Want to Appreciate Teachers? Vaccinate Us Before Reopening Schools

This year I don’t need a free donut.

I don’t need a Buy One Get One coupon for school supplies.

I don’t need a novelty eraser or a mug with a happy saying on it.

I just need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before being asked to teach in-person.

You want to say you appreciate teachers? Great! Then provide us with a minimally safe environment to work in.

That is LITERALLY the least you can do.

Not a banner or an advertisement or even a sentimental greeting card.

Give us the minimum protections so we can meet the demands of school directors, administrators and the community.

Not a cookie. A Covid vaccine.

Not a demand that we teach in an unsafe environment or go look for work elsewhere.

Give us the tools we need to meet your demands without putting our lives at unnecessary risk.

And we’re not even talking about ALL the tools necessary.

Minimum 6 feet social distancing? Ha! You know you can’t fit all the students in the building that way!

Low rate of infections throughout the community? Ha! You don’t have the patience to wait for that!

Equitable funding with schools in higher income communities? The freedom and autonomy to forgo high stakes standardized testing? Not having to compete with charter and voucher schools that get to play by different rules skewered in their favor?

Ha!

Ha!

And Ha!

No, if you’re going to do the least thing possible – the absolute slightest, minimal, tiniest thing you could possibly do – make sure your staff has the chance to be fully vaccinated before thrusting us back in the physical classroom.

Many of us have been teaching online for months now. We didn’t survive this long just to be kicked out of quarantine when protections exist but are not yet available.

However, in many districts that is exactly what’s being done.

Though vaccines are slowly being rolled out, few school boards are waiting for staff to be protected before throwing open the doors and restarting in-person instruction.

Some districts never stopped in the first place.

So why the discrepancy?

Why have some districts remained open and why are others refusing to wait before reopening?

It’s not because they’re in communities with lower infection rates. In fact, just the opposite.

In most parts of the country, Covid-19 is on a rampage through our communities making people sick, filling up ICUs and graveyards.

More than 400,000 people nationwide have died already from the disease and many health experts expect that number to reach 500,000 before the end of February.

That’s about 4,000 people a day.

In my home state of Pennsylvania, infections are considered substantial if more than 10% of Covid tests in a county come back positive. As of today, that includes every county in the Commonwealth. In fact, our statewide average is 12.7%!

The danger is real and widespread. It’s just that some districts and communities care more than others for their teachers and the students they serve.

It’s not that districts that remain open to in-person instruction have avoided outbreaks.

My home district of McKeesport, located in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh, has been open on and off since September 2.

According to the district’s own Website, out of about 3,000 students and 200 teachers, there have been 106 cases of Covid – 61 among staff and 45 among students.

That’s roughly 21 cases a month.

Keep in mind these numbers don’t include people quarantined or those who get sick and either don’t report it or don’t know it because they’re contagious but asymptomatic. If we added all the people impacted by the decision to keep the district open, the numbers would be much higher.

In any case, decision makers at McKeesport apparently think there’s nothing wrong if every month at least 21 people (adults and children) get the virus, risk their health, and potentially suffer life long consequences.

They don’t mind if having the schools open drives up the infection rate in the community.

They don’t mind if moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas, even people with no kids in the district have a greater chance of getting sick because decision makers can’t be bothered to look out for the common good.

That’s not an example anyone should be emulating. It’s one we should be avoiding.

Don’t get me wrong.

It’s not that I don’t want to get back to the classroom. There are few things I’d rather do.

Teaching on-line is awkward and strange. Spending all day talking to blank boxes on your computer screen each one representing a child who may or may not be there at that particular moment in time.

Trying to find or recreate classroom materials and rethink how they can best be used in a virtual environment.

Troubleshooting technological issues, answering hundreds of emails and instant messages a day all while having to attend pop up virtual staff meetings that hardly ever deal with the problems of the day but are instead focused on how to return to an in-person method of instruction without ANY concern for the health and safety of the people who would have to enact it!

If people cared at all about teachers, they wouldn’t demand we do that.

They’d look out for us the same way we look out for their children every day in the classroom whether it be physical or virtual.

But where I live, teachers and other frontline workers aren’t even on the top of the list to be vaccinated. Even those at the top of the list can’t be seen because UPMC, the healthcare agency distributing the vaccine, is giving preference to its own office workers who do not come into contact with infected people.

You want to get kids back in school buildings? Talk to the people messing up the vaccination process. Don’t shrug and demand teachers take up the slack – AGAIN!

When I took this job it wasn’t to be a police officer or a soldier. I never volunteered to put my health on the line treating sick people in the hospitals.

I chose to be a public school teacher.

I mentor needy children. I inspire the dispirited, I stoke the curious, I enlighten the ignorant.

I don’t sacrifice my life because you can’t be bothered to provide the most basic resources possible I need to even attempt to do my job.

That’s not too much to ask.

In fact, it’s not much at all.

I’m not saying vaccines are a panacea.

Just because you take the vaccine doesn’t mean POOF you’re immune. It takes at least a month to reach full 90-95% immunity. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require you take two doses (at least 21 or 28 days apart, respectively). The level of protection increases dramatically – from 52% to 95% – but you need both doses to get there.

Moreover, there are other more virulent strains of Covid out there. Preliminary studies seem to suggest that these two vaccines are effective against them, but only time and further study will tell for sure.

In addition, being vaccinated protects you, but not your unvaccinated family. You can still be contagious and bring the virus home with you – though studies suggest any disease you spread after vaccination would be of a much weakened form.

Even if every teacher who wanted a vaccine got one, the pandemic would not be over.

According to some epidemiological estimates, as many as three-fourths of Americans must become immune to COVID-19 – either by recovering from the disease or by getting vaccinated – to halt the virus’s spread.

However, recent polls suggests that 29% to 37% of Americans plan to refuse a COVID-19 vaccine – even some teachers.

So we can’t just allow educators to be vaccinated. We need to encourage everyone to get one. Otherwise, it may protect individuals but not the community.

Education is vital to ensure that everyone knows the risks and benefits of taking the vaccine and how to protect themselves and their children.

And if you want people to be educated you’re going to need some teachers to do it.

We don’t need a pat on the back or even a “Thank You” to get the job done.

What we need are the basic protections necessary to both meet your expectations and survive the endeavor to teach another day.

So stop the badgering and bullying.

Make sure all teachers have the chance to be fully vaccinated before returning to the in-person classroom.

It is the least you can do.


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Kids Are NOT Falling Behind. They Are Surviving a Pandemic

 
 


 
Everyone is worried about how the Coronavirus pandemic is affecting children. 


 
And it IS affecting them.  


 
But so much worry is being wasted on the wrong things. 


 
Instead of agonizing about kids being put in danger of infection at in-person schools where the virus is out of control, we’re told to worry about academic regression. 


 
Instead of feeling anxiety about abandoning kids at home as outbreaks close their schools and parents still have to go in to work, we’re told to agonize over failing test scores.  


 
In nearly every case, the reality is papered over by concern trolls clutching their pearls and demanding we point our attention away from the real dangers in favor of papier-mâché boogeymen. 


 
It’s almost as if the rich and powerful don’t want us to solve the real problems because that would cost them money.  


 
Stimulus checks, rent moratoriums, universal healthcare, aide to small businesses – none of that is in the interest of the one percent. 


 
Better to persuade the rest of us it’s better to suck up our pain and that doing so is really for our own good. 


 
And one of the ways they do it is by crying crocodile tears over our children’s academics. 


 
Kids are falling behind, they say.  

Hurry up, Kids. Get going.  


 
You’re behind! 


 
You have to catch up to where you would be if there hadn’t been a global pandemic! 


 
Hurry up! We’ve got this time table and you’re falling behind! FALLING BEHIND! 


 
It’s utter nonsense


 
I’m not saying that kids are learning today what they would have learned had COVID-19 not spread like wildfire across our shores.  


 
But the idea that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed – that is pure fantasy. 


 
Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning


 
At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.  


 
People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 


 
And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 


 
You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 


 
For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool. 


 
That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.  


 
Moreover, kids who live in stable, loving households who don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, overcoming neglect or abuse, etc. have a greater chance of being ready more quickly than those trying to manage under a heavier load of problems. 


 
And if a child isn’t ready today, that doesn’t mean she’ll never be ready. 


 
The mind does not take ultimatums. You don’t have to fill up every shelf as soon as space becomes available. In fact, you could never fill it all up if you tried. There’s always more room – just maybe not right now. 


 
If a child doesn’t learn a certain concept or skill as soon as he or she is ready for it, that doesn’t mean he or she will lose out on that opportunity.  


 
Brains are flexible. They’re almost always ready to grasp SOMETHING. It’s just not up to society what those somethings are or when they’re achievable. 


 
That’s why Common Core Academic Standards were such a failure. They tried to map what schools teach like a train schedule, and then blamed educators when children’s brains didn’t match up with corporate expectations. 


 
The key is providing people with the opportunities and the circumstances that maximize the likelihood of learning. Not pedantically checking off skills and benchmarks. 


 
None of this is new. 


 
I am not putting forward a radical theory of cognitive development. 


 
Every teacher with an education degree is taught this in their developmental psychology courses. That’s why so many educational leaders don’t know anything about it.  


 
Policymakers rarely have actual education degrees. In fact, many of them have never taught a day in their lives – especially at the K-12 level.  


 
For example, Teach for America takes graduates from other fields of study (often business), gives them a couple weeks crash course in basic schoolology before throwing them in the classroom for a few years. Then they leave pretending to know everything there is about education, ready to advise lawmakers, work at think tanks, or otherwise set policy.  


 
Imagine how things would change if we expected our educational leaders to actually comprehend the field of study they’re pretending to steer. 


 
Meanwhile, people with 4-5 year degrees in education, like myself, have internalized things like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  


 
We know that learning is best achieved when a person’s foundational necessities are met. At base are physiological prerequisites like food, clothing and shelter as well as the need for safety and security. Then comes psychological requirements like relationships and self-worth. Once all these primary needs have been met, we can most effectively achieve academic goals. 


 
But for most kids the pandemic has been particularly hard on these primary needs. Food, shelter and safety are not nearly as certain today as they were just a year ago. 


 
Children’s physiological needs aren’t being met because their parents livelihoods are in jeopardy. And the very idea that children should be sheltered or kept safe is mocked by the economy first concern trolls demanding parents choose between their children or their jobs. 


 
They pretend to care about our kids so they can get us to do the very things that undermine our children’s safety. And it’s all somehow for our own good. 


 
In-person school, hybrid or distance learning? They don’t really care. 


 
The economy is what they’re really worried about. They want to keep it chugging along so they can continue siphoning profit off of the working class and into their pockets.  


 
And if they have any genuine concern for our children at all, it is merely that our kids get through the academic system and enter the workforce on time so that our kiddos can inject more money (more value) into the gross domestic product.  


 
We don’t need their disingenuous advice. 


 
Our children are suffering, but they’re doing as fine as can be expected under the circumstances.  


 
Yes, their educations have been disrupted by the virus. But a global pandemic will do that.  


 
You want to fix the problem, nothing short of ending the crisis ultimately will work.  


 
We can mitigate the damage, but marching kids into the classroom – sending them into a dangerous situation where they may get sick and (even more likely) bring the virus home to friends and family – will not help anyone.  


 
Schools are not daycare centers. In fact, we shouldn’t have to resort to daycare centers, either, when faced with a deadly airborne virus.  


 
Parents should be allowed (and encouraged!) to stay home and take care of their own kids. We should literally pay them to do so! 


 
These appeals to keep the economy running full steam ahead no matter the cost are nothing less than class warfare. And many of us have been brainwashed that we’re on one side when we’re really on the other.

 
 
Let’s get one thing straight: none of this means learning will stop.  


 
Kids are learning quite a lot, thank you.


 
They see us, adults, fighting over pandemic precautions like wearing face masks when in public. They see us denying science, calling the virus a fake as millions of people get sick and die. They see our President refusing to accept the results of the election. And sometimes they see the same people who should be keeping them safe sending them to school as if nothing is happening


 
The media mogul marketeers would be wise to fear the lessons this generation is learning about the gullibility of adults and the willingness of the ruling class to sacrifice the common folk.  


 
But even though much of the curriculum in 2020 has been unscripted, our schools still function.  


 
In fact, teachers are working harder than ever to provide some continuity. 


 
Where classrooms are closed, distance learning is taking up the slack


 
No, it will never be comparable to the quality of instruction you can provide in-person. But even the quality of in-person instruction is not the same during a pandemic. Hybrid models with necessary precautions of social distancing and mask wearing are, themselves, substandard.  


 
The best that we can do in most cases is learning at a distance.  


 
Will all kids respond?  


 
Absolutely not.  


 
They’ll do the best they can. And this will largely depend on the environmental factors in their homes.  


 
When you have children left to their own devices forced to navigate a virtual learning platform, they will inevitably hit roadblocks. They need their parents to help navigate the rough spots

Kids are just that – kids. They need adults to put them on a schedule, make sure they wake up on time, have breakfast, and hold them accountable for attending their classes – even if those classes are held on-line.

There’s a reason the kids with the best grades often have the most involved parents – parents with the economic freedom to invest more time into their children.

 
That’s something else the marketeers don’t understand. Most of the problems of Covid America aren’t that different from Pre-Covid America. It’s a matter of degree. 


 
Schools have always struggled to overcome the socioeconomic problems of their students. The only difference is that now we can’t just point to standardized test scores and blame it all on teachers.  


 
The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.  


 
A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.  
 


 
So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.  


 
Our children aren’t falling behind.  


 
They’re surviving a pandemic.  


 
 
Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.  


 
 
Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.  


 
 
But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart. 


 
Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.


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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!

For Teachers, “Silence of Our Friends” May be Worst Part of Pandemic

“In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
-Martin Luther King Jr

Teachers want a safe place to work.

But in 2020 that is too much to ask.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic rages out of control throughout most parts of the United States, teachers all across the country want to be able to do their jobs in a way that won’t put themselves or their loved ones in danger.

In most cases that means remote instruction – teaching students via the Internet through video conferencing software like Zoom.

However, numerous leaders and organizations that historically are supportive of teachers have refused to support them here.

The rush to keep classrooms open and thus keep the economy running has overtaken any respect for science, any concern for safety, and any appeal to compassion.

Many Democratic lawmakers, school directors, union leaders and even public school advocates have repeatedly turned away, remained silent or promoted policies that would continue to put educators in danger.

Thankfully, some districts have been accommodating, worrying about the safety of children as well as adults.

But many others have refused to go this route even demanding educators with compromised immune systems and other increased risk factors either get in the classroom and teach or seek some sort of financially burdensome leave.

Affected teachers often wonder where their union is, where their progressive representative, where the grassroots activists who were willing to organize against charter schools and high stakes testing.

Answer: crickets.

As a result, more than 300 U.S. teachers and other school employees have died from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

In New York City, alone, 72 school employees died of the virus, according to the city Department of Education.

And since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has refused to collect data on how the pandemic is affecting schools and school employees, this count is probably woefully under-representative of the full tragedy.

About 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from the Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

In my own Western Pennsylvania community in the last few weeks, we buried high school employee Terri Sherwin, 60, of Greater Latrobe School District and elementary school employee Dana Hall, 56, of Jeannette City School District.

The assertion that children cannot get the disease, which was popularized by the Trump administration, has been proven false.

More than 1 million kids nationwide have been diagnosed with COVID-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics .

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms but are still capable of transmitting the virus to others. This – along with the lack of a national database – makes it incredibly difficult to accurately trace the source of an outbreak through the schools.

However, in November the CDC quietly removed controversial guidelines from its website promoting in-person learning, and instead lists it as “high risk.”

“As new scientific information has emerged the site has been updated to reflect current knowledge about COVID-19 and schools,” a spokesperson said.

Yet there has been no subsequent change in the policy positions of most lawmakers, school directors, union leaders or education activists.

A prime example of this is New York City’s plan to reopen most schools to in-person learning at the beginning of this month despite rising infection rates and an average of more than 2,000 new cases a day.

The plan has the full support of most teachers unions.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said the plan “combines the best of what we have learned nationwide during COVID about how to keep staff and students safe and how to instruct young kids.”

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) agreed.

He said:

“We are supportive of a phased reopening of schools in other neighborhoods as long as stringent testing is in place. This strategy – properly implemented – will allow us to offer safe in-person instruction to the maximum number of students until we beat the pandemic.”

The plan is predicated on a bogus statistic that kids aren’t getting sick at school or spreading the virus from there, that only 0.2% can be traced back to school buildings.

But we know that contract tracing is inadequate. We know people are getting sick. Hospitals are filling up. People are dying.

Why aren’t the unions standing up more for their employees here? Why is the request for a safe work environment too much?

Answer: politics.

With President-elect Joe Biden about to announce his pick for Secretary of Education, few union leaders have the courage to go against the party line and disqualify themselves from consideration.

Biden’s plan right now seems to be keeping the schools open with an influx of cash.

Former President of the National Education Association (NEA) Lily Eskelsen García hasn’t said much recently on the issue to my knowledge.

But she was unafraid to contradict President Donald Trump before the election.

She appeared on CNN and challenged Trump to “sit in a class of 39 sixth graders and breathe that air without any preparation for how we’re going to bring our kids back safely.”

In late April, she took to Twitter saying the NEA is “listening to the health experts and educators on how and when to reopen schools — not the whims of Donald Trump, who boasts about trusting his gut to guide him. Bringing thousands of children together in school buildings without proper testing, tracing, and social isolation is dangerous and could cost lives.”

In an interview in May she said:

“The stakes of doing it wrong is that someone dies. It’s not just that someone doesn’t graduate or someone doesn’t learn their times tables — someone could die.”

I wonder what she would say today – and why she hasn’t spoken out as vocally.

In my neighborhood, Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) President Rich Askey has continually asked districts to follow state safety guidelines.

“The health and safety of students, staff, and our families must be our top priority,” Askey said. “We call on all school district leaders to follow the state’s guidelines to protect the health and safety of everyone in our school communities.”

However, state guidelines are pretty weak. They suggest mask wearing and that districts close when community infection rates are high. But districts can choose to keep buildings open if they promise to follow safety guidelines to the best of their ability.

Gov. Tom Wolf originally issued an order for all schools to close and go to remote learning last March. However, state Republicans challenged his authority to do so and their position was upheld in court.

Since then, Wolf has issued tons of guidance but not much else.

I assume Wolf would say he hasn’t done more because his hands are tied.

I assume Askey would say the same.

But such platitudes taste like ashes in your mouth when faced with the everyday reality that almost everyday the state is breaking its previous record for Coronavirus cases. Today we had nearly 13,000 new cases and 149 deaths! Yes, that’s just today!

Will their hands still be tied when daily cases reach 20,000? 50,000? 100,000?

The decision about whether to keep buildings open to in-person classes or go with remote instruction has mostly been left with school directors.

And their decisions have been all over the place.

These are not public health officials.

These are not people used to making life and death decisions.

They’re used to deciding whether to remodel the library, buy books from this or that vendor or declare Friday a holiday because the football team won the state championship.

I don’t mean to diminish what they do.

Some have been going above and beyond every day to ensure the health and safety of students, staff and the community.

But far too many pay lip service to that idea while making sure their local business gets to keep operating with employees who don’t have to sit home with their children.

And these are people from the community. How many times have teachers called them to let them know how their kids were doing in class? How many times have teachers gone with them and their kids on school field trips? How many times have teachers accepted invitations to graduation parties and school board meetings?

We should be on the same team, but too many school directors are far too willing to sacrifice our lives and safety to safeguard their own bank accounts.

When will school directors admit the cost is too high? How many staff have to get sick? 20? 50? 100? How many have to die?

However, as much as the silence and disregard of lawmakers, union leaders and school directors hurts – it is the reaction from many education activists that stings the most.

When our schools are attacked by charter schools and voucher schools, we organize and fight it together.

When high stakes testing unfairly labels our children and is used to defund and loot our budgets, we organize and fight together.

No matter what the issue – the school-to-prison pipeline, Common Core, racist discipline policies, value added teacher evaluations, runaway ed tech – we’ve come together to fight as one.

But suddenly when it’s an issue of teachers vs. the economy, our allies go silent.

They’re afraid remote learning will lead to more ed tech solutions, that it will embolden parents to enroll in charter or voucher schools, that it will hurt student learning. And to be fair there is reason to fear.

However, instead of standing together and fighting these new challenges as they come (as we’ve always done) many of our activist allies have abandoned us.

They champion articles about a non-existent consensus that it’s safe to reopen schools. They champion the work of a discredited economist over epidemiologists and virologists. They side with the same neoliberals and corporate education reformers we used to battle together.

Or they simply remain silent.

That’s the one that really hurts the most.

One day this pandemic will end.

One day – I hope it’s soon – it will be safe to return to the classroom and begin again.

But the wreckage of the virus will pale in comparison to the damage we have done to each other and our relationships.

Coalitions may crumble and fall.

Trust may disappear.

And the way forward – if any will be left – may be much different than it was only a year ago.

No one who refuses to defend your right to life is your true ally.

We won’t forget who spoke up and who remained silent.


 

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.

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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!

Contact Tracing Does NOT Prove Schools Are Safe During a Pandemic

“No close contacts were identified within the school district.”

That’s what it says on today’s email from my district reporting that two elementary staff and one student tested positive for COVID-19.

That’s what it said on Tuesday’s email about a different elementary staff member testing positive.

And the email from last Sunday about two elementary staff, and last Monday about a middle school staff member, and the one from Nov. 19 about an entire Kindergarten class and its teachers being quarantined.

Actually, that last email said the outbreak was limited to the Kindergarten class and teachers – that no close contacts were identified beyond its doors, in the building or the wider district as a whole.

However, considering that at least five more elementary teachers and another student tested positive later, I’m not sure I believe it.

All of which prompts the question – how accurate is contact tracing?

How Contact Tracing Works

Let’s say a little girl, Ava, gets COVID-19.

Where did she get it from?

Let’s do some contact tracing to find out.

We ask Ava to think back two days before she showed symptoms up until now. Who was she in close contact with (within six feet for at least 15 minutes)? She doesn’t remember much, but she gives us a list of two or three people who may fit the bill.

We call them, find that none of them are sick, none have been out of the state or country, ask them to quarantine and that’s it.

So where did Ava get the virus? Who did she get it from?

We don’t know.

And contact tracing rarely produces an answer to that question.

In fact, that’s not really its point.

Contact tracing is a key strategy for preventing the further spread of an infectious disease. Its goal is to limit spread beyond this point.

We already know Ava has the virus (or is suspected of having it). We’re trying to find out who she may have spread it to – as much as, if not more than – who she got it from.

In the process of doing that we may be able to trace the spread of the virus back to its source before Ava. But probably not.

Why Does Contract Tracing Often Fail to Lead Us Back to the Source of an Outbreak?

If we had rapid and ubiquitous COVID tests, perhaps we could achieve that goal. But we don’t.

Moreover, we’re relying on individuals to voluntarily cooperate with contact tracers and to provide detailed information about who they came into contact with over a wide period.

At best, people are scared and not as specific as they might be. At worst, they refuse to participate at all.

Michael Huff, Pennsylvania’s director of testing and contact tracing efforts, said that more than 34,000 new cases were reported over the past week, but case investigators were only successful in reaching about 8,332.

And of those they did reach, ninety-six people refused to quarantine.

His response:

“Why? Because people don’t want to answer the phone. Because people do not realize how important it is to give the information we need to make certain we can control disease.”

To make matters worse, most children who get the disease (especially those younger than 10) are asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Though they are still capable of spreading the disease, they go undetected by contact tracing entirely.

So it is entirely disingenuous to claim contact tracing proves much of anything about how the virus is spread. It’s usefulness is in stopping COVID-19 from going any further.

How Contact Tracing is Used to Make Wild Claims

Students, teachers and other school staff have come down with the virus in significant numbers.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with Covid-19 according to a report by the American Academy of Pediatrics released last week.

No such estimate exists for school staff, but about 1 in 4 teachers – nearly 1.5 million – have conditions that raise their risk of getting seriously ill from Coronavirus, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

And though many thousands of school staff have contracted the disease, more than 300 district employees have died nationwide from the virus according to the Associated Press.

Where did all these people get COVID-19?

Contact tracing provides no definitive answer, however, policymakers are pretending that means something.

They’re pretending that the failure of contact tracing to find a direct link means there is no link.

Since contact tracing has rarely been able to identify the source of an outbreak to a particular person in school, they assume that means the virus isn’t spreading much in our schools.

Nonsense!

First of all, there have been significant contact tracing studies that have found these direct links.

In fact, the largest contact tracing study ever conducted shows that children and young adults are potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified.

The study of more than half a million people conducted by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is much greater than previously believed.

However, many policymakers overlook this evidence as contrary or inconclusive.

They insist that contact tracing’s inability to consistently find the causal link is enough to disregard the existence of that link.

Balderdash!

That’s like sniffing the air and claiming with absolute certainty that there is no leak of carbon monoxide. The gas is odorless and colorless. A sniff test will never tell you if it’s present. You need special equipment.

The fact is Ava has only been to two places in the last two weeks – home and at school.

At home there’s just Ava, her three brothers and her parents.

At school, there are hundreds of students and 8-9 staff she comes into contact with every day.

She is probably in closer contact with the people at home than at school. But the sheer number of people she is in contact with at school multiplied by the number of hours and then days – is tremendous!

The likelihood that Ava caught the virus at school is quite high – no matter how good the precautions being taken.

Taking Advantage of Our Ignorance

It is ludicrous to assume that the lack of a direct causal link after only a few months of schools being open to reduced capacity means much of anything.

Add to that the absence of a standard national database of school cases, and it’s beyond absurd.

States don’t compile COVID cases at schools. The federal government doesn’t either. In fact, no one really does.

A few self-proclaimed experts have tried to put together what data they can – and used that data to make extreme claims.

Economist Emily Oster has used a mere two weeks worth of data in September to argue that the virus isn’t spreading much in schools.

And policymakers have jumped on that bandwagon all across the country including director of the CDC Dr. Robert Redfield.

Oster is now trying to have it both ways – defending her argument but chiding anyone for taking it too seriously.

Her Website incorporates data that school districts publish voluntarily, along with some data reported directly to the site. However, Oster says it’s far from complete, and she was surprised Dr. Redfield was citing it as fact.

She told CNN:

“It is totally bananas. I think we are doing as good a job as we can. This is not my field. It’s crazy.”

She later clarified in a series of Tweets, “…it is bananas that there isn’t a better federal effort to get these data….”

“Our data is, I think, the best available. It’s not perfect, and I’ve said that elsewhere many times…”

Besides the case of COVID-19 in schools, Oster is best known for making outrageous and often disproven claims such as that drinking alcoholic beverages during pregnancy is safe.

What About When Outbreaks Happen?

But it’s not just Oster who wants to have it both ways.

Policymakers say kids aren’t getting COVID at school and then walk back such claims when outbreaks happen in communities with high levels of infection.

Salt Lake City, Utah, had one of the biggest outbreaks in schools in the nation. However, that happened as infection rates reached more than double the level at which the state recommended distance learning.

“You can only open your school safely if you have COVID under control in your community,” said Benjamin Linas, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Boston University School of Medicine who has advocated for opening schools under strict safety measures.

Which kind of disproves his position.

If COVID doesn’t spread much in schools, the infection rate in the community shouldn’t matter. If it does, then the virus can and does spread significantly in schools.

The situation in Utah has been partly attributed to community resistance to safety precautions like mask wearing and social distancing. When parents won’t take precautions, neither will children.

Keeping Schools Open During a Pandemic Increases Reckless Behavior

However, this highlights another danger of keeping schools open while infections are high.

Even if viral spread was low in schools, keeping buildings open minimizes the danger of the pandemic.

If Ava can see her friends in school, why shouldn’t she get together with them after school, too?

In-person learning enables more in-person extra-curricular activities, sporting events, parties and other social gatherings outside of school.

Under normal circumstances, this would be great. When there’s a raging pandemic – not so much.

With kids, it’s not always what you say. It’s what you do. And if it’s safe enough to have in-person schooling, kids aren’t as likely to social distance outside of school.

Conclusions

The point isn’t that school cannot exist during a pandemic.

In communities where infection rates are low, even in-person classes can be conducted in relative safety with proper precautions and adequate funding.

However, if the community infection rate is moderate to high, classes should be conducted remotely.

We have to take the virus and the risks it poses seriously.

We have not been doing that.

Helen Bristow, MPH, program manager of Duke’s ABC Science Collaborative, which guides schools on COVID-19 safety, cautions:

“We’re nine to 10 months into a brand-new disease. We’re regularly learning something we didn’t know before.”

We have to stop pretending that the partial data we have is enough to make broad and reckless decisions about keeping students and staff safe during this crisis.

Decisions should be made with an abundance of caution.

Protecting life and health have to be the overriding concerns.

We need a national database of COVID cases in schools for students and staff.

We need free, quick and ubiquitous viral screenings done frequently for all students and staff.

And darn if a working and safe vaccine wouldn’t be helpful, too.

But in the absence of all of these things, we should not be rushing to open schools to in-person classes.

The virus definitely is spreading in our schools.

In most communities, it’s not where the contact tracing leads. It’s the sheer number of cases, the quarantines, staffing shortages and, yes, even funerals.

For all its faults, remote learning is far preferable while the virus runs free.


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Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

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

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

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

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

SCHOOL BOARDS

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

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

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is very personal to me.

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

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

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

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

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

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

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

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

I just wish my local did, too.

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

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

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

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

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

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

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

This after months of…. Nothing.

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

Nothing…. So far.

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

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

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

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

My God! That’s a human right!

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

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

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

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

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

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

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

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

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

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

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

But that’s obviously false.

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

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

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

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

That’s nonsense, too.

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just not THESE duly elected members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have failed us all.


 

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I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

Therein lies the back to school nightmare I’ve been living through for most of the summer and fall.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

Folks like me with pre-existing conditions are at greater risk from the virus than others.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.

So what am I to do?

The western Pennsylvania district where I work, Steel Valley, is reopening next week with a hybrid model.

The United States recorded more than 98,000 coronavirus cases yesterday – the highest single day count since the pandemic began. Two dozen states – including Pennsylvania – are reporting their worst weeks for new cases — and none are recording improvements.

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

The district originally opened in September with virtual instruction for all students, and it was a huge success.

I taught my classes online, we’ve bonded and made academic gains I wouldn’t have believed possible with this model just a year ago.

However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.

Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.

The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.

School directors said that this schedule was just a test to see if in-person instruction was feasible. They plan to reevaluate the measure in three weeks and decide whether to fully reopen in December or go back to virtual instruction for all students.

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

Being in the school building, being in the classroom in close proximity with tens of middle school students – especially during a time when COVID cases are surging throughout the county – puts my life in danger.

So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.

I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.

In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.

Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.

Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.

If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

…I’LL STILL BE PAID WHEN I’M ON LEAVE.

It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.

So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.

In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.

So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.

But no. He said he knew all about it.

He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.

I couldn’t believe it.

I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.

I got the same answer.

So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.

Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.

So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.

I’ve already built a rapport with them. I know what their academic deficiencies are and what they missed as we went to remote learning in March when Coronavirus cases were much fewer than they are now.

But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.

I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.

And that’s what I’d really like to do.

I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.

Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.

I’m a heck of a teacher! I’m Nationally Board Certified. I was nominated for the Champions of Learning Award from the Consortium for Public Education in 2018. I won the Ken Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award last year. In fact, the University of Arizona was going to fly me out to Tucson to accept the award but had to cancel due to the pandemic.

I gave a TED talk on education at Central Connecticut University in 2018. I wrote a book called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” in 2017 and have written a nationally recognized blog since 2014.

Wouldn’t everyone be better served with me instructing my students rather than being thrown to the side?

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

I have people who care about me and whom I care about.

I have a wife and daughter.

I can’t roll the dice with my life or chance taking an infection home to my loved ones.

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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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!

 

Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

On Friday, Johns Hopkins University reported the highest number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

That’s 83,757 new cases and 943 new deaths.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

This comes after 77,000 cases were reported the day before – which, itself, had been the record.

At this rate, the US will have 100,000 new cases and 1,000 new deaths a day very soon.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

I don’t know how to say it any other way.

You just have to look at the facts.

The second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping across the nation, Pennsylvania, and our communities of Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.

Nearby district McKeesport had an outbreak of at least 9 cases in a little over a week. Baldwin-Whitehall and Hempfield schools closed just last week because of outbreaks.

Steel Valley Schools haven’t had to deal with such problems because the district has been closed to in-person classes since March.

The school board wisely decided to continue virtual instruction for all students at the beginning of the school year. Its plan has been a model other districts should follow – especially those with 1:1 devices like ours.

But now district decision makers are putting forward a new plan to bring students back in the building on a half day basis starting the first week of November.

The school board will review the plan at its work session meeting on Monday in the high school auditorium at 7:30 pm. The meeting also will be live streamed on YouTube.

The board is expected to vote on the plan at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 pm.

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

I don’t want to have to contradict the school board and my administrators.

I don’t want to have to insert myself into this debate.

But I feel like I have no other choice.

Since I don’t live in the district, I can’t go to the school board meeting and speak.

And when I have expressed my concerns to those in charge, they have been repeatedly brushed aside.

So I am putting them out there in the public space.

This is what a Steel Valley teacher really thinks about this proposed plan.

This is what I feel I must say even at the risk of my job and future in this district – the proposed plan should not be adopted. We should continue with virtual instruction until infection rates in the county are extremely low.

The proposed plan would have students dividing into two groups – one would attend in the mornings and the other in the afternoons.

Both groups would have all of their classes for 20 minutes each for four days a week – Monday – Thursday. Friday would be a half day virtual learning day.

Consider that students currently have their full classes on-line for four days a week. Wednesday is an asynchronous learning day.

So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.

And this is true even for double period classes. Two 20 minute in-person classes is better than one, but not as good as two 40 minute virtual classes.

Just imagine it.

If this plan is approved, students and staff would be rushing here-and-there for the tiniest fraction of possible instruction in-person, and then rush home to do the mountains of classwork that would be necessary to move forward at all.

And the price for all this breathless activity will be increased risk of infection and bringing it home to family and friends. Not to mention the cost on teachers like me who will be exposed to hundreds of children in enclosed spaces with few windows and poor ventilation on a daily basis.

But parents will be given a choice whether to subject their children to this schedule or not.

Parents will have to decide whether they want their children to attend in-person or receive virtual instruction.

However, the virtual instruction being offered under this new model is not in many cases the same as what children receive now.

Remote students in K-5 would still meet with a classroom teacher on video platforms.

However, remote students in 6-12 would have to enroll in the district cyber program. This is a canned ed tech initiative modeled on credit recovery. They will have minimal to no interactions with classroom teachers or lessons taught by district educators.

This would replace an exemplary district-designed curriculum with a subpar service to parents and students in the hope that they will opt for in-person instruction instead.

No matter which option you choose for your child, from an academic standpoint, this new proposal is a step backward.

Most students would receive less instruction from classroom teachers – either half of what they’re receiving now (but in-person) or next to nothing on-line in grades 6-12.

This plan does not solve any academic problems. It only partially solves the problem of child care.

Let’s be honest. That’s what the priority is here.

With many parents having to leave the home to work, they need babysitting options for their kids.

With school buildings closed, this incurs an additional cost for parents.

Moreover, local business owners find it more difficult to justify keeping their own establishments open to the public – bars, restaurants, etc. – while schools are closed.

But we already know what the result of such a plan will be.

District buildings were open exactly two days to students since the pandemic began – Sept 8 and Oct 6.

These were transition days where only 5th and 9th grade students were in the buildings. Both instances resulted in a teacher testing positive for COVID-19.

Imagine this large scale.

I’m sorry, but there are things more important than childcare right now.

The reason we are experiencing a second wave of COVID is because of plans like this one.

You can’t have some schools and businesses doing the right thing and others doing whatever they want.

That’s not how you stem the spread of a deadly virus.

Sensible districts like ours put safety first. Others reopened their classrooms with hybrid or other models.

The result is an increase in infections.

And that will continue to happen until we work together to provide a coordinated defense against the pandemic.

You can’t have half of the schools close their doors and the other half keep them open and expect the virus to just stop. You can’t have some people wear facial masks in public and others go without and expect the virus to disappear.

We need to work together or else prepare ourselves to hunker down for a very long COVID season. Or – even worse – a very short one.

If you are a resident of Munhall, Homestead or West Homestead and you feel the same way I do, I am begging you to go to the school board meetings.

Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.

It will result in many, many people getting sick.

Some may die. Others may have life-long debilitating complications as a result of the virus.

That’s just not worth it.

That’s just not worth a little more in-person instruction and a little less out-of-pocket childcare costs.

Healthcare, hospital stays and funeral preparations are much more expensive.

Thank you for hearing me out.


 

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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!

I Can’t Shield My Daughter From Both Coronavirus AND Edmentum – Our District’s Crappy On-line Learning Platform

Being a parent during a global pandemic means having to make difficult decisions.

The most pressing of which seems to be: from which Coronavirus spawned horror should I shield my child?

As schools slowly reopened in my neck of the woods, it was basically a choice between in-person instruction or remote learning.

Do I allow my child the benefits of a living, breathing teacher but risk the COVID-19 incubator of a physical classroom environment – or do I keep her safe at home but parked in front of a computer all day?

It’s not an easy call.

On the one hand, in-person learning is nearly always more effective than distance learning.

On the other hand, I don’t want her to get sick or become a Typhoid Mary bringing the disease into our house and infecting the rest of the family.

In any sane country, I wouldn’t have to make such a choice. Where infection rates are moderate to high, schools should be closed and all instruction virtual.

But American governance in 2020 is not nearly so rational.

In the absence of strong, sane leadership, each school district is its own fiefdom marching to the beat of its own discordant drum.

Even in Western Pennsylvania, my neighborhood school is leaving it up to parents whether to potentially endanger their children or not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We could refuse to take chances. We could keep all students online and that would increase our academic options.

After all, there is more than one way to do remote learning.

We could ask the district’s classroom teachers to design instruction tailor made to their students but merely delivered online.

Or we could use a prepackaged platform to deliver that instruction.

To me, it’s obvious which is better.

One maximizes academic outcomes by making the virtual experience as much like the in-person experience as possible with multiple daily interactions between teachers and students. The other delegates the responsibility of educating to a corporation with minimal social interaction between students and educators.

The teacher led option is the way to go, but it only works at most districts if they give up the myth that they can make in-person instruction feasible during a pandemic that has already infected more than 7 million people in this country and killed 200,000 and counting.

In districts like mine where community leaders and even some school directors are committed to keeping the buildings open so that they can justify keeping open restaurants, bars and other establishments, there is a disincentive to even allow this third option. If the public chooses it, the local economy might suffer.

So they’re committed to giving people a choice – just not THAT choice.

If they can only choose between canned cyber curriculum or fresh but dangerous in-person models, they’re betting parents will choose the latter.

And in many cases they are. But a significant number are not.

In the McKeesport Area School District (MASD), where I’ve lived most of my life, nearly a third of the parents have chosen distance learning for their children instead of a half day hybrid model. One would think that would free up enough classroom teachers to offer synchronous, authentic instruction. Students could have lessons from a certified district employee with years of experience instructing children of that age, grade and subject matter. Kids and teachers could develop trusting and caring relationships and work together to create the best possible learning environment.

Some local districts are actually doing that.

But not McKeesport.

Instead the district is using its existent on-line credit recovery program for all virtual students.

The platform is Calvert Learning, a product of the ed tech giant Edmentum.

This multi-million dollar global company (it was sold for $143 million in 2010) is best known for creating Study Island and other standardized test prep based learning platforms.

The problem is it was never meant to be used as the sole provider of coursework for thousands of students in a single district.

In fact, the specific Edmentum product being used by MASD – Calvert Learning – was originally intended for home school students.

It was created for K-8th grade, but when added to Edmentum’s Coursework platform, the company claims to be able to offer credit recovery – I mean academic classes – for K-12 and beyond.

As a parent who has spent countless hours helping his daughter navigate it, let me tell you – it’s a mess.

The instruction and assignments it provides are developmentally inappropriate, assesses things it hasn’t taught, and are filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Moreover, the pace it prescribes violates the guidelines Edmentum gives to parents about how much time students should spend on-line.

According to “A Parent Guide: Supporting Your Child During Virtual Learning,” provided by Edmentum, cyber students should limit their time online. Elementary students should spend not more than 1-2 hours a day, middle school students 2-3 hours, and high school students 3-4 hours.

My 6th grade daughter typically spends 7-8 hours a day just to barely get things done – and that’s not counting 2-3 hours on the weekends.

I’ve seen her struggle through passages that are written far above her reading level.

For example, she completed a unit on characterization where she was required to read O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

I know the story well, because as a middle school teacher, I’ve taught it to my 7th grade students from time-to-time. However, the version I’ve used is not the original that O. Henry wrote. It is brought down to the level of a middle schooler and unnecessary attitudes of the time are downplayed.

In the original, one of the characters, Sam, uses big words to show how smart he is. The version I use still has him do that but reduces its frequency so that middle schoolers can understand him. After all, 6th graders shouldn’t have to wrestle with “philoprogenitiveness,” “chawbacon” and “whiskerando” just to grasp a pretty basic plot.

Moreover, the story was published in 1907. The original text throws out numerous instances of casual racism against Native Americans that serve no point in the story. Does my daughter really need to be subjected to dehumanizing native peoples as mere “red skins” just to get a lesson on characterization?

Clearly this unit was not developed with child psychologists, practicing middle school Language Arts teachers or even people of color in the room.

If that weren’t bad enough, the questions are full of grammatical errors and typos.

One question about homophones asks students to consider this sentence:

“Select the correct answer.

Is the boxed word used correctly?

I’d like a PEACE of pie for desert?”

Students were asked if “PEACE” is correct – Yes or No. They should know that PIECE is actually the right word.

However, the question made no mention of the misuse of “desert” when the authors clearly meant “dessert.”

That’s the kind of thing that really confuses a student trying to make her way through a program all by herself.

On many assessments, she is asked things that were never taught in the section that was meant to be assessed. I know this is status quo on standardized tests, but is it fair to ask this of a child navigating an online program without even a living teacher to offer support and guidance?

In a social studies assessment on Neolithic peoples, many of the questions had nothing to do with the subject matter. They asked students to infer something based on a passage and none of the multiple choices were entirely correct. You had to pick the option that was least incorrect.

This is some crappy academics being pawned off on parents and students.

And it’s not cheap.

MASD paid $146,302.25 for 40 licenses to Calvert, Exact Path K-5, Courseware for 6-12 and other online services. When hundreds of additional parents asked for their students to be put on the cyber program, the district purchased 500 more licenses from Calvert for a bundled rate of $112,500. That’s $225 per license. Normally they are $450 per license.

Imagine if we put our tax dollars and our teachers to educating these students instead of seeding our responsibility to a corporation for hire.

And we could do it, too.

I work at Steel Valley School District.

Unlike MASD, we began the year with a 100% virtual program for all students. We conduct fully synchronous classes online designed entirely by the classroom teachers. And we post materials on Google Classroom so that students who miss the live Zoom meetings can watch videos of the lesson and do the work.

I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult or that it’s without problems. Nor is such an endeavor better than in-person learning in a safe environment.

But the teacher-led remote model is the best that can be provided under the circumstances.

Districts that throw students to the whims of corporate educators for hire are shirking their duties.

They should face the realities of the world we live in.

If Coronavirus infections are significant in your county, you should not be offering in-person schooling. You should be offering the best remote option available – and that’s the teacher-led cyber option.

If only my home district knew it.

Meanwhile, my daughter has to struggle through with the cold comfort that at least she won’t get sick jumping through the hoops her school board is too partisan to eliminate for her.

I’m right next to her at the dining room table feeling guilty for putting her through this.

But what else could I do?


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!

The Everyday Exhaustion of Teaching During a Global Pandemic

Teaching is one of the few things in life that is not concerned with now.

It is essentially about the future.

We put all this time and energy into helping kids learn. Why?

Not so that they’ll be able to do anything today. But so that they’ll be able to do things tomorrow.

Sure they may be able to read better or solve math problems, but the reason we want them to know that isn’t so much about what they’ll do with it as adolescents. It’s how those skills will shape the people they grow up to be.

It’s an investment in their future and ours.

We take a bit of today and invest it in tomorrow.


And during a global pandemic that can be especially hard.

The west is on fire. Storms are threatening our southern coasts. Police brutality is out of control and bands of neofascist thugs are given free rein to beat and murder protesters. We’ve separated immigrant families and put their kids in cages. The President has lied to us, disparaged our troops, bragged about breaking countless laws and the government is powerless to stop him. Our political system and social fabric is coming apart at the seams. And everyone from the average Joe to the lawmakers who represent him can’t get up the gumption to take precautions against the killer virus that has already put more Americans in their graves than every war since WWII.

You look at the raging dumpster fire around you and wonder – how do we invest in the future when we aren’t sure there will be one?

I’ve had students in my on-line class for only two days so far.

And it’s been great.

They show up in record numbers smiling and ready to learn.

We talk, they tell me about their summers, and I remember how much I love teaching.

But I had to fight almost every day from June through August just so the school building wouldn’t become an incubation center for COVID-19 and classes could be conducted through the Internet.

I’m not saying it was all me that did it, but I fought and worried and cajoled and wrote and begged and did everything I could think to do. And it very nearly didn’t happen.

Summer is supposed to be a break after the stresses of a long school year. And 2019-20 was perhaps the most difficult year I’ve ever had teaching.

But 2020-21 has already promised to be much more challenging.

After all, when you have to fight just for the safety of your children and yourself as a prerequisite to everything that happens in your class, how much strength is there left for actual teaching?

My district has committed to being on-line only through September, so the fight continues month-by-month.

Where are the local newspapers that would have reported on each school district as people test positive for the virus and others are contact traced? We closed most of them and downsized the newsrooms of others to make up lost advertising revenue.

If you’re not a supersized district serving millions, they only report on bed bugs, poorly trained security guards or whatever public relations statement the superintendent released today.

So we trudge on in silence just hoping to get through the day.

And what days they are!

Teaching on-line is a heck of a lot more work.

You’ve got to plan for just about everything. You put the assignments on Google Classroom and set up the Zoom meetings and make your handouts into PDFs and try to digitize your books and figure out how classroom policies designed around a physical space can be revised for cyber space. You answer countless questions and concerns, videotaping your lessons for those who can’t be there in person. You try to make things interesting with new apps, new software, new grading systems, new approaches to the same material you’ve been teaching for over a decade.

And it never ends.

By the time the day is supposed to be over, the emails are still rolling in, the assignments are still being submitted, administrators are making pronouncements, and you haven’t even finished all the things you have to do to get ready for tomorrow yet.

When is there time for my family? When do I have time to make dinner or check on my own child’s progress in her own online experience?

What’s worse is that when things go wrong, I’m afraid to bring them up for fear that some decision maker long removed from the classroom will simply shoot from the hip and end on-line instruction.

We had all summer to plan how to do this better, but we spent all that time diddling about WHETHER we should teach on-line or not. We should have just bit the bullet and worked on improving the quality of instruction instead of putting all our chips on the gambit that it wouldn’t be necessary.

Now – as usual – it’s all in the hands of everyday classroom teachers. We’re left to just figure it out.

And we do!

Part of me really enjoys it!

I love finding new ways of doing things and seeing if they’ll work out better. I’m excited about seeing how my students will react to a Bitmoji classroom or a new Kahoot or this video or not being hassled if they keep their cameras off in Zoom.

I know on-line teaching can never really hold a candle to in-person instruction. But that’s not an option right now. And pretending like reality is something different than it is will do no one any good.

But just saying something positive about cyber schooling gets the technophobes coming down on you.

They’re so scared that online teaching will replace real, live educators that they can’t admit of any positive qualities to the new normal.

Don’t get me wrong. My heart is with them. I fear that, too. But it’s a war we have to wage later. Just like the election.

Biden is not great on education. Trump is worse. So we have to support Biden while we prepare to fight him in January. And that’s IF we can both defeat Trump at the polls and somehow avoid a constitutional crisis if he refuses to leave the Oval Office willingly.

Everything is one fight after another. We have to win this battle before we can wage the next one.

No wonder we’re so exhausted.

Everyone is worn out, but no one more so than classroom teachers.

We’re caught at the crossroads of nearly every conflagration in America.

I sit here on a Sunday afternoon and my bones feel like boulders under my skin.

I sleep like a beaten boxer – all bruises under the sheets.

But I’ll wake up on Monday, make myself a cup of tea and trudge back to my computer screen ready to begin again.

Because despite it all, there is a core part of me that still believes.

I still believe in the future.

I still believe in teaching.

I still believe my students are worth it.

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.

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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 Lesson Kids Are Learning from Reckless School Reopenings: YOU DON’T MATTER

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Let’s say you’re an American school child.

 

It’s the first day of school.

 

Your parents dress you in your best new outfit – maybe a nice pink jumper with a unicorn on it.

 

They help you tie your new sneakers – that’s right, two loops and a knot.

 

Then they put a surgical mask snugly over your mouth and nose, adhere a clear plastic face shield from your forehead down and snap some latex gloves on your hands.

 

“Off to school, Honey!”

 

“Don’t forget your antibacterial soap and Clorox wipes!”

 

What do you suppose would be going through your mind?

 

Would you feel safe? Would you feel loved? Would you feel valued?

 

I don’t think so.

 

I mean sure your parents care enough to dress you like an extra from “Outbreak,” but they don’t care enough to keep you home.

 

Or maybe they do care enough but have no other choice. They’re “essential workers” and have to go to a series of minimum wage jobs to keep you fed, clothed and sheltered.

 

How would you feel about the people who own those jobs? The society that prioritizes keeping those jobs going instead of paying your parents to stay home with you?

 

I mean – sure – the economy needs to keep running, I guess, but what is an economy anyway?

 

Isn’t it just a big game of Monopoly? Players keep rolling the dice and landing on each others’ properties and having to pay rent. Hoping this turn you’ll make it past GO and collect $200.

 

With the exception of food, there’s nothing you really need outside of your home. If your parents didn’t have to worry about rent or utilities, they wouldn’t have to work. Yes, they’d need to go out to get food but the government could pay them to do that, too.

 

After all, it’s just Monopoly money. It’s just decorated pieces of paper. It has no inherent value… not like human lives.

 

I mean we’re living through a pandemic here. Leaving the house means exposure to the virus, and the longer you have to go out, the more people you’re exposed to, the greater the chances that you’ll get sick and/or bring the thing back home with you.

 

But someone is forcing your parents to keep on rolling the dice – to keep playing. And your folks never do any better than make ends meet. It’s not people like them who are winning this game – even during a global health crisis.

 

How would you feel about that?

 

How would you feel about the school directors who voted to keep their buildings open and their classes in-person when just a few miles away the kids in a slightly more well-to-do neighborhood get to stay home, protected and safe learning online?

 

How would you feel about the school board members who compromise and say you only have to be put at risk for half the day or just so many days a week? Would that make it all better?

 

How would you feel about the governors who demand schools reopen? Or the ones who offer advice but don’t demand anything?

 

How would you feel about a President who lies all day on TV about the virus, keeps his own kid home and then goes off like a police siren about how you have to get back to school? How would you feel about his billionaire heiress Education Secretary who spends all day finding ways to undercut and destroy public schools who suddenly changes course about how necessary it is for you to get back to class?

 

How would you feel about politicians on both sides of the aisle holding self-congratulatory party conventions through ZOOM while proclaiming the importance of you getting back to school in-person?

 

How would you feel when schools that do open in other parts of the country have massive outbreaks and it has no effect on what the adults prescribe for you?

 

How would you feel when a student takes a picture of a school blatantly ignoring social distancing and other health guidelines and the only person getting in trouble is the student who took the picture?

 

How would you feel about school administrators caught hiding or downplaying outbreaks among staff or students?

 

How would you feel about multi-billion dollar sports franchises unable to keep their superstar athletes disease free yet your local athletic club decides to have practices? How would you feel when your local school teams have outbreaks, the governor or health department advises against school sports but the adults decide to go ahead and do it anyway?

 

How would you feel when time-after-time the grown ups show you exactly how they feel about you, how little you actually matter, how much everything else is worth and how little they really care about you?

 

How would you feel if you were a little school kid getting ready for her first day of class this morning?

 

Would you feel safe, valued, loved?

 

What lesson would you take from everything happening all around you?

 

Some people are very worried that you won’t learn anything much this school year.

 

I’m afraid you’ll learn far too much.


 

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!

book-2