Contact Tracing Does NOT Prove Schools Are Safe During a Pandemic

“No close contacts were identified within the school district.”

That’s what it says on today’s email from my district reporting that two elementary staff and one student tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s what it said on Tuesday’s email about a different elementary staff member testing positive.

And the email from last Sunday about two elementary staff, and last Monday about a middle school staff member, and the one from Nov. 19 about an entire Kindergarten class and its teachers being quarantined.

Actually, that last email said the outbreak was limited to the Kindergarten class and teachers – that no close contacts were identified beyond its doors, in the building or the wider district as a whole.

However, considering that at least five more elementary teachers and another student tested positive later, I’m not sure I believe it.

All of which prompts the question – how accurate is contact tracing?

How Contact Tracing Works

Let’s say a little girl, Ava, gets COVID-19.

Where did she get it from?

Let’s do some contact tracing to find out.

We ask Ava to think back two days before she showed symptoms up until now. Who was she in close contact with (within six feet for at least 15 minutes)? She doesn’t remember much, but she gives us a list of two or three people who may fit the bill.

We call them, find that none of them are sick, none have been out of the state or country, ask them to quarantine and that’s it.

So where did Ava get the virus? Who did she get it from?

We don’t know.

And contact tracing rarely produces an answer to that question.

In fact, that’s not really its point.

Contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing the further spread of an infectious disease. Its goal is to limit spread beyond this point.

We already know Ava has the virus (or is suspected of having it). We’re trying to find out who she may have spread it to – as much as, if not more than – who she got it from.

In the process of doing that we may be able to trace the spread of the virus back to its source before Ava. But probably not.

Why Does Contract Tracing Often Fail to Lead Us Back to the Source of an Outbreak?

If we had rapid and ubiquitous COVID tests, perhaps we could achieve that goal. But we don’t.

Moreover, we’re relying on individuals to voluntarily cooperate with contact tracers and to provide detailed information about who they came into contact with over a wide period.

At best, people are scared and not as specific as they might be. At worst, they refuse to participate at all.

Michael Huff, Pennsylvania’s director of testing and contact tracing efforts, said that more than 34,000 new cases were reported over the past week, but case investigators were only successful in reaching about 8,332.

And of those they did reach, ninety-six people refused to quarantine.

His response:

“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone. Because people do not realize how important it is to give the information we need to make certain we can control disease.”

To make matters worse, most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though they are still capable of spreading the disease, they go undetected by contact tracing entirely.

So it is entirely disingenuous to claim contact tracing proves much of anything about how the virus is spread. It’s usefulness is in stopping COVID-19 from going any further.

How Contact Tracing is Used to Make Wild Claims

Students, teachers and other school staff have come down with the virus in significant numbers.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released last week.

No such estimate exists for school staff, but about 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And though many thousands of school staff have contracted the disease, more than 300 district employees have died nationwide from the virus according to the Associated Press.

Where did all these people get COVID-19?

Contact tracing provides no definitive answer, however, policymakers are pretending that means something.

They’re pretending that the failure of contact tracing to find a direct link means there is no link.

Since contact tracing has rarely been able to identify the source of an outbreak to a particular person in school, they assume that means the virus isn’t spreading much in our schools.

Nonsense!

First of all, there have been significant contact tracing studies that have found these direct links.

In fact, the largest contact tracing study ever conducted shows that children and young adults are potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified.

The study of more than half a million people conducted by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is much greater than previously believed.

However, many policymakers overlook this evidence as contrary or inconclusive.

They insist that contact tracing’s inability to consistently find the causal link is enough to disregard the existence of that link.

Balderdash!

That’s like sniffing the air and claiming with absolute certainty that there is no leak of carbon monoxide. The gas is odorless and colorless. A sniff test will never tell you if it’s present. You need special equipment.

The fact is Ava has only been to two places in the last two weeks – home and at school.

At home there’s just Ava, her three brothers and her parents.

At school, there are hundreds of students and 8-9 staff she comes into contact with every day.

She is probably in closer contact with the people at home than at school. But the sheer number of people she is in contact with at school multiplied by the number of hours and then days – is tremendous!

The likelihood that Ava caught the virus at school is quite high – no matter how good the precautions being taken.

Taking Advantage of Our Ignorance

It is ludicrous to assume that the lack of a direct causal link after only a few months of schools being open to reduced capacity means much of anything.

Add to that the absence of a standard national database of school cases, and it’s beyond absurd.

States don’t compile COVID cases at schools. The federal government doesn’t either. In fact, no one really does.

A few self-proclaimed experts have tried to put together what data they can – and used that data to make extreme claims.

Economist Emily Oster has used a mere two weeks worth of data in September to argue that the virus isn’t spreading much in schools.

And policymakers have jumped on that bandwagon all across the country including director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield.

Oster is now trying to have it both ways – defending her argument but chiding anyone for taking it too seriously.

Her Website incorporates data that school districts publish voluntarily, along with some data reported directly to the site. However, Oster says it’s far from complete, and she was surprised Dr. Redfield was citing it as fact.

She told CNN:

“It is totally bananas. I think we are doing as good a job as we can. This is not my field. It’s crazy.”

She later clarified in a series of Tweets, “…it is bananas that there isn’t a better federal effort to get these data….”

“Our data is, I think, the best available. It’s not perfect, and I’ve said that elsewhere many times…”

Besides the case of COVID-19 in schools, Oster is best known for making outrageous and often disproven claims such as that drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy is safe.

What About When Outbreaks Happen?

But it’s not just Oster who wants to have it both ways.

Policymakers say kids aren’t getting COVID at school and then walk back such claims when outbreaks happen in communities with high levels of infection.

Salt Lake City, Utah, had one of the biggest outbreaks in schools in the nation. However, that happened as infection rates reached more than double the level at which the state recommended distance learning.

“You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” said Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine who has advocated for opening schools under strict safety measures.

Which kind of disproves his position.

If COVID doesn’t spread much in schools, the infection rate in the community shouldn’t matter. If it does, then the virus can and does spread significantly in schools.

The situation in Utah has been partly attributed to community resistance to safety precautions like mask wearing and social distancing. When parents won’t take precautions, neither will children.

Keeping Schools Open During a Pandemic Increases Reckless Behavior

However, this highlights another danger of keeping schools open while infections are high.

Even if viral spread was low in schools, keeping buildings open minimizes the danger of the pandemic.

If Ava can see her friends in school, why shouldn’t she get together with them after school, too?

In-person learning enables more in-person extra-curricular activities, sporting events, parties and other social gatherings outside of school.

Under normal circumstances, this would be great. When there’s a raging pandemic – not so much.

With kids, it’s not always what you say. It’s what you do. And if it’s safe enough to have in-person schooling, kids aren’t as likely to social distance outside of school.

Conclusions

The point isn’t that school cannot exist during a pandemic.

In communities where infection rates are low, even in-person classes can be conducted in relative safety with proper precautions and adequate funding.

However, if the community infection rate is moderate to high, classes should be conducted remotely.

We have to take the virus and the risks it poses seriously.

We have not been doing that.

Helen Bristow, MPH, program manager of Duke’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides schools on COVID-19 safety, cautions:

“We’re nine to 10 months into a brand-new disease. We’re regularly learning something we didn’t know before.”

We have to stop pretending that the partial data we have is enough to make broad and reckless decisions about keeping students and staff safe during this crisis.

Decisions should be made with an abundance of caution.

Protecting life and health have to be the overriding concerns.

We need a national database of COVID cases in schools for students and staff.

We need free, quick and ubiquitous viral screenings done frequently for all students and staff.

And darn if a working and safe vaccine wouldn’t be helpful, too.

But in the absence of all of these things, we should not be rushing to open schools to in-person classes.

The virus definitely is spreading in our schools.

In most communities, it’s not where the contact tracing leads. It’s the sheer number of cases, the quarantines, staffing shortages and, yes, even funerals.

For all its faults, remote learning is far preferable while the virus runs free.


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INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Remote Teaching is Better Than In-Person Instruction During a Pandemic

Hundreds of teachers have died from Covid-19.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with the disease.

Yet a bipartisan group of seven state Governors said in a joint statement Thursday that in-person schools are safe even when community transmission rates are high.

Safe – despite hundreds of preventable deaths of school employees.

Safe – despite mass outbreaks among students.

Safe – despite quarantines, staffing shortages, longterm illnesses and mounting uncertainty about the longterm effects of the disease on children and adults.

State Governors must have a different definition of safety than the rest of us.

The message was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Delaware Governor John Carney, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Only Baker is a Republican. The rest are all Democrats.

We expect such blatant untruth from the Trump administration, and Vice-President Mike Pence was quick to add his voice to the septet.

But the facts remain.

More than 300 teachers and other school employees have died across the country from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

In fact, 72 school employees died of the virus in New York City, alone, according to the city Department of Education.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released Monday.

More than 250,000 people have died nationwide.

More than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease at an ever increasing rate. One million of those cases came about over just six days last week.

In many states like Pennsylvania, hospitalizations have passed their peak in April.

That is not safety.

And it is beyond reckless that these Governors would make such a counterfactual statement.

FACT: It is NOT safe to have in-person schooling in any community where infections are high.

FACT: It is BETTER to have remote education unless the virus has been contained.

But these are inconvenient truths that business leaders, politicians and policymakers are doing everything in their power to ignore.

The Governors’ statement begins:

“Medical research as well as the data from Northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates.”

This is just not true.

It is based not on research by epidemiologists, not on studies conducted by doctors, scientists or pharmacologists.

It comes from the work of an economist – Emily Oster.

The Brown University professor analyzed data from all 50 states over a two week period in September and came to the conclusion that when students or teachers get Covid, they rarely catch it at school.

And her analysis has become the Gospel truth for supply-side marketeers all over the country.

However, Oster has been wrong before.

Notoriously wrong.

Oster is infamous for publishing a paper advising women that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is safe. WRONG, says the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. WRONG, says a slew of recent studies from the University of Bristol, Oxford, the British Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

She wrote her dissertation explaining that there were less women in China not because of the one child policy and traditional attitudes toward girl children, but instead because Hepatitis B skewed sex ratios.

And then after that paper made her famous, she published another one proving herself wrong.

Oster is not a serious academic. She is someone who constantly says something controversial to court the media and public opinion.

She is a contrarian, an attention seeker, a celebutante – the economist version of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded movie theater and then sells fire extinguishers to those rushing for the exits.

It is because of people like her that Mark Twain is reported to have remarked, ”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

She was shopping her thesis around about people not catching Covid at school back in May before there was any data one way or another.

Moreover, she homeschools her own children. She has nothing to lose getting us to believe her latest economic whopper.

Since providing this cover story, various county departments of health have claimed that contact tracing rarely indicates students or teachers catch the virus at school. However, these conclusions are based on voluntary anecdotes, not hard data. At the local level, there is often a lot of pressure to find the cause of an outbreak somewhere else when childcare is at stake or administrative coercion involved.

There has, however, been actual science done on the matter that sheds increasing doubt on Oster’s findings and those like her.

A study of more than a half-million people who were exposed to Coronavirus suggests that the virus’ continued spread is driven by only a small percentage of those who become infected.

Moreover, children and young adults were found to be potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified, according to the study by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley.

This was the largest contact tracing study for any disease ever conducted.

It suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is also much greater than previously believed.

The evidence is so convincing that the CDC took down controversial guidance pushing for schools to remain open during periods of increased infections.

This is a lot more important than what some dipshit economist said.

However, the Governors’ statement continues:

“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”

Talk about overstating the issue!

So kids can’t learn if their instruction is interrupted? It’s a good thing we never take any time off school, say during the summer months.

And way to use poor and special needs kids as props to drum up support. Funny how you never seem to care so much about them when issuing budget priorities or school funding formulas.

But it’s the callousness with which these governors paper over health concerns that really sounds like Oster, herself.

“There are people who would say if even one teacher acquires COVID at a school and dies, then it would not have been worth it to open schools,” Oster said. “I think that argument is complicated because people are going to suffer tremendously from schools being closed, but that is a tricky calculus.”

One would have hoped only an economist would weigh people’s lives vs the cost of health care and boosting standardized test scores. But apparently Democratic Governors feel the same way.

In-person schooling IS preferable to remote instruction if everything else is equal. But everything else is not equal right now.

What kind of mental health issues do children experience whose teachers die suddenly and preventably? How do kids suffer with the loss of a loved one knowing full well that they may have inadvertently been the cause of that person’s death?

What is the longterm cost to children or adults who have their lungs, digestive system or brains suffer irreparable damage as a result of Covid complications?

This disease was only discovered two years ago.

We cannot make bold statements of certainly about its effects without being deeply dishonest. There’s a lot we don’t know about it and how it affects people. And in light of that uncertainty it makes more sense to be extra cautious than reckless.

The fact is remote learning can be done effectively.

We can focus on ensuring that all students have the technology, infrastructure and training to access instruction on-line.

We can prioritize virtual curriculum created by classroom teachers and taught synchronously over video platforms like zoom instead of canned ed tech credit recovery programs like Edmentum.

Administrators and academic coaches can be of more use helping struggling students stay on track than endlessly spinning their wheels about how best to reopen schools.

Bottom line: No one should have to go to school in an unsafe classroom.

Students shouldn’t feel like the only way to get a quality education is to risk their health and put their families in jeopardy.

Teachers shouldn’t be bullied into working in unsafe environments where they or their loved ones may get sick – especially since educators are more susceptible to the virus and often suffer worse consequences of getting ill.

But despite all these arguments, it is the daily reality of schooling during a pandemic that is winning the argument.

Schools simply can’t operate in-person when large segments of the staff are sick and/or quarantined.

No one is buying the argument that in-person schooling is safe when whole kindergarten classes are quarantined as happened at my district this week.

The problem of childcare and other economic hardships are very real. But we will not solve them by closing our eyes to reality and putting our kids and teachers into unsafe classrooms.

It’s high time our government passed a new round of Covid relief. We need to pay people to stay home so they don’t spread the virus. We need mortgage protection, universal healthcare and a host of services to help people weather the storm.

It is embarrassing that so many Governors don’t have the courage to do that and instead indulge in the deranged fantasies of an economic death cult.

It sad that so many Governors lack the courage to issue real Stay-at-Home orders, close schools, bars and restaurants, and issue stiff penalties for those who disobey them.

We do not need in-person learning while Covid runs wild.

Until the danger has passed, we need quality remote learning conducted, planned and supported by educators.

And we need Governors with the guts to listen to science, not B.S. economists.


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McKeesport Schools Are Hiding At Least Six More COVID Cases at the High School & Twin Rivers

At least six more cases of COVID-19 have been identified at McKeesport Area School District, but you wouldn’t know it from administrators.

The information at the Western Pennsylvania district is being kept quiet instead of being released to the public.

So at the high school, two students tested positive, and at Twin Rivers Elementary, three staff and one student were identified as having the virus last week, according to a reliable source close to the school board.

Of those, two of the three Twin Rivers staff are awaiting confirmation of their test results from Allegheny County Health Department. The rest have all been tested and their results confirmed.

However, there are a few additional potential cases that remain to be investigated, according to the same source.

The district used to send out telephone, email and conventional mail alerts when students or staff tested positive.

However, the district created a Covid Tracker on its Website in October after I suggested it at a school board meeting.

Though the tracker has not yet been updated to include this information, it is being considered as the sole source of information to the community about cases, according to the school board source.

As of Monday night, the tracker only lists 14 cases in the district since buildings reopened in September – seven students at the high school, a student and a staff member at Founders Hall, two staff at Francis McClure Elementary and three staff at Twin Rivers.

The new cases would bring the district total to 20 – nine at the high school, seven at Twin Rivers with the numbers at other buildings unchanged.

That’s 11 students and 9 staff total – not counting any additional cases that may be coming.

I still think the tracker is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be the sole source of this information.

Parents should not have to check it every day to discover if an outbreak is underway. Administration should continue to provide this data with parents as things happen so parents can make informed decisions about continuing to send their children to in-person classes or not. (Many parents have their children enrolled in the district cyber program instead.)

And school directors should be using this data to determine if it is safe to keep buildings open at all.

Moreover, the tracker has its own glitches.

It does not come up when accessed through certain browsers like Firefox. Unless you use the most reliable browsers like Chrome, you can get nothing but an empty white screen.

With the county in the midst of a steadily increasing surge in Coronavirus cases, now is not the time to hold back on information.

On Sunday, the county broke precedent to report over the weekend an increase of 527 cases of COVID-19, the highest daily number reported since the pandemic began in March.

This followed a week of record-breaking reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, with an all-time high of 5,551 cases reported on Saturday throughout the state.

There have been 4,230 cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County this month, alone.

Nationwide, it took the country 300 days to reach 11 million cases, but over just the last six days, that number increased by another million.

Over the last week, the country has averaged more than 1,080 deaths a day – more than 30% higher than two weeks previous.

The McKeesport community deserves up-to-date information about viral spread in our schools.

Administrators need to step up the transparency.


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

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

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

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

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

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

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

So what am I to do?

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

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

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

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

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

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

But no. He said he knew all about it.

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

I couldn’t believe it.

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

I got the same answer.

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

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

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

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

I have a wife and daughter.

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

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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

 

Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

On Friday, Johns Hopkins University reported the highest number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

That’s 83,757 new cases and 943 new deaths.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

This comes after 77,000 cases were reported the day before – which, itself, had been the record.

At this rate, the US will have 100,000 new cases and 1,000 new deaths a day very soon.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

I don’t know how to say it any other way.

You just have to look at the facts.

The second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping across the nation, Pennsylvania, and our communities of Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.

Nearby district McKeesport had an outbreak of at least 9 cases in a little over a week. Baldwin-Whitehall and Hempfield schools closed just last week because of outbreaks.

Steel Valley Schools haven’t had to deal with such problems because the district has been closed to in-person classes since March.

The school board wisely decided to continue virtual instruction for all students at the beginning of the school year. Its plan has been a model other districts should follow – especially those with 1:1 devices like ours.

But now district decision makers are putting forward a new plan to bring students back in the building on a half day basis starting the first week of November.

The school board will review the plan at its work session meeting on Monday in the high school auditorium at 7:30 pm. The meeting also will be live streamed on YouTube.

The board is expected to vote on the plan at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 pm.

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

I don’t want to have to contradict the school board and my administrators.

I don’t want to have to insert myself into this debate.

But I feel like I have no other choice.

Since I don’t live in the district, I can’t go to the school board meeting and speak.

And when I have expressed my concerns to those in charge, they have been repeatedly brushed aside.

So I am putting them out there in the public space.

This is what a Steel Valley teacher really thinks about this proposed plan.

This is what I feel I must say even at the risk of my job and future in this district – the proposed plan should not be adopted. We should continue with virtual instruction until infection rates in the county are extremely low.

The proposed plan would have students dividing into two groups – one would attend in the mornings and the other in the afternoons.

Both groups would have all of their classes for 20 minutes each for four days a week – Monday – Thursday. Friday would be a half day virtual learning day.

Consider that students currently have their full classes on-line for four days a week. Wednesday is an asynchronous learning day.

So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.

And this is true even for double period classes. Two 20 minute in-person classes is better than one, but not as good as two 40 minute virtual classes.

Just imagine it.

If this plan is approved, students and staff would be rushing here-and-there for the tiniest fraction of possible instruction in-person, and then rush home to do the mountains of classwork that would be necessary to move forward at all.

And the price for all this breathless activity will be increased risk of infection and bringing it home to family and friends. Not to mention the cost on teachers like me who will be exposed to hundreds of children in enclosed spaces with few windows and poor ventilation on a daily basis.

But parents will be given a choice whether to subject their children to this schedule or not.

Parents will have to decide whether they want their children to attend in-person or receive virtual instruction.

However, the virtual instruction being offered under this new model is not in many cases the same as what children receive now.

Remote students in K-5 would still meet with a classroom teacher on video platforms.

However, remote students in 6-12 would have to enroll in the district cyber program. This is a canned ed tech initiative modeled on credit recovery. They will have minimal to no interactions with classroom teachers or lessons taught by district educators.

This would replace an exemplary district-designed curriculum with a subpar service to parents and students in the hope that they will opt for in-person instruction instead.

No matter which option you choose for your child, from an academic standpoint, this new proposal is a step backward.

Most students would receive less instruction from classroom teachers – either half of what they’re receiving now (but in-person) or next to nothing on-line in grades 6-12.

This plan does not solve any academic problems. It only partially solves the problem of child care.

Let’s be honest. That’s what the priority is here.

With many parents having to leave the home to work, they need babysitting options for their kids.

With school buildings closed, this incurs an additional cost for parents.

Moreover, local business owners find it more difficult to justify keeping their own establishments open to the public – bars, restaurants, etc. – while schools are closed.

But we already know what the result of such a plan will be.

District buildings were open exactly two days to students since the pandemic began – Sept 8 and Oct 6.

These were transition days where only 5th and 9th grade students were in the buildings. Both instances resulted in a teacher testing positive for COVID-19.

Imagine this large scale.

I’m sorry, but there are things more important than childcare right now.

The reason we are experiencing a second wave of COVID is because of plans like this one.

You can’t have some schools and businesses doing the right thing and others doing whatever they want.

That’s not how you stem the spread of a deadly virus.

Sensible districts like ours put safety first. Others reopened their classrooms with hybrid or other models.

The result is an increase in infections.

And that will continue to happen until we work together to provide a coordinated defense against the pandemic.

You can’t have half of the schools close their doors and the other half keep them open and expect the virus to just stop. You can’t have some people wear facial masks in public and others go without and expect the virus to disappear.

We need to work together or else prepare ourselves to hunker down for a very long COVID season. Or – even worse – a very short one.

If you are a resident of Munhall, Homestead or West Homestead and you feel the same way I do, I am begging you to go to the school board meetings.

Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.

It will result in many, many people getting sick.

Some may die. Others may have life-long debilitating complications as a result of the virus.

That’s just not worth it.

That’s just not worth a little more in-person instruction and a little less out-of-pocket childcare costs.

Healthcare, hospital stays and funeral preparations are much more expensive.

Thank you for hearing me out.


 

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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.



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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

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

The Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

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

It is essentially about the future.

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

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

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

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

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


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

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

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

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

And it’s been great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what days they are!

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

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

And it never ends.

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

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

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

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

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

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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

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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The Lesson Kids Are Learning from Reckless School Reopenings: YOU DON’T MATTER

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Let’s say you’re an American school child.

 

It’s the first day of school.

 

Your parents dress you in your best new outfit – maybe a nice pink jumper with a unicorn on it.

 

They help you tie your new sneakers – that’s right, two loops and a knot.

 

Then they put a surgical mask snugly over your mouth and nose, adhere a clear plastic face shield from your forehead down and snap some latex gloves on your hands.

 

“Off to school, Honey!”

 

“Don’t forget your antibacterial soap and Clorox wipes!”

 

What do you suppose would be going through your mind?

 

Would you feel safe? Would you feel loved? Would you feel valued?

 

I don’t think so.

 

I mean sure your parents care enough to dress you like an extra from “Outbreak,” but they don’t care enough to keep you home.

 

Or maybe they do care enough but have no other choice. They’re “essential workers” and have to go to a series of minimum wage jobs to keep you fed, clothed and sheltered.

 

How would you feel about the people who own those jobs? The society that prioritizes keeping those jobs going instead of paying your parents to stay home with you?

 

I mean – sure – the economy needs to keep running, I guess, but what is an economy anyway?

 

Isn’t it just a big game of Monopoly? Players keep rolling the dice and landing on each others’ properties and having to pay rent. Hoping this turn you’ll make it past GO and collect $200.

 

With the exception of food, there’s nothing you really need outside of your home. If your parents didn’t have to worry about rent or utilities, they wouldn’t have to work. Yes, they’d need to go out to get food but the government could pay them to do that, too.

 

After all, it’s just Monopoly money. It’s just decorated pieces of paper. It has no inherent value… not like human lives.

 

I mean we’re living through a pandemic here. Leaving the house means exposure to the virus, and the longer you have to go out, the more people you’re exposed to, the greater the chances that you’ll get sick and/or bring the thing back home with you.

 

But someone is forcing your parents to keep on rolling the dice – to keep playing. And your folks never do any better than make ends meet. It’s not people like them who are winning this game – even during a global health crisis.

 

How would you feel about that?

 

How would you feel about the school directors who voted to keep their buildings open and their classes in-person when just a few miles away the kids in a slightly more well-to-do neighborhood get to stay home, protected and safe learning online?

 

How would you feel about the school board members who compromise and say you only have to be put at risk for half the day or just so many days a week? Would that make it all better?

 

How would you feel about the governors who demand schools reopen? Or the ones who offer advice but don’t demand anything?

 

How would you feel about a President who lies all day on TV about the virus, keeps his own kid home and then goes off like a police siren about how you have to get back to school? How would you feel about his billionaire heiress Education Secretary who spends all day finding ways to undercut and destroy public schools who suddenly changes course about how necessary it is for you to get back to class?

 

How would you feel about politicians on both sides of the aisle holding self-congratulatory party conventions through ZOOM while proclaiming the importance of you getting back to school in-person?

 

How would you feel when schools that do open in other parts of the country have massive outbreaks and it has no effect on what the adults prescribe for you?

 

How would you feel when a student takes a picture of a school blatantly ignoring social distancing and other health guidelines and the only person getting in trouble is the student who took the picture?

 

How would you feel about school administrators caught hiding or downplaying outbreaks among staff or students?

 

How would you feel about multi-billion dollar sports franchises unable to keep their superstar athletes disease free yet your local athletic club decides to have practices? How would you feel when your local school teams have outbreaks, the governor or health department advises against school sports but the adults decide to go ahead and do it anyway?

 

How would you feel when time-after-time the grown ups show you exactly how they feel about you, how little you actually matter, how much everything else is worth and how little they really care about you?

 

How would you feel if you were a little school kid getting ready for her first day of class this morning?

 

Would you feel safe, valued, loved?

 

What lesson would you take from everything happening all around you?

 

Some people are very worried that you won’t learn anything much this school year.

 

I’m afraid you’ll learn far too much.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

book-2