Stop Transforming US Schools into Prisons in the Name of Security

You probably heard about the Texas mom who became Internet famous for posing as her daughter in school last week.

Casey Garcia, 30, was arrested after she was caught attending her 7th grade daughter’s classes while disguised in a hoodie, a mask and thick black glasses.

In a viral video she posted to YouTube, she said the stunt was a “social experiment” to “prove a point.”

“We need better security at our schools,” Garcia said. “I kind of feel that I proved it.”

“There have been one too many mass shootings,” she added, arguing that schools should have metal detectors and possibly ban backpacks.

However, most schools already DO have metal detectors, and the presence of these devices won’t stop a parent like Garcia from posing as a teen during a pandemic when students are often required to cover their faces behind masks.

Hopefully sometime next school year when more teens are vaccinated and mask restrictions disappear, no one will be able to take advantage of pandemic safety precautions to sneak into classes.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers should have caught Garcia last week long before the end of the day, but the El Paso parent did more to prove the necessity of smaller class sizes than additional security.

You can pay millions of dollars on new complicated and time wasting screening processes to enter the building, or you can simply have teachers responsible for fewer kids so they can actually give them all more attention. It’s less costly and would reap educational benefits along with improving safety.

The fact is, we already spend an awful lot on school security. And often those measures and the costs to enact them directly impede teachers ability to teach and students willingness to learn.

Let’s start with cost.

The United States is one of the richest countries in the world. You’d expect that we could afford to buy BOTH security AND education for our students.

However, in practice, it doesn’t work that way.

To put it bluntly – we’re cheap. Especially when it comes to children.

Correction: Especially when it comes to OTHER PEOPLE’S children.

Right wing pundits love to quote exorbitant figures of how much the US spends per student as compared with the rest of the world.

However, they neglect to mention (1) this money is spent unevenly so that we spend much more on rich kids versus poor kids, and (2) we spend that money on services in this country that most other nations do not.

One of those things is security.

It’s not that schools in Europe and other comparable nations don’t concern themselves with keeping students safe. But they typically don’t have metal detectors, armed police, and high tech security systems. While secondary entrances and exits tend to be locked, main entrances usually remain open and unmonitored throughout the day.

Nor do they have the same dangers as we do. In the US, there are more firearms – roughly 400 million – than people. Not true in other countries.

Moreover, even in other nations like Switzerland where gun ownership is high, they have comprehensive background checks that make it much more difficult for criminals or the mentally ill to get a hold of a gun.

In the US, we have a large population that is racially diverse, a history of social strife, runaway income inequality, and a crumbling social safety net. All of which, when mixed together, are a recipe for conflict.

Not so in most other countries.

Moreover, the way most European nations, for example, have addressed safety is completely opposite to the way we do it in the US.

School shootings were on the rise in Europe in the early 2000s, but instead of buying security systems to stop shooters from entering the building, most schools focused on prevention. They realized that the overwhelming majority of shooters were not interlopers from outside but were disgruntled students. So these schools invested in more psychologists, social workers and resources to help children navigate the turmoil of growing up. The result was an almost complete disappearance of shootings.

If you ask me, a similar investment in the US would have similar success. However, given the differences in our societies, I don’t expect it would solve all of our problems.

In fact, emphasis on security certainly hasn’t.

Since 2012, US schools spending on high tech security programs has increased by at least $3 billion – not counting the billions more spent on armed campus police officers — with very little research proving these measures are at all effective, according to the Washington Post.

In fact, there is evidence that these measures don’t work. A federally funded 2016 study by Johns Hopkins University, for instance, concluded there was “limited and conflicting evidence in the literature on the short- and long-term effectiveness of school safety technology.”

But in the United States, when there’s an entire industry lobbying to take advantage of a crisis, that industry will likely be seen as the solution. It might not actually work, but at least huge corporations are making a profit. That’s often enough to justify spending more and more.

Security firms tout their products as the solution just as hammers scream we need more nails. Never mind that buying them will impede our progress and bankrupt us in the process.

Which brings me to education.

Even if heightened security was 100% effective against violence, it has a negative impact on learning.

No one wants to go to a prison for school.

Prisons are not welcoming environments. Children don’t want armed guards watching their every move. They want empathetic teachers and adults to help them understand their world.

This is especially true for low income and students of color. There is already a tendency among white faculty (and others) to criminalize their behaviors. In a punitive environment, this is even more so. Children become not something precious to be protected but the inmates, themselves, whose adolescent behaviors become the excuse for treating them like suspects and criminals.

Even preparing for violent situations can have negative impacts.

Active shooter drills – especially those from the ALICE Training Institute — do more to traumatize students than make them safer. The increasingly popular ALICE program teaches kids to physically confront gunmen under any circumstances. Consultants, school psychologists, safety experts and parents say this is dangerous and irresponsible.

“There is no research/evidence . . . that teaching students to attack a shooter is either effective or safe,” Katherine C. Cowan, spokeswoman for the National Association of School Psychologists, says. “It presumes an ability to transform psychologically from a frightened kid to an attacker in the moment of crisis, the ability to successfully execute the attack on the shooter (e.g., hit the shooter with the book or rock, knock them down, etc.) again in a crisis situation, the ability to not accidentally hurt a classmate, the reality that unsuccessfully going on the attack might make that student a more likely target of the shooter.”

However, the feeling that we are doing SOMETHING that we are at least preparing for a crisis is what keeps programs like this viable.

It’s also why Home Depot and Walmart market $150 bulletproof backpacks to parents. They may not actually help in a real life emergency, but they give the illusion of safety.

That’s what most of this really is – an illusion.

The fact is that the risk of being the victim of gun violence is low.  There are more credible risks traveling to and from school, catching a potentially deadly disease or suffering a life-threatening injury playing interscholastic sports. But we rarely worry about those.

Moreover, the risk of being a victim of gun violence is the same in the US whether you’re in school or not. And it’s higher in this country than in most others. A 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that, among high-income nations, 91 percent of children younger than 15 who were killed by guns lived in the United States. Schools cannot solve that problem. We need sensible gun regulations and background checks in combination with measures for universal healthcare, racial equity and a reduction in income inequality.

However, our public schools are so often left to solve the problems our policymakers refuse to tackle.

If our teachers and administrators weren’t tasked with such a heavy burden and were actually given the funding and support they needed, perhaps they could better do the job of educating students.

That is the central purpose of public schools, after all.

Not gratifying parents to make points on the internet.

Not even security or profiting huge corporations.

It’s to teach kids.

We’d do best to remember that.


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

My Favorite Teacher in a Pandemic

Mr. Singer, you are the best ELA teacher I’ve ever had. I’ve always loved ELA but for years now I started not enjoying [it] anymore mostly because of the teachers. But you changed my whole view about ELA. You made me enjoy these classes, the books, and even the Zooms. You taught me that teachers can have fun in classes, too. Thank you for not giving up on me, for always trying to help me, for showing me the books at school are interesting. THANK YOU FOR TEACHING ME!”

These words were written on a folded up piece of paper handed to me by an 8th grade English Language Arts (ELA) student the day before school let out this year.

It means a lot.

Especially this year.

Teaching is always challenging. That’s part of its appeal. But teaching through a global pandemic was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.

We were on-line, in-person, BOTH at the same time.

We were wearing masks, ensconced behind plexiglass, wiping down surfaces with cleanser between classes.

We were praised then blamed, deified, demonized, vaccinated.

Nearly every week – sometimes every few days – someone (adult or child) came down with COVID-19.

Yet through it all we somehow managed to teach.

Now that the school year is over for me, I’m left here cleaning up the mess looking back on everything.

One thing I keep hearing from policymakers, pundits and other people with no teaching experience is a frantic concern abut learning loss.

They’ve spent decades looking at spreadsheets attempting to quantify learning, and turn it into a commodity – but they have no idea what it really is.

I’m not sure I do either.

But I know this much: Learning is never lost. It’s never late or early. It’s always right there when the circumstances allow.

On the last day of class, I invariably give my students a survey about how things went. I tell them I’ve graded them all year. This is their chance to grade me.

I tell them the surveys are not part of their grade and they can even turn them in anonymously if they choose – or not at all.

But most turn them in – many with their names clearly visible.

After a year like this one, you might expect the comments to be more variable than usual. You might expect them to go on about the difficulties, the problems, all the things they didn’t learn but hoped they would.

Instead, I got mostly gratitude.

And if you haven’t taught middle school, let me tell you, that can be rare for teenagers:

“He was the best ELA teacher I’ve ever had… [He} Never stopped helping me [on] every assignment I didn’t do. He would comment on it. He would always try to help me on it.’

And:

“I think you are a kind teacher and you should keep it up so more kids can like you like me :)… When I didn’t catch on to something and I asked what we’re doing, you didn’t get upset. Instead you announced politely what we had to do and I liked that about you because most teachers would yell at me for not paying attention.”

And:

“You actually want to teach the class!”

The biggest thing they singled out about my teaching was the way I interacted with them:

“My teacher helped me with something that helped me succeed this year, and that was patience. Mr. Singer was patient with me this year and worked through what I didn’t understand.”

And:

“He helped with turning in assignments late and explaining how it works. He also explains when and what everyone needs to do it on time.”

I even had students who were thankful for the difficulty of the work:

“I liked how we did essays to get us ready for next year. I also liked how we did essays along with the short stories.”

And far from low academic scores, I had students who earned better grades than ever before:

“This is my first class in ELA when I have gotten a C or higher [in] the past 9 years.”

All of those comments were from my regular language arts students. However, I also taught two sections of a creative writing class for the same age group.

They particularly liked my comments on their written work:

“[You] gave descriptive details on what I was doing right and wrong in my writing. It helped me understand and then improve my writing skills.”

And:

“[You did well] With helping people and not being mean about what we got wrong. That actually helps by telling us the mistakes that we did. I think that helps us get better.”

They also singled out my interactions:

“You’re nice and don’t harshly judge us or yell. You’re always willing to help.”

And:

“Our teacher helped us understand that there are many ways to improve writing.”

Of course, more of them had ideas for ways I could improve:

“…I actually like your class. It’s just sometimes there could be hand injuries [from overwriting]. Also, you can sometimes [let us] make up our own [prompts].”

And this from an honors student:

“The writing prompts were good and challenging. I like how unique they were. Overall, the instruction was good, but after I finished writing my journal, I found myself sitting around with nothing to do for about 15 minutes. Maybe provide extra assignments to keep us busy.”

And that about wraps up another year.

I hope things will be different at the end of August when we return to class.

This 2020-21 has been a year like no other. But reading through these comments it’s clear it wasn’t a waste.

My students learned something.

They learned a lot of somethings.

Like every year, I gave them my all.

And like every year, it was worth it.

And to prove it, here’s one more student response from a child I had in 7th grade and in this year’s 8th grade. He also was in my creative writing class where responses had to be a minimum of 5 sentences:

Dear Mr. Singer,

I never liked reading class. I have had you for two years now and you have made me like it. You helped me to write even though I don’t like it. You push me to write when I didn’t give details to my stories. You made me read books and I enjoyed them. Every book you picked this year I liked. I even would tell my parents and my sister about them. And since she read them we could talk about them. I enjoyed watching the movies, too. I even did well with you with Zoom classes and that wasn’t easy at times. Thanks for being my favorite teacher in middle school. by the way, I wrote more than 5 sentences.”


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

Can Unions Defang Charter School Vampires?

What if a vampire suddenly lost its fangs?

Would it still be a vampire?

That’s the question at the heart of a major change in the largest charter school network in western Pennsylvania.

This week, staff at the Propel network of charter schools voted overwhelmingly to unionize.

So the money men behind the Allegheny County system of charter schools are probably wondering if they’re still investing in charter schools at all.

After all, when encumbered by the need to collectively bargain with employees, can a charter still do all its usual profitizing tricks?

Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).

The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.

Though PSEA represents staff at about a dozen charters throughout the state, unionization is a rarity at charter schools.

And the reason is pretty obvious.

Charter schools are all about escaping the rules that authentic public schools have to abide by.

Though publicly financed, they are often privately operated.

They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.

They can legally cut services and pocket the savings.

Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!

I’m not saying every charter school does all this, but they all can. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and we rarely even see it happening until the school goes belly up and taxpayers are left paying the tab.

So how do unions change this system?

Most obviously, they put a check on the nearly limitless power of the charter operators.

Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!

How much will union power beat back charter bosses?

It’s hard to say. But there is no doubt that it will play a moderating influence.

And how much it does so may depend to a large degree on the individuals working at the school and the degree of solidarity they can exercise against their bosses.

One thing is for sure, with a union the gravy train is over.

Wall Street speculators often fawn over the charter industry because it’s possible to double or triple your investment in seven years.

This will probably not be the case in a unionized charter. And the impact of such a reality has yet to be felt.

Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.

If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.

Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.

However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.

There still remains an authentic public school with which the charter must compete for limited funding.

Even a positive charter school that only does the best for its students still needs money to operate. And most districts barely have enough funding for one education system – certainly not two parallel ones.

This is a problem I don’t think unions can solve.

The state and federal government will have to find a better way to fund education. Relying on local property taxes to make up the largest share as we do in most parts of the country must come to an end.

But even if we figure out how to adequately, equitably and sustainably fund one education system, the presence of a charter school requires we do it twice.

Fiscal watchdogs may object to this as irresponsible, and one can certainly see their point.

However, in a country where we spend more on the military than the next ten nations combined, perhaps it isn’t so much to ask that we more than double spending on education.

Maybe there is something to be gained by having two parallel school systems. But there are certainly dangers.

Obviously the situation would be rife for de facto segregation. Charter schools already increase racial and economic segregation wherever these schools exist. However, if we regulated them to eliminate this risk, it is at least conceivable that these two systems could coexist.

It could certainly solve the problem of large class sizes by decreasing student to teacher ratios.

But will it?

Most of the people who work at charter schools are dedicated to their students and want them to succeed. They deserve every opportunity to thrive in a profession centered around children, not profit.

But can a system created to enrich the few ever be fully rehabilitated into one that puts children first?

When you defang a charter school, are you left with something harmless?

Or have you simply forced the beast to find other ways to feed?



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

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

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

Things are different in school these days.

The classes are smaller.

The kids are more subdued.

The teachers are exhausted.

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

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

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


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

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

The kids were reticent at first.

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

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

The results have been amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Hey! They brought it up!)

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

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

But whatever.

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

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

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

But that brings me to the title of this piece:

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

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

“Oh, woe are the children!” They cry.

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

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

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

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

Or they’ll refuse to go forward at all.

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

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

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

What do these numbers represent?

What are they measuring?

What is the basic unit of comprehension?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know I’m not qualified to do so.

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

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

Most importantly – children are people.

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

As such, they need down time.

They need time to regroup and recharge.

This pandemic has been hard on everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As many chances as they need.

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

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

Kids AND their parents.

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

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

There will be no assignments over the summer from me.

No homework. No requirements. No demands.

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

Have fun.

Recharge.

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

Nonsense.

Play is the best kind of learning kids can do.

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

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

Honestly, there is not a second wasted in play.

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

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

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

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

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

They’ll just be.

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




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!

Why a Public School Teacher is Running for Allegheny County Council

People seem surprised when I knock on their doors.

Perhaps it’s the fact that they weren’t expecting anyone to drop by.

Perhaps it’s because we’re still in a global pandemic.

But when they peek through their screens or poke their heads out with a quizzical look, the one thing that seems to put them at ease is when I tell them I’m a public school teacher.

It’s certainly not that I’m running for Allegheny County Council near Pittsburgh, Pa.

A teacher, they know and understand. Their kids had teachers. They had teachers when they were young.

But County Council?

Many of them seem to struggle with what that governmental body even is.

Municipal council, they know. School board, magistrate, even their local dog catcher.

But County Council is the kind of thing that falls through the cracks between state and local.

So why is a public school teacher like me trying to get their support on May 18 and get elected?

In truth, it’s been a long time coming.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School in Munhall, just outside of District 9 where I’m running for office.

Being an educator is the greatest job I’ve ever had.

It’s challenging, time consuming, exhausting, but at the end of every day I go home with the feeling that I really did something worthwhile.

I help kids learn to read and write. I open them up to new possibilities and give them opportunities to express themselves.

Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.

We have heated discussions about race, class, gender, punishment, justice.

For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.

Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.

They were replaced with standardized testing, test prep for the standardized testing, testing before the testing, and workbooks about how to do the testing right.

Every year it got a little harder.

Then came Covid-19 and the response to it.

In one year the system nearly collapsed.

The only thing that kept us going was the tenacity of teachers.

They closed our classrooms and we figured out how to do the job from home with our laptops and home computers. We became experts overnight in Zoom, Google Meets, Google Classroom and every other file sharing, digital conference software there is.

And that would have been okay I guess – if the rest of society had held up its side of the bargain.

Immunologists told us we had to shelter in place but our governments didn’t provide the means to do so.

The economy needed a kickstart. People just got a kick.

And schools were caught in the maelstrom.

Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.

Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.

I will never forget the calm certainty with which policymakers announced schools were reopening without even mentioning the impact on the teachers who still had to staff these schools and put themselves and their families at increase risk of infection. Nor will I forget the CDC advising that vaccinating teachers first was nice but not necessary.

However, as bad as all of that was, it was the insurrection at the Capitol that pushed me over the edge.

Here we had a group of white terrorists dressed up for comic-con proudly rushing our highest legislative body to kill lawmakers who wouldn’t perform a coup.

I had had enough.

Somewhere inside myself – as I tried to calm my students and explain the significance of what was happening – I promised that I would try to make a change.

If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.

If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.

So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.

Like I said, it’s a strange position.

Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.

First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.

So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Then there’s our air quality – some of the worst in the state.

When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.

And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Let’s not forget law enforcement.

The County Jail is located right in the middle of Pittsburgh, and the way it’s run is a disgrace.

About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.

We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

And of course there’s education.

According to state law, community colleges are supposed to be bankrolled completely by the state, the county and student tuition. However, the state and the county have always shortchanged the college, only paying about 20% instead of the 33% they owe. The result has been an increased burden on students and families with rising tuition and fewer services. That’s appalling, especially in a county where one third of all residents have taken at least one class through Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I, myself, took a math course there when I was preparing to become a teacher. And my father-in-law was a teacher there until they cut his job.

Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.

On County Council, I could do something about that.

Which brings me to my final point.

What about public schools?

Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?

At present, the answer is mostly no. But it doesn’t have to be.

In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.

It’s a problem only the state and federal government can truly solve, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless at the county level.

We have a $2 billion budget. We have an awful lot of big corporations that hide behind a non-profit status but act a lot more like for-profit companies.

We wouldn’t have to scrape together much to make a real difference in the lives of underserved students.

We could help them get pre-kindergarten services, decrease class size, increase arts and humanities, get more after-school tutoring

On County Council, I could do something about that, too.

So that’s why I’m running for office.

That’s why I’m willing to trade in a few nights from the classroom to the council chambers.

I’d still be a teacher. I wouldn’t be giving up my day job.

But if people see fit to support my candidacy, I could get a seat at the table, a chance to form coalitions to bring real change for the people of my district and the county as a whole.

That’s why I’m going door-to-door, introducing myself and asking for support.

I want to make a difference.

I want to be able to look my students in the eye with the full knowledge that I’m doing everything I can to ensure they have a future.

But I can’t do it alone.

We can only do it together.


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

Standardized Testing During a Pandemic is Stupid. And Cruel.

When the Biden administration announced that schools across the nation would have to give standardized tests during the global Coronavirus pandemic this year, America’s teachers let out a collective sigh of disgust.

If it had to be put into words, it might be this:

“I can’t even.”

Imagine a marine biologist being told she had to determine if the water in the dolphin tank is wet.

That’s kind of what the demand to test is like.

Determine if the water is wet and THEN you can feed the dolphin.

Imagine a person on fire being told to measure the temperature of the flames before you could put them out.

Imagine a person staving in the desert being required to take a blood test to determine previous caloric intake before anyone would offer food or water.

It’s literally that dumb.

No, it’s worse.

The reason the Biden administration gave for requiring testing this year was to determine the amount of learning loss students had suffered during the pandemic.

I wrote that in one sentence but it will take several to show how dumb that idea is.

First, there’s the idea of learning loss.

What does it mean?

It’s based on the idea that kids learn on a schedule.

You need to know A, B and C when you’re in 3rd Grade. You need to learn D, E, F in 4th grade. And so on.

And if you miss one of the letters somewhere in there, you’re learning will be disrupted forever.

The Biden administration seems to be worried that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be because of the pandemic and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed.

It is pure fantasy.

There is no developmental, psychological or neurological basis to it.

Some fool at a standardized testing company just made it up to sell more product.

And it doesn’t take much to prove it wrong.

Do a thought experiment with me.

Imagine you needed directions to the store.

You didn’t get them yesterday. You got them today.

Was your brain irreparably harmed?

You were still able to learn how to get to the store, weren’t you? You just did it one day later. No problem.

It might have stopped you from getting your groceries yesterday, but you can certainly go shopping today.

Now imagine we weren’t talking about directions. Imagine we were talking about addition and subtraction.

Some kids are ready to learn these concepts earlier than others. Does that mean there’s something wrong with them?

No. Absolutely not. It’s just that people’s brains develop at different rates.

And if you don’t learn something one year, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it a year or two later.

There may be issues with core concepts like language acquisition being delayed too long over larger amounts of time, but these are extreme cases.

Delaying one or two years of school curriculum won’t make or break you.

For most of us, not learning something now doesn’t preclude learning it later.

So learning loss is nonsense.

No child has lost the ability to learn because of the pandemic – except any who died as a result of catching Covid.

That’s perhaps the biggest way the Biden administration’s testing requirement is dumb. It’s justified on assessing something that doesn’t exist.

But if we redefine learning loss into the next best thing that DOES exist – learning – it at least makes sense.

So maybe Joe meant that we need standardized tests to find out how much kids have learned (not what learning they’ve lost).

It’s still deeply stupid, but at least it’s coherent.

Here’s the problem. Standardized tests are completely unnecessary to assess learning. In fact, they’re notoriously terrible at measuring this.


Under normal circumstances, standardized tests don’t show how much a child has learned. They show how well the child can take the test. They show how well the test taker can play the game of test taking.

Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.

If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.

That’s why it’s a standardized test. That’s what it means – conforming to a standard.

Out of all the possible ways to answer the question, the standard test taker will answer like THIS. And whatever that is becomes the correct answer.

The test makers get to decide what kind of person to set the standard as, and most of the time it’s white, male, Eurocentric kids.

This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.

As a result, kids from richer, whiter homes tend to score better on these tests than those from poorer, browner homes.

And that doesn’t mean poor, brown kids aren’t intelligent. It just means they don’t necessarily think like the standard rich, white kids.

We don’t need to give standardized tests to tell us who gets low scores during a pandemic. It will be the poor minority kids. During a pandemic, during a recession, during a stock market boom, during a revolution, during anything.

Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.

Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.

Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.

You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?

You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?

But let’s say you needed some independent variable.

Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.

After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.

Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.

Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.

Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.

And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.

Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!

If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.

There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.

But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.

Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.

The Biden administration says we have to give standardized tests to tell how much students have learned SO THAT WE CAN PROVIDE RESOURCES TO HELP KIDS CATCH UP!

Are you freaking kidding me!?

That’s the reason behind this fool’s errand?

You need something to tell you where to direct the resources?

Let me give you a little advice. If you’ve got a hungry dolphin, stop worrying about the wetness of the water. Feed the dang thing!

If someone’s on fire, put away the thermometer and take out the hose.

If someone’s starving, put away the needle and take out a glass of water and a sandwich.

Because that’s the ultimate problem with test-based accountability.

It purports to offer resources to students in need but never really does so.

There is no additional funding coming to help kids overcome the hurdles of Covid. Just as there were no additional resources to help children of color after many failed standardized assessments.

There’s just a boondoggle to be given to the testing companies on the dubious promise that the next time kids take the tests, they’ll do better.

There’s no money for tutoring or counselors or extra curricular activities or reducing class size. But there’s a treasure chest full of gold doubloons (i.e. tax dollars) for testing companies to give us test prep materials.

Common Core workbooks, standardized test prep software, test look-a-like apps – they’re all there.

It’s all just corporate welfare for the standardized testing industry. It’s not about helping kids learn.

In any normal year, that would be bad enough.

But this year it’s even worse.

Not only will the tests fail to bring any relief to children struggling to learn in a pandemic, they will actually stop them from learning.

Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.

Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.

Instead of using what few days remain of the academic year to reinforce skills, discuss new concepts or practice problems, the Biden administration insists teachers proctor standardized tests.

That takes time. A lot if it.

Yes, Biden is allowing all kinds of leniency in HOW we take the tests. They can be shortened, taken in school, taken remotely, even taken at a later date – but they must be taken.

So goodbye, time that could have been spent on authentic learning. Hello, hours, days and weeks of test-taking drudgery.

That’s not a trade off many teachers, parents or students think is fair.

So President Biden can stop the charade.

America’s teachers aren’t buying it.

We know how deeply stupid this testing mandate is.

Stupid and cruel.

Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Where you at?


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

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

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.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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

 

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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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!

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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