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


 
 


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


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


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


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


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us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated.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


 
The response was in answer to citizens comments.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
“I know I would not feel comfortable.” 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Holtzman disputed this: 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



 
 
Kristen:  


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


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


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


 
 
 Dr. Mark Holtzman: 


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
MY COMMENTS: 


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


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


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


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


 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  


 
3) How many are located at each school building?  


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


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


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


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


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


 
Haven’t we met this threshold?  


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


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


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


 
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Please do your duty.” 


 
 
Holtzman: 


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


 
Voice: I don’t have them with me. 


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


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


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


 


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Why Is McKeesport Area School District Still Open After COVID-19 Outbreak?

At least six staff members and students at McKeesport Area School District (MASD) tested positive for COVID-19 in the last week alone.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) Website, two or more cases in a school building within a 14-day period call for some sort of closure to ensure the safety of students and staff.

So why are none of the district buildings closed?

The western Pennsylvania district located southeast of Pittsburgh reopened on a hybrid schedule on Sept. 2 with about a third of parents opting to keep their children out of the buildings and in the district-run cyber program.

Since then, finding concrete information about Coronavirus infections at our public schools – MASD or others – has not been an easy task.

Local newspapers only occasionally report on them and rarely put single incidents in context. Nor is there any government or other comprehensive database that collects this information and disseminates it to the public.

MASD school district issues alerts on its Website, but they do not stay up for long.

On Sunday, the Website noted:

“Across two of our buildings, Twin Rivers Elementary and the High School, we have had three positive cases of COVID-19 in teachers, and two positive results in students.”

Today that message has been replaced by another:

“A Founders’ Hall staff member tested positive for COVID-19.”

So that’s one case at Founders Hall and five spread out between the High School and Twin Rivers Elementary School.

Though in both cases, the district Website claimed, “We have worked directly with the Allegheny County Health Department and consider this case to be contained,” it is telling that the district obfuscated about exactly how many cases were from each building.

According to PDE, this is a key factor in determining whether a building should remain open. In a county like Allegheny where infection rates are designated as moderate, if 2-4 students or staff in the same building test positive, the school should be closed for 5-7 days.

So either the high school, Twin Rivers or both should meet that criteria.

And if cases rise even slightly, the PDE Website recommends even longer closures – at least two weeks for five or more cases in a building.

Sunday’s alert noted: “You will be notified directly by the Allegheny County Health Department if there has been any close contact to your student!”

However, this is not even the first time district personnel have tested positive for the virus.

On September 15, a letter was sent home to parents saying that a Founders’ Hall Middle School student tested positive for COVID-19.

The letter further stated that the student would quarantine for two weeks.

District spokeswoman Kristen James said there would not be any closures of school facilities as a result of the incident.

“Our buildings are being deep cleaned each and every day and throughout each day,” she said.

COVID-19 has also plagued nearby Serra Catholic School.

The parochial school serving students from many of the same communities as MASD has suspended football practice and closed its doors twice before for COVID outbreaks.

On Oct. 12, a “person involved with the [football] team” tested positive, and 40 athletes and football staff were quarantined.

Just a month earlier, on Sept. 10, two Serra students tested positive, resulting in temporary suspension of the sports program and building closures.

McKeesport and Serra are far from unique in this.

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

“Over the last two weeks, we’ve reported 2,000 news cases of COVID-19 among school age children,” said Dr. Rachel Levine, state Department of Health secretary.

Gov. Tom Wolf cautioned, “The fall resurgence is here and now is really the time to double down.”

However, many decision makers don’t seem to be heeding these warnings.

And not just those in McKeesport.

At Steel Valley School District, buildings have been closed to students, and instruction has been 100% virtual.

However, buildings were opened just twice to students – both times for transition days. And both times, a staff member tested positive for COVID-19 soon after.

On Oct 7, a letter issued by Bryan Macuga, Secondary Campus Principal, said that a high school teacher tested positive. The day before, the district had students in grades 5 and 9 in the middle school-high school complex for a half day schedule to test the district’s wi-fi.

Though the teacher had participated in the program, he had not been within 6 feet of students for 15 minutes at a time – PDE’s definition of close contact.

On Sept 8, students in the same grades were in the same building for a half day transition program, and a middle school teacher who had participated in the program tested positive for COVID a day later.

School directors are actively considering moving from the virtual schedule – where no one has gotten sick – to a hybrid schedule in November.

No one said educating children during a global pandemic would be easy.

But shouldn’t we be making decisions with a priority on student and staff safety?

If people die or contract lingering life-long complications as a result of COVID-19, they will not thank you for keeping buildings open longer than was advisable.

It’s time for decision makers to take off the rose colored glasses and make the tough decisions in everybody’s interests.

While infection rates are moderate to high, school buildings should be closed and all instruction virtual but created by district teachers, not ed tech companies.

It’s something we can all accomplish if we and our representatives just have the courage to do it.



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Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

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

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

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

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

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

These have been an absolute disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros

1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day

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

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

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

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

And that’s not all bad.

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

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

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

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

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are many reasons for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online it isn’t such a straight line.

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

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

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

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

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

Cons

1) Student Absences

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

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

However, there are two important points to be made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) The Camera Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not always.

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

This is related to the previous point.

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

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

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

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

4) Technological Issues

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

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

The list is endless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

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

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

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

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

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

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

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

These are all dangers of the new normal.

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

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

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

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


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

I Can’t Shield My Daughter From Both Coronavirus AND Edmentum – Our District’s Crappy On-line Learning Platform

Being a parent during a global pandemic means having to make difficult decisions.

The most pressing of which seems to be: from which Coronavirus spawned horror should I shield my child?

As schools slowly reopened in my neck of the woods, it was basically a choice between in-person instruction or remote learning.

Do I allow my child the benefits of a living, breathing teacher but risk the COVID-19 incubator of a physical classroom environment – or do I keep her safe at home but parked in front of a computer all day?

It’s not an easy call.

On the one hand, in-person learning is nearly always more effective than distance learning.

On the other hand, I don’t want her to get sick or become a Typhoid Mary bringing the disease into our house and infecting the rest of the family.

In any sane country, I wouldn’t have to make such a choice. Where infection rates are moderate to high, schools should be closed and all instruction virtual.

But American governance in 2020 is not nearly so rational.

In the absence of strong, sane leadership, each school district is its own fiefdom marching to the beat of its own discordant drum.

Even in Western Pennsylvania, my neighborhood school is leaving it up to parents whether to potentially endanger their children or not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We could refuse to take chances. We could keep all students online and that would increase our academic options.

After all, there is more than one way to do remote learning.

We could ask the district’s classroom teachers to design instruction tailor made to their students but merely delivered online.

Or we could use a prepackaged platform to deliver that instruction.

To me, it’s obvious which is better.

One maximizes academic outcomes by making the virtual experience as much like the in-person experience as possible with multiple daily interactions between teachers and students. The other delegates the responsibility of educating to a corporation with minimal social interaction between students and educators.

The teacher led option is the way to go, but it only works at most districts if they give up the myth that they can make in-person instruction feasible during a pandemic that has already infected more than 7 million people in this country and killed 200,000 and counting.

In districts like mine where community leaders and even some school directors are committed to keeping the buildings open so that they can justify keeping open restaurants, bars and other establishments, there is a disincentive to even allow this third option. If the public chooses it, the local economy might suffer.

So they’re committed to giving people a choice – just not THAT choice.

If they can only choose between canned cyber curriculum or fresh but dangerous in-person models, they’re betting parents will choose the latter.

And in many cases they are. But a significant number are not.

In the McKeesport Area School District (MASD), where I’ve lived most of my life, nearly a third of the parents have chosen distance learning for their children instead of a half day hybrid model. One would think that would free up enough classroom teachers to offer synchronous, authentic instruction. Students could have lessons from a certified district employee with years of experience instructing children of that age, grade and subject matter. Kids and teachers could develop trusting and caring relationships and work together to create the best possible learning environment.

Some local districts are actually doing that.

But not McKeesport.

Instead the district is using its existent on-line credit recovery program for all virtual students.

The platform is Calvert Learning, a product of the ed tech giant Edmentum.

This multi-million dollar global company (it was sold for $143 million in 2010) is best known for creating Study Island and other standardized test prep based learning platforms.

The problem is it was never meant to be used as the sole provider of coursework for thousands of students in a single district.

In fact, the specific Edmentum product being used by MASD – Calvert Learning – was originally intended for home school students.

It was created for K-8th grade, but when added to Edmentum’s Coursework platform, the company claims to be able to offer credit recovery – I mean academic classes – for K-12 and beyond.

As a parent who has spent countless hours helping his daughter navigate it, let me tell you – it’s a mess.

The instruction and assignments it provides are developmentally inappropriate, assesses things it hasn’t taught, and are filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Moreover, the pace it prescribes violates the guidelines Edmentum gives to parents about how much time students should spend on-line.

According to “A Parent Guide: Supporting Your Child During Virtual Learning,” provided by Edmentum, cyber students should limit their time online. Elementary students should spend not more than 1-2 hours a day, middle school students 2-3 hours, and high school students 3-4 hours.

My 6th grade daughter typically spends 7-8 hours a day just to barely get things done – and that’s not counting 2-3 hours on the weekends.

I’ve seen her struggle through passages that are written far above her reading level.

For example, she completed a unit on characterization where she was required to read O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

I know the story well, because as a middle school teacher, I’ve taught it to my 7th grade students from time-to-time. However, the version I’ve used is not the original that O. Henry wrote. It is brought down to the level of a middle schooler and unnecessary attitudes of the time are downplayed.

In the original, one of the characters, Sam, uses big words to show how smart he is. The version I use still has him do that but reduces its frequency so that middle schoolers can understand him. After all, 6th graders shouldn’t have to wrestle with “philoprogenitiveness,” “chawbacon” and “whiskerando” just to grasp a pretty basic plot.

Moreover, the story was published in 1907. The original text throws out numerous instances of casual racism against Native Americans that serve no point in the story. Does my daughter really need to be subjected to dehumanizing native peoples as mere “red skins” just to get a lesson on characterization?

Clearly this unit was not developed with child psychologists, practicing middle school Language Arts teachers or even people of color in the room.

If that weren’t bad enough, the questions are full of grammatical errors and typos.

One question about homophones asks students to consider this sentence:

“Select the correct answer.

Is the boxed word used correctly?

I’d like a PEACE of pie for desert?”

Students were asked if “PEACE” is correct – Yes or No. They should know that PIECE is actually the right word.

However, the question made no mention of the misuse of “desert” when the authors clearly meant “dessert.”

That’s the kind of thing that really confuses a student trying to make her way through a program all by herself.

On many assessments, she is asked things that were never taught in the section that was meant to be assessed. I know this is status quo on standardized tests, but is it fair to ask this of a child navigating an online program without even a living teacher to offer support and guidance?

In a social studies assessment on Neolithic peoples, many of the questions had nothing to do with the subject matter. They asked students to infer something based on a passage and none of the multiple choices were entirely correct. You had to pick the option that was least incorrect.

This is some crappy academics being pawned off on parents and students.

And it’s not cheap.

MASD paid $146,302.25 for 40 licenses to Calvert, Exact Path K-5, Courseware for 6-12 and other online services. When hundreds of additional parents asked for their students to be put on the cyber program, the district purchased 500 more licenses from Calvert for a bundled rate of $112,500. That’s $225 per license. Normally they are $450 per license.

Imagine if we put our tax dollars and our teachers to educating these students instead of seeding our responsibility to a corporation for hire.

And we could do it, too.

I work at Steel Valley School District.

Unlike MASD, we began the year with a 100% virtual program for all students. We conduct fully synchronous classes online designed entirely by the classroom teachers. And we post materials on Google Classroom so that students who miss the live Zoom meetings can watch videos of the lesson and do the work.

I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult or that it’s without problems. Nor is such an endeavor better than in-person learning in a safe environment.

But the teacher-led remote model is the best that can be provided under the circumstances.

Districts that throw students to the whims of corporate educators for hire are shirking their duties.

They should face the realities of the world we live in.

If Coronavirus infections are significant in your county, you should not be offering in-person schooling. You should be offering the best remote option available – and that’s the teacher-led cyber option.

If only my home district knew it.

Meanwhile, my daughter has to struggle through with the cold comfort that at least she won’t get sick jumping through the hoops her school board is too partisan to eliminate for her.

I’m right next to her at the dining room table feeling guilty for putting her through this.

But what else could I do?


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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

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

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

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

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

We have to take this virus seriously.

And unfortunately many of us are not doing so.

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

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

Schools may be more susceptible than most places.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Bernie Sanders Supporters Have Every Right to Be Furious

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Dear non-Bernie Sanders supporters,

 

Shut up.

 

Seriously.

 

Sit down, and shut the fuck up.

 

You’ve been doing an awful lot of talking lately, and there’s a few things you need to hear.

 

We, the Bernie supports, are sick and tired of the never-ending flow of bullshit coming out of your mouths.

 

For the past five years you’ve called us Bernie Bros, Bernie’s Internet army, Russian bots, naive, sexist, racist, privileged, pigs.

 

Yet women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, social, racial and ethnic minorities make up a sizable portion of our numbers, but somehow we’re prejudiced.

 

You didn’t listen to us in 2016 when we said Hilary Clinton was unelectable. You didn’t listen to us when we said Donald Trump had a real chance at winning. But you blamed the entire catastrophe on the handful of us who didn’t vote for your candidate.

 

And now the second Bernie Sanders suspends his 2020 campaign, you’re all over us to commit to your boy, Joe Biden.

 

We’ve been here before. We have a pretty good idea how this story ends. Maybe you’d do well to listen to us for once.

 
We’ve spent years of intense effort changing the narrative of politics in America. We’ve held live streams, phone banked, knocked on doors, overfilled arenas. We’ve pushed Medicare for all, raising the minimum wage, universal college, a Green New Deal.

 

And the only thing you can say is “I told you so”?

 

All you have to say is “blue no matter who”?

 

It’s just “Get in line or you’ll be responsible – again.”

 

Let me ask you a question: what are YOU responsible for?

 

When Bernie was winning state after state, the media acted like it was a literal invasion of brownshirts. When Biden was winning, it was the best news since sliced bread.

 

Who’s responsible for that?

 

Bernie was running away with the primary until nearly all the other candidates mysteriously dropped out all at once right before Super Tuesday. And now we find out Barack Obama gave them each a call before hand – putting his finger on the scale.

 

Who’s responsible?

 

The Democratic National Committee literally pushed to continue primaries in Illinois, Florida and Arizona during a pandemic in case waiting might bolster Bernie – the candidate with policies tailor made to fight COVID-19. And the result has been a flood of sick people and a nearly insurmountable delegate lead.

 

Who’s responsible?

 

Once again – no one.

 

Not a single establishment Democrat, Hillary or Biden supporter has ever said, “We fucked up.” It’s only what everyone else did. No accountability for your actions at all.

 

Don’t Bernie supporters have a right to be pissed off about it?

 

Can we just have a moment to express our authentic human rage?

 
This may come as a shock but almost all Bernie supporters want to beat Trump in November.

 

And now we have no choice but Biden with which to do it.

 

We have a candidate with a long history of outrageous and provable lies – including statements only a month old that he was arrested while visiting Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

 

We have only a candidate with a history of inappropriate touching of women and a credible rape allegation.

 

We have a candidate who degraded Anita Hill to help far right Republican Clarence Thomas get on the Supreme Court.

 

We have a candidate who wrote the bankruptcy bill that stopped protection from millions right before a recession.

 

We have a candidate who has repeatedly been willing to cut social security.

 

We have a candidate who refuses to support Medicare for all – even during a global pandemic.

 

And you think Berners are somehow out of line for expressing anger over this shit?

 

You need to wake up.

 

At this point, we need unity more than ever.

 

We need to come together and defeat Trump.

 

But to do that, we need more than just hatred of the incumbent.

 

Sure we need someone who will nominate sane Supreme Court justices, but we need a base that will give him the support to get these nominees approved and not leave them in the wind like Merrick Garland.

 

We need real policies that people can get behind. And even if Bernie came up short on delegates, his policies are still incredibly popular – more popular than he is.

 

If you want some of us to pull the lever for your boy in November, you’d do a lot better fixing Biden’s policy positions than gaslighting Bernie folk.

 

You’d do a lot better getting Biden to pick strong progressives for cabinet positions and leadership positions in his electoral campaign than trying to bully us into obedience.

 

You’d do a lot better committing to Bernie as a second choice if Biden somehow demonstrates he’s unable to continue with the campaign (and you KNOW what I mean).

 

And perhaps more than anything – you’d do well to give us a little fucking space.

 

Berners need time to mourn.

 

I said that before and someone thought I was joking. I’m not.

 

If Bernie folk have a weakness, it’s that we’re believers.

 

We believed in our political revolution.

 

We believed in the idea of “Not me. Us.”

 

We believed a better world was possible.

 

Now that better world is further out of reach.

 

And all you have to offer us is one that’s slightly less fucked.

 


 

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Top 10 Reasons to Vote for Joe Biden in the 2020 General Election

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With Bernie Sanders dropping out of the 2020 Democratic Primary, I can think of only these 10 reasons to vote for Joe Biden in the November general election:

 

10) He’s not Donald Trump.

9) He’s not Donald Trump.

8) He’s not Donald Trump.

7) He’s not Donald Trump.

6) He’s not Donald Trump.

5) He’s not Donald Trump.

4) He’s not Donald Trump.

3) He’s not Donald Trump.

2) He’s not Donald Trump.

1) He’s not Donald Trump.

 


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

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Charter Schools, Harrisburg & Mayor Peduto Created Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Budget Deficit

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Where did all the money go?

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools will start 2020 with a $25.1 million budget deficit.

 

 

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Hamlet has asked for a 2.3% tax increase to cover the shortfall, but school directors ended up approving his spending plan without approving the tax increase.

 

 

The school board will meet on Friday to decide whether to ultimately raise taxes or make cuts including possible staff furloughs.

 

 

But in the meantime, city residents are left wondering why the measure was necessary in the first place.

 

 

After all, student enrollment has gone down at the second biggest district in the state after Philadelphia, yet spending is up 2.4% from 2019.

 

 

It really all comes down to three things: charter schools, retirement costs and tax revenue differed to the city.

 

 

CHARTER SCHOOLS

 

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Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but often privately run. As such, any student living within district boundaries takes funding away from the district.

 

 

And the amount of money keeps rising even though enrollment has not increased at these charter schools.

 

 

Since 2014, the amount the district has sent to these privatized schools has gone up by 88%.

 

 

In 2019, the district paid $95,129,023 to charter schools. In the proposed 2020 budget, new district projections put the expenditure at $102,150,444. That’s an increase of $7,021,421 in a single year.

 

 

 

So the cost of charter schools is 15% of the entire proposed budget. If it were eliminated, the district wouldn’t have a budget deficit at all – it would be running with a dramatic surplus.

 

 

And this is money that need not be spent.

 

 

Only about 6% of public school students state-wide are enrolled in these schools, and they duplicate services students are already receiving. Yet charter schools provide little value for students.

 

 

Nearly every study has found that charter schools do not produce better academic results than authentic public schools – in fact, many drastically underperform their public school counterparts.

 

 

For instance, a recent study of charter school students in Pennsylvania conducted by the school privatization friendly Center for Research on EDucation Outcomes (CREDO), found that charter students do about the same on reading exams but score worse in math than students in authentic public schools. The study also found major disparities between charter schools – with cyber charters performing especially poorly.

 

 

In addition they have been found to increase racial segregation, cherrypick students, increase administrative overhead and discriminate against students with special needs.

 

 

But the state passed a law in 1997 allowing charter schools and there is nothing Pittsburgh Public Schools can do but continue to pay for them.

 

 

School directors, administrators, teachers, students, parents and concerned citizens can lobby their representatives in Harrisburg to fix these problems, but until they do there is little local districts can do.

 

 

However, the fact that charter schools increase local taxes is beyond doubt.

 

 

According to a recent report by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO), state charter schools are growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. The PASBO calculates at least 37 cents of every new dollar of property taxes in the fiscal year 2017-2018 went right to charters. And that percentage is only expected to grow.

 

 

RETIREMENT COSTS

 

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Another large expenditure beyond the district’s control is retirement costs.

 

 

In 2019, the district spent $73,769,809 on contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS). In 2020, that number is expected to increase to $76,770,577. That’s an increase of $3,000,768.

 

 

Why the increase?

 

 

Because our state lawmakers were fiscally irresponsible.

 

 

Basically, the legislature stopped paying the bills for nearly two decades.

 

 

pa_required_vs_actual_contributions_pew_600

 

The state government, local school districts and commonwealth employees are responsible for paying into the pension system. Districts and state workers made all their payments. Employees put aside 7.5% of their salaries every year to pay for their retirement.

 

 

But the legislature didn’t make its payments. It pushed them off to the future, and now that the future’s here, a larger percentage of the cost has fallen on local school districts.

 

 

It’s a problem of Harrisburg’s making and – frankly – the legislature should be buckling down to find a solution.

 

 

But instead they’re planning on the cynical assumption that voters are too stupid to understand it all and will just blame public school employees for demanding what we promised them when they were hired. The legislature has continuously reduced benefits for future employees and tried to illegally cut benefits for current ones.

 

 

What they should do is increase taxes on the wealthy and pay their damn bills.

 

 

We had a contract with employees when they were hired. We can’t renege on it now that they’ve retired.

 

 

Once again this is something Pittsburgh Public school directors and administrators have no control over. It will take a combined effort by local communities across the Commonwealth to lobby Harrisburg to get off its ass and fix the problem it made.

 

 

MAYOR PEDUTO

 

 

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The final factor behind the proposed tax increase is Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

 

 

When the city was on the verge of financial collapse 15 years ago, the school district agreed to help by diverting a portion of its tax revenue to the city.

 

 

Now that the city is out of financial distress (and has been since 2018), Dr. Hamlet has suggested the city should return that money – not back payments, just stop taking the additional tax revenue. Administrators estimate that would bring in another $20 million for the city school district.

 

 

It wouldn’t heal the budget shortfall all by itself, but it would certainly help.

 

 

However, Peduto has furiously raged that he would not support such a measure and would fight it in Harrisburg.

 

 

Frankly, it’s a real dick move.

 

 

When asked about it he deflects to criticisms of the Hamlet administration that really have nothing to do with anything.

 

 

It’s really a simple matter. The schools lent the city money when it was in distress. The city is no longer in distress, so it should stop taking that additional money.

 

 

SOLUTIONS

 

 

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The first thing that has to be done is for Pittsburgh Public School directors to put on their grown up pants and raise taxes.

 

 

Look, I get it. No one wants to raise millage. But sometimes being an adult means doing things you don’t want to do.

 

 

And frankly, it’s not really that hard a call.

 

 

Pittsburgh Public Schools has the lowest tax rate in Allegheny County at only 9.84 mills. Most suburban districts range from 12 to 31 mils.

 

 

The proposed tax increase would mean paying an additional $23 for a property valued at $100,000.

 

 

This is not an unbearable burden.
Some complain that it would push city residents to move – but really anywhere else you move will have higher taxes! Anyone who packs up and moves away will not be doing it for financial reasons.

 

 

According to the district’s own Website, 67% of its students are non-white. Only 33% are white, with 53% African American and 14% other races.

 

 

Anyone complaining about money being spent on district students is upset about money being spent on THOSE KIDS. Just as so many of the criticisms of Dr. Hamlet, who is black, come down to an inability to accept a person of color in a position of power – especially if he isn’t going to simply give in to corporate interests looking to pick the district dry.

 

 

The fact is the majority of district students live in poverty. Though enrollment has gone down, that has allowed per pupil expenditures to increase and help heal the trauma of penury.

 

 

These kids need smaller class sizes, more tutoring, librarians, counselors, wider curriculum, etc. The money being spent on them is not wasted. In fact, in a perfect world it would be increased. We need to spend MORE on our poorest students than our most privileged ones to help them catch up.

 

 

I am thankful that board members Veronica Edwards, Pam Harbin, Devon Taliaferro, and Sylvia Wilson understood that by voting for both the proposed budget and the tax increase.

 

 

Kevin Carter, at least approved the spending plan, but he abstained from voting on whether the district should raise taxes, explaining later that he promised his constituents that was something he wouldn’t do.

 

 

Board members Cindy Falls, Bill Gallagher, Terry Kennedy, and Sala Udin voted against both measures.

 

 

Here’s hoping they find the courage to do what’s right after the holidays.

 

 

But even if they do, there is much more we must accomplish – and it requires everyone.

 

 

City residents need to rise up and demand their representatives put out the raging dumpster fires they keep lighting.

 

 

We need a state legislature willing to take on the charter school industry and at very least stop making it compete with authentic public schools for funding.

 

 

We need lawmakers willing to make the wealthy pay their fair share so the rest of us get the civil society we deserve – and that includes paying for the pension obligations we’ve already incurred.

 

 

And Pittsburgh needs a mayor who isn’t going to rage and foam at the prospect of FairPlay and will return the money Pittsburgh Public lent to the city.

 


 

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

 

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