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


 
 


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


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


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


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


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us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated.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


 
The response was in answer to citizens comments.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
“I know I would not feel comfortable.” 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Holtzman disputed this: 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



 
 
Kristen:  


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


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


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


 
 
 Dr. Mark Holtzman: 


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
MY COMMENTS: 


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


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


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


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


 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  


 
3) How many are located at each school building?  


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


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


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


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


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


 
Haven’t we met this threshold?  


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


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


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


 
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Please do your duty.” 


 
 
Holtzman: 


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


 
Voice: I don’t have them with me. 


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


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


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


 


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

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

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

So why are none of the district buildings closed?

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

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

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

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

On Sunday, the Website noted:

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

Today that message has been replaced by another:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COVID-19 has also plagued nearby Serra Catholic School.

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

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

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

McKeesport and Serra are far from unique in this.

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

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

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

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

And not just those in McKeesport.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 1.03.00 AM

 
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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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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State Senator To Propose Rewriting PA Charter School Law To Hold the Industry Accountable

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Pennsylvania’s charter school law is a national disgrace.

 

It allows charters to defraud the public and provide a substandard education to our children.

 

Charter school managers pay themselves with taxpayer money for leases on properties they already own. They funnel money through shell companies into their own pockets. Academic achievement at many charters is far below par.

 

And it’s all legal.

 

That’s why state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale has long called it the “worst charter school law” in the country. But his call for sweeping reforms from the legislature has fallen on mostly deaf ears.

 

Until now.

 

State Sen. Jim Brewster (D-45) is in the early stages of proposing legislation that would ensure charter schools are held as accountable as other public schools.

 

 

Specifically it would require these types of schools, which are ostensibly public but privately managed, to be transparent, fiscally solvent and responsible to taxpayers.

 

“It has become abundantly clear that systemic changes are needed in how brick and mortar and cyber charters operate in Pennsylvania,” Brewster says.  “There is a growing frustration that charters are unaccountable.”

 

The bill doesn’t have a Senate number yet, nor has its specific language been made available. However, the State Senator from McKeesport announced plans to formally propose it in Harrisburg within the next several weeks.

 

 

Brewster’s bill would:

  • Require local school boards to sign off on any new charter construction project costing more than $1 million. The project would have to be backed by a financing arrangement with a local industrial development authority or other government entity. This way charters would have to prove that new construction projects are fiscally sound and won’t be abandoned after wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.

 

  • Compel charter schools to prove they have the funds to keep running for the entire school year. They would have to post a bond, other type of surety, or agree to a payment escrow arrangement. This would ensure charters don’t close suddenly leaving students and parents in the lurch.

 

 

  • Limit the scope of the state Charter School Appeal Board to solely determining whether the local school board acted appropriately in reviewing charter school applications. The state should not be approving new charter schools. That power should remain at the local district level, though the state can determine if local school boards are acting within the bounds of the law.

 

  • Require officials from the state Department of Education (PDE) to visit the proposed site of a charter school to ascertain the condition of its physical building. Their report will then be made a part of the charter application. This way charters can’t get away with paying themselves for properties they already own and they won’t be able to open with substandard buildings.

 

 

  • Mandate that a charter school applicant obtain approval from multiple school districts if the charter school draws more than 25 students from a specific district. Every district impacted by the opening of a new charter should have a say whether it can open.

 

  • Upgrade accountability by requiring a quarterly report on the operations of the charter school to the local school board – with the report delivered in person by a charter school official. While traditional public schools report on operations monthly, reporting four times annually would greatly increase charter school transparency. At present charters don’t have to provide such reports sometimes for years after opening. Moreover, having a flesh and blood representative of the charter school at these meetings would allow for the public to ask questions about how their money is being spent.

 

 

  • Make a structured financial impact statement part of the charter school application. This would include an estimation of enrollment multiplied by tuition payments. The impact statement may serve as the justification for denial of a charter application. This would be huge. Traditional public schools can be sucked dry of funding from fly-by-night charters without their record of proven success. Necessitating an impact statement of this kind would truly make the local district and the charter school educational partners and not competing foes.

 

  • Increase the percentage of certified teachers at charters from 75 percent to 90 percent of faculty, though current faculty would be grandfathered in. Except under extreme circumstances, all teachers at traditional public schools are certified. Making charters raise the bar close to that of traditional public schools is an improvement – though Brewster has in the past proposed legislation to require 100 percent of charter teachers to be certified. It’s unclear why he’s settled on 90 percent here.

 

  • Prohibit charter board members from receiving payments for school lease arrangements.  This issue was highlighted in August in the auditor general’s report where he found $2.5 million tax dollars being defrauded in this way. Charter operators have complained that nothing they did was illegal. This measure would ensure that in the future such moves would be explicit violations of the law.

 

 

  • Impose a moratorium on the approval of new cyber-charter schools since their academic performance has been so consistently below that of traditional public schools and brick-and-mortar charters. In fact, A recent nationwide study found that cyber charters provide 180 days less of math instruction and 72 days less of reading than traditional public schools. (By the way, there are only 180 days in an average school year.)

 

Brewster said these reforms offer a place to begin real robust regulation of the charter industry. However, he is open to adding others.

 

“The auditor general has made a number of worthwhile recommendations and I’ve combined some of these ideas with other features to produce what I believe is an excellent starting point for comprehensive reform,” he says.

 

“We need to dig deep and look critically at the charter law to make sweeping changes. In this year alone, the auditor general has pointed out that the reimbursement process is flawed, that there were too many reimbursement appeals and that the cyber charter law reeked with ethical issues, poor oversight and a lack of transparency.

 

“It is clear that the charter law is not helping schools, charters themselves or the taxpayers.”

 

There are more than 150 charter schools statewide enrolling more than 128,000 students, according to state data. Nearly half of these schools are in the Philadelphia area.

Two years ago, DePasquale released a set of specific recommendations to improve the charter law, which Brewster drew upon when writing his proposed legislation. DePasquale’s suggestions called for an independent board to oversee charter school processes and functions — including lease reimbursements and student enrollment. He also suggested public hearings involving charter changes, limits on fund balances and guidelines on calculating teacher certification benchmarks.

 

Brewster said he is not unduly singling out the charter school industry. He says he is confident making these changes will help charter schools by ensuring only high quality institutions are allowed in the Commonwealth.

 

The Democrat Representing the 45th legislative District says he realizes that October is late in the year to be proposing such sweeping changes. He is doing so now to raise awareness of the issue, though he doesn’t expect it to come to a vote until the next legislative session at the earliest.

 

He hopes to bring up many of these issues tomorrow (Oct. 13) at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing at the Monroeville Municipal Building in Monroeville in his district.

 

The legislature tried to pass a charter school reform bill (House Bill 530 ) this summer but it had been rewritten into more giveaways to the industry than regulations. For instance, it would have allowed charters to open almost anywhere in the state without approval from local school districts. As such, it lost support.

 

Government watchers cautioned that this charter Trojan Horse bill might rear its ugly head again in Harrisburg. Here’s hoping that Brewster’s bill has more success and isn’t likewise bastardized into a piece of legislation that gives away the store.

 

If there’s one thing most people agree about in the Keystone state, it’s that we need charter school reform. Brewster’s Bill may be the answer to our prayers.