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.


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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:


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We Don’t Need More ADVICE on How to Safely Reopen Schools. We Need RULES.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is full of advice about Covid-19.

It’s safe to do this. It’s not safe to do that.

But we don’t need advice. We need rules.

This week the CDC changed its advice to all staff, students and teachers when schools reopen. Instead of wearing masks in schools only when unvaccinated, people should wear masks regardless of whether they’ve been vaccinated or not.

This is necessary to protect children who aren’t eligible for the vaccine and slow the spread of new more infectious variants of the virus, representatives said.

The problem is that too many Americans don’t listen to advice – especially if it goes against their beliefs.

And there are a significant number of Americans who believe whatever crazy nonsense talk radio, Fox News or their savior Donald Trump tell them.

Immunologists talking about infectious disease just don’t rate.

So these people aren’t going to listen to the CDC’s advice.

That presents real problems both for them and for us.

First of all, they’re literally killing themselves.

More than 99% of people who die from Covid-19 these days are unvaccinated, and they make up almost the same percentage of recent hospitalizations.

CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky calls this a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”, but they aren’t the only ones paying for it.

We all are.

The Covid-19 pandemic would be effectively over in the United States if everyone who was eligible for the vaccine had received it.

About 56% of the U.S. population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, but in many places — especially in rural areas — the number is under 20% despite widespread availability of the drug.

As a result, cases of Covid-19 are on the rise again in most of the United States. In fact, this country leads the world in the daily average number of new infections, accounting for one in every nine cases reported worldwide each day.

The majority of these new cases are the more infectious delta variant, a version of the virus that could jump start cases even among the vaccinated.

And the reason the virus had a chance to mutate and become more resistant to our existing treatments was a ready supply of easy hosts – anti-vaxxers who refused to protect themselves and now have put the rest of the country back at risk.

Their ignorance and selfishness has put all of us in danger.

That makes me mad, and not just at the anti-vaxxers.

I’m mad at the federal government.

You could have done something about this. You SHOULD have done something, but you didn’t.

The Trump’s administration badly bungled the initial stages of the pandemic with late and inadequate international travel bans, failure to use federal authority to supply Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), failure to require mandatory universal paid sick leave for those unable to work due to the virus, and failure to mandate standards for the health and safety of workers.

In contrast, President Joe Biden’s administration has done better in making the vaccine readily available, but still failed to fix many of the problems it inherited and still continually neglecting to mandate anything.

“Hey, Buddy, why don’t you try this?” – is NOT good enough!

We need – “Do this OR ELSE!”

You can’t just make the vaccine available and hope people are smart enough to take it.

They aren’t. Not in America.

Not after decades of allowing lies and disinformation to infect the airwaves. In the name of freedom we’ve let Fox News and the former President poison the minds of admittedly easily lead citizens until their ignorance impacts all of us.

And the antidote to such disinformation – a robust public education system – has been stolen from too many Americans by decades of under funding, rampant school privatization and high stakes testing.

What we need now is to make vaccines a prerequisite to participate in all kinds of social congress – shopping, dinning at restaurants, movies, sporting events, schools, etc. But our government -our FEDERAL government – won’t do that.

Instead it’s a never ending cycle of passing the buck – that’s been our lawmakers response whether Republican or Democrat – to this crisis.

Authority is left it up to the states, who often refuse to allow safety precautions to be regulated or passed the decision on to someone else until it’s being made separately by every minor representative, podunk flunky and school director this side of Mayberry.

What a disgrace!

And here we are again.

The experts are telling us what we should do in the best interests of keeping our children safe. But the federal government refuses to back it up with its full authority.

Just advice. No rules.

Will people be required to wear masks in public schools?

Maybe.

It all depends on what local officials somewhere down the line decide.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf announced yesterday that he is not even considering a statewide mask mandate as Coronavirus cases surge nor will he require masks in schools.

Wolf said his strategy to fight the spread of COVID-19 is the vaccine, itself, – the masking mandate was for when there was no vaccine.

“People have the ability, each individual to make the decision to get a vaccine,” Wolf says. “If they do, that’s the protection.”

Meanwhile, Allegheny County Chief Executive Rich Fitzgerald says he’d consider a mask mandate if infections were worse in the county, an area that includes the City of Pittsburgh. Though he suggests schools follow CDC advice, he’s not about to make that decision for them.

So it will be left to local school directors to decide what to do. Probably most of them will allow masks in school but not require them.

It’s a terrible situation with an incredible lack of leadership, but I get it.

School board directors do not have the power of the bully pulpit. They don’t have the power of Chief County Executives, Governors or the President.

If people challenge their decisions (as they probably would) that requires district finances for lengthy court battles and uncomfortable political confrontations for re-election.

None of these folks should have to make these kinds of life and death decisions.

That’s what the President is for. It’s what US Congress is for.

The buck has to stop somewhere. Right!?

But the matter has become so politicized and our representatives so spineless that our entire system hangs by a thread.

What if the federal government mandates masks and certain states or districts don’t listen?

Will its take the national guard to come in and enforce the mandate?

There was a time when lawmakers had the courage to do things like that – to legislate what was in the best interests of society and darn the consequences.

But today’s lawmakers do not have the courage to govern.

And once again, we’re paying for it.

Our society has failed to protect us. It barely functions anymore.

So get set for another rock ‘em sock ‘em school year where kids and adults will get sick.

In the few years since we discovered Covid-19, young children have rarely gotten as sick from the virus as adults. However, that is changing. Infections have increased this summer as the delta variant spread until approximately 4.1 million children have been diagnosed with the disease resulting in about 18,000 hospitalizations and more than 350 deaths. 

Add to that the facts that only 30% of kids ages 12 to 17 have been vaccinated, younger children are not eligible for the vaccine and probably won’t be until the end of the year at the earliest.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

The Delta variant is 225% more contagious, contains 1,000% higher viral loads from earlier variants, and hits those levels in just 3 ½ days. Delta has a stronger bond to ACE-2 receptors in nasal passages and lung cells.  

Vaccinated people can get infected if exposed to large enough viral loads.  Unvaccinated kids could easily have those high viral loads. This means that everyone is a possible link in the chain of transmission. 

But it’s not inevitable.

There is something we could do about it if we act now.

No more mere advice!

Pass some laws, make some rules to keep everyone as safe as possible and finally end this pandemic!

It just takes courage and common sense – two things in short supply in today’s United States.


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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 Government Should Make Unvaccinated Students & Staff Mask Up in Schools

As a classroom teacher, I cannot enforce safety protocols in my school all by myself.

I can’t make students and coworkers wear masks.

I can’t require people to show me their medical records to determine with any degree of certainty who is and is not fully vaccinated.

But when it comes to Covid-19, the federal government is again throwing up its hands and leaving all safety protocols to small town government officials, local school directors, and schmucks like me.


The result is a patchwork of inconsistent and inadequate safety directives that put far too many at risk.

Here we go again.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines Friday that it is safe for public schools to open for in-person learning so long as unvaccinated students and staff wear masks and an attempt is made to keep people 3 feet apart.

Children and adults who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks, according to the CDC.

However, these are all just suggestions.

There are no laws backing them up.

There is no federal mandate that anyone wear masks, that anyone prove their vaccination status or ANYTHING!

And as many parts of the world are battling new and more virulent strains of Covid-19 and some of the worst such as the Delta Variant are even beginning to show up on our shores, I want to know WHY.

Why is our government abrogating its responsibility to keep us safe?

It’s not like lawmakers aren’t already dedicated to protecting us in other ways.

The federal government has strict regulations to keep our foods and medicines safe. It has regulations to keep our motor vehicles and buildings safe. It even has specific regulations about which other vaccines children must have before they can enter the public school system.

Why is Covid-19 any different?

The government won’t let you drive without putting on a seat belt, it regulates your speed on the highway, and it won’t let you smoke a cigarette in a public place.

Why won’t it do the same kind of thing with Covid-19?

If the CDC is correct that unvaccinated people should wear masks in schools particularly in indoor and crowded settings, then our government should mandate we follow those guidelines.

Period.

“Vaccination is currently the leading public health prevention strategy to end the Covid-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports,” the CDC said in a statement.

Unfortunately, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky has been her own worst enemy often garbling the organization’s message to avoid controversy. For instance, she stressed that decisions on safety measures should be put in place locally.

This has often been interpreted as leaving room for fewer safety precautions.

But this goes against Walensky’s other statements that MORE RESTRICTIONS may be necessary, not less.

In areas with low vaccination rates, higher viral spread or with increasing cases of new strains of the virus, she has suggested universal masking and other measures.

Whether this miscommunication is a result of a cowardly Joe Biden administration or Walensky’s own fault, it has hurt the vaccination effort. Instead of meeting the goal of 70% of Americans fully vaccinated by the July 4th holiday, we’re stalled at nearly 50%.

If there were actual mandates about what vaccinated people were allowed to do and those mandates were enforced, it would probably incentivize more people to get the shots.

At very least we should mandate masks at every elementary school in the nation. After all, children 11 or younger aren’t even eligible for the vaccine because it hasn’t been cleared for that age group yet. No need to check medical records. Elementary schools will be filled with the unvaccinated.

But no. Nothing.

It’s not even like these new CDC guidelines are extreme.

They fall well short of safety guidance in other parts of the globe.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for all vaccinated people to continue to wear masks because of increased spread of variants of the virus.

The CDC isn’t going that far because of confidence that the vaccines being used in the US – the ones made by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Johnson – are effective against new variants, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci.

“We know from good studies that the Delta variant is protected against by the vaccines that fundamentally are being used here. And that’s the reason why the CDC feels at this point they should not change their recommendation,” he said.

If the CDC guidelines are sensible and moderate, why won’t the federal government enforce them?

The answer seems to be multifaceted.

First, the vaccine and even Covid-19, itself, have been politicized by the Republican Party.

At this summer’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), participants cheered low vaccination numbers. Though vaccinated, himself, the former President has continually used fear of the vaccine as a tool to rally support.

There may be reluctance among Democrats to let their own political agenda be derailed by bogus cries of tyranny at public safety measures. (Of course given that those efforts already seem to be mostly derailed by reluctance to override the filibuster, this hardly seems to matter.)

Another overriding concern throughout the pandemic has been the economy.

Governmental officials from the federal to the state to the local level have been unwilling to put safety concerns ahead of capitalism. Business interests have repeatedly been prioritized over protections for human life.

In short, keeping schools open to in-person learning is necessary to keep parents working at their jobs. So any safety precautions that could jeopardize keeping the schools open jeopardizes profits.

Without the federal government stepping in, the decision probably will fall to most local school districts.

And this is entirely unfair to school directors. They should not have to make these kinds of life and death decisions.

In most cases, I would expect they’ll pass the buck on to individual teachers, parents and students.

If you want to mask up, you can. If you don’t, you won’t have to do it.

This will make individuals essentially powerless to protect themselves from the virus since wearing a mask doesn’t provide much protection to the wearer – it mostly protects others from the wearer.

And as to 3 feet social distancing, that’s impossible in most school buildings so it will just be ignored.

Like last school year, people will unnecessarily catch the virus.

The question is how much this will affect the national picture.

With schools closed for the summer, infection rates are mostly down. However, that could change in late August and September as they reopen.

If enough people don’t get the vaccine, that increases the chances for new variants of the virus to come into existence. With enough time, they can become resistant to the vaccines we have.

On the other hand, the pandemic could be over.

I fervently hope it is.

I want my classroom to return to normal.

I want to continue to make it better than normal.

But without the government stepping in here, we’re all just engaged in a game of chicken.

A game of chicken with a pandemic.


 

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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!

Top 6 Administrative Failures of the Pandemic Classroom

This school year has been a failure in so many ways.

But don’t get me wrong.

I’m not going to sit here and point fingers.

The Covid-19 pandemic has tested the public school system like never before.

Teachers, administrators and school directors have been under tremendous pressure and I believe most really tried their best in good faith to make things work as well as possible.

But as the year comes to a blessed close, we need to examine some of the practices common at many of our schools during this disaster and honestly evaluate their success or failure.

Some things worked well. Many made the best of a bad situation. But even more were blatant failures.

We need to know which was which.

As a classroom teacher with 17 years experience who worked through these times, let me clarify one thing.

I am not talking about things that were specific to individual classrooms.

Teachers struggled and stretched and worked miracles to make things run. We built the plane as we were flying it. As usual, this is where policy meets execution and that can differ tremendously from place-to-place.

What I’m talking about for the most part is policy. Which policies were most unsuccessful regardless of whether some super teachers were able to improve on them or not in their classrooms.

Here are my top six administrative failures of this pandemic school year:

1) SOCIAL DISTANCING

Health officials were clear on one point – keeping space between individuals helps stop the spread of Covid-19.

Exactly how much space we need to keep between people has varied over time.

At first, we were told to keep 6 feet apart. Then as health officials realized there wasn’t enough physical space in school buildings to keep students that far apart AND still have in-person school, they changed it to 3 feet.

The same happened with violating social distancing.

At first, you were considered a close contact only if you were within the designated space for 15 consecutive minutes. Then that was changed to 15 minutes in total even if that time was unconsecutive.

In any case, classes were held in physical spaces. Many schools at least tried to make an effort.

Was it successful? Did we actually keep students socially distanced all day?

Absolutely not.

Walk into nearly any school during a class change and you will see the same crowded halls as you would have seen pre-pandemic. Observe a fire drill, and you’ll see the same students right next to each other, skin against skin as they try to quickly find an exit.

These times generally aren’t 15 minutes consecutively, but think about how many class changes there are a day. If you have 8 or 9 classes, with each class change averaging 3 minutes, that’s 24 to 27 minutes of exposure a day.

If it weren’t for the fact that most children are asymptomatic, what would the result of this have been? How many kids did we expose to Covid-19 because of the sheer difficulty of administering social distancing protocols?

2) MASKING

Health officials told us it was important to wear masks on our faces to stop the spread of respiratory droplets that contain the virus. True there was some discrepancy on this issue at the beginning of the pandemic, but over time it became an agreed upon precaution.

There was also some discrepancy about what kinds of masks to wear and whether one should double mask.

However, putting all that aside, did schools that had in-person classes abide by this policy?

It actually depends on what part of the country you’re in. Some schools were directed to do so and others were not.

However, even in districts where it was an official policy, it rarely worked well.

Not only is it difficult to teach when the most expressive parts of your face are covered, it’s difficult to be heard. And for students, it’s even worse. They are still adolescents, after all. They abided by mask mandates with various degrees of success.

In my own classes, about a quarter of my students could never get their masks over their noses. No matter how many times I reminded them, no matter how often I spoke up, the masks always slipped below their noses – sometimes moments after I made a remark. Sometimes three, four or more times in succession to the point that I gave up.

Administration didn’t seem to take the matter as seriously as the school board written dress code policy, and teachers (including me) didn’t want to come down too hard on kids for neglecting to do something that many of them seemed incapable of doing.

Were we all exposed to respiratory droplets? Definitely. Without a doubt. Especially during lunch periods which were almost exclusively conducted in doors without even the possibility of opening a window.

Did partial masking have some positive effect? Probably. But I do not think we can call this policy a success.

3) CONTACT TRACING

How do you tell if someone has been exposed to Covid-19?

Health officials advised contact tracing. In other words, when someone exhibits symptoms and then tests positive for the virus, you identify people who came into close contact (within 3 feet for 15 minutes total).

However, this was conducted entirely on the honor system. So it was only as accurate as those reporting it were perceptive or honest. If someone was a close contact but didn’t want the hassle of quarantine, they could usually just refrain from reporting themselves.

Even worse was the fact that most children are asymptomatic when infected with Covid-19. Hundreds or thousands of kids could be walking around the school as carriers of the virus and you’d never know with contact tracing.

Random blood tests for Covid-19 and Covid-19 antibodies would have actually solved this problem, but it was never even recommended. This may have been because of costs or fears of inconveniencing students. However, it demonstrates perhaps the worst failure of the entire pandemic.

Any sense of security was completely false. Every week – often every few days – I’d get phone calls and emails from my district about students and staff testing positive for Covid-19 but miraculously there were no close contacts. Districts, administrators, school directors, health officials have lost a tremendous amount of credibility from this which may damage our society much worse than Covid-19 ever did.

4) STANDARDIZED TESTING

We threw caution to the wind and reopened in-person classrooms so children could have live instruction. Then the Biden administration mandated standardized testing which would eat up much of that time.

It’s nonsensical.

My last month of school is divided up almost equally in half between teaching and testing.

I’ve had to cut my curriculum to ribbons just to get a semblance of instruction done by the last day.

And it serves no purpose.

We all know students haven’t had the kind of robust instruction time they normally would. Why do we need tests to show that? It’s like looking at a person bleeding from an open wound and then testing to see if there was blood loss.

Not to mention the fact that these standardized tests have been shown to be bad assessments long before Covid-19 came on the scene.

This is a total policy failure that the kids are paying for with less time to learn.

But at least the testing corporations will get paid.

5) CYBER SCHOOL

Many students spent some or all of the last year on-line. The reasons why are clear and even potentially sound.

Their parents wanted to mitigate infection, and going cyber certainly did that.

However, the quality of instruction provided was variable to say the least.

At best, classroom teachers provided lessons through distance learning platforms like Zoom using accessories like Google Classroom.

At worst, prepackaged cyber curriculum based on credit recovery programs was used as the main provider of curriculum.

Platforms like Edmentum – which my daughter had to use – provided material that was not developmentally appropriate, assessed unfairly, and full of typos.

This just demonstrates the inferiority of cyber programs in general. The more interaction possible between teachers and students, the better. However, even at its best this is not as effective as live instruction.

Those districts that simply gave up and threw students onto fully cyber programs almost abrogated their responsibilities to educate at all.

However, I can certainly see why parents may have chosen this option for their children. After all, I made such a choice for my own daughter.

The best result though would be safety from Covid but somewhat less instructional quality. Either way, it’s a failure, but the degree will vary.

6) HYBRID MODELS

Many districts choose a hybrid education model combining some cyber and some in-person learning.

This tried to strike a balance between keeping children safe and providing the best possible education. However, both models were flawed and thus the hybrid model combines these flaws.

The worst part of this type though was how it often forced educators to educate.

Teachers usually had to instruct both live students in the classroom and cyber students on-line at the same time.

This is nearly impossible to do well. It’s like trying to perform a play to two different audiences at the same time. What works in-person does not work as well on-line and vice versa.

I found myself catering to one group and then another. Often it lead to the on-line students being left more to their own devices. Since most of them had their cameras off and rarely responded to questions, I fear they got an even worse education than under fully cyber circumstances.

In-person students also had to exercise patience as the teacher divided his or her attention to the on-line group.

And the degree of technical wizardry expected of teachers was astronomical.

In every class I was required to post material to a central in class TV screen so my in-person students could see it, while also making sure it was displayed on-line for my cyber kids. Sometimes it wouldn’t work for one group and I’d have to trouble shoot the problem in real time.

There were often instructional videos or examples I wanted to show where the volume or video wouldn’t display for one group or another. And sometimes on-line students couldn’t hear the teacher or their classmates.

Then we had Internet connection issues where cyber students were inexplicably dropped or in-person students couldn’t access materials on Google Classroom.

It was a nightmare – an every day, every period, never ending nightmare.

But teachers just got on with it and achieved amazing things despite all the issues.

CONCLUSIONS

This pandemic year can be characterized by epic failures at all levels.

But each failure contains within it a success.

In short, things could have been much worse.

At each level, these failures were mitigated by everyday classroom teachers who made the best of it.

The school year was not a complete waste academically for most students.

It would have been better under normal circumstances, but these were not normal circumstances.

Likewise, students, their families and educators were put at unnecessary risk of infection. And many paid the price for that with long illnesses, lingering symptoms and even death.

However, it could have been worse. Safety efforts – though insufficient – did protect people and fewer people were infected than might have been otherwise.

As more people are vaccinated against the virus and we move forward with vaccinating those 12 and older, risk should become even less prominent.

I dearly hope infection levels will be legitimately low enough in August that we can dispense with social distancing and masking, that we can have universal in-person classes.

However, we probably will do away with these measures WHETHER IT’S SAFE TO DO SO OR NOT!

And that is the worst problem!

Throughout the Covid pandemic, our policies have demonstrated a blatant disregard for human life and safety. Instead we have prioritized economics and capitalistic pragmatism.

Don’t let anyone tell you “Safety was our number one priority.”

It wasn’t. And it isn’t.

In America, the almighty dollar reigns supreme and your life and the lives of your children come in a distant second.


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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!

PA Gov. Wolf Fires Charter School Appeals Board. Every. Single. Member.

Being Governor of Pennsylvania must be one of the most thankless but important jobs ever.

With a hopelessly gerrymandered legislature, a majority of Republican lawmakers representing a minority of voters stops nearly anything from getting done for the rest of us.

If it weren’t for a Democratic Governor to act as a check and balance on this lunatic fringe, the state would devolve into chaos.

Case in point: the Charter School Appeals Board (CAB).

It took Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, seven years to fire his predecessor’s appointments and nominate replacements to the CAB.

Yet the GOP legislature is crying crocodile tears that he’s exceeding his authority by doing so.

The board is supposed to be a place where charter schools can challenge decisions made by their local school boards.

Charters are schools that are funded by taxpayer dollars but can be privately operated.

They have to ask the local school board for permission to open a new school in their district. Since the new charter would double services already present at the existent public school and require both schools to split existing funding, there is little incentive for school boards to grant these requests.

But charters can bypass local government by going to the CAB. Or at least they could when the board still had sitting members on it.

The CAB consists of the Secretary of Education and six members who are appointed by the Governor and approved by the state senate.

However, closed door negotiations with the Republican controlled senate over who they would even consider approving over the years continually stopped Wolf from putting people forward as official nominees.

After all, why would Republicans work with Wolf? What incentive did they have to do so?

Refusing to work with the Democratic Governor kept the previous Republican Governor’s appointees in place long after their tenure should have expired.

This kept the CAB ideologically right wing so the members could rubber stamp charter schools left and right bypassing the will of duly elected school boards all over the Commonwealth.

Take the most recent approval in March of the Pennsylvania STEAM Academy – a school founded by Carolyn Dumaresq, former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s Education Secretary.

She literally sat on the board and worked with several sitting members of CAB when she was part of the Corbett administration. Now all these years later she appears before CAB for a hearing asking them to overrule the Harrisburg School Board that had originally denied her charter school’s application.

Guess who won?

The CAB unanimously sided with Dumaresq over elected members of the local community.

So Wolf finally gave these privatization zealots their walking papers.

It’s a pattern we’ve become sickeningly familiar with in Pennsylvania.

A problem arises. The GOP legislature does nothing or has no power so the Governor takes action to fix it. Then the GOP throws a hissy fit.

The house was just on fire and you doused the flames! You shouldn’t be allowed a bucket of water!

We saw the same thing with COVID. Wolf closed the state down to stop a global pandemic. And Republicans are still crying “Tyrant” over his use of executive power.

The far right love crying “Wolf” and blaming everything on the Governor, but make no mistake –  gridlock is exactly what they want.

That’s why Wolf’s action on CAB is so clever.

By firing the remaining members of the board, Wolf has functionally erased it from existence.

If the senate wants there to be a charter school appeals board, lawmakers need to vote on his nominees.

Wolf has nominated the following people to the board:

-Jodi Schwartz, a school board member from the Central Bucks School District

-Shanna Danielson, a teacher in the East Pennsboro School District in Cumberland County and former state senate candidate

-Stacey Marten, a teacher in the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County

-Ghadah Makoshi, a business owner and former candidate for Pittsburgh’s school board

-Nathan Barrett, superintendent of the Hanover Area School District in Luzerne County

 
One of the most exciting things about these nominees is how they might interpret the state’s 20-year-old charter school law.

Previous CAB members have refused to let school boards consider the financial impact of opening a new charter school. However, the state constitution requires public schools to provide a quality education to students in their district. Therefore, if opening a new charter school would adversely affect a districts finances, doesn’t the constitutional necessity to provide a quality education take precedence?

Many school privatization critics think it does. Will Wolf’s nominees?

Unfortunately, they have several hurdles to clear before the senate would vote on them and we’d find out.

Senate Republicans are already throwing a tantrum because Wolf placed Pennsylvania in a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

How dare he endanger short term fossil fuel profits just to provide a cleaner environment for our kids and grandkids!

As a result, they’ve vowed to block the Governor’s appointment to a state utility commission. It’s doubtful they’d let CAB nominees through while blocking Wolf’s other appointment.

Moreover, there will doubtless be legal challenges to the Governor’s firing of previous CAB members.  

In the meantime, there are at least nine cases scheduled to be decided by CAB from Souderton, Southeast Delco, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Philadelphia. And that’s not even counting a recent pair of charter schools in Philadelphia where backers said they would appeal the local school board’s decision to deny their request to open.

Republicans may find themselves forced to choose between waiting out protracted legal challenges while their pet charters languish in appeals limbo or swallowing their pride, doing their damn jobs and voting on Wolf’s nominees!



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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!

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?



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!