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us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated.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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What I Told McKeesport Area School Directors About the Unsafe Reopening Plan Proposed by Administrators

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This evening I went back to my high school to tell school board members what I thought of administration’s reopening plan during the global pandemic.

 

McKeesport Area School Directors have not voted on the proposal yet.

 

So I gathered my thoughts, put on my mask and went to the work session meeting.

 

This is what I said:

 

“Thank you for allowing me to address you this evening. I appreciate all the time and effort you put forward to lead the McKeesport Area School District and do what’s best for students, staff, and families.

 

I am a life-long resident of this community. Most of my family graduated from this school as did my brother and I. Before I got a job as a teacher at a neighboring district, I subbed here in the high school for years. My daughter has attended the district for the past 6 years and has received a first rate education so far.

 

However, I am very concerned with Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman’s proposed plan to reopen schools. He would have students attend school buildings in-person for half days and do virtual instruction for the other half.

 

This is not a safe plan for students, staff and families. I ask you to reconsider and move to a reopening plan that begins with all students engaged in distance learning.

 

The reason is simple. New cases of COVID-19 are spiking throughout Allegheny County. Along with Philadelphia – where students will be getting 100% virtual instruction – we have some of the highest numbers of new cases in the state.

 

The largest district in Allegheny County – Pittsburgh Public Schools – has already decided to start with all virtual classes as have nearby East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg districts. We should do the same.

 

Safety has to be the primary consideration in reopening plans during a global pandemic. Maslow tells us kids cannot learn effectively unless their bedrock needs such as safety are met.

 

I appreciate Dr. Holtzman’s concerns about academic loss from distance learning – and under normal circumstances I would agree with him. However, these are not normal circumstances. The kind of academics he is proposing will not be as effective as he seems to believe.

 

Kids would have roughly 20 minute classes. As a classroom teacher, I know that little more will get done than taking role and getting kids ready to start. I am glad Dr. Holtzman reconsidered his original plan. which would have allowed students to forgo masks in the classroom and congregate only 3 feet apart. He is right to increase precautions with mandatory masks and 6 feet social distancing. But let’s be honest. If you think students will abide by them, you are engaged in magical thinking. Moreover, these precautions will inevitably have a negative effect on learning. Screen-to-screen instruction is less effective than face-to-face instruction, yes. But Mask-to-mask is NOT face-to-face. We may achieve more academically keeping kids online than trying to instruct through plague conditions.

 
But even if I’m wrong about that, it’s simply not worth it.

 

No academics is worth the death or debilitating illness of a child, family member or teacher.

 

Kids don’t learn well when their teachers are in quarantine. There are few accommodations made for special needs students on a ventilator. Childcare is the least of your worries if you survive the virus but are left with a lifelong disability as a result.

 

If we invite kids back into the classroom, we invite COVID-19 as well. If the virus is present in the community – as county data indicates – it will get into our schools where even the best precautions will not stop it from spreading and being brought home to families.

 

There is significant evidence that even the youngest kids can and do get sick. And those 10 or older are just as susceptible and can spread the disease at least as easily as adults.

 

Moreover, the CDC reports that African Americans and other people of color are hospitalized from COVID-19 four to five times more often than white people. What are we saying to our black and brown brothers and sisters if we value their health so cheaply. Don’t their lives matter?

 

Spreading this disease throughout the community will not help anyone.

 
And for those who respond that only a certain percentage of children and adults will die, which members of your family are you willing to sacrifice?

Whose lives are you willing to bet and do you really have the authority to play God?

We’re talking about human life here.

 

Speaking of which, let’s not forget our teachers and school staff.

 

Parents at least get a choice whether to send their kids to school in-person or opt for a cyber option. Dr. Holzman’s plan gives no such choice to staff. It does little to protect them from exposure to the virus. If you approve it, you are demanding staff decide between their employment and the possibility that they may take the Coronavirus home to their own children and families.

 

I have had some amazing teachers in this district who changed my life and made me the person I am today. My daughter loves her teachers. Approving this plan would be a slap in their faces.

 

Look, I know this is a tough decision. You are being asked to shoulder an incredible burden, but we are relying on you to make the best decision for all of us.

 

Please do not approve Dr. Holtzman’s reopening plan. Instead have all remote instruction until there have been no new cases in the county for a full two weeks.

 

Only then will it be safe to reopen school buildings.

 

Thank you.”

 

Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman responded:

 

“I’d like to respond to a couple of those statements if you wouldn’t mind.

 

First of all, it’s not Mark Holtzman’s plan. It’s the McKeesport Area School District’s plan. I worked with my administration tirelessly to make those efforts happen. I’m very proud of the efforts that we made. The time and effort that our administration put in.

 

I think moving forward looking at the big picture there is a virtual option for families so you are welcome to utilize or exercise that opportunity.

 

Unfortunately we are commissioned to make a very difficult decision for what’s the betterment of all children and providing options for those families that choose to use virtual learning as a platform is available to yourself, your family and anybody else’s family that is interested.

 

To say that it’s not fair for one person such as yourself or myself to make a decision to totally not have school in-person, I don’t know is the right decision as well. So I think we’re in the middle of this discussion where I think the best decision is not always the easiest decision.

 

We’re very comfortable with the proposal that we’re making and we hope that you can find the decision that is within those couple options that is in the best interest of your family.”

 

 

 
(My comments begin at 16:27. The audio is a bit muffled because I kept my mask on while speaking.)

 

 (Dr. Holtzman’s response begins at 23:13)

 
The school board is set to vote on the reopening plan next week at its meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 12, at 7:30 pm at the high school.

 

I still hope school directors vote to begin the year with virtual classes.


 

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McKeesport Area School District’s Reopening Plan is Based on Dubious Facts, Bad Reasoning & Takes Unnecessary Risks: An Open Letter to the Superintendent

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Dr. Mark Holtzman:

 

I am extremely concerned about the reopening plan for the McKeesport Area School District you offered on video Tuesday.

 

As a parent of a child in the district and a teacher in a neighboring district, I find the plan you put forward to be absolutely terrifying. It is badly reasoned, based on unproven facts, and takes unnecessary risks with students and staff.

 

In short, you propose reducing social distancing by half, requiring students to wear masks only occasionally, having zero temperature screenings and keeping schools open when students, staff and/or family get sick.

 

This is unacceptable.

 

And given that you said all superintendents in Allegheny County are meeting weekly to discuss reopening, my concern about McKeesport’s plan extends to all other local districts working under similar miscalculations.

 

Be assured I will send my concerns to the email hotline you provided because it was impossible to have public meetings to discuss this matter. Which brings me to my first concern – how can it be unsafe to meet in-person with the public to discuss reopening schools yet still be safe to open them for our kids?

 

I am an alumni of McKeesport. So is my wife, my brother and most of the people in my family. I’ve lived here my whole life.

 

My daughter is set to enter 6th grade this year. Up to this point I have been extremely happy with the education she has received in the district.

 

I am thankful that you’ve decided to give parents the option of virtual learning for their kids if they do not feel it is safe for them to return to school buildings, but your reopening plan will have impacts far beyond our individual households. A spike in COVID-19 throughout the community due to a bad school reopening plan will not be in anyone’s interests.

 

I know you are an educator and want to do what is best for the students in your care. However, in this case you have let your drive to ensure the best academics overshadow what is in the best interests of the safety and well being of the children, families and staff in the district.

 

You say you’re relying on facts as provided by the the Center for Disease Control (CDC), and health departments of Allegheny, Chester and Bucks County. However, almost everything you cite on the video is from one source – Bucks County.

 
Bucks County is very different from where we live in Western Pennsylvania. It encompasses a smaller area north of Philadelphia and has a reduced population – about 628,000 people.

 

Allegheny County includes the City of Pittsburgh, is geographically larger and has a more numerous population – about 1.216 million people.

 

Looking at the numbers, Bucks County has not handled the pandemic as well as Allegheny County. Though it has fewer people, they have more cases of COVID-19 – 5,841 compared to our 5,610. What’s worse, their death rate is substantially higher than ours – 511 to our 204.

 

Frankly, I do not feel comfortable basing almost our entire reopening plan on data provided by one county in the Commonwealth that may or may not have done a good job handling this pandemic.

 

We need to base our plan on county specific data from Western Pennsylvania and guidelines for the entire state.

 

In short, the plans provided by Bucks County are reckless and based on sketchy facts.

 

For instance, in the video you said people only get COVID-19 if they have been within 6 feet of someone not wearing a mask for 15 minutes consecutively. That or there has to be an exchange of fluid – someone sneezing, spraying spittle, etc.

 

It is true that the CDC has cautioned against being in such close proximity to someone else for such a prolonged period of time – within 6 feet for 15 minutes. However, the organization does NOT claim that this is the only way you can get the virus. They claim that being in this situation with someone who has tested positive for the virus (with or without a mask) means you should quarantine yourself for two weeks.

 

I am extremely upset that you plan to reduce social distancing in district schools from 6 feet to between 3 and 4 feet.

 

You again cite Bucks County to justify the position.

 

“…SARS-CoV-2 is spread most commonly through large respiratory droplets when someone coughs or sneezes. A minimum three-foot distance is clearly associated with significant reductions in infection via respiratory droplets, as most droplets do not travel more than 3 feet due to gravity. This is the current standard used by the World Health Organization (WHO) successfully in many countries throughout the world today.”

 

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Once again this is not true. The WHO says people should keep at least 3 feet apart but doing so puts you at higher risk than 6 feet.

 

While it is nice to be assured that respiratory droplets don’t travel beyond three feet, experience tells us otherwise. It shouldn’t take much imagination or memory to recall a time when one of your own droplets traveled further in a moment of excitement. As a classroom teacher, I can tell you this happens often. When kids get excited, teachers better back up.

 

Be honest. This has nothing to do with 
Bucks County. You let slip the real reason here:

 

“Our classrooms are not very large – to put children 6 feet apart in school buses, classrooms, hallways, cafeterias, will be next to impossible with the overall square footage of those particular areas.”

 

I get it. You’re probably right. But that’s not a reason to skimp on safety. There are other alternatives to in-person classes.

 

If we cannot do it safely, we shouldn’t do it at all. Let’s not pretend it’s safe because of something Bucks County officials pulled out of their butts.

 

Then we get to temperature screenings – a precaution you say will not be taken when students enter our buildings at the beginning of the day.

 

This is highly imprudent.

 

It takes seconds to gauge someone’s temperature with an infrared thermometer – significantly less than getting through a metal detector – something we do routinely everyday at all district schools.

 

Yes, there is the problem of kids getting backed up in long lines, but that is not insurmountable. Staff can at least try to keep kids separated – perhaps having a staggered start for each grade would help.

 

Yes, I know the absence of a temperature does not guarantee someone is not infected. But any sense of safety is good. You know the metal detectors are not 100% accurate either.

 

You say it is up to the parents to make sure their kids don’t come to school with a raised temperature. Now that IS unreasonable. It is unfair to put the health concerns of an entire population on one or two parents who may not comply with the expectation.

 

I think the bigger concern is something you didn’t mention. What do you do with a child who has a temperature? How will you send him home? Who will see to him until a parent can come and get him? And will that person be at risk of getting sick?

 

These are hard questions to answer, but going in ignorance of a symptomatic student is worse.

 
Your position on masks is one of the most problematic in your entire reopening plan.

 

You propose to have children wear masks on buses but not in their classes. And the reason – because it’s just too hard to make kids wear them.

 

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Wearing masks has been a universal precaution when going out in public. It is one of the best things we can do to reduce the risk of getting the Coronavirus. Respiratory droplets here, there and everywhere, and you are just going to let them fly.

 

This is unfair to district children and the staff who serve them.

 

Look. I understand it would be incredibly difficult to get kids to wear masks. But if you cannot do it, pursue a different kind of schooling. Do not have in-person classes if you cannot do so safely.

 
Then we come to your position on what to do if someone gets sick.

 

First, it is telling that both you and your advisors in Bucks County are pretty sure this WILL eventually happen.

 

You do not think the precautions you’re taking will stop people from getting sick. You simply find it acceptable if the number of sick people is low.

 

“As COVID-19 will likely be with us for an extended period of time, and given that all school districts will almost certainly have cases, we want school districts to begin treating it similarly to the way we have successfully handled other communicable diseases in our schools, including pertussis (whooping cough), measles, strep throat, mumps, influenza, and meningitis. It is our strong intention to keep all classrooms, schools, and districts open, in the event of confirmed cases of COVID-19. One closure decision can lead to a potential crippling, and precedent setting domino effect of closures…”

 

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COVID-19 is not any of the diseases mentioned above. It can be more infectious and the consequences of getting it can be much more severe.

 

Moreover, we cannot prioritize keeping schools open over public health and safety concerns. But that is what you are proposing here.

 

You said:

 

“We won’t close schools if someone gets infected. It takes 6-8 days to get an accurate result from a COVID test. So that disease will have passed through and will no longer exist on any surfaces, classroom areas, people, etc. in the school by the time the COVID is confirmed. Therefore, there’s no reason to close schools. We’ll clean every inch of our classrooms on a daily basis.”

 

This does not mean that the danger is any less. It means that the danger may have passed by the time we know about it. How many people may be sick by then?

 

Mark, this is a bad plan. Let me give you a better one.

 

Start school this year with universal distance learning.

 

You already mentioned how the district will make sure all students have a one-to-one iPad initiative. You mentioned how virtual learning will be revamped to include face-to-face instruction.

 

Take it a step further.

 

Have all teachers develop their own unique distance learning initiatives.

 

And keep with such a plan until Allegheny County reports zero new cases for at least two weeks.

 

Then and only then – move forward with in-person schooling that includes as many social distancing protocols as possible.

 

It’s not perfect, but that would be the safest plan.

 

I’ll admit it would not be as academically effective as in-person learning.

 

But be honest. No matter what you do, in-person learning will be less effective this year due to the pandemic.

 

Kids will not learn to the best of their ability under the shadow of COVID-19. They will be scared and on edge – if they even show up.

 

We can go back and fix any academic deficits in the years to come. But no one can bring the dead back to life.

 

It’s much better to err on the side of safety.

 

I hope you’ll do that.

 

Our families deserve to be healthy. Your staff deserves to work without having to risk their lives. Our children deserve the chance at a future.

 

Yours,

 

Steven Singer

 

Dr. Holtzman’s full video:

Dr. Holtzman’s Slides on Reopening:

 


 

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