a negative Covid test before sick students or staff can return to school – don’t blame teachers. 


 
If students and staff have steadily been getting sick for weeks and you’ve done nothing to prepare – Don’t Blame Teachers. 


 
 
In short, if you haven’t done everything you can do to prevent an outbreak sweeping through your school and your community – DON’T. BLAME. TEACHERS.  


 
BLAME YOURSELF. 


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The Same People Who Think Antiracists Have Gone Too Far Think Standardized Testing Hasn’t Gone Far Enough

Some folks are fed up with modern anti-racism.

Why?

For one, all this focus on equity has made it harder to support standardized testing.

That’s a big problem for these folks.

They think that if being against discrimination means also turning against something as obviously innocuous as fill-in-the-bubble tests, maybe it’s today’s brand of anti-racism that has to go.

However, most of us probably don’t see this as a difficult choice.

High stakes testing – like racism – is one of those really bad ideas that just won’t go away.

Since 2001 unless their parents actively opted out their children, standardized tests have been forced on all public school students in 3-8th grade and at least once in high school.

The scores have been used to judge students, teachers, schools – everything except the corporations who make and score the tests and then sell remediation needed to improve failing test scores. Good money if you can get it.

Low test scores have been used to justify closing schools in poor and minority communities, narrowing the curriculum in those communities to just the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, and increasing racial and economic segregation through charter schools and voucher programs.

Most people can see it’s a scam and a racist one to boot.

In the United States, standardized testing was invented by eugenicists trying to prove white Europeans were better than darker skinned immigrants and thus deserved a privileged position in society. This is no hyperbole – in the early 20th Century they were literally used to justify the forced sterilization of tens of thousands of mostly poor, brown-skinned people.

And today the scores still routinely fail Black and Brown people while passing whites thus barring many people of color from graduation or college entrance.

However, describing such a state of affairs as “racist” has been criticized by a self-described anti-woke backlash.

People as diverse as Fox News correspondents, old school neoliberals and contrarian progressive academicians have taken arms together to fight against what they see as an overstatement of the degree of racism present in modern America and an attack on free speech.

John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, has long been an apologist for standardized testing and included his decades old arguments defending the practice in his new book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”

Tony Norman, a columnist at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, writes that McWhorter is:

“…an old-school Black progressive who doesn’t hide his disdain for white liberals and what he considers their Black enablers in academia and the culture. He argues that the anti-racism movement of the “elected” is more performative than intellectually serious and that the white allies who provide the shock troops at universities and street rallies are just as gross as white supremacists because their virtue signaling hides their condescension.”

Ultimately Norman concludes, “I agreed with so much of what the writer had to say about specific hypocrisies of white saviors while disagreeing with much of its premise.”

As a white person, I make no judgment on McWhorter’s overall thesis because I don’t feel qualified to do so.

However, as a classroom educator with more than two decades experience teaching mostly poor and minority students, I feel qualified to address the issue of testing.

After all, I have proctored hundreds of these assessments, seen their impact, studied the history and spoken with hundreds of people of color who oppose the tests and a few like McWhorter who defend them.

The linguist’s main argument can be summed up as follows.

Excusing people of color from the tests because they generally score lower is mere pity. People of color don’t need your pity. Give them the tools necessary to pass the tests like everyone else.

In 2014 he wrote:

“Is it the moral thing to exempt black and Latino kids from the serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children, instead of making an effort to prepare them for it?”

However, McWhorter seems to be missing the point.

Critics of standardized testing do not think the tests should be a “serious competition we consider a normal part of life for all other children.” It should be abolished altogether.

First of all, testing should not be about competition. It should be about assessment – telling who knows what, not judging who is worthy of what social and economic position later in life.

Second, it’s not just Black and Brown children who are hurt by the testing. It is ALL children.

These test are not unfair just to students of color. They are unfair to the poor, people from non-white cultures, the neurodivergent, and others.

The very term “standardized test” means an assessment based around a standard. It privileges the kinds of questions white students are more likely to get correct. After all, that’s how test questions are chosen – not based on the quality of the question but on whether the majority (i.e. white people) get the questions right and the minority (i.e. people of color and others) consistently get it wrong.

It’s not just about knowing math. It’s about knowing the cultural terms, shared experiences and assumptions the math question is embedded in.

McWhorter sees nothing wrong in this. He thinks people of color simply need the tools necessary to pass the tests even if that means being taught to respond as a white person would and to make the same linguistic assumptions and have the same cultural knowledge as privileged white people.

I think it’s kind of sad that in McWhorter’s view Black people would have to engage in such a radical and complete double consciousness or more likely give up their own uniqueness and assimilate as much as possible just to be considered the equal of a white person.

However, another thing he doesn’t seem to understand is that even if he got his wish and the playing field were level giving all children the same chances on the tests, it wouldn’t change a thing.

Standardized tests are bad at their job of assessing student learning – even when all test takers are white.

These exams are made up of multiple choice questions. This is not the best way to determine whether learning has taken place on complex topics. How a linguist could ever suppose even the most rudimentary subtleties of meaning could be captured by a simple A, B, C and D is beyond me.

Wittgenstein, Jakobson, Chomsky… all just so you could choose between a narrow set of prewritten answers!?

That seems to be McWhorter’s position because he criticizes proposed remedies to the problem:

“And yet it is considered beyond the pale to discuss getting the kids up to speed: Instead we are to change the standards—the current idea is to bring GPA, performance on a state test, and even attendance into the equation as well. What an honor to black kids to have attendance treated as a measure of excellence. What’s next, rhythm?”

However, it’s not a matter of adding ridiculous or insulting data to the mix to make Black kids look better. It’s about adding enough data to give a clear enough picture of a student’s learning.

At best a standardized test is a snapshot of a student’s learning. It shows what a student answers on a single day or even two or three. By contrast, grade point average (GPA) is made up of student assessments (informal, formal, formative and summative) over the course of 360 some days.

By that metric, alone, you should expect a GPA to be more accurate than a standardized test.

Whether you take other things into account like attendance, poverty level, per pupil spending at the school, etc. – that would just give more information.

It could be argued that some of these things are necessary and some irrelevant. But to consider standardized tests as the ne plus ultra is patently absurd.

In fact, if I were using a metric to accurately assess student learning, I would not include standardized testing at all. I would look at many of these other measures like GPA instead.

Standardized assessments are not being used because they are effective or accurate. They are a money-making scheme that victimizes those groups society doesn’t care about – the poor, people of color, English language learners, etc.

It is yet another system that enables and promotes white supremacy.

But don’t just take my word for it. Look to Black thinkers like Jesse Hagopian, Dr. Denisha Jones, Dr. Yohuru Williams, Jitu Brown, and Dr. Ibram X. Kendi who have spoken out against standardized testing. Look to the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter movement which have called for an end to standardized testing. Look to the Journey for Justice Alliance (JJA), a group made up of 38 organizations of Black and Brown parents and students in 23 states, who have never wavered in their opposition to high stakes standardized testing.

These tests are not just immoral because they’re racist, but they’re bad at the act of fairly assessing.

And part of the reason for that is their embedded prejudice.

An assessment that unfairly singles out certain groups not because of their lack of knowledge of the subject being tested but their different enculturation and lack of similar opportunities as the dominant culture can never be a good assessment.

But even if they didn’t do that, they would be like using a pencil to eat soup.

The systems of our society matter. Using the right tool matters.

Whether we call an appreciation of these facts being “woke,” “antiracist” or anything else does not.


 


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Where Are the Parents? The School Shortage We Ignore 

Our public schools are suffering from crippling shortages. 


 
Classroom teachers, substitute teachers, special education aides, even bus drivers are hard to find. 


 
But of all the essential personnel who have gone missing, the group with the largest impact is the one we least want to mention – parents. 


 
I’m a middle school Language Arts teacher.  


 
Every year I look forward to parent-teacher conferences.  


 
I gather samples of student work, journal entries, drawings and grade reports. I put out a row of chairs in the hall so people have a place to sit if they have to wait for one group to finish before they can see me. And I write in big, bold, colorful chalk on the board, “Welcome, Parents!” 


 
Then I sit at my desk trying to stay awake as the hours creep by in my empty classroom. 


 
Where are all the parents?  


 
Seriously. Where did the moms and dads go? Where are the grandparents, the older siblings, the guardians, the primary or even secondary caregivers? 


 
On Parent-Teacher Day, they must be somewhere, but they’re not here.  


 
We typically have a section from noon to 3 and one from 5 to 8 pm so that people with various schedules can come in.  


 
And every year it’s the same. Only about 20-30% of my students’ parent or guardians usually visit me on these days – and that’s after the promise of bonus points if they come in! 


 
Even then it’s most often the parents of the kids with the best grades who show up. It’s the parents of kids who say “Please” and “Thank you,” the kids who smile when you walk in the room, the kids who want you to hang up their drawings on the bulletin board.  


 
The children who are struggling, the ones who don’t know how to behave and look at you out of the corner of their eyes expecting pain and negativity – their parents rarely show up.  


 
And it’s these bruised and battered kids who are in the majority. 


 
Where are their parents? 


 
They’re missing. Gone. Poof. 


 
We saw this when schools went to on-line learning at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.  


 
Teachers would turn on their Zoom links to give lessons to their students only to find many of the kids vanished.  


 
These kids usually were there when school was in-person. But on-line they were MIA. And even if they were technically present, they often hid behind a turned off camera and didn’t hand in their work


 
Why?  


 
At school, the teacher was there to make sure these kids took care of business. But at home there simply was no one to hold them accountable. No one to get them up, feed them, and make sure they were online when classes began, ensure they paid attention and did their work.  


 
That’s why so many kids were absent or otherwise failed the online experience.  


 
Granted this kind of cyber learning is developmentally inappropriate for most K-12 students – certainly those up through middle school. But with the proper parental support, most children would have done much better.  


 
It just wasn’t there.  


 
Now let me be clear about one thing – I am not blaming anybody here.  


 
It is not my intention to pass judgment on anyone.  


 
As a parent, myself, I know from experience how difficult the job is – especially during a global pandemic.  


 
But we have to face the facts. As a whole, parents were the weak link in the chain. And it didn’t start with Covid – they have been the weak link for decades. 


 
Teachers can’t go to every student’s home and be caregiver as well as educator. The fact that so many children are struggling with basic socialization skills after as much as two years of online schooling goes to show how much of the responsibility for raising children has rested on schools and teachers.  


 
This year many students don’t know how to talk with each other without instigating a fight. They constantly pick on each other, demand respect they aren’t giving and are starving for any kind of attention they can get.  


 
Without daily in-person contact with teachers, many children have become socially awkward and need to relearn the basics of interpersonal interaction. That’s how much we’ve come to expect teachers to be co-parents from year-to-year. 


 
Let me stop again and clarify that I am not talking about all parents.  


 
Many parents go out of their way to be present in their children’s lives.  


 
They get their kids up for school, make sure they eat a nutritious breakfast, ensure they catch the bus or get a ride to school, make sure they do their homework after the day is over and establish a healthy bedtime.  


 
But this should be the norm, not the exception.  


 
I know how hard it is to do. Waking my daughter up every morning often takes a stick of dynamite. And getting that girl to eat a healthy breakfast is a battle I often lose. But her mother and I make darn sure she does her homework and we even sit down with her to help it get done. And weekday bedtimes are religiously adhered to – no one wants a cranky, fussy child the next morning. 


 
However, it’s easier for us because we have certain advantages.  
 


Class, privilege, wealth, upbringing, social status all conspire to give us a boost.  


 
My wife and I don’t have to work more than one job to make ends meet, for example. It would probably help if we did, but neither of us has the wherewithal, and we get by.  


 
But many folks are not so lucky.  


 
They DO have to work multiple jobs. They have work schedules that are less in tune with the school day. They can’t be home to wake up their kids and send them off. They can’t be home when kids are dismissed and don’t have the time to help with homework. Some barely have the education, themselves, to be of much assistance.  


 
Disadvantaged parents often had bad experiences with school when they were students. So they don’t instill the importance of education to their kids. Nor do they prove good role models since they often don’t read for pleasure, speak in the dominant vernacular or respect teachers.  


 
All this has tremendous effects on the education children receive. 


 
In fact, many academic studies have shown that the most important factor in the education process isn’t the school or teachers – it’s the parents. 


 
Roughly 60% of academic achievement can be explained by family background – things like income and poverty level. School factors only account for 20% – and of that, teachers account for 15%. (see Hanushek et al. 1998; Rockoff 2003; Goldhaber et al. 1999; Rowan et al. 2002; Nye et al. 2004). 


  
  
Estimates vary somewhat from study to study, but the basic structure holds. The vast majority of impact on learning comes from the home and out-of-school factors. Teachers are just a small part of the picture. They are the largest single factor in the school building, but the school, itself, is only one of many components. 


 
Study after study conclude that students with involved parents are more likely to earn higher grades and test scores, have better attendance and social skills, and adapt well to school.  


 
According to the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA), the most accurate predictors of student achievement in school are the extent to which families create home environments that encourage learning, communicate high yet reasonable expectations, and become involved in the children’s education at school.  


 
Moreover, when parents are involved, the performance of all the children at school tends to improve – not just the academics of kids with involved parents. The more comprehensive the partnership between school and home, the higher the student achievement.  


 
Put simply – parents are vital to good learning.  


 
But our society doesn’t do much to allow parents to parent. 


 
To some extent, the pandemic is making things worse. 


 
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID-19.   


 According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.   


 
This is wreaking havoc on kids support systems.  


 
But an even larger problem is economics.  


 
When schools went online, employers could have allowed more parents to work from home so they could be there for their children. However, profits were more important.  


 
Even in non-pandemic times, employers need to provide more time and resources for parent
s. There is too much demand for overtime hours, increased productivity and very little family leave or other such services.  


 
I truly believe that most parents want to be there for their children but feel like they can’t due to the stresses and strains of work
.  


 
We live in one of the richest countries in the world. Much of the labor we force people to do is strictly unnecessary. It’s there just to justify our economic system. If we reordered things around people instead of capital, parents could more easily be involved in their children’s educations.  


 
This is fundamentally the problem with all the educational shortages we’re seeing.  


 
These are symptoms of an economic failure
. We can continue to prop up this faded machine or create a world that values life over profit.  


 
But we pretend this isn’t true. 


 
We’ve been trying to run our schools as if parents weren’t that important and then throwing all the blame on teachers when parents don’t show up.  


 
This has to stop. 


 
It’s time to admit how important parents are to their children’s educations and then provide them with the tools necessary to be parents. 


 
It’s time to include parents in the circle.  


 
It’s time to expect them to show up. 


 
Because we can’t continue educating their children without them. 


 

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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!

Teachers Absorb Student Trauma But Don’t Know How to Get Rid of the Pain

 
 
Today a middle school student said he hated me.  


 
He told me to go F- myself.  


 
He wrote all over his desk.  


 
He shouted insults at the other students. 


 
He asked to be sent home.  


 
He said he wished he was dead.  


 
He asked to see the school counselor.  


 
I let him. 


 
And this was all in one 42 minute period. 


 
By the time the bell rang for the next class, I was exhausted.  


 
I was worried about my student. I wondered how I could help


 
But I could barely stand up. 


 
I wiped at my eyes. They were unaccountably filled with tears. My hands were shaking.  


 
I didn’t have time for this now. I had to put on a smile and welcome in the next class. 


 
Perhaps there would be time to feel all this later. 


 
Incidents like this take a tremendous toll on educators. 


 
We’re highly trained adults, but people forget – we’re human, too.  


 
When someone unexpectedly yells at you or gets in your face, you feel it. 


 
This is especially true when it’s a child. 


 
When a student is crying out in pain and that pain manifests itself as negative and violent behavior, it impacts you. 


 
We end up absorbing it all like a sponge.  


 
But what do we do with all that poison once it’s over? 


 
Psychologists call this experience vicarious trauma


 
According to the American Counseling Association, this is sometimes called the “cost of caring” and can result from “hearing [people’s] trauma stories and becom[ing] witnesses to the pain, fear, and terror that trauma survivors have endured.” 


 
Vicarious trauma affects teachers the same way it does students


 
The brain emits a fear response releasing cortisol and adrenaline which, in turn, increases heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration, followed by a rush of emotions.  


 
The biological response can display itself in mental symptoms such as anger, headaches, or even physical ones like missing staff meetings, lateness to work or avoiding certain students or situations. 

You want to know why classroom teachers are taking an increasing number of sick days lately? Dealing with vicarious trauma is a big part of it.


 
“Being a teacher is a stressful enough job, but teachers are now responsible for a lot more things than just providing education,” says LeAnn Keck, a manager at Trauma Smart, an organization that helps children and adults navigate trauma.  


 
“It seems like teachers have in some ways become case workers. They get to know about their students’ lives and the needs of their families, and with that can come secondary trauma.” 


 
This is an aspect of the job for which most teachers are unprepared.  


 
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers felt comfortable addressing grief or trauma.  


 
When I first entered the field two decades ago, I was taught how to design lessons, sequence curriculum, manage classes, calculate grades, etc. Never once did anyone mention that I would be standing between a hurting child and a world he is desperately trying to lash out against. 


 
Most teachers aren’t taught how to help students who have experienced trauma. Nor are we taught how to handle the toll it takes on our own health and personal lives.  


 
And unfortunately things are getting much worse. 


 
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of all U.S. children have experienced some kind of trauma. This includes abuse, neglect, violence, or challenging household circumstances. And 35 percent of kids have experienced more than one type of traumatic event. 


 
In class, these traumas can manifest in many ways such as acting out. However, they can also be more subtle such as failure to make eye contact, repeated foot tapping, etc. 


 
Childhood trauma was not unknown before the pandemic, but it was much less frequent.  


 
Since returning to the physical classroom after months or more of on-line learning, many students are having a difficult time readjusting. And some show signs of compounded emotional trauma. 


 
The student who exploded today is a prime example. 


 
Clearly something may have happened to him. 


 
A few years ago he had been an A student. He was academically gifted. But when we went to on-line classes to protect against Covid-19, he disappeared.  


 
Only to come back like this. 


 
As a classroom teacher with two decades of experience, I know that when a student acts this way, punishing him won’t help. He needs support coping, but that’s easier said than done. 


 
I need help coping with HIM! 


 
These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can impact kids well into adulthood with higher risks for alcoholism, liver disease, suicide, and other health problems. 


 
And it affects their teachers, too. 


 
Since schools have reopened, many kids don’t seem to know how to interact without teasing, goading or tormenting each other. We’re seeing children scream at each other in class over things as simple as finding a pencil. There are more frequent fights, vandalism, bullying, cyber bullying and even attacks against teachers.

 
 
Last week at my school, a student in the hall pushed another student into a teacher’s back. The first student was trying to fulfill the infamous TikTok challenge of hitting a teacher, but he wanted to avoid punishment by being able to claim it was an accident. 


 
This increase in negative behaviors can be directly attributed to the pandemic. 


 
More than 750,000 Americans have died from COVID.  


 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. have lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus.  


 
No wonder kids are having trouble with self-control! Their support systems are in tatters!  


 
With fewer role models at home and less time in the classroom over the last year and a half, kids are suffering. And that’s not just anecdotal. The facts back it up. 


 
The CDC reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.   


 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC.  


 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of the pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.   


 
The increase in student trauma and the lack of additional supports is undoubtedly contributing to the speed at which teachers are leaving the profession. 


 
We want to help our students but many of us feel ill-equipped to do so. And it’s negatively affecting our own health.  


 
As we are constantly attacked in the media for everything from teaching an accurate history of America to failing to meet every need our students have, many educators are throwing up their hands and moving on. 


 
It is vital that people stop hurling stones and understand the increased burden placed on teachers’ shoulders. Not only that, but it’s well past time for people to get off the side lines and actually support educators.  


 
We can’t do it all alone.  


 
For example, one of the most important things teachers need is time.  


 
This is time untethered to students, time without classes to teach or papers to grade or paperwork to fill out or even duties to perform.  


 
We need time to talk with our colleagues about what we’re experiencing. 


 
That’s not just gossiping or socializing. It’s necessary to function. 


 
Educators need the ability to talk through what they’re experiencing and what they’re feeling with other teachers coping with secondary trauma, according to Micere Keels, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and founder of the TREP Project, a trauma-informed curriculum for urban teachers. 


 
“Reducing professional isolation is critical,” said Keels. “It allows educators to see that others are struggling with the same issues, prevents the feeling that one’s struggles are due to incompetence, and makes one aware of alternative strategies for working with students exhibiting challenging behavior.” 


 
However, this can’t be something teaches do on their own. This is an essential part of the job.  


 
Part of our profession has become being put in harm’s way. We need the time to cope with that on the job with our colleagues.

 
 
In addition, this allows teachers to work together to develop coping strategies.  


 
For instance, it’s never good to meet a student’s anger with yelling or fury of your own. Educators need to find ways to de-escalate and bring the tension down in the classroom.  


 
However, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, either. Investing in high quality professional development for trauma-informed practices and enacting them school-wide would also be incredibly helpful. As would an influx of professional counselors, social workers and psychologists who are actually trained to deal with these situations.


 
Finally, it is essential that teachers are allowed the latitude to go home from their jobs. 


 
By that, I don’t mean that teachers are held hostage, that any district forces their staff to stay in the building 24/7. I mean that many teachers find it difficult to go home and stop being teachers. We’re always on. We need time to turn off and tune out. 


 
Educators often take mountains of work home, grade papers, call parents, etc. All on their own time. 


 
There needs to be a demarcating line between our professional and personal lives. And the district, administrators, school directors and parents need to respect that line. 


 
Teachers cannot be there for children if they do not have time for themselves and their families. 


 
And these are really just the tip of the iceberg.  


 
Teachers need higher salaries, lower class sizes, and above all – RESPECT.  


 
Accomplishing all of this will not be easy. But I’ll bet every district can accomplish SOME of it.  


 
Every district can accomplish some of it TOMORROW.  


 
If we want to continue having teachers – I mean flesh-and-blood teachers with college degrees and hard won experience, not just technology, apps or a rotating cast of minders and babysitters – we have to take care of them.  


 
They take care of our children.  


 
It’s time we gave back what they need to get the job done. 


 
It’s time we gave back the respect they deserve. 


 
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to heal from the trauma of coping with our children. 


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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!

My Students Haven’t Lost Learning. They’ve Lost Social and Emotional Development  

 


  
  

There is a student screaming across the hall.  
  
He is holding his gut and rocking back and forth in cries of wordless emotional pain as the rest of the class looks on in bewilderment.  
  
Students from other rooms start to cluster around the door until a security guard makes them go away.  
  
I close the door to my own classroom and try to settle my students down – but we can still hear him through the walls.   
  
And then:  
  
“Shut up!”  
  
“You’re stupid!”  
  
“Why don’t you make me!?” 
 
  
Believe it or not, this is not what teaching middle school used to be like.   
  
Eighth grade students were never perfect angels, but at least by then they used to know how to talk to one another. They could usually interact without constant sniping. They knew what was expected to get respect from each other and at least tried to do it.   
  
But things have changed.   
 
After 18 months of a pandemic, even when they aren’t infected with disease, children still are suffering tremendously from the effects of Covid-19. 
 
Adolescents are dealing with higher rates of anxiety, depression, stress, and addictive internet behaviors.   
 
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis increased 24 percent from April through October of 2020 compared to the previous year. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.  
 
Suicide attempts among 12- to 17-year-old girls increased by about 50 percent over winter 2019, according to the CDC. 
 
And these numbers are probably under reported since these increases took place at the height of a pandemic when many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.  
 
As usual, the place where these issues are most visible is our public schools
 
When Covid-19 swept our shores last year, much of the benefit of formal education fell through the cracks.   
 
Consistency went out the window. Many schools went to on-line learning or a hybrid model of in-person and on-line offset with increasingly common periods of quarantine.  
 
These were often necessary to keep kids and their families safe – and in some cases still are. As a society, we could have done more to blunt the blow such as paying parents to stay safe at home as well as supervise their children, but economic concerns took precedence to human ones.  
 
And now we’re seeing the cost
  
Many students attended school haphazardly and their parents often weren’t around to give them the kind of stability, role models or attention they’d normally get at school.   
  
Today, as the pandemic still smolders on, and schools struggle to function as if the danger had passed, the result is classes of emotionally needy and socially awkward children.  
  
There were so many fights in the halls of my building last week, we’re now operating on a soft lockdown to decrease unstructured time between classes.   
  
And you know what – it’s not really kids’ fault.  
  
They’re just trying to live in the world we’ve built for them.   
 
More than 674,000 Americans have died from COVID
 
According to the CDC, more than 140,000 children in the U.S. lost a primary or secondary caregiver such as a live-in grandparent or another family member to the virus. 
 
Globally, that’s more than 1.5 million kids who have lost a parent, guardian or live-in relative to the pandemic, according to the Lancet
 
No wonder kids are having trouble dealing with their emotions! Their support systems are shot! 
  
My students are bright, caring, energetic and creative people. They have the same wants and needs as children always have. They just have fewer tools with which to meet them.   
  
Administrators often focus on academic deficits.   
  
They worry about learning loss and what the kids can’t do today versus students in the same grades before the pandemic. But I think this is a huge mistake.   
  
My students are not suffering from a lack of academics. They’re suffering from a lack of social and emotional development.   
  
I teach Language Arts and, sure, my kids may not have been exposed as deeply to certain concepts as those who came before them. They may not have written an acrostic poem or read Dickens or had as much experience writing. But that doesn’t mean they’re deficient.   
  
Every child – every PERSON – learns at an individual rate. Some take longer than others. Some take more exposure, experience and practice. But learning is never lost.   
  
Teachers know this. That’s why we scaffold our lessons. We get to know our kids and where they are before we can gauge what they still need to learn.  
  
My students may not have read the play they would have in 7th grade, but I can help them understand the components of drama when we read a play in the curriculum for 8th grade. They may not have written a particular type of poem last year, but we can still read one and understand it this year.   
  
Many students have difficulties with spelling and punctuation. That’s true this year as well as any other. That doesn’t mean they’ve lost anything. It means they need more instruction and practice.   
  
I’m not worried about that. It’s really pretty similar to any other year.   
  
What does concern me is the level of immaturity and social awkwardness I’m seeing.   
  
People aren’t machines. You can’t flip a switch and they just learn.  
  
You have to create an environment that is conducive to learning.  
  
Part of that is creating a class culture where everyone feels respected and safe. That’s difficult to do when kids don’t know how to communicate without conflict.   
  
That’s difficult when their sense of safety has been deeply impacted. Community members whining about security measures like wearing masks and getting vaccinated don’t help this – not at all.   
  
In schools, we’re trying to instill a sense of consistency and care. We’re trying to teach kids the basics of human interaction again – something even some adults are having to relearn.  
  
And let me tell you – it’s extremely hard in large, anxious groups dealing with the continuing uncertainty of our times.   
  
My own health has suffered under the pressures with which educators are forced to contend. Unnecessary paperwork, increased expectations, lack of respect and compensation have teachers stretched to a breaking point.   
  
I was in and out of the hospital all last week and the district had great difficulty finding an adult to sub for me.   
  
For two days they resorted to hiring parents from the community to watch my classes. I’m told that one of them reported to the office at the end of the day and promptly told the secretary not to call her tomorrow, that she was never coming back.   
 
It’s hard for professional educators, too. 
 
According to a 2020 survey by the New York Life Foundation and American Federation of Teachers, only 15% of teachers feel comfortable addressing grief or trauma tied to the pandemic. 
  
My kids are not demons.   
  
They are not monsters or evil or incorrigible.   
  
They’re just kids who really need our love and support.   
  
I feel for them. I really do.   
  
When I’m here, I do everything I can to help them feel safe, secure, respected and cared for.   
 
It’s certainly not easy. 
  
At lunch the other day, one student came to my door and scratched on the window. He was in tears.   
  
I let him in and asked what was wrong.   
  
He was at his wits end about his home life and felt lost. I sat with him, we talked it out and I asked if there was anything else I could do for him.  
  
He said, “Yes. Can I have a hug?”  
  
So even now, with COVID out there in the community and my mask securely fastened, I did it. I gave him a hug.   
  
That’s the need I’m seeing in schools right now.   
  
It’s not academics. That will be fine if we can take care of the emotional and social needs of our students.   
  
But this can’t be accomplished by teachers alone – nor even administrators, school boards and districts.   
  
We need to build a world that cares about children.   
  
We need to value their lives and needs.   
  
It’s not enough to care whether a child is born. We have to care whether a child is taken care of, healthy and loved.   
  
And that means looking out for their parents, too.   
  
If parents didn’t have to sacrifice themselves to their jobs, they could spend more time with their kids.   
  
When your job constantly demands more time, at all times of the day and night, you can’t be there effectively for the ones you love.   
  
We talk about family values, but we do little to value families. Only their credit score and earning power.   
  
This is a problem that won’t be solved overnight.   
  
It may far outlast the pandemic, itself.  
  
To heal our kids, we have to heal our society.  
  
In fact, we can’t do one without doing the other.  


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Teachers Are Not Okay

At the staff meeting the other day, one of my fellow teachers turned to me and said he was having trouble seeing.

He rushed home and had to have his blood pressure meds adjusted.

Another co-worker was sent home because one of her students had tested positive for Covid-19 and she had gone over to his desk to help him with his assignment.

I, myself, came home on Friday and was so beat down I just collapsed into bed having to spend the next week going from one medical procedure to another to regain my health.


The teachers are not okay.

This pandemic has been particularly hard on us.

Through every twist and turn, teachers have been at the center of the storm.

When schools first closed, we were heroes for teaching on-line.

When they remained closed, we were villains for wanting to remain there – safe from infection.

Then there was a vaccine and many of us wanted to reopen our schools but only if we were prioritized to be vaccinated first. We actually had to fight for the right to be vaccinated.

When our students got sick, we sounded the alarm – only to get gas lighting from the CDC that kids don’t catch Covid and even if they do, they certainly never catch it at school.

We were asked to redo our entire curriculums on-line, then in-person for handfuls of students in funky two-day blocks, then teach BOTH on-line and in-person at the same time.

The summer was squandered with easing of precautions and not enough adults and teens getting vaccinated. Then schools reopened in August and September to debates over whether we should continue safety precautions like requiring students and staff wear masks and if we should expand them to include mandatory vaccinations for all staff and eligible students to protect kids 11 and younger who can’t take the vaccine yet.

It’s been a rough year and a half, and I can tell you from experience – TEACHERS ARE EXHAUSTED.

As of Sept. 17, 2021, at least 1,116 active and retired K-12 educators have died of COVID-19, according to Education Week. Of that number, at least 361 were active teachers still on the job.

I’m sure the real number is much higher.

According to the Associated Press, the Covid pandemic has triggered a spike in teacher retirements and resignations not to mention a shortage of tutors and special aides.

Difficulties filling teacher openings have been reported in Tennessee, New Jersey and South Dakota. In the Mount Rushmore State, one district started the school year with 120 teacher vacancies.

In Texas, districts in Houston, Waco and other neighborhoods reported teacher vacancies in the hundreds as the school year began.

Several schools nationwide have had to shut down classrooms because there just weren’t enough teachers.

The problem didn’t start with Covid.

Educators have been quietly walking away from the profession for years now due to poor compensation, lack of respect, autonomy and support.

For instance, teachers are paid 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience. A 2020 survey found that 67% of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.

This isn’t rocket science. If people refuse to work for a certain wage, you need to increase compensation.

But it’s not just pay.

According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. That’s almost a third of educators – one in three – who plan to abandon teaching because of the pandemic.

Another survey by the RAND Corp. said the pandemic increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.

The CDC Foundation in May released similar results – 27% of teachers reporting depression and 37% reporting anxiety.

However, the RAND survey went even deeper pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures. 

I have to admit that’s what I’m seeing in the district where I teach.

We have had several staff meetings in the four weeks since students have been back in the classroom and none of them have focused on how we are keeping students and staff safe from Covid. In fact, administration seems happy to simply ignore that a pandemic is even going on.

We’ve talked about academic standards, data driven instruction, behavior plans, lesson planning, dividing the students up based on standardized test scores but NOTHING on the spikey viral ball in the room!

We get emails and phone calls every few days from the district about how many students and staff have tested positive and if close contacts were identified. But nothing is done to stop the steady stream of illness.

And these communiques willfully hide the extent of these outbreaks. For example, here’s an announcement from Sept. 13:

“We have learned that a Middle School staff member has tested positive for COVID-19. There were no close contacts associated with that case. We also have learned that a Middle School student has tested positive. Close contacts for this case have been identified and notified. Thank you.”

This announcement failed to disclose that contacts for the student were the entire middle school girl’s volleyball team. That’s 16-17 students who were all quarantined as a result.

Teachers are tired of this.

And I don’t mean palm-on-my-head, woe-is-me tired.

I mean collapsing-in-a-heap tired.

We are getting physically ill – even when it isn’t directly attributed to Covid, it’s from the stress.

At my district, the school board even refused to mandate masks. It took action from the governor to require this simplest of safety precautions. Do you know how much these kind of senseless shenanigans drain educators who just want to make it through the day without catching a potentially fatal illness!?

There are so many teachers absent every day. We know because there aren’t enough subs, either, so those of us who do show up usually have to cover missing teachers classes between teaching our own classes and fulfilling our other duties.

Things cannot continue this way.

We need help and support.

We can’t be the only people responsible for dealing with society’s problems anymore.

You can’t just put us in a room with kids and tell us to work it all out.

You can’t refuse to listen to us but blame us when things go wrong.

No one’s going to stay for that – not even for the kids.

We are literally falling apart here.

We want to be there for our students, to give as much as we can, but many of us are running out of things to give.

The system is built on the backs of teachers.

And we are ready to collapse.


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!

School Leaders Refusing to Mandate Masks Are Responsible for the Coming Storm

I would love for this to be a normal school year.

I would relish the opportunity to teach my classes of middle school students without a mask covering my face and obscuring my voice.  


I would enjoy being able to see the expressions on their faces as I welcomed them to class and got to know them.

 

But I am not stupid.  

I know that doing so would not be worth the cost.

The pandemic is not over – not in Pennsylvania. Covid-19 cases are on the rise in my community and an increasing number of children have gotten sick, been hospitalized or died. 

Forgoing masks would risk more. It’s just not worth it.

Only a month ago child Covid cases numbered in the zeroes or low single-digits each day in my home of Allegheny County, according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. During the past two weeks there have been as many as 30 to 40 new child cases a day. 


 
Some of these are kids 11 and younger who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. Some are  those 12 and older who have not been vaccinated. And a few are break-through cases among vaccinated kids, said Dr. Andrew Nowalk, clinical director of infectious diseases at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. 


 
Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) are recommending everyone in schools – students, staff, visitors, etc. – wear masks whether they’ve been vaccinated or not. 


 
As a school director, why would you take a chance with the children in your care? 


 
There are so many questions I have about this situation that all seem to boil down to variations on that one


 


Dr. Todd Wolynn, CEO of Kids Plus Pediatrics, an independent pediatrics practice with several locations in the region, put it this way: 


 
“We’re here to ask one question to school districts not doing universal masking: Why is your situation safer [without a mask mandate] than what is recommended by the AAP and the CDC?” 


 
Why is it safer to forgo this precaution?  


 
Wearing a mask is not all that hard. We all did it throughout most of the last year and a half. 


Why is it so hard to just continue doing it a little while longer? 


 
I asked a similar question of Bryan Macuga, Assistant Superintendent of Steel Valley School District where I work.  


 


He mentioned at a district wide meeting that the new health and safety plan approved by the school board makes masks optional this year. I asked him why.  


 
He refused to give me an answer. He simply said that’s what’s been decided and would say no more.  


 
Superintendent Ed Wehrer was there at the meeting wearing a mask to – as he put it – “model” that behavior. Wehrer said he was empowered by the school board to mandate masks if it became necessary. He hasn’t done so nor did he find it necessary to answer my question, either. 


 
I can’t imagine it.  
 


If these leaders really think it is better not to mandate masks, why not explain their reasoning. We may agree or disagree with them, but they can’t even show us the courtesy of a straight answer to a fair question. 


 
Whatever their reasoning, most Allegheny County school directors must disagree with it.  


 
The majority of the county’s 43 school districts – 70% – have mandated masks in their schools. It’s heartening to see so many school leaders putting children over politics this way. I just wish I lived and worked in one of their communities.  


 
Only 13 county districts are making masks optional and most of those are clustered on the southeastern border with more rural (and Republican) Westmoreland County. 


 

I don’t understand how ideology makes people risk the lives of their own kids.  


 


Masks and vaccines should not be political.  


 
They should be the purview of science and reason


 
Throughout the rest of the state, the situation seems even worse.  


 
Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Of 474 that submitted health and safety plans by July, only 59 reported plans to mandate masks for the 2021-22 year. This number is certainly higher now as districts changed their plans based on increases in Covid cases through August. But the situation is still incredibly frustrating. 


 
This week Gov. Tom Wolf called on the legislature to reconvene and pass a motion to mandate masks in Commonwealth schools.  


 
However, Wolf is a Democrat and the legislature is controlled by Republicans so this request was soundly rejected.  


 
It’s unclear whether Wolf will try to do this on his own under his authority as governor especially since voters just limited his ability to do so in a referendum in May.  


 
Politics. Stupid politics while our children are in danger.  


 
Elections have consequences but so do boneheaded decisions by elected leaders.  


 
The choice to make masks optional needlessly puts so much in jeopardy.  


 
Not just healthy and safety but the ability of schools to function well.  


 
One of the major takeaways of the last pandemic year was how ineffective and frustrating remote schooling is. Even under the best of circumstances in-person classes are far superior.  


 


However, refusing to put in place safety precautions like universal masking puts in-person learning at risk.  


 
If Covid infections are high enough, schools must close and go back to remote instruction.  


 
Why would school directors risk that?  


 
If their main concern is academics, why not install the kinds of provisions that at least allow for the best method of instruction?  
 


There seems to be a cynical calculus here – various games of chicken with local government against higher state and federal authorities.  


 
Republicans refuse to legislate safety precautions. Democrats often are too afraid to do so.  


 
The result is our current fractured map of diverse reactions to the same disaster.  


 
In short, it may take a larger disaster to break the political gridlock.  


 
Certainly kids will get sick. Without a doubt they will bring the virus home to parents, friends and family.  


 
But will the net result be bad enough to force – and I do mean FORCE – lockdowns, quarantines and remote schooling? 


 
I don’t know the answer. And neither do anti-maskers, but they are recklessly betting that the consequences won’t be bad enough to force their hand.  


 
Honestly, in a sane society this careless attitude endangering children and families would be enough to bring condemnation and shame.  


 
But in our broken system it will take a true catastrophe of epic proportions. Judging from last year, mask optional districts will do whatever they can to obscure the level of damage their policies are doing and stay the course unless the explosion is so big as to be impossible to hide.

We’re talking kindergarten classes full of Covid patients, tiny tots attached to ventilators, lawsuits and funerals in equal measure.
 


I don’t know if it will come to that, but if it does, we know who to blame.  


 
Any disruptions in education, any illnesses, any long-term effects must be laid at the feet of the decision makers who could have protected us from it but refused to do so. 


 
They have a responsibility that is being ignored.  


 
I can only hope that one day they receive the justice their actions today make them so richly deserve.


 

The following is a list from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette of public school districts in Allegheny County and their position on universal masking for the 2021-22 school year (as of Wednesday, Aug. 25): 


MASKS REQUIRED 


Allegheny Valley (Cheswick and Springdale boroughs; Harmar and Springdale townships) 


Avonworth School District (Ben Avon, Ben Avon Heights, Emsworth, Kilbuck and Ohio Township) 


Bethel Park 


Carlynton (Carnegie, Crafton, Rosslyn Farms) 


Clairton City 


Cornell (Coraopolis, Neville Island) 


East Allegheny (East McKeesport, Wall, Wilmerding, North Versailles) 


Fox Chapel Area (Fox Chapel, Sharpsburg, Aspinwall, O’Hara, Blawnox, Indiana Township) 


Gateway (Monroeville, Pitcairn) 


Hampton 


Keystone-Oaks (Dormont, Castle Shannon, Green Tree) 


Montour (Kennedy Township, Robinson Township, Ingram, Thornburg, Pennsbury Village) 


Moon Area (Crescent, Moon) 


Mt. Lebanon 


North Allegheny — (Marshall, McCandless, Bradford Woods, Franklin Park); masks required as a result of legal action. 


Northgate — (Bellevue, Avalon) 


North Hills (Ross, West View) 


Penn Hills 


Pine-Richland 


Pittsburgh Public Schools (Pittsburgh, Mount Oliver) 


Quaker Valley (Sewickley, Leetsdale, Edgeworth, Glen Osborne, Sewickley Hills, Sewickley Heights, Bell Acres, Haysville, Glenfield, Leet, Aleppo) 


Riverview (Oakmont, Verona) 


Shaler Area (Shaler, Etna, Millvale, Reserve) 


South Fayette 


Sto-Rox (McKees Rocks, Stowe) 


Upper St. Clair 


West Allegheny (Findlay, North Fayette, Oakdale) 


West Mifflin Area (West Mifflin, Whitaker) 


Wilkinsburg 


Woodland Hills (Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek, Wilkins) 


OPTIONAL 


Baldwin-Whitehall 


Brentwood 


Chartiers Valley — Optional but “strongly recommended”; (Bridgeville, Heidelberg, Collier, Scott) 


Deer Lakes (West Deer, Frazer, East Deer) 


Duquesne City 


Elizabeth Forward 


Highlands (Tarentum, Brackenridge, Fawn, Harrison) 


McKeesport Area (McKeesport, Versailles, South Versailles, Dravosburg, White Oak) 


Plum 


South Allegheny (Port Vue, Liberty, Glassport, Lincoln) 


South Park 


Steel Valley (Homestead, Munhall, West Homestead) 


West Jefferson Hills (Jefferson Hills, West Elizabeth, Pleasant Hills)   

 


 

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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 Does Your Right to Unmask Usurp My Child’s Right to a Safe School?

“Daddy, I’m afraid.”

My 12-year-old daughter just had a nightmare, and I was sitting on her bed trying to calm her down.

“What’s wrong, Sweetie?”

“I’m worried about school.”

That’s something with which I can certainly relate.

Even after teaching for 18 years, I always get anxious before the first day of school, and I told her as much.

“Really?” She said.


“Yeah. But I can understand why you might be even more nervous than usual. I’ll be teaching the same thing I’ve taught for years. I’ll be in the same classroom working with the same adults. Only the students will be different. But you will be in a new building with new teachers…. And you haven’t even been in a classroom in over a year.”

“That’s just it, Daddy. What if the other kids make fun of me for wearing a mask? What if I get sick?”

Our local district is reopening in a week with a mask optional policy and no vaccine requirements.

Her question was expected, but I had been dreading it.

I knew my answers and they sounded inadequate – even to me.

I explained how she would be wearing a mask and is fully vaccinated so it will be extremely unlikely for her to get sick. And even if she does, it will be extremely unlikely she’ll get VERY sick.

“And if the other kids make fun of you, just ignore it. You are going to be safe. If they take chances, they’ll just have to suffer the consequences.”

It seemed to satisfy her, but I left her room feeling like a bad parent.

Covid-19 cases are on the rise again.

Nationwide, nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

Even in the Pittsburgh region where we live, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week, according to KDKA. That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

My daughter is scared? So is her daddy.

I went to the local school directors meeting and asked the board to follow recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Allegheny County Health Department by requiring masking and vaccinations for eligible students and staff. They refused.

Now I’m stuck in the position of keeping my little girl at home for another year by enrolling her in the district’s terrible on-line program, Edmentum, or rolling the dice with in-person schooling.

I’m told there will be more synchronous teaching this year in the remote program, but I don’t trust it.

Last year, she only made it through because my father-in-law – a former math teacher – and myself basically taught her everything the on-line program struggled to get across.

We just couldn’t do it again this year. It was a full time job – several full-time jobs – too hard on him and me both.

I hope we won’t regret it.

And then there’s my own work situation.

I teach at a neighboring district that looks like it will reopen the same way with masks and vaccines mere options.

I’m fully vaccinated but immunosuppressed. Might I be putting my own health at risk teaching under these conditions?

Last year, even with masks a requirement, students and staff at both districts came down with the virus nearly every week.

With the more infectious and deadly delta variant on the rise, might it be even worse this year – especially if we are lowering precautions?

Last year I burned my sick days waiting to be vaccinated before returning to the physical classroom. This year I could take a leave of absence, but once again my district is making no accommodations for people like me. I have to work or else try to survive on a reduced salary.

When you’re already living paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s not much of an option.

I just don’t understand it.

Don’t my daughter and I have rights?

We hear a lot about the anti-maskers and the anti-vaxxers. A lot about their rights. What about our right to safe schools?

Why is it that the right NOT to wear a mask supersedes the right to go to a school where everyone is required to wear one?

Because it isn’t – as I told my daughter – a matter of everyone having to deal with just the consequences of their own actions. My daughter and I have to deal with the consequences of everyone else’s actions, too.

Or to put it another way – if one person pees in the pool, we’re all swimming in their urine.

If someone else doesn’t wear a mask, hasn’t been vaccinated and hasn’t taken the proper precautions, they can spread the Covid-19 virus through the air and infect whole classrooms of people.

Everyone else could be wearing a mask. It just takes one person who isn’t.

Is it fair that everyone else has to pay the price for one person’s carelessness?

We talk about rights so much we seem to have lost entirely the idea of responsibilities. They go hand-in-hand.

Yes, you have the freedom to do whatever you like so long as it doesn’t hurt another person.

When your actions do hurt others, you have a responsibility to stop. And if you won’t do that, the government has a responsibility to stop you.

But in this anti-intellectual age, we’ve almost completely given up on that idea.

If people take precautions by masking up and getting vaccinated, the worst that will happen is they’ll be unduly inconvenienced. If my daughter and I are forced to exist in the same spaces with people not taking the proper precautions, we could get sick and die.

It’s not like we’re talking about two equal sides here. This is people who believe the overwhelming scientific majority vs. those who get their answers from YouTube videos and political figures. It’s doctors, researchers and immunologists vs. conspiracy theorists, internet trolls and the MyPillow guy.

I’m not even judging – believe what you like so long as it affects only you. But when it affects me, too, then we have a problem.

The lowest common denominator is allowed to run wild. They can do whatever they like and the rest of us just have to put up with it.

That’s why we’re beginning year two and a half of a global pandemic! Not enough of us got the vaccine by the end of the summer.

Now infections are rising and few policy makers have the courage to take a stand and protect those of us who took precautions from those of us who did not.

And don’t tell me our lawmakers don’t have the power. There is a mountain of precedent showing they have.

On the highway, you can’t just go wherever you want, whenever you want. There are lanes, speed limits, traffic lights.

Even vaccines! To enroll in Kindergarten, parents already have to prove their kids have been vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and a host of other diseases. Why is Covid-19 any different?

Public safety is a PUBLIC issue not a private one.

It just makes me feel so helpless.

I can’t do anything to protect my students.

I can’t do anything to protect myself.

I can’t do anything to protect my baby girl.

And I can’t wait for the school year to start!


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McKeesport School Board Makes Masks Optional as Covid Infections Rise Among Children

When I got to the McKeesport School Board meeting last evening, I was relieved to see a vote to follow the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Pennsylvania and Allegheny County Health Department mandates about wearing masks in schools.

“Finally,” I thought. “The board is doing something sensible to keep our kids safe from Covid-19.”

Later I found out this motion didn’t mean what I thought it meant.

The district wasn’t mandating masks to protect kids during a global pandemic. It was vowing to follow any mandates put forth by higher authorities IF such mandates were passed.

In the meantime – in the absence of such mandates – the district passed a health and safety plan where masks would be entirely optional for students and staff.

The motion was approved 6-3, with only Mindy Sturgess, James Brown and Steve Kondrosky voting against it. Joe Lopretto, Diane Elias, Dave Donato, Tom Filotei, Ivan Hampton, and Jim Poston voted in favor.

I spoke to the board before the vote, during the public comment section, asking them to BOTH mandate masks and require eligible students and staff to be vaccinated.

Here are my comments in full:

“Thank you for allowing me to speak today.

Being a school director is a hard job. You give up time with friends and family every month to consider what’s best for the community’s children.

It’s especially hard during Covid-19. Decisions concerning public health should be made by the
President, the Governor and – honestly – scores of people before it gets to you. But during this global pandemic, the big dogs have continually passed the buck on down the line until it was on your desks.

It’s unfair.

You may all be nice people, but you aren’t experts on immunology or public safety. Nor do you have ready access to those experts.

But you are tasked with making decisions that directly impact the health and safety of district students and staff. You have an OBLIGATION to safeguard every child and adult.

So what is the best way to reopen schools this year?

Don’t ask me. I’m not an expert, either.

But I have heard from those experts.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends all schools mandate masking and require vaccinations for all people 12 and older. The US Department of Education recommends the same. As does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and a host of other organizations in prime positions to know what is best.

You have an obligation to listen to them.

Only 63% of Pennsylvanian adults are vaccinated against Covid-19.

Less than 30% of Americans ages 12 to 15, and only 41% of Americans 16 to 17 are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC. And since they are not eligible yet, all children 11 and younger are not vaccinated.

This means our kids are in danger of catching this virus. Every elementary student and many in middle school are completely unvaccinated. And a good percentage of those older.

According to the district’s own Covid Tracker, 132 students and 89 staff were diagnosed with Covid since the pandemic began.

That’s 221 people. Far too many if you ask me – and with the more infectious delta variant, we can’t allow such numbers to continue.

Nearly 94,000 new child Covid cases were reported last week- a substantial increase, according to the AAP and the Children’s Hospital Association (CHA).

That’s not just Texas and Florida. That’s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, too.

According to KDKA, the number of kids hospitalized with Covid at UPMC Children’s Hospital has nearly doubled in the last week.

That’s 50 hospitalizations in the past month including 20 in the last week.

“The only way to protect these younger children under 12 is for those of us over 12 to get vaccinated and wear masks,” said Dr. John Williams, UPMC Chief of Infectious Diseases.

“The decisions that those who are leading our schools’ policies, I want them to think about masking and distancing together as possibilities for keeping people safe,” said Dr. Graham Snyder, UPMC medical Director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology.

Don’t listen to me.

Listen to these people.

Mandate masks in McKeesport Area School District (MASD). It is not difficult. You did it last year. You can do it this year, no problem.

It is absolutely the LEAST you can do.

You should also mandate that all people 12 and older in district buildings be vaccinated and submit proof of vaccination.


If they refuse, you have remote options available.

Please put your politics and pride aside. This is not about which school district is tougher or proving a point about your independence and autonomy.

This is about keeping children safe.

Please do the right thing. Mandate masks and vaccinations at MASD.

When I was done, there was absolutely zero response.

They just went on with the meeting.

Every other person who spoke during public comments got some kind of response. For me – nothing.

I was still under the impression that the board was going to vote in favor of a mask mandate. I thought I had been too hard on them even bringing it up.

Ha!

The issue was finally addressed when the health and safety plan came up for a vote. Board member Sturgess asked Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman to address the issues and my comments.

It lead to the following interaction between Holtman and Sturgess before the vote:

Holtzman: “We will continue mitigation strategies, social distancing, managing the way in which children transition into the building, the way they eat lunch, things of that nature. It is recommended in the plan that masks are highly recommended for staff and students but they are optional so it’s the family’s choice, the students choice to wear a mask if they so choose, and if a mandate comes down from the Allegheny County Health Director then obviously we’d have to shift gears at that point. Masks also must be worn on transportation. That is part of a mandate that exists – children riding school transportation must wear masks. Approximately half of Allegheny County Schools at this point are providing optional opportunities for staff and students to wear masks based on the needs of the community. We have not seen the numbers rise in Allegheny County yet above the substantial level. That may change or shift the mandate so at this particular point that’s what’s recommended so we will continue to provide hand sanitizer, one way hallways, forward facing children in the cafeteria, and do everything that we can to continue to socially distance children based on how many children are in the classroom.”

Sturgess: “[Director of Allegheny County Health Department] Dr. [Debra] Bogen did highly recommend masks. If masks are not required and we are not able to maintain social distancing what does a close contact look like? Are we going to be putting a lot more of our students and teachers in isolation without having a backup plan?”

Holtzman: “The CDC’s recommendation is 3 feet right now. We’re able to provide 3 feet between children in our classrooms whether they’re full or not. So that’s helpful. Also if children and staff are vaccinated, they do not have to quarantine. Also if children choose to wear a mask, they don’t have to quarantine. So the rules have shifted and changed a little bit. Because we’ve had the best practice of probably any school district in Pennsylvania. I think we’ll be able to manage. I think we may run into a problem where it does become a big deal, but now Allegheny County Health Department has decided that they are going to manage the contact tracing, and we know how that’s going to turn out. That’s overwhelming for them. At some point they’ve given up on some things.”

“The other thing is when you ask for vaccinations, you don’t have a right to ask for vaccinations so… if you ask for a vaccination and someone is dishonest with you there’s no way to prove that. They have a right to do how they see fit. So even our staff members we don’t have a document that says who’s vaccinated, who’s not, who ignored the round that was available at the AIU, who decided to do it over the summer. So there’s also lots of examples of people vaccinated that become ill anyway. I think we have a number of different equations and a number of different views. Dr. Debra Bogen is outstanding. Allegheny County Health Department is outstanding, and we’re going to continue to talk with them every Thursday in our superintendent group. They’re going to continue to guide us…”

Sturgess: “What was her recommendation last week?”

Holtzman: “Recommending masks. I think from her explanations of it, they don’t know enough. So there’s not enough studies or details but they will admit or say it’s not impacting children the way it impacts adults…”

Sturgess: “She kind of backtracked that a little bit… Something I like about this [health and safety plan] that we did not have last year is the opportunity for that synchronous live instruction for students who choose the virtual option. I know as an educator I’m much more comfortable with having that available to our students when we didn’t have that available last year… K through high school – there’s been some arrangement for that live instruction to occur.”

Holtzman: “I think one of the challenges we face was determining how much of a negative impact is the virus having on our children vs. the fact that they may have gaps in their education for the past two years. On-line experiences have not been very robust or meaningful even when you provide live instruction in synchronous learning… What’s more detrimental, the illness? Is it truly going to reach the level of hospitalizing children regularly and those types of things? Or is this something that can be overcome for a slight couple days? …Not having kids in school for two years – for most districts not McKeesport – has been more detrimental for most children. We were very fortunate that our children who did have the virus were not hospitalized. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to be that lucky but those are some of the things we have to consider.”

So they voted to make masks optional and do absolutely nothing about vaccinations.

In my opinion, it is a big mistake.


They are ignoring the recommendations of medical professionals and immunologists choosing instead to simply pass these recommendations on to parents. It makes every child susceptible to the recklessness of one or two.

It’s the cowards way out of a tough choice – simply pass it on to someone else and make them responsible.

As to requiring vaccinations, Holtzman is obviously wrong. The district already requires students to show proof of a plethora of vaccinations before they can start kindergarten. Measles, mumps, rubella… Covid is just one more.

And there IS a record of Covid vaccinations – the vaccine card you get when you are injected. I have mine, my wife has hers, my daughter has hers.

Holtzman is again taking the cowards way out.

And the worst part is he’s proud of it.

He’s proud of how long the district has stayed open during the pandemic and left it all to chance for district students.

I wonder if this reckless attitude is why a slight majority (5 of 9 members) had to resort to a special meeting last month to renew his contract early. He resigned and a day later was offered a new contract. Many of those voting for the contract are lame ducks who would not have a chance to vote when his current contract was up.

And far from showing any guilt over the matter, the same school directors did the same thing with Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo at this meeting. They accepted her resignation and then immediately rehired her with a new contract. The vote was nearly the same as that for Holzman – Lopretto, Elias, Hampton, Poston and Filotei voted in favor. Kondrosky, Brown, Sturgess and Donato voted against it.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. Of those voting in favor, only Lopretto and Elias will remain on the board in the new year.

Clearly many on the board are doing whatever they please and not letting issues of morality or legality stop them.

It is a sad statement on the nature of our district.

But even worse, it is the children who may have to pay the highest toll.

Video of the complete meeting:


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.

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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!