Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

I have spent most of my professional career fighting for public schools against every form of school privatization imaginable.

But since the beginning of this school year and the incredibly reckless way many public schools have dealt with reopening and keeping students and staff safe, I feel much of that enthusiasm drying up.

It’s not something I’m proud of feeling.

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

But there are so many people I will never be able to look at the same way ever again.

There are so many organizations, unions, school boards, administrators, policy makers who have lost my trust – perhaps forever.

I’m not saying I love charter schools or private schools.

I don’t.

I still think they’re mostly scams bent on using the laws to cash in on kids while taking our tax money and running.

But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.

I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.

And, frankly, I just don’t feel that way anymore.

How can you preserve such an ideal in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – so many school boards who vote to open classrooms – and keep them open – despite raging infection rates? Despite students and teachers getting sick? Despite quarantines and warnings from epidemiologists?

SCHOOL BOARDS

McKeesport Area School District, where I live, has had more than 14 cases of Covid among students and staff since September and the school board isn’t even considering closing.

In fact, in October when most of these cases were coming to light and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines suggested schools should temporarily close to ensure the virus wasn’t running out of control, administration chose to ignore the CDC on the basis of advice by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Seriously.

Administrators prioritized local officials telling them what they want to hear over national experts in infectious disease with hard truths. In short, keeping the doors open was considered more important than student safety.

Meanwhile, the district where I work, Steel Valley Schools, smartly decided to open with virtual learning in September. However, the board decided to change to a hybrid model in November to test the waters.

Yes, the board decided to make students and teachers guinea pigs in an experiment to see if they could somehow avoid getting sick while cases surged throughout the country and state.

And after only five days, a high school student tested positive and numerous kids and staff had to quarantine.

Yesterday the state Website announced that our county, Allegheny County, – which had been considered moderate in terms of infections – is now in the substantial category. The incidence rate is 138.7 per 100,000.

Also in the substantial category are nearby Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.

Will Western Pennsylvania schools do the right thing and go to remote learning? Will Steel Valley finally give up this in-person experiment? Will McKeesport?

Without a strong leader like a Governor or President to order a shut down and take the heat, I’m not sure local school directors will have the courage to act.

They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.

In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.

So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.

There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.

At McKeesport, parents can enroll their kids in the district cyber program. No live teachers. No synchronous lessons on-line. Just a canned credit recovery program through the Edmentum company.

It’s terrible, and administration knows it’s terrible.

I’ve heard Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman say as much at school board meetings. But he and most of the board feel they have done all they need to do by providing this option.

They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.

And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.

There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.

Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.

We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.

I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.

So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?

This is very personal to me.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. My doctors tell me I can’t risk my life going into the school buildings to teach as infections run rampant through the state.

But my district has refused to allow me a safe work environment.

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

I have to burn my sick days so I can stay safe at home. But at the same time, I’m encouraged to take overtime hours to put up remote lessons, grade papers and contact parents.

I’m ready to do that as part of my job, but they won’t let me. They’d rather pay me and a sub who babysits my students in-person while I do what I’m allowed to do remotely at the same time.

So how do you look an administrator in the eye who refuses to lookout for his own employee’s safety?

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

Let me tell you, I love my union. I’m a union man. I believe in collective bargaining and worker solidarity.

I just wish my local did, too.

Because the leadership is perfectly fine with agreeing for the staff to work in unsafe conditions and no special protections for those like me who are more likely to contract the disease.

Leaders throw up their hands and say “We’re an association not a union,” and “If the boss says you come back to work, you have to come back to work.”

It’s even worse that I work in Homestead – the site of the historic strike.

So how do I look union leaders in the eye who have no problem throwing me to the wolves?

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

And the state and national unions aren’t much better.

To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised when Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey called for schools in areas with substantial infection rates to follow state guidelines and go to remote learning.

This after months of…. Nothing.

And what is PSEA threatening if districts don’t comply?

Nothing…. So far.

But I guess saying something about it is better than what they were doing before.

The national unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – certainly haven’t taken any hardline stances.

No one wants to rock the boat, but we’re talking about human life here.

There is no place further back to draw the line. We can compromise on salary and benefits but not on health and safety!

My God! That’s a human right!

We’re either unions in solidarity with our members – all our members – or we’re not.

And right now there is no solidarity, no leadership, nothing.

When I say things like this, people tell me I’m angry.

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

How many lives are we going to put at risk before it’s enough?

How many children? How many parents? How many staff?

Even if healthy people catch this thing, even if they get over it, they could have lifelong debilitating injuries from it.

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

And even the education activist community has been complicit in it.

When I tell some of my fellow grassroots organizers that schools should be open remotely, they complain about how that opens an opportunity for ed tech companies, charter and private schools.

They’re afraid teaching on-line will make ed tech companies an eternal part of school curriculum and replace real, live educators.

But that’s obviously false.

We’ve seen during lockdown periods that no one likes asynchronous teaching programs. No one likes these ed tech learning platforms. What works best in these times is curriculum created by classroom teachers taught by those classroom teachers to their students over online platforms like Zoom.

The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.

The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.

Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.

That’s nonsense, too.

Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.

However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.

I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.

And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.

Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.

CONCLUSIONS

Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.

It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.

It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.

But leadership has failed at every conceivable level. Time and again.

Strangely, that’s the only saving grace of the whole situation.

It isn’t the system that failed. It is the people in power in the system.

I know in my heart that the best way to run a school is still duly elected members of the community.

Just not THESE duly elected members.

I know that unions are vital to protecting workers rights. Just not unions lead by such wishy washy timid officers.

I know that education activism is necessary to keeping school privatization at bay. But activists can’t let their fears of what might be thwart people’s health and safety right now.

That’s the problem with Democracy. The leaders you get are representative of the community.

And our communities are perverted by one overwhelming belief – capitalism.

That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.

That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.

That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.

That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.

In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

When you look across the ocean at the more socialist countries, you see much better plans to deal with the pandemic. Not perfect, but better.

When everything isn’t dependent on money changing hands, you can more easily prioritize human life.

So, yes, my faith has been shaken in our public schools.

I still think the idea of a public school is one to be cherished and fought to protect.

But the leaders we have – nearly all of them – should be rejected.

We need an army of citizen activists, parents and teachers to come forward at the first opportunity to replace them.

Anyone in a leadership role this year should have to explain themselves – what did you do to protect students and staff during the pandemic?

If they can’t prove they took real steps to keep people safe and not sacrifice the people they were charged to protect on the altar of capitalism – if they can’t do that they should step down.

They should step down with tears in their eyes and forever have their names sullied by their cowardice and stupidity.

They have failed us all.


 

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

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

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

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

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

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

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

So what am I to do?

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

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

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

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

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

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

But no. He said he knew all about it.

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

I couldn’t believe it.

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

I got the same answer.

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

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

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

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

I have a wife and daughter.

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

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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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!

 

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.


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!

Trump Has COVID. What That Means For Public Schools

It had to happen eventually.

Donald Trump, the ultimate science denier, got bit in the butt by science.

He’s got Coronavirus, and is in Walter Reed National Medical Center fighting for his life.

Apparently the virus isn’t a hoax.

You don’t catch it by testing for it.

You don’t treat it with hydroxychloroquine.

It’s a global pandemic, and the only way to fight something like that is with rationality and logic.

You have to wear a face mask, dumb-ass.

You have to practice social distancing.

You can’t just reopen the economy and pretend that this won’t cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

You can’t steamroll over more than 200,000 Americans lost simply because most are elderly, poor and/or brown skinned. And they don’t matter to you.

Eventually your ethos of pretending to be what a weak man thinks a strong man is evaporates into thin air.

Your entire persona is as fake as your elaborate combover.

The lady’s man who has to pay for sex.

The billionaire who’s broke.

The stable genius who refuses to believe the facts.

And while there is a certain poetic justice in this buffoon getting a taste of his own medicine, its ramifications for our country will be dire indeed.

With only four weeks before the election, no one can predict what the outcome will be politically.

Will he live? Will he die? Will this mean a boost for his opponent Joe Biden? Or will people wrap themselves in the flag and come to his side?

No one knows.

But one thing is undeniable – we cannot continue to live this way.

The reality tv rollercoaster must stop, its constant flood of outrages, disasters and season finale moments!

Being a public school teacher, I see its impact on education most clearly.

Long before Trump went from being a clown to a contender, policymakers tried reforming our schools with only wishful thinking and a marketing plan.

High stakes testing, charter schools, voucher plans, value added measures, Teach for America – whether proposed by Democrats or Republicans, it is all nothing but science denial wrapped in a stock portfolio.

These are the ways Wall Street has cashed in on schools pretending to be saviors while hiding the reality of their vulture capitalism.

And Trump has been no different.

Except that his instrument – billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos – made it harder to deny.

She barely even tried to pretend to be anything other than what she is – an unimaginative opportunist dead set on destroying the public in public schools.

Now that her spray tanned master has – through inaction and ineptitude – unleashed a plague upon the nation, our students are suffering worse than ever.

Many schools are shuttered from sea to shinning sea, their students forced to learn via the Internet.

Others are open part time while trying desperately to make shrinking tax revenues pay for the quantum leap in costs to even pretend to keep people safe in their buildings.

In some places, the adults don’t even do that much and just try to run a full day schedule, rolling the dice as outbreaks appear at every turn.

In a few places, the virus is under control and schools function almost as normal – though the fear that one infected child could change all that sits in class with every student and teacher.

Nowhere is there uniformity.

Nowhere is there consensus.

Nowhere do we all admit the simple truth – in areas of moderate to high infection, online learning is the best that can be done to balance safety with academics.

Instead, leaders deify choice – letting us decide between these different models – without a basic understanding of citizenship, governance or economics.

That, I think, is what must change.

After all, if the virus can reach the most powerful person in the world if he doesn’t take adequate precautions, it can get your kids, too.

So now that Trump is receiving an experimental antibody cocktail that would not be available to you or me to fight the disease, we can no longer pretend that personal choice is the answer to every problem.

Freedom is a wonderful thing and should be preserved as much as possible.

But your freedom ends where mine begins.

Your choice not to wear a mask in public increases the infection rate in my community. Your decision to eat in a restaurant, go to a bar or spend a weekend at an amusement park puts not just you and your family at risk, but me and mine as well.

And if you send your child to a school building in an area of moderate to high infection rates, you are increasing the likelihood that someone I care about will get sick and perhaps die.

We have both rights and responsibilities.

If you live out in the woods all by yourself, you don’t need to constrain your personal freedom. You can do whatever you can get away with.

But if you live in a community – as nearly all of us do – you have to give up some of that freedom to the rest of us.

This is simple civics – something you would have known had our schools not stopped teaching it because it wasn’t on the big annual standardized tests.

Just as many of us would have known about how pandemics work if we hadn’t narrowed the curriculum because science doesn’t count on the test, either.

When all knowledge is only instrumentally important because it will get you a certain score, none of it has value.

Science, logic, critical thinking, empathy – all lost because someone thought they could make more money by removing them.

We can’t do that anymore, either.

We have to respect knowledge. We have to respect each other.

And we have to understand economics instead of being slaves to one stunted view of how they operate.

Economics is about how to best divide resources for the survival of communities. In times of scarcity, there are certain best ways and in times of abundance there are others.

However, we live in a time of abundance but continue to use the rules for scarcity. In fact, we create scarcity just to ensure an antiquated and ineffective distribution of resources.

Those with the most have refused changes that would be best for everyone including themselves. And many of us can’t even think outside of the conceptions of economics we’re propagandized to believe.

This has to stop, too.

A new world is possible. In fact, it is inevitable.

We will either all die on a scorched wreck of a planet that we have systematically destroyed so that a few will live longer and in more luxury than the rest.

Or we will all move forward into a new, better world together.

I know times are hard – harder than they’ve ever been in my lifetime.

But this is what I see in the light shinning through the crack in the maelstrom of nonsense we have been living in lately.

We can all come together and create schools that serve everyone regardless of race, religion, creed, sexuality, gender or difference. We can teach facts, thought, history, science, arts and humanities.

And armed with such tools, we can recreate society in that image.

That is the lesson of Trump’s diagnosis.

You can lie and cheat and steal.

You can fool people into believing that you’re not a liar and a cheat and a thief.

But eventually, the truth will catch up to you.

Politics puts blinders on us. Propaganda inculcates us. And stunted education makes it harder to see what’s really there.

However, reality exists independent of our ability to recognize it.

If we stumble forward blindly for long enough, we will fall into the pit before us – irrespective of whether we recognize it is there or not.

How much better to open our eyes!


 

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R.I.P., R.B.G. – The Lesson She Lived

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

There are few people known for their whole name – first, middle and last.

Even fewer known just for their initials.

And maybe no other white, Jewish, woman in history to be christened with an honorific reminiscent of martyred rap royalty.

But Ruth Bader Ginsburg was all that and more.

R.B.G.

The Notorious R.B.G.

Let it never be said that she was given that title out of public relations or pique.

No matter where you stood, she earned the designation “notorious.” Because she WAS. In nearly everything she did.

Whether it was issuing the dissenting opinion on Bush v. Gore or lifting weights in a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “SUPER DIVA,” she was in your face and indomitable.

She was an icon, a pioneer, a living piece of “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” as Tennyson might say.

And though she made her most indelible mark as a Supreme Court Justice, in a 2018 documentary about her life, RBG, she said she felt like a teacher:

“I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed. One of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, ‘Think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.’”

She did eventually teach law at Columbia University where she enumerated the changes in sexual discrimination litigation throughout her career. While in private practice, she won five cases involving women’s rights before donning the Supreme Court robes. At the time, she was quoted in Time magazine as saying her strategy was to “attack the most pervasive stereotype in the law – that men are independent and women are men’s dependents.”

To live at the same time as such a figure is not that uncommon.

We’re often surprised to read obituaries of great historical heroes we hadn’t known were still alive until their passing.

But that such a model was still WORKING, still doing that for which she had built her reputation, still holding together the fragments of our system as it threatened to crumble! That was truly amazing.

She was there. STILL there. For all of us.

Working well into her 80s through colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.

And now she’s gone.

It’s hard to fathom.

This is the horror story we’d been warned about every election season for as long as I can remember. This is the nightmare scenario used to shepherd the Democratic flock together, to keep us all under one big tent while lightning flashed and thunder raged.

And it is here. Now. Today.

I never met Justice Ginsburg. Never talked with her. Never had the honor.

But I don’t think she accepted being used in this way. After all, if her biggest concern was the Chief Executive or even Congressional politics, she could have stepped down near the end of President Barack Obama’s first term and been replaced.

Or could she?

Perhaps she had to rethink her own retirement plans after the whole Merrick Garland affair when Senate Republicans refused to even discuss Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death a full nine months before the election.

There’s no way to know for sure.

But given Ginsburg’s record of tenacious dissent in the face of injustice, I can’t imagine her counseling moderation as solidarity.

She stood for justice when no one else would.

That’s what she did!

In 2007, her dissent in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter – a supervisor for Goodyear Tires – was so compelling it sparked the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She literally explained why the court was wrong and that this was a case of discriminating against women in employment, and that led to a change in the law two years later!

In 2013, when the court all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, her dissent was equal parts logic, prophecy and prescription. The majority of the justices made the bizarre argument that the Voting Right Act – and one of its features, known as “preclearance” – had already solved voter suppression.

Ginsburg responded:

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

When she read the dissent aloud in court, she went beyond her written remarks quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then she added that it only bends that way, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

Her remarks about what would happen in the wake of this decision have largely proven true with waves of voter suppression sweeping the country – especially in areas where this would have been impossible had the court ruled differently.

There’s a lesson here for all of us.

Dissent should not be dismissed as divisive.

In the presence of injustice, it is the only proper response.

When refugee children are being locked away in cages at the border, there is no other viable response than dissent.

When police are being militarized and used as thugs to violently put down largely nonviolent protests, there is no appropriate response other than dissent.

When the President is lying to us, flouting our laws, and Congress refuses to hold him accountable, there is no other response than dissent.

We must all have the courage of the Notorious R.B.G. to stand up against injustice and call it by its true name – even to its face.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so will somehow be enough to dismantle that injustice.

But we have to try.

And even if we don’t succeed today, we will have saved ourselves from becoming a part of the injustice around us.

Just days before her death, Ginsberg told her granddaughter, Clara Spera:

“My most fervent wish is, that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

If Republicans retreat from their own precedent and push through a new justice 47 days or less before the election, there are still things we can do.

We can fight like Hell to get rid of the worst President in American history, Donald J. Trump, and elect Joe Biden. We can vote like our lives depend on it to get a progressive majority in Congress.

And when we win, we increase the number of justices in the Supreme Court and pack them full of progressives.

We undo all the chicanery Republicans have done for decades – end the filibuster, make Puerto Rico and DC states, end gerrymandering and pass a new Voting Rights Act that actually protects the most important principle of our system of government – the one without which our system is nominal at best.

This and more is the dissent we must wage.

They give us injustice, we respond with its opposite.

We must look this fetid, decaying nation in the eye and say with all the ferociousness of our fallen Supreme Court Justice:

I dissent!

I dissent!

I dissent!


 


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The Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

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

It is essentially about the future.

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

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

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

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

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


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

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

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

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

And it’s been great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what days they are!

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

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

And it never ends.

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

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

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

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

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

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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

Why Does Trump Hate COVID Testing But Love Standardized Testing?

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

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

Why the discrepancy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s pure bullshit.

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

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

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

So that, at least, is clear.

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

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

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

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

The reason?

DeVos wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh-uh, Betsy.

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

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

So why does the Trump Administration support standardized testing?

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

Testing for the Coronavirus makes Trump legitimately look bad.

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

It’s not about academia or helping vulnerable children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 1.03.00 AM

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

 

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

 

And it really looked like they might decide against it.

 

For about 10 seconds.

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

 

Then came Dave Donato.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then he voted in favor of the reopening plan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The tone directors took with the public was markedly different.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then it came to me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

In the end, we lost.

 

The district will reopen to in-person classes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it was not to be.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MY COMMENTS:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You have to face the facts.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

I disagree for several reasons.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

DR. HOLTZMAN’S RESPONSE:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

FACT CHECK:

 

 

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

 


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

Holtzman’s response comes at 20 minutes left.

The vote takes place at 10 minutes left.)

 


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 10.44.19 AM

 
Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

 

No matter what you do, life involves some risk.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

There are three main options:

 

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

 

Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.

 

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

 

There are many ways to do this.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

However, let’s be real.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.

 

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

 

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

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

And let’s not forget the racial component.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


 

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

Screen Shot 2020-07-20 at 8.38.17 AM

 
Going to the mailbox each time, my heart flutters.

 

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

 

Is today the day?

 

Has my teaching assignment finally arrived?

 

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

 

It’s whether I get to live or die.

 

And that’s no hyperbole.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I’m sorry? What?” I said.

 

He had just given me a clean bill of health.

 

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

 

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

 

I heard much the same from my gastroenterologist.

 

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

 

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

 

Refuse?” I said.

 

I still don’t have a better answer.

 

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

 

I love my job.

 

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

 

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

 

I love every minute of it.

 

But I love breathing more.

 

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

 

I don’t want to die gasping for breath.

 

Not if I don’t have to.

 

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

 

But there’s really nothing to smile about here.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

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

 

And it’s not too late.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

My assignment wasn’t there.

 

It may arrive tomorrow or the day after.

 

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

 

But if it does, I will not go quietly.

 

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


 

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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