The Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

Teaching is one of the few things in life that is not concerned with now.

It is essentially about the future.

We put all this time and energy into helping kids learn. Why?

Not so that they’ll be able to do anything today. But so that they’ll be able to do things tomorrow.

Sure they may be able to read better or solve math problems, but the reason we want them to know that isn’t so much about what they’ll do with it as adolescents. It’s how those skills will shape the people they grow up to be.

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

We take a bit of today and invest it in tomorrow.


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

The west is on fire. Storms are threatening our southern coasts. Police brutality is out of control and bands of neofascist thugs are given free rein to beat and murder protesters. We’ve separated immigrant families and put their kids in cages. The President has lied to us, disparaged our troops, bragged about breaking countless laws and the government is powerless to stop him. Our political system and social fabric is coming apart at the seams. And everyone from the average Joe to the lawmakers who represent him can’t get up the gumption to take precautions against the killer virus that has already put more Americans in their graves than every war since WWII.

You look at the raging dumpster fire around you and wonder – how do we invest in the future when we aren’t sure there will be one?

I’ve had students in my on-line class for only two days so far.

And it’s been great.

They show up in record numbers smiling and ready to learn.

We talk, they tell me about their summers, and I remember how much I love teaching.

But I had to fight almost every day from June through August just so the school building wouldn’t become an incubation center for COVID-19 and classes could be conducted through the Internet.

I’m not saying it was all me that did it, but I fought and worried and cajoled and wrote and begged and did everything I could think to do. And it very nearly didn’t happen.

Summer is supposed to be a break after the stresses of a long school year. And 2019-20 was perhaps the most difficult year I’ve ever had teaching.

But 2020-21 has already promised to be much more challenging.

After all, when you have to fight just for the safety of your children and yourself as a prerequisite to everything that happens in your class, how much strength is there left for actual teaching?

My district has committed to being on-line only through September, so the fight continues month-by-month.

Where are the local newspapers that would have reported on each school district as people test positive for the virus and others are contact traced? We closed most of them and downsized the newsrooms of others to make up lost advertising revenue.

If you’re not a supersized district serving millions, they only report on bed bugs, poorly trained security guards or whatever public relations statement the superintendent released today.

So we trudge on in silence just hoping to get through the day.

And what days they are!

Teaching on-line is a heck of a lot more work.

You’ve got to plan for just about everything. You put the assignments on Google Classroom and set up the Zoom meetings and make your handouts into PDFs and try to digitize your books and figure out how classroom policies designed around a physical space can be revised for cyber space. You answer countless questions and concerns, videotaping your lessons for those who can’t be there in person. You try to make things interesting with new apps, new software, new grading systems, new approaches to the same material you’ve been teaching for over a decade.

And it never ends.

By the time the day is supposed to be over, the emails are still rolling in, the assignments are still being submitted, administrators are making pronouncements, and you haven’t even finished all the things you have to do to get ready for tomorrow yet.

When is there time for my family? When do I have time to make dinner or check on my own child’s progress in her own online experience?

What’s worse is that when things go wrong, I’m afraid to bring them up for fear that some decision maker long removed from the classroom will simply shoot from the hip and end on-line instruction.

We had all summer to plan how to do this better, but we spent all that time diddling about WHETHER we should teach on-line or not. We should have just bit the bullet and worked on improving the quality of instruction instead of putting all our chips on the gambit that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Now – as usual – it’s all in the hands of everyday classroom teachers. We’re left to just figure it out.

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

I love finding new ways of doing things and seeing if they’ll work out better. I’m excited about seeing how my students will react to a Bitmoji classroom or a new Kahoot or this video or not being hassled if they keep their cameras off in Zoom.

I know on-line teaching can never really hold a candle to in-person instruction. But that’s not an option right now. And pretending like reality is something different than it is will do no one any good.

But just saying something positive about cyber schooling gets the technophobes coming down on you.

They’re so scared that online teaching will replace real, live educators that they can’t admit of any positive qualities to the new normal.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with them. I fear that, too. But it’s a war we have to wage later. Just like the election.

Biden is not great on education. Trump is worse. So we have to support Biden while we prepare to fight him in January. And that’s IF we can both defeat Trump at the polls and somehow avoid a constitutional crisis if he refuses to leave the Oval Office willingly.

Everything is one fight after another. We have to win this battle before we can wage the next one.

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

Everyone is worn out, but no one more so than classroom teachers.

We’re caught at the crossroads of nearly every conflagration in America.

I sit here on a Sunday afternoon and my bones feel like boulders under my skin.

I sleep like a beaten boxer – all bruises under the sheets.

But I’ll wake up on Monday, make myself a cup of tea and trudge back to my computer screen ready to begin again.

Because despite it all, there is a core part of me that still believes.

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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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 Trump Hate COVID Testing But Love Standardized Testing?

When it comes to COVID-19, Donald Trump sure hates testing.

But when it comes to public schools, his administration simply adores standardized testing.

Why the discrepancy?

Why is testing for a virus during a global pandemic bad, but giving students a multiple choice test during the chaos caused by that pandemic somehow good?

When it comes to the Coronavirus, Trump has made his position clear.

In a June 15 tweet, Trump wrote that testing “makes us look bad.”

Five days later at his infamous campaign rally in Tulsa, he said he had asked his “people” to “slow the testing down, please.”

At one of his White House press briefings, he said, “When you test, you create cases.”

In his infamous Fox News interview with Chris Wallace, he seemed to be saying that the U.S. had just as many new cases now as it did in May. However, since there were fewer tests done in May and more are being done now, it only appears that the infection is spreading when it actually is not.

It’s pure bullshit.

How would he know how many cases existed in May other than through testing?

He is simply trying to gas light the nation into believing that his abysmal job as Commander-in-Chief has nothing to do with the pandemic raging out of control on our shores.

He is trying to distract us from the fact that the US has only 4 percent of the world population but more than 25% of all COVID-19 cases. He wants us to forget that more Americans have died of COVID-19 than in any war other than WWII – 200,000 and counting.

So that, at least, is clear.

Trump hates COVID testing because – as he puts it – it makes him look bad.

So why is his administration pushing for more standardized testing in public schools as those same institutions struggle to reopen during the pandemic?

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos – everyone’s favorite billionaire heiress turned public servant – sent a letter to state education leaders on Thursday saying high stakes testing probably would be required this school year.

They should not expect the Education Department to again waive federal testing requirements as it did last spring while schools were suddenly closing due to the outbreak.

The reason?

DeVos wrote:

“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”

However, this is a rather strange thing to say if you think about it.

Standardized tests are just one of many kinds of assessments students take every year. At best they represent a snapshot of how kids are doing on a given day or week.

But since students are tested all year long by their teachers, they earn end of the year marks, pass on to the next grade or are held back, graduate or not – there are a multitude of measures of student learning – measures that take in an entire year of academic progress in context.

Waiving standardized testing would not make it impossible to tell who learned what. In fact, waiving the tests in the spring did not leave teachers clueless about the students in their classes today.

We still know which students are falling behind because we interact with them, give them assignments, teacher created assessments, etc. And when it comes to vulnerability, standardized tests show us nothing unless we read between the lines.

Students from poorer households tend to score lower on standardized tests. Kids who attend schools with fewer resources and larger class sizes tend to score lower. Minority children tend to score lower.

We don’t need any tests to tell us who these kids are. It’s obvious! Just look at who qualifies for free or reduced meals. Look at school budgets. Look at student ethnographic data. Look at seating charts. Look at classroom grades.

We don’t need standardized tests! We need resources to help these kids overcome the obstacles set before them or to remove those obstacles altogether.

Standardized testing does nothing to achieve this goal nor is there much help from the “bipartisan reforms of the past two decades.”

After all, which reforms exactly do you think DeVos is referring to?

It’s not hard to imagine since her letter was endorsed by far right and neoliberal organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the National Urban League, the Education Trust and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

DeVos is talking about charter and voucher schools – the same pet projects she spent her entire adult life either funding or trying to wrest funding away from public schools to fund.

In fact, she just had her ass handed to her for a third time by the federal court system for trying to siphon money to private schools that Congress explicitly earmarked for poor kids.

Congress set aside money in the CARES Act to be distributed among public and private schools based on the number of students from low-income families. However, DeVos said the funds should go to private schools BASED ON TOTAL ENROLLMENT.

Uh-uh, Betsy.

In her ruling this week, Dabney Friedrich, the U.S. District Judge for the District of Columbia (and a Trump appointee) wrote:

“In enacting the education funding provisions of the CARES Act, Congress spoke with a clear voice… that cannot mean the opposite of what it says.”

So why does the Trump Administration support standardized testing?

For a similar reason to why it doesn’t support COVID testing.

Testing for the Coronavirus makes Trump legitimately look bad.

Testing kids with standardized assessments makes the public schools (during a pandemic or otherwise) illegitimately look bad. And that can be used as a justification to close those schools and replace them with private and charter schools.

It’s not about academia or helping vulnerable children.

It’s pure politics. The shock doctrine. Disaster capitalism.

This is another way the Trump administration is trying to rob the American public blind and get away with it.

When it comes to Coronavirus, there are a limited number of tests for infection. Trump is against all of them. He just wants to hide his head in the sand and pretend it will all go away.

When it comes to education, there are multiple measures of student learning. The Trump administration only champions one of them – the standardized variety.

Why? Because that is the assessment most inadequate to measure learning but it’s the easiest to spin into an anti-education narrative.

After all, you can’t use classroom grades or teacher-created tests to support the narrative of failing schools. Those assessments are in context and too clearly show the link between poor achievement and things like lack of resources and inequality. If kids are failing their classes, it’s too obvious when schools are trying to help but stymied by a lack of resources and countless social issues. Shining a light on that will only lead to solving these very real problems.

But if we put the spotlight squarely on standardized test scores, we can spin the narrative that it is the public school system, itself, that is at fault and thus we can better sell the need for privatization in all its profit-driven forms.

That’s the whole reason DeVos took this job in the first place.

And shame on Democrats like Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) who praised DeVos’s testing pronouncement.

Scott, who serves as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement:

“There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic is having severe consequences for students’ growth and achievement, particularly for our most vulnerable students. We cannot begin to address these consequences, unless we fully understand them.”’

Um, we do understand them, Congressman. You don’t need a multiple choice assessment to see who is failing or why. It’s due to targeted disinvestment of the poor and children of color.

Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said:

“Especially when it comes to the disparities that harm so many students of color, students with disabilities and students whose families have low incomes, we’ve got to have data that shows us where we’re falling short so we can better support those students.”

How does a single test score from a corporation like Pearson show you more than a year’s worth of academic assessments from a school?

Standardized tests convey ZERO to us about students falling behind or vulnerable students that we don’t already know. And Murray is engaged in pure theater by framing her concern as an issue of racial justice while actual racial justice groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black Lives Matter movement have explicitly condemned standardized testing.

An assessment system literally designed by eugenicists and pushed by segregationists is NOT a remedy to racial inequality – unless you’re proposing getting rid of it.

In short, Trump and DeVos are two peas in a pod committed to avoiding accountability for themselves but determined to destroy public services like public schools based on bogus accountability measures like standardized testing.

Hopefully the American public will boot them both out on their asses in November so that rational leadership in the Department of Education and elsewhere will do what should have been done years ago – waive standardized testing for this year and every year that follows – Coronavirus or not.


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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!

 

Steel Valley Schools Will Reopen Fully Remote Rather Than Compromise on Safety

Thursday would have been the first day of in-person classes for hundreds of students at Steel Valley Schools.

But instead, district buildings will be closed and classes will be 100% virtual for all students.

The Western Pennsylvania district just south of Pittsburgh had planned to reopen with a hybrid model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as the start date rapidly approached, it became clear that the district would not have the safety supplies necessary to protect students and staff. So administrators and school directors agreed to start the year with fully remote classes for at least the first month.

According to a letter sent home to parents written by Substitute Superintendent Bryan Macuga:

“…due to factors beyond the district’s control, efforts to upgrade systems at our buildings are not yet complete. In an effort to ensure we are proving the safest possible learning environment for students and staff, the administration – in consultation with the district’s board of directors – has decided to begin the school year with four full weeks of remote synchronous instruction. Students will still begin on schedule, but all classes for students will be held virtually for the first four weeks of the school year until October 5th.”

The original plan had students attending classes in one of three ways: enrolled in the district’s existent cyber program, doing 100% virtual assignments from the regular classroom teacher or a mixture of both virtual and in-person instruction.

Those who would have attended in-person were further divided into two groups – one of which would have attended in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would have done virtual lessons when not in the classroom and on Wednesdays while buildings were being deep cleaned.

And this is the plan administrators hope to return to in October if they can install plexiglass barriers, fine tune a new HVAC system to better circulate airflow and other safety measures.

“The choice to move all classes fully online was a very difficult decision to make, and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this change may cause,” Macuga wrote in his letter to parents.

“The safety of our students and staff is our highest priority, and we make this decision out of an abundance of caution.”

As a district teacher, I – for one – am thankful for this sound, rational decision.

COVID-19 is no joke, especially in a community with relatively few cases but a higher than average rate of infection.

Of the three municipalities that make up the district, West Homestead has a case rate of 150.5 per 10K, Homestead has a case rate of 123.2 per 10K and Munhall has a case rate of 84.2 per 10K.

Moreover, an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported at St. Therese Plaza, a senior living apartment in very close proximity to the Steel Valley High School-Middle School complex.

WTAE News reported in August at least three confirmed cases at the facility including a caregiver and two patients.

But it’s not just the elderly who are at risk.

According to a new forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the death toll from COVID-19 is likely to more than double to 410,000 by the end of the year.

The institute, whose previous forecasts have been cited by the White House and state officials, estimates the best case death toll with universal masking and tight safety precautions at more than 288,000, and a worst case death toll throwing care to the wind at more than 620,000.

People of color are most at risk of becoming part of that statistic.

According to the Center for Disease Control, minorities are much more likely to get sick and experience complications from the disease.

This is especially relevant in a district like ours where minority enrollment is 47% of the student body (majority Black). This is more than the state public school average of 34% (majority Black and Hispanic).

At a meeting of the Allegheny County Health Department on Wednesday, board member Joylette Portlock noted this susceptibility gap between Black and White residents throughout the Pittsburgh region. During the last two major spikes in COVID-19 cases, Black residents were much more susceptible than White residents. In April, local Black residents tested positive for the virus twice as often as White residents. But the July outbreak was even worse. Black residents tested positive three times more for the disease than White residents.

It should not be surprising then that Homestead – the district municipality with the highest population of people of color (more than 70%) – has such a high percentage of cases.

West Homestead is populated by mostly white people, but the neighborhood has a high incidence of poverty – another factor linked to susceptibility. Munhall has the highest socioeconomic status and lowest minority population, thus the lowest infection rate.

Opening schools when safety measures are not adequate to protect students and staff would be a recipe for disaster.

County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen cautioned how quickly the virus can be spread – especially by children. The health department had been tracking an infection from a teenager who spread COVID-19 to family members, who subsequently spread it to coworkers, who spread it to other teens, etc.

“It spread to over 40 people from this one outbreak in just two weeks,” Dr. Bogen said.

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

Some try to downplay the danger, likening it to the flu.

But there have been 22 times as many COVID-19 deaths this year in Allegheny County, compared to the flu.

Dr. Bogen broke it down like this: There were 330 deaths in Allegheny County from COVID-19 compared to about 15 typically experienced because of influenza. Statewide, there were 7,673 deaths from COVID compared to 102 typical from the flu. Nationwide, there were 183,563 COVID deaths, and between 24,000 – 62,000 from the flu.

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

We have to take this virus seriously.

And unfortunately many of us are not doing so.

The health department inspected more than 2,000 restaurants for suspected health infractions. Inspectors found more than 200 restaurants weren’t in compliance with the county’s mask and occupancy guidelines.

And it’s not just restaurants. Several board members complained that they had seen mask infractions at healthcare organizations, salons and other retail establishments.

Schools may be more susceptible than most places.

I am so thankful the community leaders where I work have refused to go ahead with a safety plan that could not be completed in time to reopen.

I’m sure it was difficult to decide at the last minute to pull the plug on the plan, but it shows real concern for students and staff.

Frankly, I don’t think we should open to in-person classes even if we can achieve the level of safety the district has proposed.

The county still has a moderate level of infection according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines.

Though Wolf does not exclude a hybrid model as possible with this level of infection, it seems to me that “an effort to ensure we are proving the safest possible learning environment for students and staff” would be to go with the more cautious approach prescribed by Wolf – to remain in fully remote instruction until county infections decrease to a low level for at least two consecutive weeks.

However, I am thankful that district administrators and school directors have remained consistent in their plans and seem to be doing what they believe is in the best interests of everyone involved.

Hopefully when safety measures are ready to be implemented district wide, the level of infection throughout the county will have decreased as well.

I’m not a fan of virtual instruction. I’d rather teach students in-person.

But I’d rather none of us get sick or die even more.

Macuga will be conducting a community Zoom meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 6 pm to answer questions about the change from hybrid to full remote learning.


 

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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 Lesson Kids Are Learning from Reckless School Reopenings: YOU DON’T MATTER

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Let’s say you’re an American school child.

 

It’s the first day of school.

 

Your parents dress you in your best new outfit – maybe a nice pink jumper with a unicorn on it.

 

They help you tie your new sneakers – that’s right, two loops and a knot.

 

Then they put a surgical mask snugly over your mouth and nose, adhere a clear plastic face shield from your forehead down and snap some latex gloves on your hands.

 

“Off to school, Honey!”

 

“Don’t forget your antibacterial soap and Clorox wipes!”

 

What do you suppose would be going through your mind?

 

Would you feel safe? Would you feel loved? Would you feel valued?

 

I don’t think so.

 

I mean sure your parents care enough to dress you like an extra from “Outbreak,” but they don’t care enough to keep you home.

 

Or maybe they do care enough but have no other choice. They’re “essential workers” and have to go to a series of minimum wage jobs to keep you fed, clothed and sheltered.

 

How would you feel about the people who own those jobs? The society that prioritizes keeping those jobs going instead of paying your parents to stay home with you?

 

I mean – sure – the economy needs to keep running, I guess, but what is an economy anyway?

 

Isn’t it just a big game of Monopoly? Players keep rolling the dice and landing on each others’ properties and having to pay rent. Hoping this turn you’ll make it past GO and collect $200.

 

With the exception of food, there’s nothing you really need outside of your home. If your parents didn’t have to worry about rent or utilities, they wouldn’t have to work. Yes, they’d need to go out to get food but the government could pay them to do that, too.

 

After all, it’s just Monopoly money. It’s just decorated pieces of paper. It has no inherent value… not like human lives.

 

I mean we’re living through a pandemic here. Leaving the house means exposure to the virus, and the longer you have to go out, the more people you’re exposed to, the greater the chances that you’ll get sick and/or bring the thing back home with you.

 

But someone is forcing your parents to keep on rolling the dice – to keep playing. And your folks never do any better than make ends meet. It’s not people like them who are winning this game – even during a global health crisis.

 

How would you feel about that?

 

How would you feel about the school directors who voted to keep their buildings open and their classes in-person when just a few miles away the kids in a slightly more well-to-do neighborhood get to stay home, protected and safe learning online?

 

How would you feel about the school board members who compromise and say you only have to be put at risk for half the day or just so many days a week? Would that make it all better?

 

How would you feel about the governors who demand schools reopen? Or the ones who offer advice but don’t demand anything?

 

How would you feel about a President who lies all day on TV about the virus, keeps his own kid home and then goes off like a police siren about how you have to get back to school? How would you feel about his billionaire heiress Education Secretary who spends all day finding ways to undercut and destroy public schools who suddenly changes course about how necessary it is for you to get back to class?

 

How would you feel about politicians on both sides of the aisle holding self-congratulatory party conventions through ZOOM while proclaiming the importance of you getting back to school in-person?

 

How would you feel when schools that do open in other parts of the country have massive outbreaks and it has no effect on what the adults prescribe for you?

 

How would you feel when a student takes a picture of a school blatantly ignoring social distancing and other health guidelines and the only person getting in trouble is the student who took the picture?

 

How would you feel about school administrators caught hiding or downplaying outbreaks among staff or students?

 

How would you feel about multi-billion dollar sports franchises unable to keep their superstar athletes disease free yet your local athletic club decides to have practices? How would you feel when your local school teams have outbreaks, the governor or health department advises against school sports but the adults decide to go ahead and do it anyway?

 

How would you feel when time-after-time the grown ups show you exactly how they feel about you, how little you actually matter, how much everything else is worth and how little they really care about you?

 

How would you feel if you were a little school kid getting ready for her first day of class this morning?

 

Would you feel safe, valued, loved?

 

What lesson would you take from everything happening all around you?

 

Some people are very worried that you won’t learn anything much this school year.

 

I’m afraid you’ll learn far too much.


 

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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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!

book-2

McKeesport School Board Recklessly Votes to Reopen to Half Day In-Person Classes During a Global Pandemic

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For a moment there, I thought things might go differently.

 

With Covid-19 cases exponentially more numerous today than they were when schools closed in March, last night McKeesport Area School Directors voted whether to reopen buildings to half day in-person classes.

 

And it really looked like they might decide against it.

 

For about 10 seconds.

 
The first vote was from Jim Brown, and it was a “No.”

 

Then came Dave Donato.

 

He has made no secret that he champions in-person reopening. Since no residents came before the board to praise the plan – either at tonight’s meeting or last week’s work session – he read aloud a letter he said he received from someone advocating for it.

 

But when the time came to vote, Donato stopped. He paused.

 

And for a moment things looked like they might come out right.

 

Then he voted in favor of the reopening plan.

 

The final vote was 7-2 in favor with Brown and Mindy Sturgess voting against.
Donato, Joseph Lopretto, Tom Filotei, Ivan Hampton, Steven Kondrosky, Jim Poston and Diane Elias voted in favor of it.

 

I was there at the meeting in my hometown western Pennsylvania district, one of four people who signed up to speak.

 

No one else was allowed in the meeting, but it was streamed live online.

 

The tone directors took with the public was markedly different.

 

Last week, no one was turned away even if they weren’t signed up to speak. But tonight, they actually sent two people home.

 

Also last week school directors didn’t enforce any time limit on public comments. This week, Donato started the meeting with a warning that anyone who spoke for more than 3 minutes would be stopped.

 

In both cases, there were only a handful of people who signed up to speak. And no one spoke at great length.

 

The first speaker tonight went over her time but was allowed to finish. The next was brief.

 

Then it came to me.

 

I knew my comments asking to start the school year remotely wouldn’t fit in a 3 minute time frame, but I was not about to be silenced.

 

I made my comments (which I reproduce in full below) and when the timer went off, I kept going.

 

Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman said, “Mr. Singer, your time is up.”

 

I responded, “I’m sorry. I thought my duly elected representatives would want to hear what I had to say. I’ll continue…”

 

When I was again challenged, it was Sturgess who came to my defense.

 

She was fearless the entire meeting with questions and comments about the reopening plan and how she thought it was ill considered.

 

When she spoke up asking for me to be allowed to finish, Lopretto became visibly upset.

 

“Mindy, why don’t you just take the president’s seat!?” he said.

 

Lopretto got into an argument with her about it, which ended when he gave up and allowed me to finish.

 

It’s surprising that even after such antagonism, board members like Donato later seemed to almost reconsider their votes when the time came.

 

If anything I said seemed to get through to them, it may have been how I concluded:

“If I’m wrong about this, maybe kids will get a slightly less effective academic experience than they would otherwise. But if you vote for in-person classes and you’re wrong, kids will get sick, teachers will get sick, family members will get sick and many will die.

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

Please consider all these things carefully before casting your vote. There are many lives depending on it.”

 

In the end, we lost.

 

The district will reopen to in-person classes.

 

Frankly, before the meeting I had thought it a lost cause.

 

But now that it’s over, I think if just a few more parents had come to the meeting and spoken against the plan, we might have won.

 

If the teachers union had been clearer about educators’ concerns and not allowed the superintendent to rhapsodize on the bravery of district employees putting their lives on the line for students, we might have won.

 

However, the parents I talked to were too frightened of speaking out, too scared of reprisals against their children, and too certain that they wouldn’t be heard anyway.

 

The teachers I talked to complained about their comments to administration being gas lit and pushed aside. Fear or reprisal, silencing and the good ol’ boys network.

 

To be honest, it was not easy to sign up to speak at all.

 

There was a link online to sign up last week, but I had great difficulty finding it, myself, just seven days later. And if you didn’t have your name down by 3 pm on the day before the meeting, you were told sign ups were closed.

 

These are not the actions of a school board that welcomes public comment.

 

If just a few more of us could have persevered, I think we could have changed directors’ minds.

 

But it was not to be.

 

All that’s left is to see after you and yours – and remember.

 

Remember the names of those who voted in favor of reopening. Write them down.

 

If the epidemic brings a tragedy down on McKeesport, we know who to blame.

 

MY COMMENTS:

 

“Thank you for allowing me to address this board for the second week in a row.

 

I am here again to ask you to reconsider administration’s school reopening plan. I think it is imperative physical classrooms remain closed and students begin the year with distance learning.

 

South Allegheny and Duquesne City Schools just passed resolutions this week to do exactly that for their students. They join surrounding districts East Allegheny, Woodland Hills, Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh Public Schools putting the safety of students, staff and families first.

 

Even the Superintendent of Mt. Lebanon School District has requested his school board reconsider its reopening plan and instead move to remote learning.

 

If it’s good enough for the rich kids in Mt. Lebanon, I think it’s good enough for McKeesport kids, too.

 

You have to face the facts.

 

In the last seven days, 311 new cases of COVID-19 were identified in Allegheny County. In the previous week it was 890 new cases.

 

That may fall under the bar of Gov. Wolf’s new guidelines for districts to mandate remote learning, but it comes awfully close to hopping over it. And it certainly puts online learning as a viable option for county districts.

 

Moreover, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Robert Redfield has said the number of cases in the US could be 10 times higher based on antibody tests.

 

McKeesport Area School District has been hit harder than most. According to the county Website, there have been 189 cases in McKeesport for a case rate of 95.8 per 10,000. There have been an additional 31 cases in White Oak for a case rate of 39.4 per 10,000.

 

But the death rate in McKeesport is one of the highest in our part of the county. Seven people have died from McKeesport due to this virus.

 

That’s more than White Oak (0), North Versailles (2), Duquesne (2), West Mifflin (1), Glassport (0), Port Vue (0), Liberty (0), or Elizabeth Township (0).

 

Jefferson Hills and Baldwin come close with 5 deaths a piece. And Monroeville – which is much more populous than McKeesport – matches us with 7.

 

Last week, Dr. Mark Holtzman said “We’re very comfortable with the proposal that we’re making.” I don’t see how you can be comfortable with that kind of data.

 

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than 97,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 just in the last two weeks of July.

 

To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,000 are children.

 

And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.
Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.

 

Since June, there have been numerous outbreaks at summer schools. And with some schools now starting their academic year, outbreaks have been even more numerous.

 
The fact is – if we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick. Staff will get sick. And they’ll bring it home to their families.

 

Last week, Dr. Holtzman told me I was welcome to utilize a virtual option for my daughter and that this personal parental choice is all that should matter.

 

I disagree for several reasons.

 

 

First, the virtual option on offer for parents at this time is not as effective as the online learning the district could provide if all classes were meeting remotely. As Dr. Holtzman outlined, if the buildings were closed, classroom teachers could conduct synchronous lessons online for all students. This would increase social interaction with real, live people and increase learning outcomes.

 

By contrast, the existent cyber program is asynchronous, do-at-your-own-pace and less socially interactive.

 

Obviously, in-person classes would be better academically. But (1) they put children at undue risk of death or permanent health problems as a result of complications from the virus, and (2) what is on offer is not traditional in-person schooling but rushed 20 minute classes behind face masks, plexiglass barriers and a cloud of well-earned fear and anxiety.

 

 

So if you insist on reopening the school buildings at this time, I will have to enroll my daughter in the cyber program.

 

However, a decision to have in-person classes will still affect me and my family.

 
There is Coronavirus in our community. If you have in-person classes – even on a half day basis – you would be inviting it into our schools where it could infect others and be brought back to their homes. You would effectively be increasing the amount of infection in our community – both in and out of the schools.

 

When I go to the local Giant Eagle to do my shopping, I would be more likely to become infected because of what you decide here tonight.

 

When I go to gas up my car, if I pick up take out, if I even go for a walk in my own neighborhood, I would be more likely to be exposed to a person infected with the Coronavirus and thus get sick, myself, because of your decision tonight.

 

So don’t tell me that my choice as a parent in this matter is all that should concern me.

 

Finally, let me speak for the staff because few others seem willing to do so.

 

The teachers, custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, support staff and others do not get to make a choice. They have to either accept the plan you’re voting on tonight or look for employment elsewhere. They have to decide whether to put – not just themselves – but their own children and families at risk just to continue receiving a paycheck.

 

They have done so much for us. They are the lifeblood of this district. Don’t they deserve more consideration than this?

 

Please. Do not start the school year with this hybrid plan.

 

I know administration has worked tirelessly on it. And that effort has not been wasted.

 

There will come a time to go to a hybrid reopening plan. But that time is not now.

 

When the spread has been contained, when everyone who wants to be tested can do so in a timely manner, when we can adequately contract trace infections, hopefully there will be a vaccine but even if not when Allegheny County has had close to zero new cases for two full weeks, then it will be time to start reopening buildings.

 

But let’s not jump the gun now. Let’s wait and see how things go. Wait until the new year and see what happens at other districts that are not so safety minded. At least wait 9-weeks.

 

If I’m wrong about this, maybe kids will get a slightly less effective academic experience than they would otherwise. But if you vote for in-person classes and you’re wrong, kids will get sick, teachers will get sick, family members will get sick and many will die.

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

Please consider all these things carefully before casting your vote. There are many lives depending on it.”

 

DR. HOLTZMAN’S RESPONSE:

 

“Mr. Singer, I’d like to address you with a few of my own statistics. Allegheny County at this particular point anyone under the age of 40 the mortality rate is zero. Anyone under the age of 50 there’s been two fatalities due to Covid. Currently reference to CDC. There’s a current study on the CDC Website right now that clearly states that children or young adults under the age of 19 are five times more likely to die from the flu than Covid-19. These are statistics that go along with the statistics you’re sharing that are often one-sided when you think about those processes.

 

I think when you talk about coming to a meeting tonight, going to the grocery store, getting take out, we’re putting ourselves at risk every day. It’s an unfortunate scenario. It’s an unfortunate situation. Many people are having people at their homes, they’re going to Kennywood, they’re playing sports out in the community, and that risk of spread is just as big of a risk without a reward. So I think in our case we’re looking for an opportunity to educate children that need desperately positive adults in their life and the opportunity to be educated. We’re not taking a risk for no reward as many do as they go on vacation this summer and consider the spread differently.

 

So I would take those as part of your comments about some of the things you shared with us so that we’re both on the same page. There’s no easy answers to this solution. And many districts are doing different things based on their community and their community needs. We’re just trying to do what’s best for children.

 

I appreciate your comment. I appreciate your continuing to blog about me on social media. I’m not a social media person, but it’s something that you do regularly, and we’re here to do what’s best for your children, my children and all the children in the school district. So thank you.”

 

FACT CHECK:

 

 

  • Moreover, his assertion that “children or young adults under the age of 19 are five times more likely to die from the flu than Covid-19” is misleading because children have been mostly quarantined since March and many who do get infected with Coronavirus are asymptomatic. That’s why there have been fewer reported cases until recently. Former Food and Drug Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said, “The reality is that flu last year infected 11.8 million kids. We have not infected anywhere near that number of kids with Covid, and we don’t want to find out what it might look like if we did… We really do want to prevent outbreaks in the school setting.”

 


(My comments are at 29 minutes left in the video.

Holtzman’s response comes at 20 minutes left.

The vote takes place at 10 minutes left.)

 


 

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Parental Choice Won’t Save Us From Unsafe School Reopening Plans

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I am the parent of a public school student.

 

And I have a choice.

 

I get to decide whether my daughter will go back to school in-person or online.

 

That’s the only thing that should matter to me.

 

At least, that’s what the superintendent of my home district told me when I went before school directors last week asking them to reconsider administration’s unsafe reopening plan.

 

At McKeesport Area School District (MASD), Dr. Mark Holtzman and administration propose unlocking the doors for half day in-person classes Mondays through Fridays.

 

Kids would be split into two groups – one attending in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. That way, with buildings at half capacity, there would be enough physical space for social distancing. The remainder of the time, kids would be learning online.

 

However, if you don’t approve, you can opt out.

 

Any parent who is uncomfortable with this plan could keep his or her children home and have them participate in the district’s existent cyber program.

 

The board hasn’t voted on the proposal yet. It won’t do so until Wednesday.

 

But as I stood up there at the podium last week outlining all the ways this scheme was unsafe and asking my duly-elected representatives to instead consider distance learning for all children, Holtzman told me to be happy I could choose whatever I wanted for my own child and sit back down.

 

Which brings up the question – is parental choice enough?

 

Is the fact that I can choose for my daughter the only concern I should have?

 

Thankfully, no one is forcing me to subject my child to in-person classes. If I don’t think they’re safe, I can keep her away and still have access to an education for her through the Internet.

 

What else do I want?

 

Plenty.

 

First of all, the quality of education offered by the district cyber program is not the same as the district could provide if all students were enrolled in virtual classes.

 

Dr. Holtzman has outlined what that would look like if school buildings were shut down by the governor or the district were overcome with sick students, teachers and/or family.

 

Teachers would provide synchronous classes online through video platforms like Zoom. Students would get to interact virtually with each other and their teachers.

 

By contrast, the existent cyber program is asychronous. Students watch videos and do assignments at their own pace, but human contact and social interaction – even via the Internet – is much harder to come by.

 

Let’s be honest – both options pale in comparison to face-to-face instruction. But the kind of instruction students will receive in-person during this global pandemic will not be face-to-face. Students will interact behind masks and plexiglass barriers under an ever present shadow of fear and menace. Under the proposed MASD plan, teachers would have a mere 20 minutes a period to try to get something done other than just taking role, attempting to get students to comply with safety precautions and calming their fears.

 

Both cyber options are preferable because they avoid these problems. But one of them – the synchronous option with a dedicated class and a teacher behind the curriculum – is superior to the one being offered.

 

Is it selfish to want the better plan for my daughter?

 

Should I just be glad I have a choice at all? Should I put the individual good of my child aside for the good of others?

 

No. Because administration’s plan is not in the best interests of other children, either.

 

If we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick.

 

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found more than 97,000 children tested positive for Covid-19 just in the last two weeks of July.

 

To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,00 are children.

 

And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.

 

Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.

 

Since June, there have been numerous outbreaks at summer schools in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, and Hawaii, among others. And with some schools now starting their academic year, outbreaks have been even more numerous.

 
I live in Allegheny County – the western Pennsylvania region around Pittsburgh – where Covid cases have spiked.

 

Many local school districts like East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg have passed plans to start the year with classes being conducted 100% online. South Allegheny and Duquesne City Schools just passed such plans in the last few days. And the biggest district in this part of the state – Pittsburgh Public Schools – has done the same.

 

If the virus is present in the community – as county health department data shows – opening the schools to students also opens them to Coronavirus.

 

But with the schools open, the virus will no longer be confined to just a few homes. It will come with kids to class and spread among students and staff before it’s brought to their homes as well.

 

That’s how epidemics work. Opening the schools will spread the virus throughout the entire community.

 

And that will affect me, too, regardless of whether I choose a cyber option for my daughter or not.

 

When I go to the local grocery store, gas up my car, even go for a walk – I will be more likely to come into contact with someone infected with the virus and get sick.

 

I can make the safe decision for my family but still suffer the consequences of the irresponsible decisions of others – especially school directors.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be my own local school board. The decisions of school directors in neighboring districts affects me, too.

 

After all, in my part of the state, school districts are pretty small geographically – not nearly as large as most counties. There are 42 public districts in Allegheny County, alone. So it should be no surprise that I routinely travel through several different districts just running day-to-day errands.

 

MASD school directors can decide to keep buildings closed (and I hope they will) but if a district just one township or borough over decides differently, we will suffer the consequences in McKeesport, too.

 

This is why issues of public safety are usually decided at the county, state or federal level. These decisions affect all of us, but these days no one wants to take the responsibility.

 

It doesn’t even make sense democratically.

 

Since I don’t live in more than one district, I don’t get a say in what school directors at neighboring districts decide. I just have a say in what happens in my tiny portion of the world. But the consequences are not nearly as respectful of our man-made borders.

 

For instance, I work as a teacher at a neighboring district. But since I do not live there, I am barred from speaking at the board meetings unless I am invited to speak as an employee of the district.

 

I can give a report as part of the safety commission if invited by administrators, but I can’t otherwise sign up to speak as an employee concerned about how district policies affects me, my students or their families.

 

I’m a believer in local control, but sometimes control can be too localized.

 

This is why you haven’t heard much from many educators. If they’re allowed to speak, they’re often afraid of how doing so will make them a target for reprisals. If they can get their union to back them, they can speak collectively that way, but otherwise, they have no pathway to being heard at all.

 

As a parent, I get a choice for my child in my district.

 

But what choice do teachers have – especially if they don’t live where they teach?

 

If school directors decide to reopen to in-person classes, they’re forcing educators to decide between their employment and their own families. If teachers return to the classroom with their students in a physical setting, they risk not only their own lives but that of their friends and families.

 

That concerns me even with my choices as a parent.

 

I’ve had some outstanding teachers. My daughter loves her teachers. Is it okay if I don’t want to see them get sick and their lives cut short? If I worry about my own chances of surviving the pandemic and the demands of my employer?

 

Finally, what about people of color? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says African Americans and other minorities are hospitalized from the virus four to five times more often than white people.

 

I think their lives matter. But as minorities and people subjected to systemic inequalities, they get less of a say in policy. Should decisions that disproportionately impact their health really be up to a committee? Doesn’t their right to life surpass the decisions making abilities of a handful of elected officials or even middle and upper class parents?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful I have choices as a parent for how my daughter is educated.

 

But that doesn’t overcome my concerns about a bad school reopening strategy.

 

School directors need to make reopening decisions that are in the best interests of everyone because we’re all in this together.

 

That’s what so many folks seem to be forgetting.

 

Yes, even from a completely selfish point of view, unsafe school reopening will affect each of us.

 

But epidemics spread through communities. Only communities can effectively combat them.

 

Dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller fiefdoms only empowers the virus. If we all try to fight Covid-19 individually, we will lose.

 

We have to understand that what’s good for our friends and neighbors is in our individual interest, too.

 

We have to care about our fellow human beings.

 

That’s why I will continue to fight these unsafe plans and ask school directors to reopen schools virtually.

 

That’s the path I’ve chosen.


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 10.44.19 AM

 
Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

 

No matter what you do, life involves some risk.

 

The question is whether certain actions or courses of action involve acceptable risk and exactly what you consider to be acceptable.

 

These issues are not academic. School directors across the country are juggling such questions in their reopening plans.

 

With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards of how to hold classes in August and September, people used to choosing between bids for text books and whether to renovate the gymnasium are forced to make life and death decisions for hundreds or thousands of students, staff and their families.

 

There are three main options:

 

  • (1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
  • (2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
  • (3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two

 

Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.

 

This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.

 

There are many ways to do this.

 

In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.

 

In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.

 

In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.

 

Let me be clear – the hybrid plan is preferable to the completely in-person proposal.

 

It reduces exposure to other people and environments compared to the entirely in-person program.

 

For instance, being in class half the day reduces student exposure by half. Being in class two out of five days reduces it by 60%.

 

However, let’s be real.

 

Any in-person instruction during a global pandemic incurs some risk. And that risk is far from negligible.

 

Moreover, the amount of risk is greater for adults than it is for children – both because adults would experience much higher exposure under such systems and because COVID-19 seems to affect adults more severely than children.

 

The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.

 

Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.

 

There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.

 

In short, mask-to-mask learning will not be as productive as face-to-face learning. We are in uncharted territory. It is entirely up in the air whether the necessary safety precautions of in-person learning – even during a hybrid model – will be better or worse than distance learning.

 

So the hybrid model tries to balance the unproven and questionable promise of increased academics against the threat of increased danger of disease.

 

How much danger? Well that depends to a large degree on where you live and the rate of infection present there.

 
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.

 

When schools closed in Allegheny County last academic year, a handful of people got sick each day, a hundred or more a week. For instance, 23 new COVID-19 cases were reported on March 19, and 133 for the week.

 

Now there are hundreds of new cases in the county every day and a thousand a week – 198 on July 24, alone, and 1,363 for the week.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 11.34.44 AM
Source: PA Department of Health

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 11.34.56 AM
Source: PA Department of Health

 

That is not an insignificant risk. We have an infection rate of nearly 10%. We have some of the highest numbers in the state.

 

I don’t know how anyone can look at those numbers and conclude anything except that the risk of infection is GREATER today than it was when we took more precautions against it.

 

Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.

 

Not a single state has met guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in May.

 

Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”

 

No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.

 

Nor does any reopening plan that I have seen – including McKeesport’s and Steel Valley’s – follow the 69-page CDC guidelines published by The New York Times earlier this month, marked “For Internal Use Only,” which was intended for federal public health response teams as they are deployed to hot spots around the country.

 

That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.

 
The issue gets complicated though because this month the CDC bowed to pressure from the Trump administration and publicly softened its tone about reopening.

 
However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.

 
If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.

 

Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.

 

So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?

 

It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.

 

Unfortunately, the consequences of getting COVID-19 are much more severe. So far the Coronavirus has shown itself to be 52 times as deadly as the flu.

 

Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.

 

During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.

 

And keep in mind there is a vaccine for the flu. There is nothing as yet that fights COVID-19.

 

Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.

 

However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.

 

A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.

 

“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.

 

Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.

 

“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.

 

Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.

 

She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”

 

However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!

 
Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?

 
And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.

 
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.

 
According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.

 

The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.

 

And let’s not forget the racial component.

 

Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.

 

According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.

 

Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 1.24.46 PM
SOURCE: the CDC

 

In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.

 

So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.

 

A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.

 

Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.

 

From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.

 

In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.

 

In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.

 

Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.

 

As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


 

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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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!

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Waiting For a Teaching Assignment This Year is Like Anticipating a Death Sentence

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Going to the mailbox each time, my heart flutters.

 

I open the lid and see a stack of letters. My heart sinks.

 

Is today the day?

 

Has my teaching assignment finally arrived?

 

It’s not that I’m so anxious to find out what grade I’ll be teaching this year or whether I have lunch duty or have to monitor in-school suspension.

 

It’s whether I get to live or die.

 

And that’s no hyperbole.

 

As the summer whittles down, my district has yet to release its reopening plan. Meanwhile, no communication from administrators or school directors, no public meetings, nothing.

 

Meanwhile surrounding districts release plans that go against Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines in the name of expediency, politicians use the issue to demonize teachers and rally their base, and our unions pretend the only problem is a lack of funding.

 

The Sword of Damocles dangles over my head and the rope that keeps it in place looks more frayed with every pendulum swing.

 

For a person like me with at least two pre-existing conditions, an assignment in the school building during a global pandemic could be a death sentence.

 

Teaching has taken a huge toll on my body. I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. Not to mention that I’m certainly not getting any younger.

 

That’s at least twice the average risk of getting COVID-19 if my employer decides to assign me back in the building.

 

And it’s something my doctors made a point of mentioning.

 

From the middle of June to the middle of August, teachers like me try to take care of all our personal needs before the hectic classroom schedule begins.

 

That means renewing clearances, financial planning, medical visits, etc.

 

So when I went to a routine cardiologist appointment, I was somewhat taken aback as the doctor told me, “Remember, you can’t get sick.”

 

“I’m sorry? What?” I said.

 

He had just given me a clean bill of health.

 

“Remember, you can’t get sick. You simply cannot afford it,” he said.

 

Then he went on to complain about living in a country that put economics before science.

 

I heard much the same from my gastroenterologist.

 

They were both furious at how the pandemic is being handled but had no more advice on how I could protect myself.

 

“If they want you to go back to work, what else can you do?” one asked me.

 

Refuse?” I said.

 

I still don’t have a better answer.

 

It’s incredibly unfair that decision makers may force me to choose between my job and my life.

 

I love my job.

 

Teaching has been one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Every day I get to help kids become the people they want to be. I get to introduce them to a world of reading where voices long past get to speak to each of them individually. I get to show them how to participate in a conversation that’s been raging for millennia.

 

It’s challenging and exhausting and difficult, but I know I’m making a difference.

 

I love every minute of it.

 

But I love breathing more.

 

I don’t want to be buried under a respirator as my lungs slowly fill with fluid.

 

I don’t want to die gasping for breath.

 

Not if I don’t have to.

 

“You might want to update your will,” a friend told me with a grin when I mentioned this to him.

 

But there’s really nothing to smile about here.

 

I feel like I’m about to be thrown to the wolves.

 

After 17 years in the classroom, years of helping kids learn how to read and write, years of listening to their needs and worries, years of helping them overcome their anxieties and fears, years of advice, counsel and friendship – is this all I’m worth to the community?

 

I chaperoned field trips with school directors and their children, I’ve taught board members kids and sat across from the adults at parent-teacher meetings regaling them with tales of mischief and academic triumphs. Will they now callously decide that I need to put my life at risk or else step down?

 

How many times did I joke and laugh with administrators, how many times did I try my best to do what they asked, how many times did I go above and beyond – and now have they no qualms about making my wife a widow and forcing my daughter to navigate the rest of her childhood without her daddy?

 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

A sane society wouldn’t reopen school buildings when Coronavirus cases are spiking. A rational country wouldn’t politicize safety precautions, undermine scientists and disparage facts. It would pay people to stay home, suspend rent payments, provide everyone with personal protective equipment (PPE) and universal healthcare.

 

And it’s not too late.

 

By the end of August, we can continue the distance learning initiatives we began in the spring.

 

To be honest, there were a truckload of problems in April and May. But at least we know what they are and can do better a second time around.

We can make sure all students have access to computers, devices and the Internet. We can make expectations clear and achievable and increase project based assignments. We can habituate participation, increase interactivity and offer multiple chances to do the work.

 

I’m not saying it would be perfect. On-line learning will never be as effective as in-person learning.

 

But any education attempted under the shadow of a pandemic will be less productive than under normal circumstances.

 

Even if we dispense with masks and social distancing in the classroom – which would be incredibly risky for all involved – children would be on edge, traumatized and frightened.

 

Distance learning is the safest way to go. Any academic shortfalls could be made up in subsequent years. But you have to survive first.

 

My life would certainly be at risk in the physical classroom. But so would every other staff member, children’s families and even the students, themselves.

 

The same people advocating for a full reopen of schools like to cite studies showing young people are immune or mostly asymptomatic. But kids were the first group to be quarantined.

 

As we have opened summer camps and daycare centers, an increasing number of children – especially those 10-19 – have gotten sick. And even the younger ones have been known to bring the virus home to their parents.

 

If my life has no value to you, what about your own? What about your child’s life?

 

Being a teacher kind of commits you to a sort of optimism.

 

To dedicate your life to young people, you have to believe the future can be better than the present and the past.

 

I let out a deep breath and went through the letters in my mailbox.

 

My assignment wasn’t there.

 

It may arrive tomorrow or the day after.

 

The uncertainty is hard, but it’s better than some certainties. I still have every hope that my community will not sacrifice my life.

 

But if it does, I will not go quietly.

 

I can’t be here for your kids, if I’m not here.


 

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Pittsburgh Charter Schools Take Federal Bailout Money Meant for Small Businesses

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Are charter schools small businesses or public schools?

 

They can’t be both.

 

Several Pittsburgh area charter schools took a bailout meant for small businesses after already getting monetary relief meant for public schools.

 

Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, Hill House Passport Academy Charter School, Manchester Academic Charter School and Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship all applied for and received substantial low-interest loans from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

 

The $660 billion federal initiative was intended to help businesses keep employees on the payroll and off unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The loans will be forgiven if businesses meet certain conditions such as retaining or rehiring employees.

 

However, charter schools – including those in the Pittsburgh region – already should have received financial relief through the federal CARES Act.

 

Pennsylvania got $523 million to distribute to both authentic public schools and charters. However, of the two, only charters were eligible for additional PPP funds.

 

So these ‘Burgh charters are double dipping. They’re receiving aid from two different federal sources while authentic public schools only can get aid from one.

 

The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park got a $2 million – $5 million cash infusion from PPP.

 

The Environmental Charter calls itself a nonprofit organization but there are many reasons to be dubious.

 

First, nonprofits usually are dedicated to furthering some social cause like helping the poor and minorities.

 

However, The Environmental Charter actually caters to upper socioeconomic and white students.

 

It serves wealthier children than surrounding schools. Just one-third of Environmental Charter students are eligible for free or reduced lunches compared to 71% at Pittsburgh Public schools.

 

Moreover, only 30% of the charter’s students are minorities. Pittsburgh Public serves a student body of which nearly half are African American.

 

Next, there’s the issue of who runs the institution.

 

All charter schools in the Commonwealth have to be designated as nonprofits. However, many like the Environmental Charter School hire for-profit companies to actually operate their day-to-day functions and make almost all of their major administrative decisions.

 

The Environmental Charter is run by Virginia-based Imagine Schools, one of the nation’s largest charter-management companies with more than 71 charters nationwide.

 

Since Imagine writes the Environmental Charter’s operating budget, the management company ends up paying itself for a number of services.

 

After the school gets funding from state, federal and community taxes (this year including bailouts from PPP and the CARES act), it pays 12 percent back to Imagine. This came to $406,000 in 2009, according to an independent financial audit.

 

The school also pays Imagine on a $250,000 loan that the charter operating company took out to launch the program. Payments come out to about $2,500 per month over 20 years with an interest rate of 10.524 percent.

 

The charter also pays Imagine rent on its building which was purchased in 2006 by Schoolhouse Finance – Imagine’s real estate arm – for $3 million.

 

The lease costs $526,000 annually and is binding until 2032 unless the school loses its charter.

 

Given such facts, it’s hard to imagine why we’ve allowed our tax dollars to prop up a business venture that could certainly afford to reduce its profit margins rather than rely on public support.

 
Hill House Passport Academy Charter School got a $150,000 – $350,000 bailout from PPP.

 

Unlike the Environmental Charter, Hill House does actually cater to low income and minority children. In fact, it was founded to help Pittsburgh students who are failing in another district and in danger of dropping out unless they receive some kind of academic intervention.

 

However, the results haven’t been stellar. Where the Environmental Charter was too white, Hill House serves almost exclusively black students. It is exponentially more segregated than neighboring authentic public schools (96% minority) and its students still have extremely poor academic performance.

 

The question remains whether these results are better than they would be at an authentic public school. Does the charter provide any value for these students or is it just a holding area?

 

Like the Environmental Charter, this so-called nonprofit hires a management company. In this case, it’s the infamous K12 Incorporated – a nationwide cyber charter network with a record of academic failure and financial shenanigans.

 

In 2016, the company reached a $168.5 million settlement with the state of California. The state claimed K12 had reported incorrect student attendance records and otherwise lied about its academic programs. The company ended up settling with the state for $2.5 million with an additional $6 million to cover the state’s investigation and K12 voided $160 million in credits it had given to the affiliated schools to cover the cost of their contracts.

 

Hill House offers a blended model with in-person teachers and virtual classes somewhat different than most K12 schools.

 

However, why the state should bailout such a dubious endeavor is beyond me.

 

Manchester Academic Charter School got a $350,000 – $1 million loan from PPP.

 

It is one of the oldest charter schools in the city, having started as a tutoring program in 1968 and becoming a full fledged charter school in 1998.

 

However, like Hill House, it is infamous for racial segregation and low academic performance. Approximately 99% of students are minorities.

 

In 2016-17,only 12% of the school’s students were proficient in math (state average is 46%) and 37% were proficient in language arts (state average is 63%).

 

Where Manchester fails at academics, it excels at administrative salaries. The school’s administrators take home beaucoup bucks while being responsible for fewer students than those at authentic public schools.

 

For example, Vasilios Scoumis, Manchester CEO for more than two decades, is given a $146,000 salary not counting a potential $15,000 yearly bonus though he is only responsible for 340 students.

 

Compare that with Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet. He earns a $210,000 salary for managing a district of about 24,000 students.

 

But such high salaries for relatively little work aren’t only a hallmark at Manchester.
Environmental Charter School CEO John McCann earned $120,000 with a school enrollment of 630 students.

 

Nice work if you can get it!

 

Speaking of which, Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship got $350,000 – $1 million from PPP.

 

This is another so-called non-profit school run by the Imagine Schools company. It is highly segregated with 82% minority children.

 

Only 32% of students are proficient in math and 57% in reading – again below state averages.

 

The school suffered a scandal in 2015 when the state Charter Review Board overruled Penn Hills School Directors decision to deny allowing the charter to expand into a second building.

 

But given that the Charter Review Board is made up of six members – charter school advocates chosen by former Republican Governor Tom Corbett – any pretense to impartiality is laughable.

 

Penn Hills School Board – a duly elected body, not government appointees – outlined criticisms of the charter that do not put the entrepreneurial venture in a positive light.

 

Penn Hills School Board said the charter had failed to produce current student rosters, failed in record management, failed to accurately maintain student tuition payments, improperly billed the school district for special education students, failed to maintain and develop Individual Education Plans (IEPs), had poor academic growth and is under a Department of Education Corrective Action Plan setting forth 31 areas of needed improvement.

 
Directors were also leery of the venture because the charter planned to use half of the new building for students and to lease the remainder as office space.

 

Finally, the charter school sucks away necessary funding from the authentic public school. The Penn Hills School District paid Imagine about $3 million in 2014-15. Costs increased to $12 million a year and continue to rise.

 

So one wonders why we’re throwing more money at these charter schools.

 

Nina Rees, executive director of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) has spoken out of both sides of her mouth on the issue. She has insisted that charter schools be regarded as public schools and eligible for emergency aid – all the while advising charter schools also to apply for federal rescue funds for small businesses devastated by the pandemic.

 

Carol Burris, Executive Director of the Network for Public Education, did not mince words.

 

“Once again, the charter sector, through the lobbying efforts of Nina Rees…worked behind the scenes to gain fiscal advantage for the privately operated schools they claim are public schools.”

 

Education historian Diane Ravitch agreed.

 

“Charters claim to be ‘public schools’ when that’s where the money is,” she said. “But when the money is available for small businesses, they claim to be small businesses.”

 

Charters go where the money is.

 

We get the privilege of paying the tab.

 

If it were up to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, we wouldn’t even know about it.

 

Mnuchin only released the information to the public after 11 news organizations sued the Small Business Administration .

 

Even now, not all of it is available.

 

Moreover, the deadline to apply for a PPP loan has been extended to Aug. 8.

 

So if you haven’t seen some of the most infamous neighborhood charter schools taking advantage of the program, it may only be a matter of time.

 

ProPublica has put all the information into an easy to use search engine. Just enter a zip code and it will display all the businesses located there that received PPP loans.

 

This includes high tuition private prep schools like Sewickley Academy and Shady Side Academy both of which got $2 – $5 million, Winchester Thurston School which got $1 million – $2 million, and the charter schools listed above.

 

You can check it out here: https://projects.propublica.org/coronavirus/bailouts/


 

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Mask-to-Mask Instruction May Be More Problematic Than Distance Learning

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People talk about the upcoming school year as if we have a choice between in-person classes or distance learning.

 

We don’t.

 

The fact is there will be NO face-to-face learning this year.

 

Neither in our school buildings or on-line.

 

No matter which path we choose, we will be teaching behind a mask or behind a computer screen.

 

There is no middle ground here – nor should there be.

 

Even if schools try to execute some hybrid model where kids only attend classes in-person two or three days a week and go on-line for the remainder of the time, when they are in the school building everyone will be wearing masks.

 

And that’s as it should be.

 

When in a public place during a global pandemic like that of COVID-19, we need to wear face masks to reduce the spread of the disease.

 

But let’s not pretend this has no side effects.

 

Social distancing, limited mobility, plexiglass barriers, cleanliness protocols – all will have an impact on academics.

 

So if we reopen physical school buildings, we will not be returning to the kind of face-to-face instruction students enjoyed as recently as January and February.

 

It will be a completely new dynamic that may present as many difficulties – if not maybe more – than learning on-line.

 

That’s something people would do well to understand before deciding which course is best.

 

Mask-to-mask learning will not be face-to-face learning.

 

Social distancing may rob the physical classroom of almost all of its benefits over distance learning.

 

Again, I’m not suggesting we do without PPE or safety measures. But let’s be honest about how these measures will alter academics.

 
First, let’s look at masks.

 

Admit it. It is hard to be heard in a mask.

 

Imagine trying to get a message across to a classroom of middle school children with a piece of fabric hiding half of your face, obscuring your expressions and garbling your words.

 

I’m not saying it’s insurmountable, but it’s not indistinguishable from classroom teaching at the beginning of last school year, either.

 

It generates distance, just as it’s supposed to do. But teaching requires connection, understanding and relationship building.

 

Many of my students come into my class with trust issues. They’ve been let down by adults and authority figures. They aren’t about to put in their best work for just anyone. They have to know the teacher can be trusted and cares about them as individual people.

 

How are you supposed to generate trust when students can only see your eyes?

 

Moreover, masks are a permanent symbol of the danger we’re all in just being together. Every time we look at each other we’ll be reminded of risk, threat and our own vulnerability.

 

These do not make for good teaching. On Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of 
Needs, only physiological necessities like food and water take precedence. Without a sense of safety, it is difficult to impossible for students to achieve their full potentials.

 

Unfortunately, facial coverings aren’t the only problem. Consider physical proximity.

 

As a teacher, I rarely sit when students are in the room.

 

During a 40 minute class, I probably lap the space as many times going from desk to desk observing students progress, answering questions, reading work, making suggestions, etc. This will be much more difficult with the threat of Coronavirus in the room.

 

How can I closely observe my students from a minimum of 6 feet away?

 

I would suspect this will be even more profound with kids with special needs. Just because they’re in the classroom with the teacher does not mean the teacher will be able to serve them as well as under normal circumstances. This is bound to lead to increased frustration and acting out.

 

The most common diagnosis my middle school students have is ADHD. The most common adaptation I’m told to make to help them overcome this is to repeatedly prompt them back on task. And you don’t want to do this in a way that will draw attention to the issue. I often walk up to students and ask questions privately, or point to something on their papers.

 

This will not be easy when trying to avoid their physical space. Any verbal queues would be loud enough to be heard by the rest of the class.

 
Nor does this allow for students to work together on group projects. They can’t push their desks together and work on assignments cooperatively in the physical classroom. In fact, in the time of COVID, these kinds of projects may actually be better served on-line.

 

Finally, imagine the difficulty of getting children to comply with social distancing mandates.

 

If we can’t get adults to wear masks, how can we expect to get their kids to do it?

 

Moreover, children are mischievous. Some may try to purposefully cough on their classmates just to get a reaction. Others could intentionally take off their masks to annoy classmates. As every teacher knows, some kids will do anything for attention. Even negative attention.

 

In-person teaching could easily degenerate into a game of trying to get kids to obey the rules with little to no actual instruction going on.

 

Are administrators and school boards really prepared to suspend students for endangering their classmates? Are parents willing to accept such punishments?

 

And let’s not forget the elephant in the room.

 

What do we do when safety measures fail?

 

When a student gets sick, do we quarantine for two weeks all the other students who came into contact with him? When a teacher gets sick, who teaches her classes while she is in isolation? And do we keep her students home, too?

 

Before we can reopen schools to in-person instruction, there are a host of problems we have to solve.

 

We have to figure out how to get kids to and from school without crowding them together on buses. We have to arrange classes and move students safely from point A to point B within the building. We have to figure out how to safely feed them – since no one can wear a mask while they eat. We have to figure out how to adequately ventilate buildings that were in need of repair for decades prior to the crisis.

 

One has to wonder – is it worth it?

 

With so many challenges involved with reopening school buildings, might it not be better to just continue distance learning initiatives?

 

As we’ve seen, the push for in-person schooling isn’t justified by academic concerns.

 

Though under normal circumstances face-to-face learning is worlds better than on-line learning, that is not what we’ll be doing if we reopen schools this year.

 

In truth, the pressure to reopen schools during this crisis comes more from political and economic considerations than pedagogical ones.

 

Lawmakers and policymakers don’t want to put forward the funding necessary to reduce the risks. Teachers fear they’ll be laid off if they speak out against unsafe working conditions. Parents fear they won’t be able to return to their own jobs if they have to stay home to take care of their children.

 

These issues can all be solved by good government. Our lawmakers need to follow the lead of nearly every other country that has lowered infection rates. We need federal relief checks so people can pay their bills without having to risk their lives working through a pandemic. We need personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare so that we can weather the storm.

 

It is not the job of schools and teachers to fix these problems. We can’t. We can only further enable bad leadership.

 

But putting aside political and economic issues, there is an obvious best course of action.

 

Under these circumstances, continuing distance learning is the best choice from the standpoint of both safety AND academics.

 

In any other year, having a teacher physically present in the classroom with a cohort of students is worlds better than Brady Bunch style ZOOM meetings or assignments posted on-line.

 

But this isn’t any other year. It’s 2020 and Coronavirus cases have topped 3 million in the United States. There were nearly 60,000 new cases just yesterday.

 

You don’t close schools when there are only thousands of cases and then reopen them when there are millions.

 

One thing to recommend on-line learning at the present time is that we know it can be done. We already tried it last school year. There were certainly major problems but we have a good idea what they are and can make changes to at least attempt to solve them.

 

We can do a better job ensuring all students have access to computers, devices and the Internet. We can make expectations clear and achievable and increase project based assignments. We can habituate participation, increase interactivity and offer multiple chances to do the work.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Distance learning will never be as effective as face-to-face instruction.

 

But we will not have face-to-face instruction this year. It will be mask-to-mask or screen-to-screen.

 

That cannot be emphasized enough.

 

None of the possible solutions does a perfect job overcoming the problems.

 

There are not enough adequate virus screenings to tell who has the disease. Nor can we screen those who have it and keep them quarantined from the rest. Nor do we have adequate PPE to reduce infection. Nor does any vaccine appear to be forthcoming.

 

With the exception of the last point, many other developed countries have done much better with these things and so are in a better position to reopen schools.

 

But we have to face facts. The United States is not in the same position. In fact, we’ve made wearing a mask a political statement instead of what it is – a public health concern.

 

Until we solve these issues, there will be no perfect solution for schools. We just have to choose the best of several imperfect options.

 

In my opinion, the only way forward is distance learning.

 

To do otherwise is like trying to figure out how to live in a burning building instead of putting out the fire.

 

The only sane option is to get to a relatively safe place first.

 

I hope we can do that for our children, families and communities.

 

I hope that the death cult of capitalism doesn’t require teachers to jump on the pyre of economic growth.

 

We all deserve better.


 

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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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!

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