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us that we not follow the CDC guidelines because those guidelines have been created before the start of school and are outdated.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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An Originalist Reading of Public Schools

Let’s say you went to a restaurant and ordered a big ol’ meat sandwich only to find nothing but straw between two pieces of bread.

“Waiter!” You say, calling over a server.

“What’s wrong, Sir?”

“There’s no meat in my sandwich.”

“Oh, Sir?” He says smiling, examining your plate. “Here at Scalia’s Bar and Grill we adhere to a strict originalist interpretation of language.”

“What does that have to do with my sandwich?”

“Well, Sir, in Old English ‘meat’ meant any solid food, anything other than drink. As in ‘A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland’ (1775), Samuel Johnson noted, ‘Our guides told us, that the horses could not travel all day without rest or meat.’”

“But that’s not what I ordered!”

“Oh yes it is, Sir. You ordered the meat sandwich. Enjoy your fresh hay and oats.”

In everyday life, you wouldn’t put up with that kind of nonsense.

But for some reason, far right ideologues think it’s exactly the right way to interpret the U.S. Constitution.

The meanings of words change over time.

But ignoring that fact allows disingenuous crackpots to sweep over centuries of judicial precedent in favor of what they pretend to THINK the words meant at the time the law was written.

It’s not even about what the writers of the law SAID it meant. It’s about what today’s justices decide some hypothetical average Joe of the distant past would take certain words to mean.

The most obvious example, according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian Joseph Ellis, is District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), which reversed 200 years of precedent on gun regulations.

Before this ruling, the Second Amendment was interpreted to be referring only to service in the militia. The Militia Act of 1792 required each able-bodied male citizen to obtain a firearm (“a good musket or firelock”) so he can participate in the “well regulated militia” the Amendment describes.

It was about the obligation to serve your country, not the right to own a gun. However, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia – the most infamous proponent of judicial originalism – orchestrated the majority opinion in this case changing all that. By doing a thought experiment about what words might have meant in the 1700s, he papered over two centuries of established law. He was so proud of it that he even described it as “my masterpiece.”

THAT’S judicial originalism.

And now that Scalia fanboy and federal judge for not even three whole years, Amy Coney Barrett, is being rammed through Senate Confirmation Hearings, that preposterous ideology is about to have another proponent on the highest court in the land.

Just imagine if we interpreted everything like people living in the 18th Century!

Black people would lose any semblance of equal rights even being forced back into slavery.

Women couldn’t get checking accounts, their own healthcare, make decisions about their own bodies, even vote (least of all hold positions on the Supreme Court).

And our public schools wouldn’t even exist!

After all, there was no widespread, comprehensive system of public education in the country before John Dewey championed it in the 1930s.

Sure, Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all spoke at length about the importance of education to a free and just democratic society.

But remember, originalists don’t care about the writer’s intent. They only care about what regular people would understand by the terms. And regular people wouldn’t even understand the words “public” and “school” used together as a single concept at the time.

The first school that opened in what would become the United States was The Boston Latin School in 1635.

Its mission, and that of other colonial schools, was not to teach academics like math and literacy. It taught religion, family values and community spirit kind of like many parochial schools today.

Moreover, most schools were for boys only. If they deigned to teach girls at all, they taught them how to read but not write. No reason to give people a voice who weren’t seen as worthy of being heard.

Academics didn’t become something schools were responsible for until the mid-1800s. And even then, how they went about achieving it differed greatly from region to region of the country.

In the South, education rarely had anything to do with anything we’d call a school today. Rich families paid private tutors for their children. Everyone else was expected to work as soon as they were able.

In fact, it wasn’t until the Civil War ended and the Reconstruction era began when public schooling really became a thing in the South.

And even when it did, it didn’t look much like our schools of today. These were often one-room schoolhouses where a single teacher tried to educate children of various ages, grades and abilities.

Moreover, these schools weren’t solely supported by taxes – if at all. These Common Schools were more like private or parochial schools of today. Parents paid tuition, provided housing for the teacher, or contributed other commodities in exchange for their children’s education.

Even then, the learning students received wasn’t nearly as comprehensive as our kids routinely expect in even the most under-funded urban public schools today. And special education services was non-existent. Kids with special needs were routinely left out of education altogether.

Only 31 states passed laws requiring children to go to school by 1900, and kids only went from age 8-14. It wasn’t until 1918 that every state even required elementary school.

But let’s not forget segregation.

It was the law of the land until Brown vs. Board in 1954, and even then it took until the late 1970s to become even moderately enforced.

Subsequent rulings have weakened school integration efforts to such a degree that today many districts are as segregated – if not even more – than they were in the 1950s.

Just imagine if Barrett gets together with the wingnut Republican majority on the court to reevaluate that ruling!

Imagine how many centuries of slow progress she could overturn by appealing to the common man – of 1776.

Imagine if she and the regressive right examined free speech cases! After all, many of these laws were written during the time of the Adams Administration’s Alien and Sedition Acts which radically cracked down on free expression.

We could expect a rush to return to the mire and muck that many of our enlightenment heroes were trying to escape in the first place.

But originalists like Barrett claim only they can interpret what the language in these laws originally meant. Yet their training is in law, not literacy or antiquity. They’re not linguists or historians. They don’t have some shortcut to what people used to mean by these words. They’re just playing with the language to make it mean what they want it to mean so they can rule however they so choose.

Even if they could figure out the original meaning of the words in these laws, that doesn’t guarantee it would make sense in today’s world. How, for example, do the founding fathers views on medicine have anything to do with today’s healthcare system that didn’t exist in the 1700s and that the founders couldn’t even comprehend? How do the founders views on gun rights relate to today’s firearms when they knew only of muskets and not automatic weapons?

Finally, why should we give preference to antiquated ideas over modern concepts? The laws of yesteryear may have been suited to the days in which they were written. However, if a law cannot grow to encompass the world as it exists, it has no right to continue to exist.

Judges are not supposed to overturn precedent based on lingual folderol. They’re supposed to uphold the law based on logic, reason and sound judgement.

Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.

It’s ironic that such degeneration would come from the Republican Party.

After all, the GOP platform is certainly different today than it was when Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as their first President.

They used to stand for abolitionism, immigrant rights and progressive values.

Now they’re the party of plutocrat neofascist Christian fundamentalism.

If anything were to revert back to its original meaning, I wish it were the Grand Old Party, which is now neither grand, barely a party and merely old.


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Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

Teaching today is not the same as it was just a year ago.

The global Coronavirus pandemic has forced schools to change the way they do almost everything.

With infection rates moderate to high in most areas of the country, many schools have resorted to full virtual instruction while others have adopted a hybrid model incorporating a mix of cyber and in-person classes.

Only in the most sparsely populated, secluded or reckless areas have schools been allowed to reopen 100% without safety precautions.

For many districts trying to juggle both in-person and virtual classes, the online component has been left to ed tech companies like Edmentum often specializing in credit recovery.

These have been an absolute disaster.

Corporate America has no business educating our youth – and moreover they’re terribly bad at it.

However, in many districts, virtual instruction has come to mean something else entirely.

It has meant classroom teachers creating their own online instruction and assignments while teaching synchronously through applications like Zoom.

I want to be clear that I think this is the best possible model under current circumstances.

It is the best way to balance the needs of safety for students and staff with the needs of academics.

However, this isn’t to say it is trouble free or even preferable if the world were ever to snap back into the shape it was before the pandemic.

The people best situated to tell us this are classroom teachers.

Along with students whose input and experiences should not be ignored, it is our collective educator core who have been thrust into this strange experiment. But unlike children, they have the knowledge, maturity, skills and life experience to evaluate it best. And being one of those intrepid individuals, I here offer my thoughts.

After more than four months teaching this way, I’d say these are the top 5 pros and cons of virtual instruction:

Pros

1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day

Right off the bat there is something to be said for virtual instruction – it feels more low stakes.

You sleep longer, can more easily access amenities, the bathroom, food and drink.

For one, you sure can’t beat the commute.

Some students admit that they roll out of bed each morning and onto the computer. This is not always optimal for learning in that the mind needs time to wake up and focus itself. However, the fact that one has more choice over how to prepare for school, what to wear, more leeway about breaks and whether to eat or drink in class – all that leads to an increased casual feeling to the day.

And that’s not all bad.

As a teacher, I love being able to go to the restroom whenever I need – something that I cannot do in my school building. Back there, I have to literally train my bladder to be ready when I have breaks in my schedule.

Though I certainly don’t roll from my bed to class, the extra sleep I get from not having to drive to the building and the reduced stress of forgoing a commute, traffic, bad weather, etc. are extremely positive.

It helps me be more relaxed and ready to meet my students needs. It makes me a better teacher.

This doesn’t mean teachers aren’t incredibly stressed by the pressure to create new curriculum, using new technology and new district rules that are being rewritten by the hour. But at least the day-to-day instruction, itself, is more low key.

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

We’ve all been there. An unruly student or two brings a dispute to class and picks on each other back and forth.

In the physical classroom, this can be a real problem requiring a lot of effort to resolve. You have to de-escalate the situation or else it could turn into an exchange of fists.

Online it’s a snap. You can simply mute the participants. The teacher has much more control over what communication enters the classroom space and physical violence is impossible.

True, a dedicated disruptor can find a way to cause a ruckus. He or she can try to use the chat or even the video camera. They may even have each others cell phone numbers and communicate back and forth that way.

However, few students are aggravated enough to take such measures. I haven’t noticed much beyond simple teasing.

Some of my students put pictures of each other as the backgrounds on their camera screens – but these have always been friends trying to get a laugh. A comment from me and it stops.

If worse comes to worse, I can still remove them from the Zoom meeting and alert the principal or dean of students for disciplinary action.

But I haven’t had to do that yet. I’ll bet disciplinary referrals have dropped to record lows. And without them, virtual learning may have all but dismantled the school-to-prison pipeline.

3) It’s Easier to Communicate with Parents and Students Individually

There are many reasons for this.

In the physical classroom, the most common form of communication is verbal. But digital spaces allow for several other methods.

You can email individual students messages, work, assignments, grades, etc. You can utilize the chat feature to send a private message. You can simply talk to them in the Zoom meeting. You can set up an individual Zoom meeting like office hours to answer questions. You can ask or answer questions about assignments in the stream function of Google Classroom.

All these options allow for students to talk with their teacher one-on-one more easily than in the physical classroom.

Consider this: let’s say a student has a question about the homework after class. In the physical classroom environment, there may be little they can do but wait until the next day. Before last March, I’d had students send me emails, but I never checked them as regularly as I need to now.

In the digital world, students can easily send a message through email or stream at any time. This certainly puts a strain on educators but most questions I receive are during school hours and easily answerable in a timely fashion.

When it comes to parents, just having the contact information at your fingertips is a plus. Also teachers have more time to communicate with them when you remove lunch duty, hall duty, in-school suspension and other necessities of the physical classroom. When teachers don’t have to function as security guards, we get more time to be teachers.

I find that in the virtual classroom, I have the time to communicate with every parent at least once a week – or at least I try. Even in the digital world, some parents are incommunicado.

4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together


As a language arts teacher, this is really important to me.

For more than 15 years, I’ve read texts aloud with my students and asked them to follow along. I tell them to take their index fingers, put them in the text and move along with where we are in the passage.

Few actually do it, and there’s really nothing I can do to make them. Except beg.

In the virtual classroom, I can easily put the text on all their screens, place the cursor under the words and follow with the reader or the audio recording.

Students can try to ignore it, but that’s harder than just following along. It also allows me to point to specific parts of the text.

If a student is reading and struggling with a word, I can point to prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc. to help them. And I’ve honestly seen improvements in some struggling readers fluency.

5) It’s Easier for Students to Work at Their Own Pace

This isn’t really a core value of the physical classroom.

Teachers give assignments, set due dates and students have to get things done in the time frame.

Online it isn’t such a straight line.

Teachers instruct in a Zoom meeting, but students are not required to attend. They can catch up with a video of the meeting if they need or prefer.

And since we all anticipate students may have issues throughout the day with connectivity, the technology, home responsibilities, distractions, etc. teachers haven’t been so firm on those due dates.

I freely give extensions and tell my students that assignments can still be made up for full credit well past the deadline. It’s about getting the work done, not so much about when.

I find myself explaining assignments more often than usual, but it’s somehow not as annoying as it sometimes is in the physical classroom.

We’ve created a culture of care and understanding. I think that’s a positive thing even if it doesn’t emphasize due dates and time frames as much.

Cons

1) Student Absences

No matter how you look at it, there are an alarming number of students absent throughout the day.

For my own classes, this was much worse in the spring when we first went online. Starting in September, more students have been attending regularly.

However, there are two important points to be made.

First, there are some students who do not attend the live Zoom meetings but instead watch the videos and do the assignments. Their work is not worse than those who attend – in fact, it is sometimes much better.

I suppose it’s possible students in the Zoom meetings could feed information to those not attending, but with the videos and the ability to communicate with me at will, it’s almost more work to cheat.

Second, though some students have neither attended many (or any) Zoom meetings or handed in many (or any) assignments, this was true in the physical classroom, too.

Some parents do not provide the structure necessary to ensure their children are doing their school work. This is true no matter how that work is presented – physically or virtually.

In my classes, about 20% are regularly absent. Of those, 10-15% are not participating much at all.

That’s about the same as I would expect to see in the physical classroom.

We need to identify these students and provide them with the resources necessary to succeed. But that’s always been true.

2) The Camera Conundrum

To turn your camera off or not? That is the question.

Zoom meetings can be an awfully lonely place for teachers when every student has their camera off.

The general consensus is that we should allow them this freedom. It encourages them to attend the Zoom meetings on their own terms and avoid the stress of seeing themselves constantly on their own screens. It allows them to avoid the fear of being judged for their surroundings.

Allowing them this latitude certainly does increase attendance and create a more positive attitude. But the teacher is in a worse position to monitor student engagement.

Most days I feel like a medium at a seance asking if so-and-so is here. Give me a sign.

I try to pose questions to get students involved – even more than I would in the physical classroom – and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

There are times when I yearn just to be able to look at my students again and see what they’re doing. Because I know some of them are not paying attention.

Some are texting on their cell phones. Some are playing video games on another screen. Some are talking with brothers, sisters, friends or parents in their house.

There’s not much I can do except try to keep my classes as engaging as possible. Most of the time, I think it works.

But not always.

3) It’s Harder to Monitor/Push Students with Special Needs

This is related to the previous point.

The problem of the camera is particularly pernicious for students with special needs. I can’t tell you how many IEPs and service plans want me to monitor students with ADHD and bring them back when they lose focus.

This is nearly impossible for a student with his or her camera off. I can try verbal queues, but students don’t always answer. I can ask them to turn on their cameras if that has been added to their IEPs, but they rarely comply. And if they do, they just point the camera at the ceiling or otherwise away from their faces.

The human contact of actually being present in a physical space has many advantages – especially for students with special needs.

I try my hardest and do everything I can to help them. But I feel that some of them are falling through the cracks – at least more than they would be in a physical classroom.

4) Technological Issues

Even under the best of circumstances, there are always technological issues.

Students do their assignments and their devices don’t save the work. Their batteries run low. They haven’t downloaded the proper apps. They’re using the wrong emails to access a google form.

The list is endless.

Thankfully, my district has a help desk students can access. But teachers need to be aware and permissive about technology issues. We have to air on the side of letting them get away with something rather than being too strict.

And the technology issues aren’t limited to the students.

One Friday I found the wi/fi in my home was down. I had class in 30 minutes and had to find someway to connect online to teach.

I still don’t quite understand what happened. The Today Show was in the neighborhood doing a live broadcast that morning. Perhaps that had an effect.

For whatever reason my Mac laptop could not connect to the Internet. I had a barely functional PC that for reasons I cannot explain was able to connect.

So that’s what I did. I connected with the PC and taught my classes. The connection was still spotty and I got kicked out of my own Zoom meeting once.

When I got back on moments later, the students were terrified. But we got on with it and managed.

I don’t know why, but the issue seemed to fix itself about 2 hours later and I was able to get onto my laptop and experienced no further problems.

I suppose the point is that we have to realize technology issues will crop up. We need contingency plans. Lots and lots of contingency plans. For ourselves, as teachers, and for our students.

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

Ed tech companies have been trying to take over public education for years.
Unscrupulous business people have been trying successfully to privatize and profitize education.

The pandemic has made that possible to degrees never before imagined.

Charter and private schools are packed with students these days. This is partially because their smaller size and greater resources allows them to more easily meet in-person safety standards. Where public schools have recklessly reopened, cyber schools have swooped in to provide a safer option, too.

When even many public schools become less focused on doing the right thing than on doing the popular thing, they open the door to privatization.

It’s the wild west out there and no one can really tell how this will all affect what the future of education will be.

If the pandemic ended tomorrow, I would like to return to the physical classroom. But I can’t say I’d willingly leave every innovation of virtual instruction on the cutting room floor.

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

I like being free to contact parents and students easily and not being tied to duties more suited to school security officers.

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

But I don’t want to lose the best aspects of the physical classroom.

I don’t want to lose autonomy and have everything micromanaged and predetermined by ed tech companies.

I don’t want ridiculously large class sizes justified by a digital space.

I don’t want to have to teach live on-line and in-person at the same time, curating and managing the virtual space and the physical classroom.

I don’t want to be under constant digital surveillance.

These are all dangers of the new normal.

I don’t know what the future will be, but I know it will not be what it was before all this started.

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

But right now teachers really can’t afford to worry about it too much.

We’re too busy trying to get through the current crisis.


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

Trump Has COVID. What That Means For Public Schools

It had to happen eventually.

Donald Trump, the ultimate science denier, got bit in the butt by science.

He’s got Coronavirus, and is in Walter Reed National Medical Center fighting for his life.

Apparently the virus isn’t a hoax.

You don’t catch it by testing for it.

You don’t treat it with hydroxychloroquine.

It’s a global pandemic, and the only way to fight something like that is with rationality and logic.

You have to wear a face mask, dumb-ass.

You have to practice social distancing.

You can’t just reopen the economy and pretend that this won’t cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

You can’t steamroll over more than 200,000 Americans lost simply because most are elderly, poor and/or brown skinned. And they don’t matter to you.

Eventually your ethos of pretending to be what a weak man thinks a strong man is evaporates into thin air.

Your entire persona is as fake as your elaborate combover.

The lady’s man who has to pay for sex.

The billionaire who’s broke.

The stable genius who refuses to believe the facts.

And while there is a certain poetic justice in this buffoon getting a taste of his own medicine, its ramifications for our country will be dire indeed.

With only four weeks before the election, no one can predict what the outcome will be politically.

Will he live? Will he die? Will this mean a boost for his opponent Joe Biden? Or will people wrap themselves in the flag and come to his side?

No one knows.

But one thing is undeniable – we cannot continue to live this way.

The reality tv rollercoaster must stop, its constant flood of outrages, disasters and season finale moments!

Being a public school teacher, I see its impact on education most clearly.

Long before Trump went from being a clown to a contender, policymakers tried reforming our schools with only wishful thinking and a marketing plan.

High stakes testing, charter schools, voucher plans, value added measures, Teach for America – whether proposed by Democrats or Republicans, it is all nothing but science denial wrapped in a stock portfolio.

These are the ways Wall Street has cashed in on schools pretending to be saviors while hiding the reality of their vulture capitalism.

And Trump has been no different.

Except that his instrument – billionaire heiress Betsy DeVos – made it harder to deny.

She barely even tried to pretend to be anything other than what she is – an unimaginative opportunist dead set on destroying the public in public schools.

Now that her spray tanned master has – through inaction and ineptitude – unleashed a plague upon the nation, our students are suffering worse than ever.

Many schools are shuttered from sea to shinning sea, their students forced to learn via the Internet.

Others are open part time while trying desperately to make shrinking tax revenues pay for the quantum leap in costs to even pretend to keep people safe in their buildings.

In some places, the adults don’t even do that much and just try to run a full day schedule, rolling the dice as outbreaks appear at every turn.

In a few places, the virus is under control and schools function almost as normal – though the fear that one infected child could change all that sits in class with every student and teacher.

Nowhere is there uniformity.

Nowhere is there consensus.

Nowhere do we all admit the simple truth – in areas of moderate to high infection, online learning is the best that can be done to balance safety with academics.

Instead, leaders deify choice – letting us decide between these different models – without a basic understanding of citizenship, governance or economics.

That, I think, is what must change.

After all, if the virus can reach the most powerful person in the world if he doesn’t take adequate precautions, it can get your kids, too.

So now that Trump is receiving an experimental antibody cocktail that would not be available to you or me to fight the disease, we can no longer pretend that personal choice is the answer to every problem.

Freedom is a wonderful thing and should be preserved as much as possible.

But your freedom ends where mine begins.

Your choice not to wear a mask in public increases the infection rate in my community. Your decision to eat in a restaurant, go to a bar or spend a weekend at an amusement park puts not just you and your family at risk, but me and mine as well.

And if you send your child to a school building in an area of moderate to high infection rates, you are increasing the likelihood that someone I care about will get sick and perhaps die.

We have both rights and responsibilities.

If you live out in the woods all by yourself, you don’t need to constrain your personal freedom. You can do whatever you can get away with.

But if you live in a community – as nearly all of us do – you have to give up some of that freedom to the rest of us.

This is simple civics – something you would have known had our schools not stopped teaching it because it wasn’t on the big annual standardized tests.

Just as many of us would have known about how pandemics work if we hadn’t narrowed the curriculum because science doesn’t count on the test, either.

When all knowledge is only instrumentally important because it will get you a certain score, none of it has value.

Science, logic, critical thinking, empathy – all lost because someone thought they could make more money by removing them.

We can’t do that anymore, either.

We have to respect knowledge. We have to respect each other.

And we have to understand economics instead of being slaves to one stunted view of how they operate.

Economics is about how to best divide resources for the survival of communities. In times of scarcity, there are certain best ways and in times of abundance there are others.

However, we live in a time of abundance but continue to use the rules for scarcity. In fact, we create scarcity just to ensure an antiquated and ineffective distribution of resources.

Those with the most have refused changes that would be best for everyone including themselves. And many of us can’t even think outside of the conceptions of economics we’re propagandized to believe.

This has to stop, too.

A new world is possible. In fact, it is inevitable.

We will either all die on a scorched wreck of a planet that we have systematically destroyed so that a few will live longer and in more luxury than the rest.

Or we will all move forward into a new, better world together.

I know times are hard – harder than they’ve ever been in my lifetime.

But this is what I see in the light shinning through the crack in the maelstrom of nonsense we have been living in lately.

We can all come together and create schools that serve everyone regardless of race, religion, creed, sexuality, gender or difference. We can teach facts, thought, history, science, arts and humanities.

And armed with such tools, we can recreate society in that image.

That is the lesson of Trump’s diagnosis.

You can lie and cheat and steal.

You can fool people into believing that you’re not a liar and a cheat and a thief.

But eventually, the truth will catch up to you.

Politics puts blinders on us. Propaganda inculcates us. And stunted education makes it harder to see what’s really there.

However, reality exists independent of our ability to recognize it.

If we stumble forward blindly for long enough, we will fall into the pit before us – irrespective of whether we recognize it is there or not.

How much better to open our eyes!


 

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

The Coronavirus Thanks You for Reopening Schools: “I Couldn’t Have Done it Better, Myself!”

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Hey, American Peeps!

 

It’s me! Coronavirus!

 

Technically, the name’s Covid-19, but with you guys, we can cut the formality.

 

I mean after all, once I latched my spiky surface proteins to your nana’s lungs, we were basically family!

 

“YAK! COUGH!”

 

Music to my ears.

 

So it’s back to school time, and – let me tell you – am I ready to return to the classroom! Actually, I’m just bursting to pop onto campuses for the FIRST time this year.

 

When I came to these shores way back in March, some spoil sports decided to shut down the schools before I could really get in there.

 

You locked up your kids tight at home and did this distance learning thing online instead.

 

That really sucked. All I had was full grown bodies to infect.

 

I mean I wanted some nice young things to cuddle up to and bust my viral proteins through their ACE2 receptors. You know what I mean?

 

But I couldn’t get to them. So you guys thought that meant your kids were somehow immune. You thought I couldn’t hurt them.

 

Ha!

 

Just you wait!

 

Now that summer camps and daycare centers are open and even some schools have started their academic years, I am starting on a buffet of tasty adolescent cells to infect and hijack into replicating machines.

 

And let me tell you, so far they have been delicious!

 

Sometimes I like to just get in there and make your kiddos’ cellular tissues reproduce me and reproduce me and reproduce…

 

And other times I just sit back in their nasal cavities and wait until they bring me home to friends and family.

 

Kids are great! They’re not as fanatical about washing their hands as adults; if they get a runny nose, they wipe the mess on the back of their fingers; and they touch EVERYTHING!

 

So, grown ups, thank you so much for reopening schools this fall. School board members, governors, timid union leaders afraid to speak up, I could not have done it better, myself!

 

Right now in most places I’m swirling around in aerosol plumes of nasal droplets in the occasional home, bar, and restaurant, but I’m kinda stuck.

 

There are only so many times I can infect the same people. And if they’re wearing masks properly and washing their hands, it’s just too much hassle.

 

If I really want to up my contagion game – and I do – I need someplace where I can mix with new hosts and then travel back to their cribs and just snuggle in.

 

Schools are perfect for this!

 

I mean where else are hundreds (even thousands) of people thrown together in musty indoor spaces for hours at a time? Since large gatherings have been mostly cancelled, there’s nowhere else to go.

 

No crowds at concerts or big sporting events – even the amusement parks and political rallies are drying up.

 

But now that you’re reopening schools, I can go exponential, baby!

 

Mark my words – September is going to be the season of the Coronavirus! We’re going to make the spring look like a mere dry run!

 

Second wave, third wave – and I have you to thank for it.

 

There are so many people out there I’m indebted to.

 

First of all, I’ve gotta acknowledge all the anti-science folks. If it weren’t for you guys, more playas might actually be taking precautions against me.

 

And the libertarian crowd! Wow! You guys are working overtime! No one can tell you to put human lives before a stunted adolescent definition of absolute freedom!

 

Rich folks, the way you demand everyone else sacrifice for your personal benefit is truly awe inspiring. You’re making bank while everyone else suffers! The only bodily tissue I’ve encountered with your kind of drive is stage 4 cancer.

 

But of course, the first prize has to go to President Trump! He’s the trifecta! Science denial, me first, class warfare zealot! Not only did he disband the government’s pandemic task force, but he advised people to drink bleach – I mean BLEACH! – as a remedy to infection!

 

Sir, you truly deserve the title “honorary pathogen.” If we ever meet, I’m not sure if I’d infect you or you’d infect me.

 

Of course, it’s the everyday folks who really make the most difference.

 

The anti-maskers, the people holding house parties and cook outs, the families throwing care to the wind and going to amusement parks, the people who recklessly eat at crowded restaurants… and school board members opening up their buildings…

 

School directors, I would be no where without you.

 

The way you gas light teachers and staff making them choose between their lives and their livelihoods! Magnifique!

 

Your steadfast determination to keep school buildings open despite any niggling facts or science or news… I just can’t tell you how much it means to me.

 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re opening up for full days or half days or alternate days. You’re giving me the chance to shine. I won’t forget it.

 

I love how you try to justify it with appeals to academics. You say in-person teaching is better than online instruction.

 

Sure, but you’d think an animal with a brain as large as yours could figure out that academics don’t matter much to sick or dead people.

 

And the whole giving-parents-a-choice thing is truly epic! Let them choose between in-person, hybrid or cyber options as if facts about safety were negotiable!

 

Where else in the animal kingdom would potential hosts try to shop their way out of an epidemic? I’ll tell ya, bats don’t act this way. Believe me. I know.

 

There just isn’t any other creature that behaves like you guys. Without your strange commitment to moving around slips of paper and bits of metal, I don’t think I would be able to infect half the people I have.

 

It’s funny. You could just stay home and even pay people to stay put and keep away from each other. But, no, these bits of paper and thin discs of minerals and ores have to keep circulating – so you have to keep moving from place-to-place.

 

I mean Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Monkey Pox, we all agree that there’s nothing like infecting humans!

 

It’s almost like you use your superior intellects just to find new and creative ways to screw each other over! And WE reap the benefits!

 

But it’s not all humans you put in my path.

 

For some reason you seem to think I have a taste for darker complected skin. After all, humans with extra melanin are more likely to breathe in respiratory droplets because they’re forced to live and work in less antiseptic environments, have more pre-existing conditions and go to schools that are more likely to reopen to in-person classes.

 

And, hey, that’s fine with me. If black lives don’t matter to you, I’ll take ‘em! I’ll burrow into the mucous membranes of anyone’s throat. It all kinda tastes like chicken.

 

Fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, body aches – all attempts by your immune system to shake me off as I sink lower and lower into your respiratory system.

 

Most of the time, that’s it. Just a quick fling and then I move on to another unsuspecting fool.

 

But sometimes your lungs can’t handle me. They fill up with fluid, you can’t breathe and well… you die.

 

In either case, I get what I wanted. More copies of me to go and find a new host and start the process all over again.

 

And even if you do survive,I often leave your heart or lungs a mess with long lasting conditions to remember me by.

 

It’s great fun. Really.

 

So don’t ever change, humans.

 

Once your classrooms are splattered with respiratory droplets from ill-fitting, shared or discarded masks, once your hallways are infested with my slime and contagion, once your athletic fields and band rooms and teachers lounges are dripping with my love – just know this: I won’t ever forget you.

 

You have been truly great. Really.

 

Infectiously yours,

 

Donald_J._Trump_signature.svg_

 

Coronavirus

 


 

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

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

 

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

 

And it really looked like they might decide against it.

 

For about 10 seconds.

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

 

Then came Dave Donato.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then he voted in favor of the reopening plan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The tone directors took with the public was markedly different.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then it came to me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

In the end, we lost.

 

The district will reopen to in-person classes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it was not to be.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MY COMMENTS:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You have to face the facts.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

I disagree for several reasons.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

DR. HOLTZMAN’S RESPONSE:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

FACT CHECK:

 

 

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

 


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

Holtzman’s response comes at 20 minutes left.

The vote takes place at 10 minutes left.)

 


 

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Gov. Wolf, You Can’t Shirk Your Duty to Close PA Schools During the Pandemic

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“The Buck Stops Here!”

 

President Harry S. Truman famously displayed a sign on his desk saying exactly that.

 

It indicated that he didn’t pass the buck but accepted responsibility for the way the country was run.

 

What does it say on your desk, Gov. Tom Wolf?

 

Your latest Tweets don’t fill Pennsylvania residents with confidence:

 

“There are widespread rumors that I will soon be announcing a statewide school building closure or cancelling classes this fall. I want to be clear: I am not closing school buildings or cancelling classes.”

 

“School governing boards and administrators will determine if school buildings reopen and if classes resume in person, remotely, or a combination of the two. The best way to find out about these local decisions is to contact your school’s governing board or administration.”

 

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Well, that’s two things you now have in common with President Donald Trump.

 

First, you’re making policy by Tweet.

 

Second, you are side stepping your obligations.

 

“I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump said when asked about his administration’s inability to test Americans for the Coronavirus during the outbreak.

 

That’s what you sound like today.

 

COVID-19 cases have been spiking throughout the Commonwealth since early June – especially in Allegheny, Philadelphia, Delaware and Montgomery counties.

 

Today in Allegheny County, where I live, the Health Department reported the second highest increase in new cases – 244.

 
That is the most new cases in the state. Philadelphia comes next with 130 new cases. Together, these two counties make up more than 38% of the state’s new COVID-19 cases.

 

And yet we have school directors looking at this same data and making different decisions.

 

In the Pittsburgh region, school boards at East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg districts have all decided to reopen schools with classes completely on-line – at least to start. Meanwhile, in neighboring districts like McKeesport Area School District and Steel Valley School District, they are moving forward with hybrid plans that incorporate on-line and in-person classes in the physical school buildings.

 

And those are the outliers.

 

The majority haven’t made decisions yet complaining of a lack of safety guidelines from the county and a lack of direction from you, the governor.

 

You don’t get to decide what schools teach or how local communities make educational decisions.

 

But whether school buildings physically reopen or not during a pandemic is not an educational decision. It is a public safety decision.

 
Back in March when the virus started spreading throughout the state, you choose to close down businesses and schools.

 

As chief executive of the state, you had an obligation to do that.

 

It’s a crying shame that many in government have politicized every aspect of this disaster and the response to it.

 

I know you have taken a lot of criticism from Republicans trying to score points off your quick and sound judgement in this matter. They call you a tyrant because you did what every previous governor has done during a statewide disaster – you made decisions to safeguard lives.

 

Nothing has changed. If anything, there are significantly more cases reported every day now than in March.

 

If schools needed to be closed to in-person classes and education needed to be conducted on-line back then, that is still true today.

 

Perhaps this doesn’t have to be statewide. Perhaps it can be decided county-by-county. But you need to work collaboratively with county officials and school boards to coordinate the response to the virus.

 

Otherwise, there inevitably will be outbreaks at schools that reopen to in-person schooling. And since most districts are not separated by wide open spaces and residents frequently travel between them to buy groceries or other necessities, those outbreaks will spread.

 

A district that wisely decides to keep children 100% online will be susceptible to infections from residents in neighboring districts and bring those infections home.

 

This is not the responsibility of local school directors. It requires an authority that goes beyond the neighborhood and provincial decision making.

 

This is YOUR responsibility.

 

Frankly, the federal government, too, should be playing a larger role to help coordinate state responses. After all, the virus is not limited by state lines either.

 

But just because this President has neglected his duties, that does not give you the right to do the same.

 

If you refuse to make this decision, many more people will get sick from COVID-19 than would otherwise. Many more people will eventually die.

 

These are teachers, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and – yes – even children.

 

You can do something about that.

 

You have a responsibility to do something about it.

 

Do your duty.


 

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Waiting For a Teaching Assignment This Year is Like Anticipating a Death Sentence

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Going to the mailbox each time, my heart flutters.

 

I open the lid and see a stack of letters. My heart sinks.

 

Is today the day?

 

Has my teaching assignment finally arrived?

 

It’s not that I’m so anxious to find out what grade I’ll be teaching this year or whether I have lunch duty or have to monitor in-school suspension.

 

It’s whether I get to live or die.

 

And that’s no hyperbole.

 

As the summer whittles down, my district has yet to release its reopening plan. Meanwhile, no communication from administrators or school directors, no public meetings, nothing.

 

Meanwhile surrounding districts release plans that go against Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines in the name of expediency, politicians use the issue to demonize teachers and rally their base, and our unions pretend the only problem is a lack of funding.

 

The Sword of Damocles dangles over my head and the rope that keeps it in place looks more frayed with every pendulum swing.

 

For a person like me with at least two pre-existing conditions, an assignment in the school building during a global pandemic could be a death sentence.

 

Teaching has taken a huge toll on my body. I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease. Not to mention that I’m certainly not getting any younger.

 

That’s at least twice the average risk of getting COVID-19 if my employer decides to assign me back in the building.

 

And it’s something my doctors made a point of mentioning.

 

From the middle of June to the middle of August, teachers like me try to take care of all our personal needs before the hectic classroom schedule begins.

 

That means renewing clearances, financial planning, medical visits, etc.

 

So when I went to a routine cardiologist appointment, I was somewhat taken aback as the doctor told me, “Remember, you can’t get sick.”

 

“I’m sorry? What?” I said.

 

He had just given me a clean bill of health.

 

“Remember, you can’t get sick. You simply cannot afford it,” he said.

 

Then he went on to complain about living in a country that put economics before science.

 

I heard much the same from my gastroenterologist.

 

They were both furious at how the pandemic is being handled but had no more advice on how I could protect myself.

 

“If they want you to go back to work, what else can you do?” one asked me.

 

Refuse?” I said.

 

I still don’t have a better answer.

 

It’s incredibly unfair that decision makers may force me to choose between my job and my life.

 

I love my job.

 

Teaching has been one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had. Every day I get to help kids become the people they want to be. I get to introduce them to a world of reading where voices long past get to speak to each of them individually. I get to show them how to participate in a conversation that’s been raging for millennia.

 

It’s challenging and exhausting and difficult, but I know I’m making a difference.

 

I love every minute of it.

 

But I love breathing more.

 

I don’t want to be buried under a respirator as my lungs slowly fill with fluid.

 

I don’t want to die gasping for breath.

 

Not if I don’t have to.

 

“You might want to update your will,” a friend told me with a grin when I mentioned this to him.

 

But there’s really nothing to smile about here.

 

I feel like I’m about to be thrown to the wolves.

 

After 17 years in the classroom, years of helping kids learn how to read and write, years of listening to their needs and worries, years of helping them overcome their anxieties and fears, years of advice, counsel and friendship – is this all I’m worth to the community?

 

I chaperoned field trips with school directors and their children, I’ve taught board members kids and sat across from the adults at parent-teacher meetings regaling them with tales of mischief and academic triumphs. Will they now callously decide that I need to put my life at risk or else step down?

 

How many times did I joke and laugh with administrators, how many times did I try my best to do what they asked, how many times did I go above and beyond – and now have they no qualms about making my wife a widow and forcing my daughter to navigate the rest of her childhood without her daddy?

 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

A sane society wouldn’t reopen school buildings when Coronavirus cases are spiking. A rational country wouldn’t politicize safety precautions, undermine scientists and disparage facts. It would pay people to stay home, suspend rent payments, provide everyone with personal protective equipment (PPE) and universal healthcare.

 

And it’s not too late.

 

By the end of August, we can continue the distance learning initiatives we began in the spring.

 

To be honest, there were a truckload of problems in April and May. But at least we know what they are and can do better a second time around.

We can make sure all students have access to computers, devices and the Internet. We can make expectations clear and achievable and increase project based assignments. We can habituate participation, increase interactivity and offer multiple chances to do the work.

 

I’m not saying it would be perfect. On-line learning will never be as effective as in-person learning.

 

But any education attempted under the shadow of a pandemic will be less productive than under normal circumstances.

 

Even if we dispense with masks and social distancing in the classroom – which would be incredibly risky for all involved – children would be on edge, traumatized and frightened.

 

Distance learning is the safest way to go. Any academic shortfalls could be made up in subsequent years. But you have to survive first.

 

My life would certainly be at risk in the physical classroom. But so would every other staff member, children’s families and even the students, themselves.

 

The same people advocating for a full reopen of schools like to cite studies showing young people are immune or mostly asymptomatic. But kids were the first group to be quarantined.

 

As we have opened summer camps and daycare centers, an increasing number of children – especially those 10-19 – have gotten sick. And even the younger ones have been known to bring the virus home to their parents.

 

If my life has no value to you, what about your own? What about your child’s life?

 

Being a teacher kind of commits you to a sort of optimism.

 

To dedicate your life to young people, you have to believe the future can be better than the present and the past.

 

I let out a deep breath and went through the letters in my mailbox.

 

My assignment wasn’t there.

 

It may arrive tomorrow or the day after.

 

The uncertainty is hard, but it’s better than some certainties. I still have every hope that my community will not sacrifice my life.

 

But if it does, I will not go quietly.

 

I can’t be here for your kids, if I’m not here.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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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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