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

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

 

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

 

And it really looked like they might decide against it.

 

For about 10 seconds.

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

 

Then came Dave Donato.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then he voted in favor of the reopening plan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The tone directors took with the public was markedly different.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then it came to me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

In the end, we lost.

 

The district will reopen to in-person classes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it was not to be.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MY COMMENTS:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You have to face the facts.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

I disagree for several reasons.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

DR. HOLTZMAN’S RESPONSE:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

FACT CHECK:

 

 

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

 


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

Holtzman’s response comes at 20 minutes left.

The vote takes place at 10 minutes left.)

 


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

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Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

 

No matter what you do, life involves some risk.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

There are three main options:

 

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

 

Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.

 

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

 

There are many ways to do this.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

However, let’s be real.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.

 

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

 

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

 

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Source: PA Department of Health
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Source: PA Department of Health

 

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

 

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

 

Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.

 

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

 

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

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

And let’s not forget the racial component.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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SOURCE: the CDC

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


 

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