Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

I have spent most of my professional career fighting for public schools against every form of school privatization imaginable.

But since the beginning of this school year and the incredibly reckless way many public schools have dealt with reopening and keeping students and staff safe, I feel much of that enthusiasm drying up.

It’s not something I’m proud of feeling.

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

But there are so many people I will never be able to look at the same way ever again.

There are so many organizations, unions, school boards, administrators, policy makers who have lost my trust – perhaps forever.

I’m not saying I love charter schools or private schools.

I don’t.

I still think they’re mostly scams bent on using the laws to cash in on kids while taking our tax money and running.

But the idea that public schools are fundamentally better – that idea has suffered tremendously.

I used to believe that local control was something to cherish, that a board made up of neighbors duly elected by the community would more often than not have the best interests of that neighborhood at heart when making decisions.

And, frankly, I just don’t feel that way anymore.

How can you preserve such an ideal in the face of so much evidence to the contrary – so many school boards who vote to open classrooms – and keep them open – despite raging infection rates? Despite students and teachers getting sick? Despite quarantines and warnings from epidemiologists?

SCHOOL BOARDS

McKeesport Area School District, where I live, has had more than 14 cases of Covid among students and staff since September and the school board isn’t even considering closing.

In fact, in October when most of these cases were coming to light and Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines suggested schools should temporarily close to ensure the virus wasn’t running out of control, administration chose to ignore the CDC on the basis of advice by the Allegheny County Health Department.

Seriously.

Administrators prioritized local officials telling them what they want to hear over national experts in infectious disease with hard truths. In short, keeping the doors open was considered more important than student safety.

Meanwhile, the district where I work, Steel Valley Schools, smartly decided to open with virtual learning in September. However, the board decided to change to a hybrid model in November to test the waters.

Yes, the board decided to make students and teachers guinea pigs in an experiment to see if they could somehow avoid getting sick while cases surged throughout the country and state.

And after only five days, a high school student tested positive and numerous kids and staff had to quarantine.

Yesterday the state Website announced that our county, Allegheny County, – which had been considered moderate in terms of infections – is now in the substantial category. The incidence rate is 138.7 per 100,000.

Also in the substantial category are nearby Armstrong, Butler, Beaver, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.

Will Western Pennsylvania schools do the right thing and go to remote learning? Will Steel Valley finally give up this in-person experiment? Will McKeesport?

Without a strong leader like a Governor or President to order a shut down and take the heat, I’m not sure local school directors will have the courage to act.

They keep blaming everything on academics, saying they have provide what is best to help students learn – never mind the dangers to child, parent and teachers’ bodies. But even more hypocritically they ignore the well being of huge swaths of their students who refuse to take part in their in-person experiment.

In both districts, about 60% of parents favor in-person schooling and 40% prefer remote.

So the boards are doing what the majority wants, but it’s a slim majority.

There is a significant portion of parents who feel these in-person plans are unsafe and very little is being done to educate their children.

At McKeesport, parents can enroll their kids in the district cyber program. No live teachers. No synchronous lessons on-line. Just a canned credit recovery program through the Edmentum company.

It’s terrible, and administration knows it’s terrible.

I’ve heard Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman say as much at school board meetings. But he and most of the board feel they have done all they need to do by providing this option.

They are actually betting that the poor quality of the cyber program will increase the number of parents sending their kids to in-person instruction.

And I’ve heard similar comments among administration at Steel Valley.

There at least we don’t force kids into our (likewise crappy) cyber program. We just have classroom teachers post assignments on-line.

Remote students in K-5 get live teachers instructing on-line. But remote students in 6-12 only get one half day of synchronous instruction on-line a week. The rest is asynchronous worksheets, etc. And somehow that’s supposed to be enough.

We have enough teachers that we could provide more, but why encourage remote learning? Might as well let them eat asynchronous and hope their parents will lose hope and just make them come to school during a global pandemic.

I have zero respect for administrators who think this way. I have zero respect for school board members who vote for it.

So how do I keep my respect for local control and the school board system?

This is very personal to me.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. My doctors tell me I can’t risk my life going into the school buildings to teach as infections run rampant through the state.

But my district has refused to allow me a safe work environment.

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

I have to burn my sick days so I can stay safe at home. But at the same time, I’m encouraged to take overtime hours to put up remote lessons, grade papers and contact parents.

I’m ready to do that as part of my job, but they won’t let me. They’d rather pay me and a sub who babysits my students in-person while I do what I’m allowed to do remotely at the same time.

So how do you look an administrator in the eye who refuses to lookout for his own employee’s safety?

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

Let me tell you, I love my union. I’m a union man. I believe in collective bargaining and worker solidarity.

I just wish my local did, too.

Because the leadership is perfectly fine with agreeing for the staff to work in unsafe conditions and no special protections for those like me who are more likely to contract the disease.

Leaders throw up their hands and say “We’re an association not a union,” and “If the boss says you come back to work, you have to come back to work.”

It’s even worse that I work in Homestead – the site of the historic strike.

So how do I look union leaders in the eye who have no problem throwing me to the wolves?

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

And the state and national unions aren’t much better.

To be fair, I was pleasantly surprised when Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey called for schools in areas with substantial infection rates to follow state guidelines and go to remote learning.

This after months of…. Nothing.

And what is PSEA threatening if districts don’t comply?

Nothing…. So far.

But I guess saying something about it is better than what they were doing before.

The national unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) – certainly haven’t taken any hardline stances.

No one wants to rock the boat, but we’re talking about human life here.

There is no place further back to draw the line. We can compromise on salary and benefits but not on health and safety!

My God! That’s a human right!

We’re either unions in solidarity with our members – all our members – or we’re not.

And right now there is no solidarity, no leadership, nothing.

When I say things like this, people tell me I’m angry.

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

How many lives are we going to put at risk before it’s enough?

How many children? How many parents? How many staff?

Even if healthy people catch this thing, even if they get over it, they could have lifelong debilitating injuries from it.

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

And even the education activist community has been complicit in it.

When I tell some of my fellow grassroots organizers that schools should be open remotely, they complain about how that opens an opportunity for ed tech companies, charter and private schools.

They’re afraid teaching on-line will make ed tech companies an eternal part of school curriculum and replace real, live educators.

But that’s obviously false.

We’ve seen during lockdown periods that no one likes asynchronous teaching programs. No one likes these ed tech learning platforms. What works best in these times is curriculum created by classroom teachers taught by those classroom teachers to their students over online platforms like Zoom.

The technology should be merely a tool to connect students and teachers not as a provider of that learning.

The backlash against ed tech has been far greater than any embrace.

Yet some education activists decry how public schools going remote makes privatized schools who don’t look good.

That’s nonsense, too.

Teaching recklessly is bad – no matter who does it. If parents want to endanger their own kids, that’s their prerogative, but in the long run no one will earn brownie points for enabling such negligence.

However, where privatized schools will earn points with parents is for providing high quality remote learning when public schools refuse to do so.

I know all of them aren’t doing that. But some of them are.

And, frankly, they deserve any praise they get for it.

Look, I love public schools, too. But when public schools abandon their duties to their students as so many have done during this crisis, they deserve to have their students stolen. Even if these privatized schools often have more money to work with in the first place.

CONCLUSIONS

Bottom line: This is a crisis the school board system should have been able to overcome.

It’s a crisis the unions should have been able to battle.

It’s a crisis the activist community should have been able to see clearly.

But leadership has failed at every conceivable level. Time and again.

Strangely, that’s the only saving grace of the whole situation.

It isn’t the system that failed. It is the people in power in the system.

I know in my heart that the best way to run a school is still duly elected members of the community.

Just not THESE duly elected members.

I know that unions are vital to protecting workers rights. Just not unions lead by such wishy washy timid officers.

I know that education activism is necessary to keeping school privatization at bay. But activists can’t let their fears of what might be thwart people’s health and safety right now.

That’s the problem with Democracy. The leaders you get are representative of the community.

And our communities are perverted by one overwhelming belief – capitalism.

That’s why the schools are open. School boards are afraid keeping them closed will hurt business in the community.

That’s why administrators make such reckless reopening plans. They’re afraid that if we stay on remote it will become obvious how irrelevant they are to the running of a virtual school.

That’s why union leaders put up next to no resistance. They’re more afraid of furloughs than death or lifelong health consequences.

That’s why some parents support reopening schools – so they have someone to watch their kids while they’re at work. They never spare a moment for how the government is cheating them out of stimulus checks, mortgage relief, rent forgiveness, free testing, hazard pay and healthcare so they don’t have to put their own lives on the line working during a pandemic.

In all honesty, we were a sick country long before COVID-19 hit our shores.

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

When you look across the ocean at the more socialist countries, you see much better plans to deal with the pandemic. Not perfect, but better.

When everything isn’t dependent on money changing hands, you can more easily prioritize human life.

So, yes, my faith has been shaken in our public schools.

I still think the idea of a public school is one to be cherished and fought to protect.

But the leaders we have – nearly all of them – should be rejected.

We need an army of citizen activists, parents and teachers to come forward at the first opportunity to replace them.

Anyone in a leadership role this year should have to explain themselves – what did you do to protect students and staff during the pandemic?

If they can’t prove they took real steps to keep people safe and not sacrifice the people they were charged to protect on the altar of capitalism – if they can’t do that they should step down.

They should step down with tears in their eyes and forever have their names sullied by their cowardice and stupidity.

They have failed us all.


 

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