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.
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.
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?
…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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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:
“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.”
“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.”
“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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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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
In his infamous Fox News interview with Chris Wallace, he seemed to be saying that the U.S. had just as many new cases now as it did in May. However, since there were fewer tests done in May and more are being done now, it only appears that the infection is spreading when it actually is not.
It’s pure bullshit.
How would he know how many cases existed in May other than through testing?
“If we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come. Not only will vulnerable students fall behind, but we will be abandoning the important, bipartisan reforms of the past two decades at a critical moment.”
However, this is a rather strange thing to say if you think about it.
But since students are tested all year long by their teachers, they earn end of the year marks, pass on to the next grade or are held back, graduate or not – there are a multitude of measures of student learning – measures that take in an entire year of academic progress in context.
Waiving standardized testing would not make it impossible to tell who learned what. In fact, waiving the tests in the spring did not leave teachers clueless about the students in their classes today.
We still know which students are falling behind because we interact with them, give them assignments, teacher created assessments, etc. And when it comes to vulnerability, standardized tests show us nothing unless we read between the lines.
Students from poorer households tend to score lower on standardized tests. Kids who attend schools with fewer resources and larger class sizes tend to score lower. Minority children tend to score lower.
Standardized testing does nothing to achieve this goal nor is there much help from the “bipartisan reforms of the past two decades.”
After all, which reforms exactly do you think DeVos is referring to?
It’s not hard to imagine since her letter was endorsed by far right and neoliberal organizations such as the Center for American Progress, the National Urban League, the Education Trust and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Scott, who serves as chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement:
“There is no question that the COVID-19 pandemic is having severe consequences for students’ growth and achievement, particularly for our most vulnerable students. We cannot begin to address these consequences, unless we fully understand them.”’
Murray, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said:
“Especially when it comes to the disparities that harm so many students of color, students with disabilities and students whose families have low incomes, we’ve got to have data that shows us where we’re falling short so we can better support those students.”
How does a single test score from a corporation like Pearson show you more than a year’s worth of academic assessments from a school?
In short, Trump and DeVos are two peas in a pod committed to avoiding accountability for themselves but determined to destroy public services like public schools based on bogus accountability measures like standardized testing.
Hopefully the American public will boot them both out on their asses in November so that rational leadership in the Department of Education and elsewhere will do what should have been done years ago – waive standardized testing for this year and every year that follows – Coronavirus or not.
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Kids would be split into two groups – one attending in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. That way, with buildings at half capacity, there would be enough physical space for social distancing. The remainder of the time, kids would be learning online.
However, if you don’t approve, you can opt out.
Any parent who is uncomfortable with this plan could keep his or her children home and have them participate in the district’s existent cyber program.
The board hasn’t voted on the proposal yet. It won’t do so until Wednesday.
Which brings up the question – is parental choice enough?
Is the fact that I can choose for my daughter the only concern I should have?
Thankfully, no one is forcing me to subject my child to in-person classes. If I don’t think they’re safe, I can keep her away and still have access to an education for her through the Internet.
What else do I want?
First of all, the quality of education offered by the district cyber program is not the same as the district could provide if all students were enrolled in virtual classes.
Dr. Holtzman has outlined what that would look like if school buildings were shut down by the governor or the district were overcome with sick students, teachers and/or family.
Teachers would provide synchronous classes online through video platforms like Zoom. Students would get to interact virtually with each other and their teachers.
By contrast, the existent cyber program is asychronous. Students watch videos and do assignments at their own pace, but human contact and social interaction – even via the Internet – is much harder to come by.
Both cyber options are preferable because they avoid these problems. But one of them – the synchronous option with a dedicated class and a teacher behind the curriculum – is superior to the one being offered.
Is it selfish to want the better plan for my daughter?
Should I just be glad I have a choice at all? Should I put the individual good of my child aside for the good of others?
No. Because administration’s plan is not in the best interests of other children, either.
If we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick.
If the virus is present in the community – as county health department data shows – opening the schools to students also opens them to Coronavirus.
But with the schools open, the virus will no longer be confined to just a few homes. It will come with kids to class and spread among students and staff before it’s brought to their homes as well.
That’s how epidemics work. Opening the schools will spread the virus throughout the entire community.
And that will affect me, too, regardless of whether I choose a cyber option for my daughter or not.
When I go to the local grocery store, gas up my car, even go for a walk – I will be more likely to come into contact with someone infected with the virus and get sick.
I can make the safe decision for my family but still suffer the consequences of the irresponsible decisions of others – especially school directors.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be my own local school board. The decisions of school directors in neighboring districts affects me, too.
After all, in my part of the state, school districts are pretty small geographically – not nearly as large as most counties. There are 42 public districts in Allegheny County, alone. So it should be no surprise that I routinely travel through several different districts just running day-to-day errands.
MASD school directors can decide to keep buildings closed (and I hope they will) but if a district just one township or borough over decides differently, we will suffer the consequences in McKeesport, too.
Since I don’t live in more than one district, I don’t get a say in what school directors at neighboring districts decide. I just have a say in what happens in my tiny portion of the world. But the consequences are not nearly as respectful of our man-made borders.
For instance, I work as a teacher at a neighboring district. But since I do not live there, I am barred from speaking at the board meetings unless I am invited to speak as an employee of the district.
I can give a report as part of the safety commission if invited by administrators, but I can’t otherwise sign up to speak as an employee concerned about how district policies affects me, my students or their families.
I’m a believer in local control, but sometimes control can be too localized.
This is why you haven’t heard much from many educators. If they’re allowed to speak, they’re often afraid of how doing so will make them a target for reprisals. If they can get their union to back them, they can speak collectively that way, but otherwise, they have no pathway to being heard at all.
As a parent, I get a choice for my child in my district.
But what choice do teachers have – especially if they don’t live where they teach?
That concerns me even with my choices as a parent.
I’ve had some outstanding teachers. My daughter loves her teachers. Is it okay if I don’t want to see them get sick and their lives cut short? If I worry about my own chances of surviving the pandemic and the demands of my employer?
I think their lives matter. But as minorities and people subjected to systemic inequalities, they get less of a say in policy. Should decisions that disproportionately impact their health really be up to a committee? Doesn’t their right to life surpass the decisions making abilities of a handful of elected officials or even middle and upper class parents?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful I have choices as a parent for how my daughter is educated.
If we reopen schools, we invite COVID-19 into the classroom just as well as students.
So far as we know, the virus doesn’t care what your motivations are. It only infects as many people as it can leaving us to deal with the consequences.
Consider what the virus does to the human body.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to the virus can result in mild symptoms to severe illness up to two weeks later. These include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and/or diarrhea.
People who are sick should stay home, monitor their symptoms and separate themselves from other members of the household.
Severe illness often requires hospitalization that attempts to relieve the most common complications. These are things like pneumonia, hypoxemic respiratory failure/ARDS, sepsis and septic shock, cardiomyopathy and arrhythmia, and acute kidney injury.
However, you also have to beware additional complications from prolonged hospitalization. These can include secondary bacterial infections, thromboembolism, gastrointestinal bleeding, and critical illness polyneuropathy/myopathy.
Managing blocked airways is a particular concern. This can be done in less severe cases with simple nasal cannula or oxygen rebreather masks. However, in more extreme cases, you may need continuous airway pressure provided through a machine or even invasive mechanical ventilation.
The chances of this happening to you or a loved one because your neighborhood school building was reopened and children were exposed to potentially sick classmates and staff is far from negligible.
These include inflammation of the heart, cardiovascular disease and strokes; lung inflammation including persistent shortness of breath; and neurological issues such as headaches, dizziness, trouble concentrating or recalling things and even hallucinations.
Special arrangements could be made for these students to come into the physical classroom on a part-time or full-time basis. This isn’t as safe as complete on-line learning, but if the numbers of students are small enough, precautions such a temperature screenings and social distancing were in place and exposure mitigated, this could be a viable option.
The same goes for protection from abuse. Some students live in unsafe home environments. It is observation by responsible adults who are mandated reporters like teachers that reduce the likelihood these children will be mistreated and provide a solution when abuse is reported. However, noticing the telltale signs of such mistreatment or even communicating with a teacher privately outside of the hearing of an adult in the home is more difficult on-line.
Special arrangements could be made for students who have already been identified as at risk. They could meet with counselors and psychologists in the school every week or so. Safety precautions would be necessary but the risk could be reduced enough to make it worth taking.
The biggest problem is probably the most widespread – childcare.
Having children at home to do their schoolwork on-line puts additional pressure on parents.
(1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
(2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
(3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two
Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.
This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.
There are many ways to do this.
In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.
In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.
In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.
The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.
Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.
There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.
Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”
No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.
That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.
However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.
If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.
Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.
So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?
It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.
Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.
During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.
Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.
However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.
A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.
“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.
“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.
Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.
She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”
However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!
Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?
And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.
According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.
Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.
The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.
And let’s not forget the racial component.
Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.
According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.
Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.
In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.
So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.
A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.
Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.
From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.
In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.
In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.
Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.
As yet, death admits of no such remedies.
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That all sends a message: We’re not here to protect and serve. We’re here to pacify and put down.
And like my choice of school attire, this message isn’t just for the observer. It’s for the wearer, too.
There’s no mistaking what you’re there to do with a sport jacket across your shoulders and a piece of fabric knotted around your neck. Just as I’m sure there’s no mistaking your intent when you survey the public behind a plexiglass helmet with a heavy wooden club in your gloved fist.
You’re a soldier and the protesters are your enemy.
Any individual police officer can act differently, but if they do, they’re going against the tide.
The fact that there was so much police brutality at nationwide anti-police brutality protests proves the need to radically rethink what it means to be law enforcement. And that starts with the money we put aside for this purpose.
If the police are not an occupying army, we shouldn’t fund them or outfit them like the military.
According to a recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data conducted by the Urban Institute, the cost of policing has tripled in the last four decades to $115 billion while violent crime has declined.
From 2014-19, New York City spent $41.1 billion on police and corrections while spending $9.9 billion on homeless services and $6.8 billion on housing preservation and development. If you combined the city’s spending on homelessness and housing and quadrupled it, that would still be less than what the city spent on policing and corrections.
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic ravaged the economy, legislators made deep cuts to other services like education, parks, libraries, housing, public transportation, youth programs, arts and culture, and many more. But police budgets have only gotten bigger or remained largely untouched.
If we don’t want the police to be militarized thugs that keep people in line by force, we shouldn’t give them the tools to do so. Officer Friendly doesn’t patrol in a tank and Barney Fife never fired a rubber bullet or tear gas canister at anyone in Mayberry.
The difference is significant. Rich districts spend $10,000 to $20,000 on each student, while poorer districts barely pull together $5,000-$6,000.
In addition, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Moreover, it is no accident that the group privileged with an abundance of funding is made up mostly of white students and those being underprivileged are mostly students of color.
We’ve criminalized homelessness, drug addiction, even poverty, itself. And lacking a quality education increases a student’s chances of becoming part of the criminal justice system – the school-to-prison pipeline.
In late March, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said that her department would streamline the paperwork for states to request a waiver allowing them not to give high stakes testing this year and that the government wouldn’t use this year’s testing data in future school accountability ratings.
“Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”
How did we get here?
Well, imagine a world where this didn’t happen.
Before DeVos made her statement, some states like Colorado and Texas had already eliminated testing requirements without waiting for a response from DeVos.
That’s why nearly all high stakes testing requires proctors – people whose job it is to set up, monitor and secure the testing environment. They make sure test takers don’t cheat, but they also are responsible for ensuring no information about specific test questions leaves the assessment environment.
This is true for standardized assessments at the K-12 level as well as college and certification tests.
I had to sign in, empty my pockets including giving over my cell phone, and submit to being observed by the proctors and video surveillance. I even had to sign out and back in when I needed to use the restroom.
With physical classrooms closed, there was simply no way effectively to do this.
DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH, COPY OR REPRODUCE MATERIALS FROM THIS ASSESSMENT IN ANY MANNER. All material contained in this assessment is secure and copyrighted material owned by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Copying of material in any manner, including the taking of a photograph, is a violation of the federal Copyright Act. Penalties for violations of the Copyright Act may include the cost of replacing the compromised test item(s) or a fine of no less than $750 up to $30,000 for a single violation. 17 U.S.C. $ 101 et seq
So the first act of testing is a threat of legal consequences and possible fines.
In the commonwealth, we also force kids to abide by a specific code of conduct for test takers. They must enter a quasi-legal relationship before they are even permitted to begin.
Much of this code is common sense. Get a good night’s sleep. Fill in bubbles completely using a number two pencil.
But some of it is deeply disturbing.
For example, students are told to “report any suspected cheating to your teacher or principal.”
They have to agree to be an informer or snitch to a government agency. My students aren’t old enough to vote or even drive a car, but they are directed to collaborate with the government against their classmates.
-talk with others about questions on the test during or after the test.
-take notes about the test to share with others.
Students are compelled into a legalistic vow that they won’t break this code. On the test, itself, we make them fill in a bubble next to the following statement:
By marking this bubble I verify that I understand the “Code of Conduct for Test Takers” that my Test Administrator went over with me.
As a test administrator, I am not allowed to move on until all students have filled in that bubble.
Technically, we are not making them promise TO ABIDE by the code of test takers. Perhaps we lack that legal authority. We are, however, making them swear they understand it. Thus we remove ignorance as an excuse for noncompliance.
As a proctor, I have to sign a similar statement that I understand the “Ethical Standards of Test Administration.” Again, much of this is common sense, but it includes such statements as:
-Discuss, disseminate or otherwise reveal contents of the test to anyone.
-Assist in, direct, aid, counsel, encourage, or fail to report any of the actions prohibited in this section.
So even teachers technically are not allowed to discuss the test and should report students or colleagues seen doing so.
Those individuals who divulge test questions, falsify student scores, or compromise the integrity of the state assessment system in any manner will be subject to professional disciplinary action under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, 24 P.S. $ 2070. 1a et seq, including a private reprimand, a public reprimand, a suspension of their teaching certificate(s), a revocation of their teaching certificate(s), and/or a suspension or prohibition from being employed by a charter school. [emphasis added]
If students were allowed to take these tests unsupervised at home, all of this legal protection would disappear.
The corporations would be much more exposed and defenseless.
Paradoxically, it’s sold as a reduction in testing, but really it’s about changing the paradigm.
It’s a scheme that ed tech corporations privately call stealth assessments. Students take high stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it. They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state mandated standardized assessments but programmers make it look like a game.
This safeguards the tests because kids aren’t aware of being tested. Constant micro-assessments blend in with test prep curriculum until there is little to no difference between the two. Academics gets dumbed down to the level of multiple choice and critical thinking is redefined as asking “What does the questioner want me to think?”
Yet the results could still be used to label schools “failing” regardless of how under-resourced they are or how students are suffering the effects of poverty. Mountains of data will still be collected on your children and sold to commercial interests to better market their products.
But that’s just how it is used in schools today.
The potential is to make this a replacement for physical schools.
It’s a disaster capitalism reform tailor made for the Coronavirus age, but not yet ready for large scale implementation.
Reading a book or an article gives you a badge. Answering a series of multiple-choice questions on a reading earns you more badges. And if you’ve completed a certain task satisfactorily, you can even earn a badge by teaching that same material to others.
It’s the low wage gig economy applied to education. Children would bounce from a few hours of Khan Academy videos here to a software package there and Voila! “Modern” education!
And as an added benefit, the badge structure creates a market where investors can bet and profit off of who gains badges and to what degree on the model of crypto-currencies like Bitcoin!
This is where we would be today if the legal framework were in place and the technology were widespread, adequate and capable of safeguarding corporate intellectual property without the need for test proctors.
In the short term, this is good news.
As long as the pandemic keeps school buildings closed or keeps them running at less than capacity, the chances of mandating high stakes testing during the crisis goes down.
On the flip side that’s detrimental to student learning in the here and now, but it does offer hope for the future. It at least opens the door to cancelling high stakes testing in 2020-21 like we did this year. And the longer we keep those tests at bay, the greater likelihood they will go away for good.
However, the people at the testing corporations are far from stupid. They know that each year we forgo the tests proves how unnecessary they are.
A coalition of six neoliberal organizations warned against cancelling the tests nationwide in March.