I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

Therein lies the back to school nightmare I’ve been living through for most of the summer and fall.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

Folks like me with pre-existing conditions are at greater risk from the virus than others.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.

So what am I to do?

The western Pennsylvania district where I work, Steel Valley, is reopening next week with a hybrid model.

The United States recorded more than 98,000 coronavirus cases yesterday – the highest single day count since the pandemic began. Two dozen states – including Pennsylvania – are reporting their worst weeks for new cases — and none are recording improvements.

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

The district originally opened in September with virtual instruction for all students, and it was a huge success.

I taught my classes online, we’ve bonded and made academic gains I wouldn’t have believed possible with this model just a year ago.

However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.

Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.

The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.

School directors said that this schedule was just a test to see if in-person instruction was feasible. They plan to reevaluate the measure in three weeks and decide whether to fully reopen in December or go back to virtual instruction for all students.

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

Being in the school building, being in the classroom in close proximity with tens of middle school students – especially during a time when COVID cases are surging throughout the county – puts my life in danger.

So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.

I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.

In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.

Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.

Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.

If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

…I’LL STILL BE PAID WHEN I’M ON LEAVE.

It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.

So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.

In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.

So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.

But no. He said he knew all about it.

He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.

I couldn’t believe it.

I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.

I got the same answer.

So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.

Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.

So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.

I’ve already built a rapport with them. I know what their academic deficiencies are and what they missed as we went to remote learning in March when Coronavirus cases were much fewer than they are now.

But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.

I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.

And that’s what I’d really like to do.

I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.

Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.

I’m a heck of a teacher! I’m Nationally Board Certified. I was nominated for the Champions of Learning Award from the Consortium for Public Education in 2018. I won the Ken Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award last year. In fact, the University of Arizona was going to fly me out to Tucson to accept the award but had to cancel due to the pandemic.

I gave a TED talk on education at Central Connecticut University in 2018. I wrote a book called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” in 2017 and have written a nationally recognized blog since 2014.

Wouldn’t everyone be better served with me instructing my students rather than being thrown to the side?

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

I have people who care about me and whom I care about.

I have a wife and daughter.

I can’t roll the dice with my life or chance taking an infection home to my loved ones.

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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McKeesport Superintendent: Keeping District Open During COVID Outbreak is Following Recommendation of County Health Department


 
 


McKeesport Area School District (MASD) has been rocked with nine positive cases of COVID-19 in a little more than a week.  


 
According to guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Education, affected schools should be closed for somewhere between 5 days and two weeks.  


 
Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman says the district ignored these guidelines on the recommendation of the Allegheny County Health Department. 


 
“The County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in [the] County,” Holtzman said at last night’s school board open agenda meeting


 
“So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools.” 


 
The response was in answer to citizens comments.  


 
Greg Kristen and I went to the board meeting hoping to get answers – and we did.  

Kristen and I are district fathers, old friends and former journalists from the McKeesport Daily News before the paper closed.


 
“Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the County Health Department,” Holtzman said. 


 
 “They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.” 


 
On Monday, Baldwin-Whitehall school board voted to close three elementary schools for the rest of the week due to a substitute teacher who tested positive and worked in all the buildings. 
 


 
If Holtzman is correct, this decision was made against the recommendation of the county health department.  


 
 
On the same day, the Hempfield Area School District announced its high school would close until Oct. 26 after 12 students tested positive for COVID-19 over the past eight days. 


 
 
Holtzman said the district in nearby Westmoreland County has no county health department to advise it on whether to open or close. 


 
 
School Director Mindy Lundberg Sturgess said she was uncomfortable with the McKeesport district ignoring CDC guidelines.  


 
“I just want the parents and the staff to know that I personally am concerned about your health and safety,” she said. 


 
“I know I would not feel comfortable.” 


 
Sturgess is a teacher at nearby Pittsburgh Public Schools where students have been on 100% remote instruction since the beginning of the year. She was one of two McKeesport board members – along with Jim Brown – who voted against MASD reopening its buildings to students in September. The motion passed without them. 


 
“I am in a large public school system… I am hearing and seeing two different approaches. I am very appreciative of what the board’s efforts in Pittsburgh have been to keep us safe and keep our students safe. I just want to be an advocate that we are doing everything we can even if it’s erring on the side of caution.” 


 
District Solicitor Gary Matta was concerned about the issue as well.

 
 
“We’re getting some mixed signals between the state and the county,” he said. 


 
“The state is directing us to deal with the county health department if we have one.”  


 
He suggested the district get recommendations in writing from the county health department before following any of its advice. 


 
In addition to questions about whether it was safe to keep district buildings open during a COVID-19 outbreak, Holtzman addressed district transparency. 


 
 
I asked him to compile a dashboard on the district Website with the following information: 


“1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began? 
 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  
 
3) How many are located at each school building?  
 
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned.” 


 
He could not give me all I asked for at the meeting.  


 
Holtzman said that 10 people have tested positive in the district since school opened – 9 of them recently. He said there have been cases at all four buildings – the high school, Founders Hall, Twin Rivers and Francis McClure elementary schools.  


 
He was able to break down 8 of the 10 cases. 


He said:  
 
 
“In the last 7 days…. We’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one maintenance/support employee.” 


 
Holtzman admitted that having a dashboard on the district Website was a good idea but fell short of committing to providing that ongoing data. 


 
“A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion,” he said. 


 
“It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret – it’s a challenging situation…  A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’s something we’re going to take into consideration.”


 
Kristen brought up the issues of contact tracing and increasing class sizes at Twin Rivers that may make it difficult for students to engage in social distancing. 


 
“Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov. 2,” he said. 


 
“They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.” 
 
 
Holtzman said some students whose parents had chosen remote learning had decided to return them to the physical classroom at the start of the new grading period. However, others had decided to remove their children from the physical buildings and put them on remote. 


 
 
“We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.” 


 
About a third of district students have been doing remote lessons since the year began.  


 
Kristen said his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be within 3 feet.  


 
Holtzman disputed this: 


 
 “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best.” 


 
Kristen asked about contact tracing at Twin Rivers where teachers had tested positive. 


 
He wanted to know if students had been tested, and Holtzman responded that they had not. 


 
“Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number.” He said. 


 
“At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed… 


 
 “When we do interviewing – when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing – we ask them, ‘Where you in somebody’s personal space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. So-and-So, then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.”  


 
He admitted that the effectiveness of this process depends on how honest and detailed those testing positive are when listing the people they have come into contact with while contagious. 


 
Below is a transcript of our public comments and Dr. Holtzman’s responses: 



 
 
Kristen:  


 
“Dear school board members. Thank you for letting me speak here tonight.  As a resident of this district for 15 years, as well as having a daughter a Twin Rivers Elementary School, I am deeply, deeply concerned with the lack of transparency about the Coronavirus infections. As of today, MASD has 9 positive cases… We have a right to know [who they are] not their names but their positions. According to CDC guidelines if there are two cases within a school, it is to be shut down for 5-7 days. For 5 or more cases, the building should be shut down for up to 14 days. Why is that not happening? Is the health and safety of the students, teachers, administrators, staff and maintenance not important to you? When positive cases happen in the building, who was in charge for contract tracing and notifying the Allegheny County Health Department? If they did not notify the health department, are they being held accountable? And I mean terminated. Were the parents of the students notified of the teachers and staff who were affected in the schools? Were the students tested? Is there any contract tracing with them? Also why is there not a healthcare professional a part of the Coronavirus task force?  


 
Two days ago, my daughter told me she was getting six more kids in her class starting Nov.2.  They would be sharing desks. How is that possible during a pandemic? We’re just getting a spike in cases here and now we’re going to add more students to the schools in the classrooms? How is that safe? According to the guidelines, kids have to be AT LEAST 6 feet apart. That will not happen with more students.  


 
This Coronavirus is not a hoax. People are dying every day. As of today, 222,000 people have died, and people like myself who have an underlying health condition are concerned about people transferring the virus to me or to someone close to me. In this county alone there 14,396 cases and 416 deaths.  On Oct 14 which was just a week ago Rachel Levine, the state health secretary announced a second wave of Coronavirus has arrived here. Now that the flu season has arrived, what is MASD doing? Does a student, teacher, administrator, staff or maintenance person have to die for someone to take this serious? Thank you very much.” 


 
 
 Dr. Mark Holtzman: 


 
“Mr. Kristen, I’m happy to address a couple of your concerns. A few things.

 
 
We’ve had 8 positive tests in the last 7 days. So that is correct. The CDC guidelines are recommendations by the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Education and state health department. (muffled) The Alleghney County Health Department is the local governmental agency responsible for the school districts in Allegheny County. So their determination of what next steps to take is their primary responsibility. So at this particular time, they have recommended to us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated. So they’re currently working on new guidelines to direct schools. I will ensure to tell you positively I have spoke to the Alleghney County Health Department probably just this week once a day. The head epidemeologisr Dr. Luann Brink and the director of the health department Dr. [Debra] Bogen and I have conference calls with her every Tuesday at 2 o’clock. Those decisions that are being made by the McKeesport Area School District are recommendations by the Allegheny County Health Department. They’re not our recommendations. They’re not anyone’s recommendations in this room. Now our school board does have the determination if they so choose to not follow those recommendations and close the McKeesport Area School District. Up until today at this particular time we’re not aware of any school district in Allegheny County being recommended to close no matter how many cases that are involved.  


 
The concerns are the issues with Allegheny County Health Department are the rate of positivity here in the city of McKeesport and the surrounding communities. That’s number 1. Transmission is a huge piece of it. Is it being transmitted in the schools? Is it being brought into the schools from the outside? Contract tracing does occur on each and every case. All that information is submitted to the Allegheny County Health Department with details, time stamped, dates, everything we could possibly provide to those individuals. Fortunately or unfortunately we have to rely on that individual. For example, if you’re an employee that tests positive for COVID, we have to interview you. The information that you share with us, we have to then share with the Allegheny County Health Department. Whether you’re honest, dishonest , whether you’re detailed, whether you forgot someone, you didn’t include anyone as part of your contact tracing, that becomes your prerogative. We as a district just have to report that information to the health department and they make a final determination.  


 
So at this particular time unfortunately we’re at the bottom of the document that’s been referenced many, many times, it states that when an entire school is recommended to be closed, closure time will vary depending on level of community transmission, and number of cases. Right now the McKeesport Area’s percentage is a little over 5% but it’s trending up as far as the rate of positivity. So people are concerned with watching that number. ‘This allows public health staff the necessary time to complete case investigation and contact tracing and to provide schools with other appropriate public health advice like cleaning and disinfecting.’ At this particular time, the Allegheny County Health Department is very satisfied with the contract tracing efforts they’ve made around our current cases. There is no longer any backlog, and there are none waiting to be addressed.  
 


So at this particular time, I know there is frustration, I know there’s contradictory information out there, but we are working closely with the health department and they have done an outstanding job guiding us and every school district has a tough decision to make. So I appreciate you expressing your concerns this afternoon, this evening, later than it should be we appreciate it and if there’s anything we can do moving forward, we’d be happy to help.” 
 


[Holtzamn said three teachers tested positive at Twin rivers Elementary. All students in those classes were not tested. Each student Is placed 6 feet apart.  A close contact has to be within 6 feet for 15 consecutive minutes.] 


 
Holtzman: “When we do interviewing, when Allegheny County Health Department does interviewing, we ask them ‘[Where you in somebody’s person space 6 feet apart for more than 15 minutes during your school day?’ If the answer is yes, Johnny, Susie, Mrs. so-and-so then that information is provided to the health department and they’re asked to quarantine. If in fact that teacher says ‘I wear a mask every single day, all day, and I’ve never been in anybody’s personal space within 6 feet for 15 minutes consecutively, then the contact tracing ends at that point.  


 
Now we could absorb those things. As Superintendent I’m in the schools daily, and I’m able to see some of the teachers and [their actions]. The students are already placed 6 feet apart, so therefore they are already socially distanced. We will have students return to the classroom after the first 9-weeks. That’s inevitable. The numbers that we anticipate returning, we’re able to accommodate based on the space in those rooms. We do have some relatively low numbers – like less than 10 – in those classrooms.  


 
[Kristen says his daughter told him the new students added to her class would put the kids closer than 6 feet. Her teacher said they would be 3 feet.] 
 


Holtzman: “That’s a little difficult to determine. From the center of the child to the center of the child, there must be 6 feet. Six feet is a recommendation. Right? Just like the masking order and the gathering order is a mandate. So recommendations to space kids 6 feet apart is truly what it is – a recommendation. So we’re doing our very best and will hold all those expectations considering the fact that we have to educate the children that are interested in returning to school. We can’t just turn them away…. As many kids that are coming in, many are leaving for online learning for many reasons.” 


 
MY COMMENTS: 


 
“Thank you for letting me address the board this evening.  


 
As a lifelong resident and the father of a child who attends the district, I am alarmed by news about an outbreak of COVID-19 at our school buildings, a lack of transparency about that information and a lack of proper safety response to the outbreak.  


 
First, when I am finished with my comments, I ask that you clarify for me some facts about the outbreak.  


 
1) How many people have tested positive in total since the school year began? 


 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  


 
3) How many are located at each school building?  


 
4) And please give us a timeline of when each positive test result was returned. 


 
 
That information should be constantly available on the district Website throughout the pandemic. It should not just be on alerts that come and go, robocalls or emails. 


 
Every taxpayer has the right to that information – which is easy to compile – and necessary so parents and community members can make smart decisions about how to keep ourselves and our families safe in the McKeesport Area.  


 
 
Next, I am concerned about the district’s blasé response to these life threatening conditions.  


 
According to the state Department of Education Website, in a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days. 


 
Haven’t we met this threshold?  


 
According to your recent alerts, at least 9 people have tested positive in the district in the last week – 3 students and 6 teachers. And this is spread throughout all district buildings.  
 


There is no way to divide that up without at least one of our four buildings in the danger zone. 


 
Doesn’t that mean that at least at some buildings – probably Twin Rivers, Francis McClure and/or the the High School – we have met this benchmark? Don’t each of those schools have two or more cases?  


 
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?  


 
Moreover, according to the PDE Website, if there are multiple cases at multiple schools where the infected are not household contacts, the schools are supposed to be closed not just for 5-7 days but a full two weeks.  


 
Have we met that threshold? And if so, why are the buildings not closed? 


 
I do not understand what precautions you are taking to keep students and staff safe.  


 
I understand that PDE defines “Close Contact” as being within 6 feet for at least 15 consecutive minutes of a person who has tested positive. However, the Website cautions that this should not be taken as the ONLY definition of such contact: “In some school situations, it might be difficult to determine whether individuals are contacts or whether an entire cohort, classroom, or other group (extracurricular activity members) might need to be considered exposed, particularly if people have spent time together indoors.” 


 
You say these cases have all been contained. But you have done very little to assure the public of this and could be taking much greater precautions on our behalf.  


 
We’re talking about children here. We’re talking about our staff – people who have served generations of families and who often have families of their own.  


 
Can’t you do better for the people in this district?  
 


I would suggest that you at least follow PDE recommendations in the effected buildings.  


 
Furthermore, I think you should cancel all in-person classes and go to a fully remote education plan until the infection rate in the county and the community is designated as low.   


 
Have the classroom teachers make the online curriculum and let students and families choose whether they wish to go through that curriculum synchronously or asynchronously. And do not outsource the virtual program to ed tech companies looking to cash in on their credit recovery programs – as you are currently doing with Edmentum.  


 
Going to a fully virtual plan would be in the best interests of students, families and the community.  


 
Please do your duty.” 


 
 
Holtzman: 


 
“Mr. Singer, Thank you. I appreciate you spending some time with us again today. I don’t know, Dr. (muffled) do you have the numbers he’s requesting off hand? I only have the last seven days in front of me. If not, I’ll make sure you get them. 


 
Voice: I don’t have them with me. 


 
Holtzman: Prior to this situation we’ve had very few so… the difference between staff and students, we currently have in the last 7 days… we’ve had 5 adults and 3 students. From Wednesday to Wednesday. Two employees (teachers) from Francis McClure, one teacher at Twin Rivers, 1 support staff at Founders Hall, 3 high school students, and one mainatance/support employee. Furthermore, I feel that we’ll agree to disagree that instruction in person is the priority for engaging children. Our students have received progress reports. You as an educator I’m sure are quite aware that the online learning platform is not engaging all children. Many children are struggling and failing courses, here ate McKeesport and all over the Commonwealth. I think it’s a big issue for all school leadership trying to find new creative ways to engage children whether it’s synchronous or asynchronous. So for us here at McKeesport we’re very fortunate to have had this huge donation of devices. We are going to consider doing some flexible instruction in the very near future to kind of make sure we have all of the pieces in place to provide synchronous instruction affectively. But sadly a lot of our students have chosen either to not log in or not be consistent in the work they’re trying to perform online. So we’ll continue to encourage our children to be in schools, we’ll continue to do our very best   
 
 
 
ME: Would you commit to putting the information I asked for before onto the district Website? 


 
Holtzman: You bring a good point because you know there are some districts using… a ticker to keep track. To be honest I didn’t know it would be necessary so that’s something we need to consider. A dashboard is a better description. It might help people have a better understanding this isn’t a secret it’s a challenging situation… Also to answer your question, we’ve had a total of 10 cases since the start of the school year. We’re still waiting for confirmation on two of those but we’re pretty confident. A dashboard is a pretty good suggestion. A lot of districts are considering it, but there are some drawbacks, too. But that’something we’re going to take into consideration.  


 
[Holtzman admitted there was at least one case at every building but not elementary students.]


 


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An Originalist Reading of Public Schools

Let’s say you went to a restaurant and ordered a big ol’ meat sandwich only to find nothing but straw between two pieces of bread.

“Waiter!” You say, calling over a server.

“What’s wrong, Sir?”

“There’s no meat in my sandwich.”

“Oh, Sir?” He says smiling, examining your plate. “Here at Scalia’s Bar and Grill we adhere to a strict originalist interpretation of language.”

“What does that have to do with my sandwich?”

“Well, Sir, in Old English ‘meat’ meant any solid food, anything other than drink. As in ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’ (1775), Samuel Johnson noted, ‘Our guides told us, that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat.’”

“But that’s not what I ordered!”

“Oh yes it is, Sir. You ordered the meat sandwich. Enjoy your fresh hay and oats.”

In everyday life, you wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense.

But for some reason, far right ideologues think it’s exactly the right way to interpret the U.S. Constitution.

The meanings of words change over time.

But ignoring that fact allows disingenuous crackpots to sweep over centuries of judicial precedent in favor of what they pretend to THINK the words meant at the time the law was written.

It’s not even about what the writers of the law SAID it meant. It’s about what today’s justices decide some hypothetical average Joe of the distant past would take certain words to mean.

The most obvious example, according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, is District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which reversed 200 years of precedent on gun regulations.

Before this ruling, the Second Amendment was interpreted to be referring only to service in the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required each able-bodied male citizen to obtain a firearm (“a good musket or firelock”) so he can participate in the “well regulated militia” the Amendment describes.

It was about the obligation to serve your country, not the right to own a gun. However, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – the most infamous proponent of judicial originalism – orchestrated the majority opinion in this case changing all that. By doing a thought experiment about what words might have meant in the 1700s, he papered over two centuries of established law. He was so proud of it that he even described it as “my masterpiece.”

THAT’S judicial originalism.

And now that Scalia fanboy and federal judge for not even three whole years, Amy Coney Barrett, is being rammed through Senate Confirmation Hearings, that preposterous ideology is about to have another proponent on the highest court in the land.

Just imagine if we interpreted everything like people living in the 18th Century!

Black people would lose any semblance of equal rights even being forced back into slavery.

Women couldn’t get checking accounts, their own healthcare, make decisions about their own bodies, even vote (least of all hold positions on the Supreme Court).

And our public schools wouldn’t even exist!

After all, there was no widespread, comprehensive system of public education in the country before John Dewey championed it in the 1930s.

Sure, Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all spoke at length about the importance of education to a free and just democratic society.

But remember, originalists don’t care about the writer’s intent. They only care about what regular people would understand by the terms. And regular people wouldn’t even understand the words “public” and “school” used together as a single concept at the time.

The first school that opened in what would become the United States was The Boston Latin School in 1635.

Its mission, and that of other colonial schools, was not to teach academics like math and literacy. It taught religion, family values and community spirit kind of like many parochial schools today.

Moreover, most schools were for boys only. If they deigned to teach girls at all, they taught them how to read but not write. No reason to give people a voice who weren’t seen as worthy of being heard.

Academics didn’t become something schools were responsible for until the mid-1800s. And even then, how they went about achieving it differed greatly from region to region of the country.

In the South, education rarely had anything to do with anything we’d call a school today. Rich families paid private tutors for their children. Everyone else was expected to work as soon as they were able.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction era began when public schooling really became a thing in the South.

And even when it did, it didn’t look much like our schools of today. These were often one-room schoolhouses where a single teacher tried to educate children of various ages, grades and abilities.

Moreover, these schools weren’t solely supported by taxes – if at all. These Common Schools were more like private or parochial schools of today. Parents paid tuition, provided housing for the teacher, or contributed other commodities in exchange for their children’s education.

Even then, the learning students received wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as our kids routinely expect in even the most under-funded urban public schools today. And special education services was non-existent. Kids with special needs were routinely left out of education altogether.

Only 31 states passed laws requiring children to go to school by 1900, and kids only went from age 8-14. It wasn’t until 1918 that every state even required elementary school.

But let’s not forget segregation.

It was the law of the land until Brown vs. Board in 1954, and even then it took until the late 1970s to become even moderately enforced.

Subsequent rulings have weakened school integration efforts to such a degree that today many districts are as segregated – if not even more – than they were in the 1950s.

Just imagine if Barrett gets together with the wingnut Republican majority on the court to reevaluate that ruling!

Imagine how many centuries of slow progress she could overturn by appealing to the common man – of 1776.

Imagine if she and the regressive right examined free speech cases! After all, many of these laws were written during the time of the Adams Administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts which radically cracked down on free expression.

We could expect a rush to return to the mire and muck that many of our enlightenment heroes were trying to escape in the first place.

But originalists like Barrett claim only they can interpret what the language in these laws originally meant. Yet their training is in law, not literacy or antiquity. They’re not linguists or historians. They don’t have some shortcut to what people used to mean by these words. They’re just playing with the language to make it mean what they want it to mean so they can rule however they so choose.

Even if they could figure out the original meaning of the words in these laws, that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense in today’s world. How, for example, do the founding fathers views on medicine have anything to do with today’s healthcare system that didn’t exist in the 1700s and that the founders couldn’t even comprehend? How do the founders views on gun rights relate to today’s firearms when they knew only of muskets and not automatic weapons?

Finally, why should we give preference to antiquated ideas over modern concepts? The laws of yesteryear may have been suited to the days in which they were written. However, if a law cannot grow to encompass the world as it exists, it has no right to continue to exist.

Judges are not supposed to overturn precedent based on lingual folderol. They’re supposed to uphold the law based on logic, reason and sound judgement.

Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.

It’s ironic that such degeneration would come from the Republican Party.

After all, the GOP platform is certainly different today than it was when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as their first President.

They used to stand for abolitionism, immigrant rights and progressive values.

Now they’re the party of plutocrat neofascist Christian fundamentalism.

If anything were to revert back to its original meaning, I wish it were the Grand Old Party, which is now neither grand, barely a party and merely old.


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Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

Teaching today is not the same as it was just a year ago.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to change the way they do almost everything.

With infection rates moderate to high in most areas of the country, many schools have resorted to full virtual instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model incorporating a mix of cyber and in-person classes.

Only in the most sparsely populated, secluded or reckless areas have schools been allowed to reopen 100% without safety precautions.

For many districts trying to juggle both in-person and virtual classes, the online component has been left to ed tech companies like Edmentum often specializing in credit recovery.

These have been an absolute disaster.

Corporate America has no business educating our youth – and moreover they’re terribly bad at it.

However, in many districts, virtual instruction has come to mean something else entirely.

It has meant classroom teachers creating their own online instruction and assignments while teaching synchronously through applications like Zoom.

I want to be clear that I think this is the best possible model under current circumstances.

It is the best way to balance the needs of safety for students and staff with the needs of academics.

However, this isn’t to say it is trouble free or even preferable if the world were ever to snap back into the shape it was before the pandemic.

The people best situated to tell us this are classroom teachers.

Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.

After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:

Pros

1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day

Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.

You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.

For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.

Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.

And that’s not all bad.

As a teacher, I love being able to go to the restroom whenever I need – something that I cannot do in my school building. Back there, I have to literally train my bladder to be ready when I have breaks in my schedule.

Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.

It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.

This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t incredibly stressed by the pressure to create new curriculum, using new technology and new district rules that are being rewritten by the hour. But at least the day-to-day instruction, itself, is more low key.

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

We’ve all been there. An unruly student or two brings a dispute to class and picks on each other back and forth.

In the physical classroom, this can be a real problem requiring a lot of effort to resolve. You have to de-escalate the situation or else it could turn into an exchange of fists.

Online it’s a snap. You can simply mute the participants. The teacher has much more control over what communication enters the classroom space and physical violence is impossible.

True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.

However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.

Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.

If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.

But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ll bet disciplinary referrals have dropped to record lows. And without them, virtual learning may have all but dismantled the school-to-prison pipeline.

3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually

There are many reasons for this.

In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.

You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.

All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.

Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.

In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.

When it comes to parents, just having the contact information at your fingertips is a plus. Also teachers have more time to communicate with them when you remove lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension and other necessities of the physical classroom. When teachers don’t have to function as security guards, we get more time to be teachers.

I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.

4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together


As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.

For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.

Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.

In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.

Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.

If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.

5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace

This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.

Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.

Online it isn’t such a straight line.

Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.

And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.

I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.

I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.

We’ve created a culture of care and understanding. I think that’s a positive thing even if it doesn’t emphasize due dates and time frames as much.

Cons

1) Student Absences

No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.

For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.

However, there are two important points to be made.

First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.

I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.

Second, though some students have neither attended many (or any) Zoom meetings or handed in many (or any) assignments, this was true in the physical classroom, too.

Some parents do not provide the structure necessary to ensure their children are doing their school work. This is true no matter how that work is presented – physically or virtually.

In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.

That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.

We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.

2) The Camera Conundrum

To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.

Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.

The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.

Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.

Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.

I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.

Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.

There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.

But not always.

3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs

This is related to the previous point.

The problem of the camera is particularly pernicious for students with special needs. I can’t tell you how many IEPs and service plans want me to monitor students with ADHD and bring them back when they lose focus.

This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.

The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.

I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.

4) Technological Issues

Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.

Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.

The list is endless.

Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.

And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.

One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.

I still don’t quite understand what happened. The Today Show was in the neighborhood doing a live broadcast that morning. Perhaps that had an effect.

For whatever reason my Mac laptop could not connect to the Internet. I had a barely functional PC that for reasons I cannot explain was able to connect.

So that’s what I did. I connected with the PC and taught my classes. The connection was still spotty and I got kicked out of my own Zoom meeting once.

When I got back on moments later, the students were terrified. But we got on with it and managed.

I don’t know why, but the issue seemed to fix itself about 2 hours later and I was able to get onto my laptop and experienced no further problems.

I suppose the point is that we have to realize technology issues will crop up. We need contingency plans. Lots and lots of contingency plans. For ourselves, as teachers, and for our students.

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

Ed tech companies have been trying to take over public education for years.
Unscrupulous business people have been trying successfully to privatize and profitize education.

The pandemic has made that possible to degrees never before imagined.

Charter and private schools are packed with students these days. This is partially because their smaller size and greater resources allows them to more easily meet in-person safety standards. Where public schools have recklessly reopened, cyber schools have swooped in to provide a safer option, too.

When even many public schools become less focused on doing the right thing than on doing the popular thing, they open the door to privatization.

It’s the wild west out there and no one can really tell how this will all affect what the future of education will be.

If the pandemic ended tomorrow, I would like to return to the physical classroom. But I can’t say I’d willingly leave every innovation of virtual instruction on the cutting room floor.

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

I like being free to contact parents and students easily and not being tied to duties more suited to school security officers.

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

But I don’t want to lose the best aspects of the physical classroom.

I don’t want to lose autonomy and have everything micromanaged and predetermined by ed tech companies.

I don’t want ridiculously large class sizes justified by a digital space.

I don’t want to have to teach live on-line and in-person at the same time, curating and managing the virtual space and the physical classroom.

I don’t want to be under constant digital surveillance.

These are all dangers of the new normal.

I don’t know what the future will be, but I know it will not be what it was before all this started.

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

But right now teachers really can’t afford to worry about it too much.

We’re too busy trying to get through the current crisis.


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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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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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Reopening Schools Unsafely Will Not Solve Anything

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Opening schools unsafely will not solve any of our problems.

 

In every case, it will make them worse.

 

Students don’t learn a lot when their teachers are in quarantine.

 

Children generally receive less socialization when their parents are hospitalized.

 

Kids with special needs will receive few accommodations on a respirator.

 

Childcare is the least of your worries when planning a funeral for a family member.

 

No matter what need schools usually meet, Coronavirus makes the situation worse.

 

Every. Time.

 
People propose having in-person classes or hybrid models that mix in-person classes with online instruction.

 

But from an epidemiological point of view, it makes more sense to keep the buildings closed and provide what we can on-line.

 

Unless perhaps you live in some secluded county that has had extremely low infection rates for a prolonged period of time.

 

Otherwise, this truth holds no matter from what angle you approach it – academic, economic, political, whatever.

 

After all, academics don’t mean much when you’re seriously ill. The economy doesn’t matter a lot when you’re dead. And politics won’t do you much good with lifelong health complications.

 

If we reopen schools, we invite COVID-19 into the classroom just as well as students.

 

So far as we know, the virus doesn’t care what your motivations are. It only infects as many people as it can leaving us to deal with the consequences.

 

Consider what the virus does to the human body.

 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to the virus can result in mild symptoms to severe illness up to two weeks later. These include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and/or diarrhea.

 

People who are sick should stay home, monitor their symptoms and separate themselves from other members of the household.

 

You should seek immediate medical care if you experience trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to stay awake and/or bluish lips or face.

 
Severe illness often requires hospitalization that attempts to relieve the most common complications. These are things like pneumonia, hypoxemic respiratory failure/ARDS, sepsis and septic shock, cardiomyopathy and arrhythmia, and acute kidney injury.

 

However, you also have to beware additional complications from prolonged hospitalization. These can include secondary bacterial infections, thromboembolism, gastrointestinal bleeding, and critical illness polyneuropathy/myopathy.

 

Managing blocked airways is a particular concern. This can be done in less severe cases with simple nasal cannula or oxygen rebreather masks. However, in more extreme cases, you may need continuous airway pressure provided through a machine or even invasive mechanical ventilation.

 

ICU_website-min
Source: UKRI

 

The chances of this happening to you or a loved one because your neighborhood school building was reopened and children were exposed to potentially sick classmates and staff is far from negligible.

 

In the US, more than 150,000 people have died from COVID-19. That’s 3.4% of cases that have lead to death.

 

To put that in context, The US has 5% of the global population and nearly a quarter of all Coronavirus deaths.

 

Over this last week, the average daily deaths in Italy were 6, France 10 and Spain 2.

 

In the US it was 1,204.

 

And make no mistake. Children can and do get sickespecially those 10 and older. They also can and do spread the virus to others.

 

Around the world, school closures are the rule, not the exception. While a few countries have opened schools, 143 countries have closed them nationwide.

 

This isn’t just because of the chance of death.

 

There are potential long term effects for survivors, too.

 

These include inflammation of the heart, cardiovascular disease and strokes; lung inflammation including persistent shortness of breath; and neurological issues such as headaches, dizziness, trouble concentrating or recalling things and even hallucinations.

 

This will not solve any of our current problems.

 

It will only make them worse.

 

However, I don’t wish to be dismissive.

 

Many kids and families are struggling with school closures.

 

Teachers and classrooms provide necessary services way beyond simple education.

 

I’m talking about food, nutrition, healthcare, childcare, counseling, tutoring, socialization, self esteem, meeting special needs, protection from abuse and a whole lot more.

 

If we keep school buildings closed and go to distance learning as we did in March, many of these services will continue to be disrupted or completely severed.

 
While reopening school buildings is NOT a viable solution, there are other things we can do.

 
Food, nutrition and healthcare can all be met while conducting distance learning. In fact, most schools provided these services from March through June as classrooms across the country were closed.

 
Likewise, counseling, tutoring, socialization, and self esteem can be provided on-line. In most cases they won’t be as effective as they would be in a physical setting. However, given the precautions necessary to meet in-person – face masks, social distancing, etc. – they may be more effective screen-to-screen than they would be mask-to-mask.

 

Which brings me to the most difficult considerations – meeting special needs, protection from abuse, and childcare.

 

Not all students are neurotypical. Many require accommodations that are difficult or impossible to make in a virtual environment.

 
Special arrangements could be made for these students to come into the physical classroom on a part-time or full-time basis. This isn’t as safe as complete on-line learning, but if the numbers of students are small enough, precautions such a temperature screenings and social distancing were in place and exposure mitigated, this could be a viable option.

 
The same goes for protection from abuse. Some students live in unsafe home environments. It is observation by responsible adults who are mandated reporters like teachers that reduce the likelihood these children will be mistreated and provide a solution when abuse is reported. However, noticing the telltale signs of such mistreatment or even communicating with a teacher privately outside of the hearing of an adult in the home is more difficult on-line.

 

Special arrangements could be made for students who have already been identified as at risk. They could meet with counselors and psychologists in the school every week or so. Safety precautions would be necessary but the risk could be reduced enough to make it worth taking.

 

The biggest problem is probably the most widespread – childcare.

 

Having children at home to do their schoolwork on-line puts additional pressure on parents.

 

It requires them to perform some of the disciplinary functions typically provided by educators. Parents have to ensure their kids are awake and ready to do their lessons. They have to monitor their children and help ensure the work gets done.

 

This is less difficult for parents with higher socioeconomic status who have jobs that allow them to work from home. But for those who do not have such employment, it becomes almost impossible.

 

In short, the economy requires some kind of daycare for these children.

 

Many European countries that have best managed the Coronavirus have paid workers to stay home. This allows them to take care of their own children and reduce their own exposure to the virus.

 

Frankly, it is the only sustainable solution.

 

However, our government has almost completely abrogated its responsibilities to working class people.

 

Parents with similar age children can create childcare networks where the same families take turns watching each others’ children. This reduces exposure to some degree.

 

Childcare centers also have been kept open in many communities to meet this need. However,there have been massive outbreaks at such centers across the country that would only be worsened if we rely on them more. Any sane country would close them just as it closed schools.

 

Until our lawmakers get off their butts and do their jobs, we will have no good solution to this problem.

 

Reopening school buildings to serve as childcare centers certainly won’t solve anything except put a premium on respirators, coffins and graveyard plots.

 

And for those who respond that only a certain percentage of children and adults will die, which members of your family are you willing to sacrifice?

 

Whose lives are you willing to bet and do you really have the authority to play God?

 

That point cannot be made too often.

 

We’re talking about human life here.

 

Reopening schools is seen as a silver bullet to so many of our problems during the pandemic.

 

It isn’t.

 

It is shooting ourselves in the foot.

 

If we really want to solve our issues, we need to listen to science, logic and reason.

 

We need to keep schools closed and teach students online until the virus is under control.

 

We need to make it possible for parents to stay home with their children.

 

And we need to do it now.


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

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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.

 

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Source: PA Department of Health

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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.

 

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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.


 

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Defund the Police to Fund Public Schools

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Back in the pre-Coronavirus days when we still had in-person classes I used to come to school in a suit.

 

Every day, suit and tie.

 

I didn’t have to – the dress code allowed me to wear pretty much whatever I wanted and most teachers dressed much more casually.

 

Now let me be clear – I’m not saying my way was the only way. Each teacher has his or her own way of doing things that work in their particular cases. But as for me, I’ve always agreed with the old adage that you should come dressed for the job you want, not necessarily the job you have.

 

I think educators are professionals. They should be respected and taken seriously.

 

And on the first day of school that’s what I want to tell my students without even opening my mouth: Hey! We’re doing important work here today.

 

However, as time goes on I often wear whimsical ties. A saxophone, multicolored fish, Space Invaders on test days.

 

In fact, this year some of the kids nicknamed me “tie man” and even if they didn’t have me as their teacher they’d pop their heads into the room to see what was hanging from my neck that day.

 

So when I see police officers lined up at George Floyd rallies, I’m aware of what they’re saying without saying a word.

 
Wearing riot gear, armed with billy clubs and shields. Tear gas canisters and rubber bullets at the ready. Backed by military style tanks and helicopters flying overhead.

 

That all sends a message: We’re not here to protect and serve. We’re here to pacify and put down.

 

And like my choice of school attire, this message isn’t just for the observer. It’s for the wearer, too.

 

There’s no mistaking what you’re there to do with a sport jacket across your shoulders and a piece of fabric knotted around your neck. Just as I’m sure there’s no mistaking your intent when you survey the public behind a plexiglass helmet with a heavy wooden club in your gloved fist.

 

You’re a soldier and the protesters are your enemy.

 

Any individual police officer can act differently, but if they do, they’re going against the tide.

 

That’s why many people are saying “Defund the Police.”

 

To some that may sound kind of scary.

 

Defund the police? If we do that, who will protect us from violent criminals?

 

But hear me out.

 

Defunding the police doesn’t have to mean abolishing the police (though some would go that far).

 

For me, it means a radical reinvention of what it means to be a police officer and their role in our society.

 

Let’s not forget that policing began in this country not so much as law enforcement but as a way to catch runaway slaves and put down labor unions.

 

It’s not enough to suggest our law enforcers not dress like stormtroopers.

 

It’s not enough that we ask often progressive mayors not to use their police as thugs and bullies.

 

It’s not enough that we demand racists be screened out of the hiring process and for more rigorous training before officers become a permanent part of the force.

 

We should do all of that, but let’s not be blind to what we’ve seen the last week.

 

A 75-year-old man shoved to the ground and left to bleed in Buffalo, NY. A police SUV driving through a crowd of protestors in Brooklyn knocking several to the ground. A group of police in Philadelphia using a baton to hit a man on the head before pinning him to the ground. In Minneapolis police shouting “Light ‘em up” before firing paint canisters at a woman standing on her own front porch. And in many cities police using teargas, flash-bangs and rubber bullets on a peaceful protesters.

 

The fact that there was so much police brutality at nationwide anti-police brutality protests proves the need to radically rethink what it means to be law enforcement. And that starts with the money we put aside for this purpose.

 

If the police are not an occupying army, we shouldn’t fund them or outfit them like the military.

 

According to a recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the Urban Institute, the cost of policing has tripled in the last four decades to $115 billion while violent crime has declined.

 

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 8.55.56 AM

 

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 8.56.14 AM

 

In most cities, the police budget is orders of magnitude greater than many other departments. For example, Los Angeles spends $1.8 billion annually on law enforcement – nearly 18% of the city’s entire budget.

 

From 2014-19, New York City spent $41.1 billion on police and corrections while spending $9.9 billion on homeless services and $6.8 billion on housing preservation and development. If you combined the city’s spending on homelessness and housing and quadrupled it, that would still be less than what the city spent on policing and corrections.

 

Screen Shot 2020-06-07 at 8.56.41 AM

 

Even before the Coronavirus pandemic ravaged the economy, legislators made deep cuts to other services like education, parks, libraries, housing, public transportation, youth programs, arts and culture, and many more. But police budgets have only gotten bigger or remained largely untouched.

 

As Joe Biden said while Vice President, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

 

If we don’t want the police to be militarized thugs that keep people in line by force, we shouldn’t give them the tools to do so. 
Officer Friendly doesn’t patrol in a tank and Barney Fife never fired a rubber bullet or tear gas canister at anyone in Mayberry.

 

Likewise, if we value things like social services and public schools, we should give a lot of the savings to them. A culture of life invests in future generations. The land of the brave and home of the free does not value obedience over free thought and the learning necessary to become an educated participant in our democracy.

 

I live in Pennsylvania.

 

No other state in the country has a bigger gap between what it spends on rich vs. poor students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

 

untitled

 

The state legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The Commonwealth used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays only 35% of the costs, leaving local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.

 

The difference is significant. Rich districts spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.

 

In addition, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Moreover, it is no accident that the group privileged with an abundance of funding is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.

 
What better way to show that black lives really do matter than to invest in black minds?

 

The situation isn’t limited to Pennsylvania.

 

Education still hasn’t recovered from the Great Recession. You see today’s public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than they did before the recession of 2008–09. Meanwhile enrollment has increased by 800,000 students.

 

So if we wanted today’s children to have the same quality of service kids received in this country only a decade ago, we’d need to hire almost 400,000 more teachers!

 

Instead, our children are packed into classes of 25, 30 even 40 students!

 
And it’s about to get worse!

 

Across the nation with the inevitable loss of taxes after shutting down the economy to save lives during the global Coronavirus outbreak, local districts are bracing for a 15-25% loss in revenues next fiscal year.

In Pennsylvania, districts anticipate $850 million to $1 billion in revenue shortfalls.

That could result in massive teacher layoffs and cuts to student services just as the cost to provide schooling increases with additional difficulties of life during a worldwide pandemic.

 

If police are there to protect people, what are they protecting us from?

 

The system is set up to criminalize citizens and keep them in line with brutality.

 

We’ve criminalized homelessness, drug addiction, even poverty, itself. And lacking a quality education increases a student’s chances of becoming part of the criminal justice system – the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

We need a new system that works for us.

 

We need a system where murdering black people – even if you’re wearing a uniform – sends you to jail, and not only after global protests.

 

We need a system where people feel safe, where no one has to worry about being targeted because of skin color, nationality, religion, immigration status, sexuality, gender or creed.

 

We need a system where mass gatherings don’t trigger a police response but a political one to redress our grievances.

 

And to get there we need to defund the police.


 

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Why High Stakes Testing Was Cancelled This Year (and Probably Will Be Next Year, Too)

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There are at least two silver linings to the current Coronavirus catastrophe for education.

 

One – with nearly all public schools closed, March was the first month since 2002 without a school shooting.

 

Two – districts nationwide cancelled high stakes standardized tests in April and May.

 

Taken together, these are two victories that no one could have predicted before November.

 

Gun safety restrictions remain laughably lax in the US compared to the rest of the world. And our system’s reliance on high stakes testing to hold schools and teachers accountable for economic inequalities and racially biased standards has been thoroughly criticized for nearly a century.

 

In short, the virus succeeded where policy did not.

 
The pandemic’s other effects have been more damaging as students, parents and teachers have struggled to move education online at home.

 

Teachers are seeing high absences especially among poor, underprivileged and special needs children. Not to mention worries about the quality and depth of education provided virtually and the stress it places on families.

 

To make matters worse, the situation seems likely to continue in some form when next school year begins in the fall.

 

With the COVID-19 virus likely to endure spreading unchecked due to a lack of adequate health screenings, the time it takes to make a vaccine, and an unwillingness by the government to save everyday people from the economic consequences of a nearly stopped economy, not to mention an increasing unwillingness among people to continue thorough social distancing procedures, schools may be left to solve the crisis themselves.

 

There’s been talk that when schools start up in August and September they may simply continue with cyber curriculum. Or they may open the physical buildings with safety protocols including half day classes of smaller size to keep students a safe distance apart.

 

In any case, the question of standardized testing arises again with a vengeance.

 

While there is some wiggle room, federal law (The Every Student Succeeds Act) requires all public school students be given standardized tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

 

The U.S. Department of Education waived that mandate this year because of the virus.

 

That was great news – a sound decision from a government agency known more for market solutions than rationality.

 

The question remains: why did the department do it?

 

Whether staffed by Democrats or Republicans, this doesn’t sound like them.

 

Why was this exception made and will it be extended again given that the circumstances may be little different in 2020-21 than they were in 2019-20?

 

The answer seems to be rooted in the tests, themselves, and the economic circumstances which create and sustains them.

 

WHY TESTS WERE CANCELLED

 
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.

 

DeVos said in a statement:

 

“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

 

How did we get here?

 

Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.

 

Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.

 

If the federal government hadn’t answered these requests in the affirmative, it would have had to engage in an open power struggle with the states over control of public schooling.

 

This would be especially damaging for a Republican administration because of the party’s stance on state’s rights.

 

However, even if we put aside this power dynamic, the decision was inevitable.

 

CORPORATIONS FIRST

 

 

All of these assessments are the property of private corporations. These include Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.

 

States purchase the right to use these tests but assessment material is the ideological property of the parent corporation. And so they want it guarded from theft.

 

That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.

 

This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.

 

I know because I’ve spent every year of my teaching career employed as a proctor throughout most of April as my students take the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments (PSSA) tests. But also when I got my degree I had to go to a designated testing center where I could be monitored as I took a series of assessments necessary to get my certification.

 

I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.

 

With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.

 

The College Board tried anyway with an abbreviated Advanced Placement test taken online from home this month to disastrous results – glitches, server issues and a failure by the organization to take responsibility.

 

However, the problem isn’t essentially technological. These assessments could be given online. Many districts do exactly that, but with teachers in the room acting as proctors.

 

The technological infrastructure may not yet be in place for widespread virtual testing, but that’s not an insurmountable hurdle.

 

Test security is a much stickier issue – without real, live people policing the environment, testing information would be at risk.

 

Rival companies could get access to trade secrets. The value of scores could come under scrutiny due to concerns of student cheating. And the tests, themselves, would for the first time be visible to parents and the general public.

 

TESTING SECRECY

 

 

As a classroom teacher, I get to see these infernal tests. I get to see the questions.

 

They are not good. They are not well-written, well considered, developmentally appropriate or even good at evaluating student understanding of the knowledge they claim to be assessing.

 

But up to this point, anyone who gets to see the tests is sworn to secrecy including the students.

 

The kids taking these exams – regardless of age – are no longer treated as children. They are clients entering into a contract.

 

At the start of these tests, they are warned of the legal consequences of violating the terms of this agreement.

 

THE PSSAS

 
In particular,the PSSAs require students to read the following warning on the first day of the assessment:

 

DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq

 

So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.

 

In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.

 

Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.

 

But some of it is deeply disturbing.

 

For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”

 

They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.

 

In addition, they are told NOT to:

 

-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.

 

-take notes about the test to share with others.

 

Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:

 

By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.

 

As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.

 

Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.

 

As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:

 

DO NOT:

 
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.

 

-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.

 

So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.

 

And according to the “Pennsylvania System of School Assessment Directions for Administration Manuel”:

 

Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]

 

CORPORATE VULNERABILITY

 

 

If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.

 

The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.

 

THAT’S why the tests were cancelled this year.

 

It wasn’t because anyone rethought the value of high stakes tests – though they should have. It wasn’t because anyone had considered standardized testing’s history in the eugenics movement – which they should have. It wasn’t because anyone was worried that giving these tests would take away precious academic time – though they should have.

 

It was to protect the business interests that would be at risk otherwise.

 

THE DYSTOPIAN TESTING FUTURE

 

 

The need for proctors is a problem that the testing companies know about and are working to eliminate.

 

In fact, they’ve been trying to line things up in their favor for years.

 

Their answer is something called Competency Based Education (CBE) or Proficiency Based Education (PBE). But don’t let these names fool you. It has nothing to do with making children competent or proficient in anything except taking computer-based tests.

 

Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.

 
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.

 

This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”

 

Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.

 

But that’s just how it is used in schools today.

 

The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.

 

It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.

 

Imagine a world where there are no schools – just free range children plopped in front of a computer or an iPad and told to go learn something.

 

No schools, no teachers, just gangs of students walking the streets, stopping along the way to thumb messages to each other on social media, play a video game or take an on-line test.

 

That’s the world many ed tech entrepreneurs are trying to build.

 

One thing they need is a pet policy of DeVos and the Trump administration – Education Savings Accounts (ESAs).

 

Normally, the federal, state and local government collect taxes to fund an individual child’s education, which is then spent at a public or charter school.

 

 

However, ESAs would allow that money to go elsewhere. It could go to funding the tuition at a private or parochial school like a traditional school voucher.

 

 

Or it could be used for discrete education services provided by the ed tech industry.

 

It’s almost like homeschooling – without a parent or guardian in charge.

 

The idea is often called a learning ecosystem.

 

 
But it’s just a single person cyber school with little to no guiding principles, management or oversight.

 

Education is reduced to a series of badges students can earn by completing certain tasks.

 
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.

 

It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!

 

And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!

 

 

Make no mistake, it’s not about improving the quality of education. It’s about providing the cheapest possible alternative and selling it to the rubes as innovation.

 

 

It’s school without the school or teachers.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

 

 

This is where the testing industry is going.

 

This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.

 

In the short term, this is good news.

 

As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.

 

On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.

 

However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.

 

A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.

 

“As the coronavirus pandemic evolves on a daily basis, it would be premature to issue blanket national waivers from core components of the law. Thus, case-by-case consideration of each state’s needs is, at this time, most appropriate,” said a letter signed by testing industry lobbyists including John King, the former secretary of education and head of the Education Trust.

 
They have the future mapped out – a future with immense earnings for their companies and shareholders.

 

We must be fully aware of what is happening and why if we are to have any chance of opposing the next disaster and coming out of the current crisis with better school policy than we went in.

 

If we are to safeguard an authentic education for our children, we must learn these lessons, ourselves, now.


 

 

 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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