Thursday, Propel teachers and other staff voted 236-82 to join the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).
The drive took 9 months to achieve. Propel enrolls about 4,000 students at 13 schools in Braddock Hills, Hazelwood, Homestead, McKeesport, Pitcairn, Turtle Creek, Munhall, McKees Rocks and the North Side.
They don’t have to be run by elected school boards. They don’t have to manage their business at public meetings. They don’t have to open their budgets to public review. Heck! They don’t even have to spend all the money they get from taxes on their students.
Nor do they have to accept every student in their coverage area. They can cherry pick whichever students they figure are cheapest to educate and those who they predict will have the highest test scores. And they can hide this discrimination behind a lottery or whatever other smoke screen they want because – Hey! The rules don’t apply to them!
Now you have to pay a living wage. You can’t demand people work evenings and weekends without paying them overtime. You have to provide safe working conditions for students and staff. And if you want to cut student services and pocket the difference, the staff is going to have something to say about that – AND YOU HAVE TO LISTEN!
How much will union power beat back charter bosses?
Will the worst financial gamblers abandon school privatization because unions make it too difficult to make handfuls of cash? One can hope.
If it happened, the only charters left standing would be those created without profit as their guiding principle. The goal would really have to be doing the best thing for children, not making shadowy figures in the background a truckload of money.
Do such charter schools even exist? Maybe. With staff continuing to unionize, maybe there will be even more of them.
However, even if all of them become altruistic, there still remains a problem.
This means things like class size, access to tutoring and remediation, extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, field trips, counseling, even access to a school nurse often depends on how rich of a community kids live in.
It’s a backward and barbaric way of supporting children – a kind of economic Darwinism that gives the richest kids the most advantages from the very start while holding back everyone else.
In the Pittsburgh area, we have a solution ready at hand to at least reduce the inequality among rich and poor kids. All we have to do is reach into the trash.
Three years ago we had a ballot initiative called The Children’s Fund. It would have created a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids. It was defeated by voters.
And for good reason.
The proposal was an absolute mess.
As a local teacher, education activist and blogger, I advised against the plan because it raised taxes without stipulating where the money would go, it was unclear who would have been in charge of the money and other reasons.
But that doesn’t mean there was nothing of value there.
The idea of county tax revenues being used to help balance the scales of public school funding is not a bad one.
We could fix the problems with the original children’s fund and create a new one.
The 2018 Children’s Fund would have raised taxes by 0.25 mills of property tax — $25 on each $100,000 of assessed value. This would have generated an estimate $18 million a year and gone to a newly created government office under the supervision of the county manager. There would have been an advisory commission but it was really left under the discretion of the County Executive to figure out how all this would work. He’d get to pick who was in charge of the money and where it went.
This was a terrible idea.
We don’t need a big pot of money that a king gets to dole out as he chooses. Nor do we need to created unnecessary bureaucracy.
All we need is a funding formula. Collect X amount of tax revenues and send it to Y schools according to these guidelines prioritizing Title I schools and other institutions serving needy children.
Moreover, the fund doesn’t even need to include a tax increase. Council should first look to cut wasteful spending already in the budget to generate the money needed.
We already have a $2 billion budget. We spend $100 million of it to keep people locked up in the county jail, and 80 percent of them are nonviolent offenders who haven’t been convicted of anything. Many simply can’t pay cash bail, failed a drug test for something like marijuana or violated our ridiculously long parole period.
Finding $18 million might not be too difficult if we took a hard look at our finances and our priorities. And even if we couldn’t find the full amount, we could propose a lower tax increase. And if we do have to increase revenues, we can look to do so by making corporations and the wealthy pay their fair share before putting more burden on residents.
We should at least explore these options before jumping on another across the board tax increase even if the cause is a good one.
Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it was too broad. For instance, it suggested some of this money be used to offer meals to children in school. However, much of that need has been met by a program called the Community Eligibility Provision which is available nationwide as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed in 2010.
We should limit the new children’s fund to increasing pre-K access to needy children, offering funding to school districts to create or fund existent after school tutoring programs, reduce class size and increase teacher salaries at low income schools.
Another problem with the 2018 proposal was that it worked around instead of with local government.
Before enacting any new legislation, County Council should seek input from school districts and pre-K programs. That way, the legislation can be best crafted to meet need.
I care about schools, students and families, but I don’t know everything and neither does County Council or the County Executive. We should be humble enough to listen to what stakeholders tell us they need and then find a way to meet it.
Finally, there’s the question of fraud and mismanagement of funds.
One of the biggest red flags around the 2018 campaign is that it was not grass roots.
Financial documents show that the whole initiative had been funded by various nonprofit organizations that could, themselves, become beneficiaries of this same fund.
We have to make sure that the money is going to help children, not corporate raiders or profit-obsessed philanthrocapitalists.
To ensure this does not happen, we should put some restrictions on how the money can be used.
For example, the federal government is infamous for offering money to schools with strings attached. President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top, for example, was a huge corporate welfare scheme to enrich standardized testing and school privatization corporations. Schools could compete for limited funds by increasing test scores, and then if they won, they’d have to spend that money on test prep or privatization.
We don’t need any of those shenanigans in Allegheny County.
That’s why this new funding should be available at charter schools ONLYif those schools charters are in good standingAND if the charter schools will admit to a yearly public audit of how the money has been spent. Any misappropriation or unaccounted for funding would disqualify the charter school from further funding and prompt an immediate full state audit.
I think if we enacted legislation along those lines, we could really make a difference for the children of our county.
The commonwealth ranks 47th in the nation for the share of K-12 public education funding that comes from the state.
The state ranks 48th nationally in opportunity gaps for high school students of color compared with white students and 47th for Hispanic students, according to a 2018 report from the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Research for Action.
A separate 2016 study found that Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between students along racial and socioeconomic divides in the country.
It’s absurd, like paramedics arriving at a car crash, finding one person in a pool of blood and another completely unscathed – but before they know which person needs first aid, they have to take everyone’s blood pressure.
They could say, “Vote for Sam Smith. He got an Advanced Score on the Democratic System of Statesperson Assessments (DSSA).”
Or “Don’t vote for Megan Mission. She only scored a Satisfactory on the Partnership for Assessment of Republicanism for Congress or Klan (PARCK).”
What an improvement that would be!
Finally, we wouldn’t have to rely on a politician’s voting record or campaign contributions or platform…. We could just look at the score and vote accordingly.
But who would we get to make and grade the tests?
It couldn’t be the politicians, themselves, or even their respective political parties. That wouldn’t be standardized somehow.
If we can’t let teachers create tests for their own students, we certainly can’t trust politicians to do the same for their fellow campaigners.
I guess we could task the testing corporations with making these assessments, but that’s a conflict of interests. We should instead rely on the educational experts, people with the credentials and the most experience actually giving standardized tests.
Sure, I teach grammar and vocabulary, but we also read “The Diary of Anne Frank.” We read “The Outsiders” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” We read authors from Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Dickens to Langston Hughes, Toni Cade Bambera and Gwendolyn Brooks.
For 17 years I’ve watched my students learn and grow as the resources available to them withered and died. Privatization expanded like a new frontier as constraints upon what counts as learning became more rigid and reductive.
Class sizes got larger every year. Electives, extra curricular activities, tutoring all disappeared.
Many schools reopened unsafely. Not only did people get sick, but the quality of education was subordinate to babysitting services so parents could get back to nonessential jobs that kept their bosses showered in profit.
Too many school directors became like the mayor in Jaws, proudly announcing the beaches were open, then trying desperately to find any excuse for the mangled bodies washing up on shore other than a hungry shark.
If so few people tasked with making the important decisions couldn’t do it, I would offer to do it, myself.
If so many easily corrupted fools could cheer the destruction of democracy, I would do what I could to defend it.
So when the opportunity arose to run for County Council, I took it.
Like I said, it’s a strange position.
Allegheny County is one of the biggest counties in Pennsylvania second only to Philadelphia. Being on council would allow me to have a say in everything from transportation to law enforcement to business to – yes – education.
First, the area where I live – the Mon Valley – is made up of former steel towns left behind by the rest of the county. In most parts of the city, if you need to get somewhere, you can just take a bus. Not in the Mon Valley.
So many Port Authority routes have been cut that getting in to the city on public transportation is nearly an all day affair – if possible at all. I should know. My wife used to ride to work on the bus, but after the latest round of cuts, that become too hard to fathom.
On County Council, I could do something about that.
When the steel mills closed, we lost most of the smog and haze, but it didn’t last. With the fracking boom and well-meaning efforts to keep as many mills open as possible, the air became a thick, rusty tasting mess.
On County Council, I could do something about that.
Well-paying union jobs are harder to come by these days, and those that do exist shouldn’t require us to poison the environment. We have all these rivers, all these corridors free from trees or phone lines. We could build wind turbines on the shores and generate more power than we’d know what to do with. We could checker the rooftops with solar panels and not have to worry about the latest thunderstorm knocking out our power.
And doing so would require hiring people to build, maintain and improve this green infrastructure. No more sewage overflowing into the river during flood times. No more pollution from industries not required to monitor and regulate their output. No more lead from flaking paint getting into our food and water.
On County Council, I could do something about that.
About 80% of the people incarcerated there have not been convicted of any crime. They simply can’t afford cash bail, failed a drug test (often for something like marijuana) or violated our county’s inordinately long parole period. It’s ridiculously expensive not to mention inhumane. It costs $100 a day to keep someone in lockup. That’s $100 million a year or 27 cents from every dollar of county taxes collected.
We need to stop this madness, get civilian oversight of police and cut out the military style policing.
On County Council, I could do something about that.
Moreover, County Council plays a role in appointing people to boards and authorities including those that administer CCAC. Yet council has rarely appointed any educators or people who understand the profession.
On County Council, I could do something about that.
Which brings me to my final point.
What about public schools?
Does the county have any role to play in what happens to them?
In Pennsylvania, as in most states, public schools are primarily funded by local property taxes. So rich communities spend a boatload per student and poor communities scrape together whatever they can afford.
DeShaun frowned but got ready anyway. He didn’t want to have to sit outside all day again. There were older kids in the park who got kids like him to run drugs during the day. He could make some money that way, but the only kids he knew who did that got hooked on their own supply. That or arrested.
Heck! He’d been arrested for loitering twice this year already.
“Hurry! Let’s go!” Mom shouted as she handed each child a yogurt and a bag of chips.
The bus was full even at this hour.
DeShaun recognized a bunch of kids who usually went to the daycare.
His best friend, Paul, used to ride the bus, but then his mom got him into the private school in the city. She and his dad had to cash in his entire school voucherAND pay an additional $10,000 a year, but they said it was worth it. Still, DeShaun missed his friend.
Octavia was standing a bit further down the aisle though. She was usually good for a trade. He guessed she’d take his yogurt for some Hot Cheetos.
When they got to the right stop, Mom gave his shoulder a squeeze and told him to watch out for his brother. She’d see him at the end of the day.
He and Marco made it just in time.
He saw Octavia get turned away at the door.
“Dang!” He said. He really wanted those Hot Cheetos.
He wanted to play with the toys in the Reward Room, but no one got in there before lunch.
Marco was crying.
“What’s wrong?” He said.
“I can’t find my iPad.”
“Didn’t you pack it?”
“I think I left it on the charger.”
“You dummy!” DeShaun said and handed Marco his own iPad.
“Take this,” he said. “I can use my phone.”
It had a huge crack on the screen but he could probably read through the jagged edges if he tried hard enough. That probably meant no Reward Room though.
First, he clicked on Edu-Mental. It wanted him to read through some stuff about math and do some problems. He couldn’t really see them but he could hear about them through his earbuds.
Then he didLang-izzy. There was a fun game where you had to shoot all the verbs in these sentences that scrolled across the screen faster and faster. But DeShaun’s timing was off and even though he knew the answers, he couldn’t get a high enough score to get a badge.
He skipped to Sky-ba-Bomb. It had a lot of videos but it was his least favorite. He couldn’t tell which ones were about history and which were advertisements. Plus he got so many pop ups after just a few minutes, he often had to disconnect from the wi-fi or restart his phone.
Oh, what now?
“Miss Lady,” Marco was saying.
The blonde haired new girl came over to him.
“What is it, Sweetie?”
“Can I go to the bathroom?”
She checked her iPad.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Honey. You’ve only been logged on for half an hour. Answer a few more questions and then you can go.”
DeShaun grabbed his shoulder and shook him.
“Why didn’t you go before we left home?”
“I didn’t have-ta go then. I have-ta go NOW!”
He could leave the daycare and go outside. There was even a filthy bathroom at the gas station a few blocks away. But if he left now someone outside was bound to take his spot. And Mom wouldn’t get a refund or nothing.
The blonde was about to walk away when DeShaun stopped her.
“He can take my pass. I’ve been on long enough.”
“That means you won’t get to go until after lunch,” she reminded him.
“I won’t drink anything,” he said.
She shrugged. That seemed to be her main way of communicating with people. She looked barely old enough to be out of daycare, herself.
DeShaun gave Marco his phone and sat there waiting for him to come back.
He remembered back in Mrs. Lemon’s class he could go to the bathroom anytime he wanted. In fact, he’d often wait until her period everyday to go to the bathroom. That way he’d have time to walk halfway around the building and look in all the open doorways and see what everyone was doing.
He could email a question to someone but rarely got an answer back.
When he first started going to daycare, he asked one of the workers a question. There used to be this nice lady, Miss Weathers. She would at least try to answer the kids questions but he thought she got in trouble for doing it and he hadn’t seen her here since.
…If you’re learning reading, writing and arithmetic.
What the heck is going on here!?
I thought the anti-science Trump CDC was a thing of the past.
Less than a month ago, health memos from the organization were being edited by Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. In September the White House blocked the agency from issuing a nationwide requirement that masks be worn on all public transportation.
Now with the Democrats in control of both houses of Congress and the Presidency, you’d expect something different.
First, the average Super Bowl party only lasts a few hours. When not in remote or hybrid mode, schools typically are open 7-8 hours a day for five days a week, over 9 months.
You receive much more exposure to Covid-19 at school than at any Super Bowl party.
At both venues, people will be eating and drinking – the most dangerous time for infection. At parties, people may be snacking throughout the event. At school, students at least will eat lunch and probably breakfast not to mention possible snacks between meals. That’s approximately 180 breakfasts and lunches at which you are exposed to Covid compared with a few hours of nachos and pizza.
Moreover, the people attending these parties are mostly adults. Even with the likelihood that people will be drinking at these events, if you have responsible friends, these adults are much more likely to take precautions against infection than children. Kids are constantly fidgeting with their masks. Younger kids and some special needs students at many schools are even given mask breaks or excused from wearing them altogether. And that’s if the school in question has a mask mandate at all!
The idea that Covid doesn’t spread at school or is unlikely to spread is magical thinking.
Walensky, herself, went on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show where she repeated her controversial statement but added that other steps need to be taken to lower risks for teachers and students, as well, including masking, social distancing and more viral testing.
“Schools should be the last places closed and the first places opened,” Walensky said.
Again, that is not a scientific statement. It’s a political one.
For someone who claims to be separating science and politics, she sounds much more like a Biden surrogate than a science advisor.
But it’s not just Walensky. The organization she oversees has made some huge missteps on this same issue since Biden’s inauguration – emphasizing some studies and completely ignoring others that don’t support the party line.
CDC scientists published an article last week in the journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that claimed some schools were able to reopen safely by following safety precautions. In fact, this one article is the cornerstone of Walensky’s assertion that “There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen.”
However, it was roundly criticized by the scientific community because the study was based on only 17 rural Wisconsin schools. Moreover, the data was based primarily on contact tracing. And considering that most children are asymptomatic even when infected with Covid-19, contact tracing is a poor method of determining how many people are infected in schools.
It’s not that the data is contradictory as much as the method the CDC is relying on is a poor indicator of infection.
Large-scale prevalence studies or antibody testing of students and teachers would much more accurately determine the relationship between educational settings and community transmission. But to date the CDC has not conducted any such studies.
The European Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC) have acknowledged that children of all ages are susceptible to and can transmit Covid-19. Moreover, the organization admitted that school closures can contribute to a reduction in infections though by themselves such closures are not enough. It takes all of society working together to halt the spread of the virus.
Even England’s prime minister Boris Johnson conceded, “The problem is schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.”
But that’s not all. Take this study from southern India, published in the journal Science on November 6, which found children were spreading the virus among themselves and adults. Using both contact tracing and viral testing the study indicated that super-spreading events predominated, with approximately 5 percent of infected individuals accounting for 80 percent of secondary cases.
Dr. Ramanan Laxminarayan, member of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy in New Delhi, India, told NPR, “What we found in our study is that children were actually quite important. They were likely to get infected, particularly by young adults of the ages 20 to 40. They were likely to transmit the disease amongst themselves … and they also go out and infect people of all age groups, including the elderly. Many kids are silent spreaders in the sense that they don’t manifest the disease with symptoms. They happen to get infected as much as anyone else, and then they happen to spread it to other people.”
Why is none of this being considered by the CDC?
If the goal is to remove politics from science, shouldn’t the organization follow the evidence even if it goes against Biden’s school reopening policy?
Are these other studies invalidated because they were conducted in other parts of the world?
● A JAMA study published July 29 concluded that statewide school closures in the first wave of the pandemic led to a 62 percent decline in the incidence of COVID-19 per week. Similarly, the death rate saw a 58 percent decrease. States that closed earlier saw the most significant weekly reductions.
● According to a study published in Science, the combination of the closure of schools and universities, limiting gatherings to 10 people or less, and closing most nonessential businesses reduced the reproductive number (R0) to below one. These efforts reduced the number of infections in the community. Among the interventions listed, school closures and limiting gatherings to 10 people had the highest impact on slowing the infections.
● A Nature study published in November ranked the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 interventions. It concluded that the cancellation of small gatherings, closure of educational institutions, border restrictions, increased availability of PPE and individual restrictions were statistically significant in reducing the reproductive number (R0).
Where are these studies in the CDC’s analysis?
Because this is not about science. It is still about politics.
Despite it all, I knew I was one of the lucky ones.
It had been a long journey to this place, the Brentwood Volunteer Fire Department. And not just in miles.
I had spent the better part of a week trying to find a place here in Western Pennsylvania where I could even get the vaccine.
On Sunday, a teacher I’ve worked with for 15 years left me a message that she was going to Bloomfield with her husband. She had heard Wilson’s Pharmacy was giving out the vaccine. Like me, her husband has a heart condition and so qualified for the shot.
In the Keystone state, only medical personnel, people 65 and older or those with certain health conditions have been prioritized to get the vaccine so far.
They can cruise up to nearly any hospital and get a dose.
The rest of us have to make an appointment somewhere else – if we can find one.
I sat up in bed trying to decide if I wanted to drive all the way to Bloomfield on the off chance that they’d have a shot with my name on it. Considering that it was about an hour away if I left right then and the message from my co-worker was about a half hour old, I doubted my chances.
But as I showered and the sleep left me, I started to think I might roll the dice.
However, when I called the pharmacy on my way out the door, I was told they had run out of the medication.
And for most of that week, this was the closest I got.
I went on-line every day trying to find somewhere to get the vaccine. I tried Giant Eagle, Rite Aide, Allegheny County, various pharmacies, etc. All nada.
Sometimes I had to keep a browser window on my computer open for hours just to be turned down. Sometimes a hopeful page would pop up asking for information, and I’d fill it all in only to get the same negative message.
Now – for no discernible reason – school directors wanted to open back up.
Infections are still high throughout the county and the state. There is no justifiable reason to reopen except that decision makers are bored. That and they are tired of hearing people complain that we are taking too many precautions to protect kids. And those darn teachers and their all-powerful unions!
I knew I couldn’t go back to the classroom.
I hadn’t been back since March when we closed down the first time.
My only choice was to stay home using sick days or get fully vaccinated before returning to the classroom.
I wanted to do the later. I wanted to be there for my students. But that was looking like an impossibility.
Frankly, I don’t think it’s safe for the kids even if I am vaccinated. But after almost a year of fighting with school directors, administrators and some angry parents, I was willing to concede the point. These are their kids, after all. If parents think it’s safe, that’s their choice.
We don’t do this because we think it’s the best way to learn. We do it because we love her and don’t want to put her life in jeopardy.
I had about given up on ever getting back to the classroom, myself, when my cousin, Lora, texted me.
Her family and mine used to be fairly close when we were kids, but I hadn’t really talked to her much in recent years.
“Hi Steve. I wanted to see if you were able to get a vaccine appointment for yourself. My sister-in-law has been helping people in [group] 1A get appointments, and I know she wouldn’t mind looking for you… I’m worried about you with your heart condition…”
I was struck dumb.
I remembered Lora as this skinny little girl who tagged along after my brother and me. We used to put on little plays in my grandmother’s basement. I gave her some of my stuffed animals when I grew out of them.
When she was a teenager we didn’t get along very well. It was my fault. I was jealous of the time she took from my mom.
Frankly, I was a jerk to her. I know that now, and I’d felt terrible about it long before I got this text.
But here she was now – a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh. She was no longer that little girl. She was no longer that annoying teen. She’s a grown woman with command of her field and the respect of her colleagues.
I’d already known that. What I didn’t know was that she had such a big heart. Big enough to encompass an asshole like me.
I think it was only a day later, maybe that very night that I got the email from Spartan Pharmacy that I had an appointment for the following afternoon.
I had signed up for Spartan’s waiting list before Lora contacted me. But she and her sister-in-law, Caity, knew I had an appointment almost before I did.
Lora says Caity is her “vaccine Angel.” I don’t think I’ve ever met her, but the two of them helped me through every step of the way.
I had to fill out a form before going to my appointment and the Website simply wouldn’t load. Too many people were probably trying to access it at the same time. Someone told me the next day that 15,000 people had signed up.
Lora and Caity sent me a copy by email an hour later.
I don’t see how I could have done any of this without them.
So the next day when I got to the Brentwood VFD, found one of the few available parking spaces and got into the long line in the bitter cold, I couldn’t really be upset by the discomfort of the situation.
Even when it started to snow, and my glove felt like it was almost nonexistent, I couldn’t get too down.
In about an hour or so, I knew I’d have the vaccine.
I had hope again – something that had been missing for far too long.
It wasn’t trouble free for those in line. Most of the people there were elderly. Many were in wheelchairs or had walkers.
One gentlemen fell on the cracked pavement and people from the crowd helped him back up. I remember his daughter kept asking him if he’d cracked his head.
But I was at the front of the line and entered the building then.
It was warm at least.
And the people there were very friendly.
Once inside, it didn’t take long at all before I was taking off my coat and rolling up my sleeve.
There was a slight pinch and that was it.
I gave them my paperwork, they gave me an appointment a month hence for my second dose and I was told to sit and wait for 15 minutes before leaving.
I had no side effects.
The next morning the injection site was a little sore but I’ve had worse bug bites.
And so here I am.
Some people worry about the vaccine because of how quickly it was developed, but not me.
I’ve seen the pictures and videos of our lawmakers and celebrities getting the shot. Even the disingenuous Covid deniers who claim the pandemic is all a hoax don’t let their “conviction” stop them from getting a dose.
That more than anything proves the vaccine’s veracity for me.
I know that once I get the second dose, I can still bring Covid home to those I love. But from what I’ve read, even if that happened it would be a weakened form of it.
There’s a lot of uncertainty – new strains of the disease that the vaccine may or may not protect against.
In a perfect world, we’d wait until the majority of people were as safeguarded as I am before getting on with everything. But we don’t live in a perfect world.
If anything, the virus has shown us how imperfect it is.
But it has also shown us the exact opposite – the power of kindness and love.
On most weekends back in the 1980s, you’d probably find me at TILT, the mall’s crowded video game arcade.
When I was about 12 – around ’86 or so – one of my favorite games was “Outrun” by Sega.
Ever play it?
In a cherry red Ferrari convertible with the wind blowing through my virtual hair, I’d race through various summer style environments from beach to forest, to mesa to mountains.
I even got to pick which song to play on the highway – something Latin, Caribbean, or just smooth and easy.
But the real kicker – the thing that really sold this wish fulfillment fantasy – wasn’t the cool car, clement weather or soundtrack.
It was the long haired swimsuit model sitting next to me in the passenger seat.
Not only was I a real badass racing through a summer dream, but I had someone by my side, reclining at ease, sharing the journey.
And if I crashed – which often happened cresting a hill – after the car flipped multiple times in the air – my digital 80s crush and I both ended up somehow unhurt on the road. She’d sit on the white lane marker staring at my dazed avatar with all the reproach that could be programmed into a mere 16 bits.
Sometimes I think that’s a good metaphor for blogging.
I’m still in the drivers seat, steering through the twists and turns of education, equity and politics. Yet sometimes I can’t help but hit an obstacle and go flying. Through it all there’s been one constant: you – my readers – relaxed and belted in for whatever may come.
I’ll admit, this year has been one heck of a bumpy ride.
From the global COVID-19 pandemic to the critical failure of government to deal with it at nearly every level, it’s been like some sort of science fiction fantasy more than anything else.
From the spectacular sore losership of Donald Trump to the science denial of his followers and the death cult of capitalism poisoning all in-between, it’s been a year to test the hopes of just about anyone.
So much pain, confusion and death. So much isolation, betrayal, bone deep exhaustion and depression.
I’d rather imagine myself parked on an overlook, leaning back in my red sports car watching the sun set with a good friend by my side.
Since we’re stopped for the moment waiting for the last zero on the dial to scroll up to a 1 and become that terrifying number of numbers, 2021, let’s take a look back at the year that was in blogging.
I’m not sure how to characterize it other than to say it must have been some kind of success.
About 49,000 more people read my articles this year than in 2019.
The site had around 347,700 hits this year – the most since 2017. My cumulative total in 5 and a half years even hit the 2 million mark (2,080,000 to be more precise).
Not bad for a school teacher, a laptop and a dream.
A lot of what I had to say in this year’s 72 posts focused on the pandemic and how our leaders were blowing it.
That sounds like rational criticism, but it was really just me pointing out what things looked like on the ground and begging the people in power not to put myself and the people I care about in jeopardy – with mixed results.
The other major theme was the Presidential election. The Democrats had their last chance to nominate and elect Bernie Sanders, the candidate best equipped to meet the times we live in. And they blew it again.
Neoliberalism triumphed. Only time will tell the price we’ll have to pay for that blunder. Will we destroy the neofacist architecture of the Trump years only to return to the corporatist utopia of Obama and George W Bush? And if so, will we still have any chance to tear that Hellscape down in favor of a world that actually values the people living in it more than the value they can create for the one percent?
On top of that were a smattering of articles about school issues, equity and how we might fix things.
Over all, I’d say I crashed the Ferrari more often than I navigated the hairpin turns. But every now and then I feel like I was heard, that I helped stop something even worse from coming our way.
And at the end of the day, we made it to the checkpoint.
We got an extended time bonus, and a chance to do it all over again next year.
Hopefully, it will be a more clear path.
Hopefully, we’ll still have a chance to cross the finish line.
And hopefully, you’ll still accept my invitation for another ride into the sunset.
Here are my top 10 articles of 2020 based on popularity:
Description: When Bernie Sanders dropped out of the 2020 Democratic Primary, I could think of only these 10 reasons to vote for Joe Biden in the November general election: 1-10 were “He’s not Donald Trump.”
Description: When the COVID-19 pandemic first crashed down on us, I was one of many saying that high stakes testing made no sense as schools nationwide were closing. The best way to allow teachers to make up for lost time with their students was to prioritize learning over assessment.
Fun Fact: It worked. We actually cancelled the big standardized test in 2019-2020. And now here we are a year later in a similar position making similar arguments and the testing companies and their lackeys are fighting against us tooth and nail.
Description: The most depressing thing about the pandemic has been how uniform the attack has been on educators. Demanding a safe work environment for ourselves and our students has been seen as unreasonable by lawmakers, school directors, union leaders and even some public school advocates.
Fun Fact: If anything has the potential to unravel the ties made by pro-public school forces in the last few decades, it is this. I know people are scared that closing school buildings in favor of remote learning may give the upper hand to the ed tech industry when the pandemic is over. But if you can’t stand behind teachers’ right to life now, you cannot expect us to continue to fight for the profession, local control and your children later.
Description: COVID-19 has shown a failure of leadership at every level – including our public schools. The damage has been enough to make anyone doubt everything – including the coherency of the public school project altogether.
Fun Fact: The biggest difference between this and the previous article is that this one is more a mark of despair. The other is more a mark of anger.
Description: When more than 19 million people have caught COVID-19 and 330,000 have died, it does not make sense to keep public schools open. This is an airborne virus that can cause life-long debilitating conditions even in those who survive or are asymptomatic. Yet you need a school teacher to explain to you why distance learning is better under these circumstances.
Fun Fact: Simple truths told simply. Ammunition to save lives. The fact that it’s necessary tells us more about human intelligence than any standardized test ever could.
Description: One of the major media criticisms of the Bernie movement was that it was racist, sexist and homophobic. Yet a substantial portion of supporters were female, racially diverse and/or LGBTQ. For example, women under 45 made up a larger share of Sanders’ base than men of the same age. Two women of color, Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, were co-chairs of the campaign, along with Indian-American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. Sanders’ campaign manager was longtime progressive activist Faiz Shakir.
Fun Fact: File this in the history books under Gas Lighting.
Description: Don’t tell me this primary was fair. When Bernie was winning state after state, the media acted like it was a literal invasion of brownshirts. Yet when Biden was winning, it was the best news since sliced bread. 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. The Democratic National Committee literally pushed to continue primaries in Illinois, Florida and Arizona during the pandemic in case waiting might bolster Bernie – the candidate with policies tailor made to fight COVID-19. And the result was a flood of sick people and a nearly insurmountable delegate lead.
Fun Fact: Was this the moment my heart died? No, I think it was already on life support from 2016. And the subsequent response to the pandemic only took out another ventricle.
Description: When the pandemic began, many of us didn’t expect it to last that long. Certainly we wouldn’t still be in the same situation as summer rapidly came to a close and school was about the begin again! Right? What would we do? What should we even hope for?
Fun Fact: Despite heavy doses of despair, I think I saw clearly what needed to be done even this far back. Many policymakers still don’t see it as a New Year is about to dawn.
Description: When the pandemic began, far right ideologues threatened to reopen schools to keep the economy going. Almost everyone jumped on them for being uncaring idiots willing to sacrifice children on the altar of commerce.
Fun Fact: What was an unpopular opinion in April became mainstream by the end of August as the media bombarded readers with unsubstantiated (and subsequently disproven) reports about how children couldn’t be hurt by the Coronavirus. Subtext: And who gives a crap about the teachers who would have to put their lives on the line to educate these children?
Description: Everyone knows distance learning cannot equal in-person instruction. However, we often ignore the fact that in-person instruction is not the same during the pandemic as it was before COVID-19. Social distancing, limited mobility, plexiglass barriers, cleanliness protocols – all have an impact on academics. Reopening physical school buildings is not returning to the kind of face-to-face instruction students enjoyed as recently as January and February. It is a completely new dynamic that presents as many difficulties – if not maybe more – than learning on-line.
Fun Fact: More ammunition to explain the simple truths of this brave new world where we find ourselves these days. Sadly, it has been ignored as often as it has been heeded. Perhaps more.
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“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” -Martin Luther King Jr
Teachers want a safe place to work.
But in 2020 that is too much to ask.
As the global COVID-19 pandemic rages out of control throughout most parts of the United States, teachers all across the country want to be able to do their jobs in a way that won’t put themselves or their loved ones in danger.
Affected teachers often wonder where their union is, where their progressive representative, where the grassroots activists who were willing to organize against charter schools and high stakes testing.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) agreed.
“We are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place. This strategy – properly implemented – will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic.”
The plan is predicated on a bogus statistic that kids aren’t getting sick at school or spreading the virus from there, that only 0.2% can be traced back to school buildings.
But she was unafraid to contradict President Donald Trump before the election.
She appeared on CNN and challenged Trump to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”
In late April, she took to Twitter saying the NEA is “listening to the health experts and educators on how and when to reopen schools — not the whims of Donald Trump, who boasts about trusting his gut to guide him. Bringing thousands of children together in school buildings without proper testing, tracing, and social isolation is dangerous and could cost lives.”
“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority,” Askey said. “We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”
However, state guidelines are pretty weak. They suggest mask wearing and that districts close when community infection rates are high. But districts can choose to keep buildings open if they promise to follow safety guidelines to the best of their ability.
Gov. Tom Wolf originally issued an order for all schools to close and go to remote learning last March. However, state Republicans challenged his authority to do so and their position was upheld in court.
And these are people from the community. How many times have teachers called them to let them know how their kids were doing in class? How many times have teachers gone with them and their kids on school field trips? How many times have teachers accepted invitations to graduation parties and school board meetings?
But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.
I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.
They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.
In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.
So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.
There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.
They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.
And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.
There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.
Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.
We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.
I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.
So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?
The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.
The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.
Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.
That’s nonsense, too.
Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.
However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.
I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.
And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.
Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.
Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.
It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.
It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.
That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.
That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.
That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.
That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.
In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.