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

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

 

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

 

And it really looked like they might decide against it.

 

For about 10 seconds.

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

 

Then came Dave Donato.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then he voted in favor of the reopening plan.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The tone directors took with the public was markedly different.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Then it came to me.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

In the end, we lost.

 

The district will reopen to in-person classes.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

But it was not to be.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

MY COMMENTS:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You have to face the facts.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

I disagree for several reasons.

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

I can live with the consequences of my decision.

 

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

 

DR. HOLTZMAN’S RESPONSE:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

FACT CHECK:

 

 

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

 


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

Holtzman’s response comes at 20 minutes left.

The vote takes place at 10 minutes left.)

 


 

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Parental Choice Won’t Save Us From Unsafe School Reopening Plans

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I am the parent of a public school student.

 

And I have a choice.

 

I get to decide whether my daughter will go back to school in-person or online.

 

That’s the only thing that should matter to me.

 

At least, that’s what the superintendent of my home district told me when I went before school directors last week asking them to reconsider administration’s unsafe reopening plan.

 

At McKeesport Area School District (MASD), Dr. Mark Holtzman and administration propose unlocking the doors for half day in-person classes Mondays through Fridays.

 

Kids would be split into two groups – one attending in the mornings, the other in the afternoons. That way, with buildings at half capacity, there would be enough physical space for social distancing. The remainder of the time, kids would be learning online.

 

However, if you don’t approve, you can opt out.

 

Any parent who is uncomfortable with this plan could keep his or her children home and have them participate in the district’s existent cyber program.

 

The board hasn’t voted on the proposal yet. It won’t do so until Wednesday.

 

But as I stood up there at the podium last week outlining all the ways this scheme was unsafe and asking my duly-elected representatives to instead consider distance learning for all children, Holtzman told me to be happy I could choose whatever I wanted for my own child and sit back down.

 

Which brings up the question – is parental choice enough?

 

Is the fact that I can choose for my daughter the only concern I should have?

 

Thankfully, no one is forcing me to subject my child to in-person classes. If I don’t think they’re safe, I can keep her away and still have access to an education for her through the Internet.

 

What else do I want?

 

Plenty.

 

First of all, the quality of education offered by the district cyber program is not the same as the district could provide if all students were enrolled in virtual classes.

 

Dr. Holtzman has outlined what that would look like if school buildings were shut down by the governor or the district were overcome with sick students, teachers and/or family.

 

Teachers would provide synchronous classes online through video platforms like Zoom. Students would get to interact virtually with each other and their teachers.

 

By contrast, the existent cyber program is asychronous. Students watch videos and do assignments at their own pace, but human contact and social interaction – even via the Internet – is much harder to come by.

 

Let’s be honest – both options pale in comparison to face-to-face instruction. But the kind of instruction students will receive in-person during this global pandemic will not be face-to-face. Students will interact behind masks and plexiglass barriers under an ever present shadow of fear and menace. Under the proposed MASD plan, teachers would have a mere 20 minutes a period to try to get something done other than just taking role, attempting to get students to comply with safety precautions and calming their fears.

 

Both cyber options are preferable because they avoid these problems. But one of them – the synchronous option with a dedicated class and a teacher behind the curriculum – is superior to the one being offered.

 

Is it selfish to want the better plan for my daughter?

 

Should I just be glad I have a choice at all? Should I put the individual good of my child aside for the good of others?

 

No. Because administration’s plan is not in the best interests of other children, either.

 

If we reopen schools to in-person classes, chances are good that kids will get sick.

 

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

 

To put that in context, out of more than 5 million people diagnosed with the virus in the US, approximately 338,00 are children.

 

And nearly a third of those cases have come as we’ve reopened schools and summer camps, as we’ve increasingly exposed kids to the virus.

 

Children typically had low infection rates because schools were closed in March and kids were quarantined before the virus had spread through most of the country.

 

Since June, there have been numerous outbreaks at summer schools in Massachusetts, Arkansas, Arizona, Connecticut, New York, Wisconsin, Missouri, Michigan, and Hawaii, among others. And with some schools now starting their academic year, outbreaks have been even more numerous.

 
I live in Allegheny County – the western Pennsylvania region around Pittsburgh – where Covid cases have spiked.

 

Many local school districts like East Allegheny, Woodland Hills and Wilkinsburg have passed plans to start the year with classes being conducted 100% online. South Allegheny and Duquesne City Schools just passed such plans in the last few days. And the biggest district in this part of the state – Pittsburgh Public Schools – has done the same.

 

If the virus is present in the community – as county health department data shows – opening the schools to students also opens them to Coronavirus.

 

But with the schools open, the virus will no longer be confined to just a few homes. It will come with kids to class and spread among students and staff before it’s brought to their homes as well.

 

That’s how epidemics work. Opening the schools will spread the virus throughout the entire community.

 

And that will affect me, too, regardless of whether I choose a cyber option for my daughter or not.

 

When I go to the local grocery store, gas up my car, even go for a walk – I will be more likely to come into contact with someone infected with the virus and get sick.

 

I can make the safe decision for my family but still suffer the consequences of the irresponsible decisions of others – especially school directors.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be my own local school board. The decisions of school directors in neighboring districts affects me, too.

 

After all, in my part of the state, school districts are pretty small geographically – not nearly as large as most counties. There are 42 public districts in Allegheny County, alone. So it should be no surprise that I routinely travel through several different districts just running day-to-day errands.

 

MASD school directors can decide to keep buildings closed (and I hope they will) but if a district just one township or borough over decides differently, we will suffer the consequences in McKeesport, too.

 

This is why issues of public safety are usually decided at the county, state or federal level. These decisions affect all of us, but these days no one wants to take the responsibility.

 

It doesn’t even make sense democratically.

 

Since I don’t live in more than one district, I don’t get a say in what school directors at neighboring districts decide. I just have a say in what happens in my tiny portion of the world. But the consequences are not nearly as respectful of our man-made borders.

 

For instance, I work as a teacher at a neighboring district. But since I do not live there, I am barred from speaking at the board meetings unless I am invited to speak as an employee of the district.

 

I can give a report as part of the safety commission if invited by administrators, but I can’t otherwise sign up to speak as an employee concerned about how district policies affects me, my students or their families.

 

I’m a believer in local control, but sometimes control can be too localized.

 

This is why you haven’t heard much from many educators. If they’re allowed to speak, they’re often afraid of how doing so will make them a target for reprisals. If they can get their union to back them, they can speak collectively that way, but otherwise, they have no pathway to being heard at all.

 

As a parent, I get a choice for my child in my district.

 

But what choice do teachers have – especially if they don’t live where they teach?

 

If school directors decide to reopen to in-person classes, they’re forcing educators to decide between their employment and their own families. If teachers return to the classroom with their students in a physical setting, they risk not only their own lives but that of their friends and families.

 

That concerns me even with my choices as a parent.

 

I’ve had some outstanding teachers. My daughter loves her teachers. Is it okay if I don’t want to see them get sick and their lives cut short? If I worry about my own chances of surviving the pandemic and the demands of my employer?

 

Finally, what about people of color? The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says African Americans and other minorities are hospitalized from the virus four to five times more often than white people.

 

I think their lives matter. But as minorities and people subjected to systemic inequalities, they get less of a say in policy. Should decisions that disproportionately impact their health really be up to a committee? Doesn’t their right to life surpass the decisions making abilities of a handful of elected officials or even middle and upper class parents?

 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful I have choices as a parent for how my daughter is educated.

 

But that doesn’t overcome my concerns about a bad school reopening strategy.

 

School directors need to make reopening decisions that are in the best interests of everyone because we’re all in this together.

 

That’s what so many folks seem to be forgetting.

 

Yes, even from a completely selfish point of view, unsafe school reopening will affect each of us.

 

But epidemics spread through communities. Only communities can effectively combat them.

 

Dividing ourselves into smaller and smaller fiefdoms only empowers the virus. If we all try to fight Covid-19 individually, we will lose.

 

We have to understand that what’s good for our friends and neighbors is in our individual interest, too.

 

We have to care about our fellow human beings.

 

That’s why I will continue to fight these unsafe plans and ask school directors to reopen schools virtually.

 

That’s the path I’ve chosen.


 

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What I Told McKeesport Area School Directors About the Unsafe Reopening Plan Proposed by Administrators

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

 

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

 

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

 

This is what I said:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Spreading this disease throughout the community will not help anyone.

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

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

We’re talking about human life here.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Only then will it be safe to reopen school buildings.

 

Thank you.”

 

Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman responded:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

 

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


 

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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Just CLICK HERE.

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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!

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Reopening Schools Unsafely Will Not Solve Anything

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Opening schools unsafely will not solve any of our problems.

 

In every case, it will make them worse.

 

Students don’t learn a lot when their teachers are in quarantine.

 

Children generally receive less socialization when their parents are hospitalized.

 

Kids with special needs will receive few accommodations on a respirator.

 

Childcare is the least of your worries when planning a funeral for a family member.

 

No matter what need schools usually meet, Coronavirus makes the situation worse.

 

Every. Time.

 
People propose having in-person classes or hybrid models that mix in-person classes with online instruction.

 

But from an epidemiological point of view, it makes more sense to keep the buildings closed and provide what we can on-line.

 

Unless perhaps you live in some secluded county that has had extremely low infection rates for a prolonged period of time.

 

Otherwise, this truth holds no matter from what angle you approach it – academic, economic, political, whatever.

 

After all, academics don’t mean much when you’re seriously ill. The economy doesn’t matter a lot when you’re dead. And politics won’t do you much good with lifelong health complications.

 

If we reopen schools, we invite COVID-19 into the classroom just as well as students.

 

So far as we know, the virus doesn’t care what your motivations are. It only infects as many people as it can leaving us to deal with the consequences.

 

Consider what the virus does to the human body.

 

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), exposure to the virus can result in mild symptoms to severe illness up to two weeks later. These include fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fatigue, muscle or body aches, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, nausea or vomiting and/or diarrhea.

 

People who are sick should stay home, monitor their symptoms and separate themselves from other members of the household.

 

You should seek immediate medical care if you experience trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to stay awake and/or bluish lips or face.

 
Severe illness often requires hospitalization that attempts to relieve the most common complications. These are things like pneumonia, hypoxemic respiratory failure/ARDS, sepsis and septic shock, cardiomyopathy and arrhythmia, and acute kidney injury.

 

However, you also have to beware additional complications from prolonged hospitalization. These can include secondary bacterial infections, thromboembolism, gastrointestinal bleeding, and critical illness polyneuropathy/myopathy.

 

Managing blocked airways is a particular concern. This can be done in less severe cases with simple nasal cannula or oxygen rebreather masks. However, in more extreme cases, you may need continuous airway pressure provided through a machine or even invasive mechanical ventilation.

 

ICU_website-min
Source: UKRI

 

The chances of this happening to you or a loved one because your neighborhood school building was reopened and children were exposed to potentially sick classmates and staff is far from negligible.

 

In the US, more than 150,000 people have died from COVID-19. That’s 3.4% of cases that have lead to death.

 

To put that in context, The US has 5% of the global population and nearly a quarter of all Coronavirus deaths.

 

Over this last week, the average daily deaths in Italy were 6, France 10 and Spain 2.

 

In the US it was 1,204.

 

And make no mistake. Children can and do get sickespecially those 10 and older. They also can and do spread the virus to others.

 

Around the world, school closures are the rule, not the exception. While a few countries have opened schools, 143 countries have closed them nationwide.

 

This isn’t just because of the chance of death.

 

There are potential long term effects for survivors, too.

 

These include inflammation of the heart, cardiovascular disease and strokes; lung inflammation including persistent shortness of breath; and neurological issues such as headaches, dizziness, trouble concentrating or recalling things and even hallucinations.

 

This will not solve any of our current problems.

 

It will only make them worse.

 

However, I don’t wish to be dismissive.

 

Many kids and families are struggling with school closures.

 

Teachers and classrooms provide necessary services way beyond simple education.

 

I’m talking about food, nutrition, healthcare, childcare, counseling, tutoring, socialization, self esteem, meeting special needs, protection from abuse and a whole lot more.

 

If we keep school buildings closed and go to distance learning as we did in March, many of these services will continue to be disrupted or completely severed.

 
While reopening school buildings is NOT a viable solution, there are other things we can do.

 
Food, nutrition and healthcare can all be met while conducting distance learning. In fact, most schools provided these services from March through June as classrooms across the country were closed.

 
Likewise, counseling, tutoring, socialization, and self esteem can be provided on-line. In most cases they won’t be as effective as they would be in a physical setting. However, given the precautions necessary to meet in-person – face masks, social distancing, etc. – they may be more effective screen-to-screen than they would be mask-to-mask.

 

Which brings me to the most difficult considerations – meeting special needs, protection from abuse, and childcare.

 

Not all students are neurotypical. Many require accommodations that are difficult or impossible to make in a virtual environment.

 
Special arrangements could be made for these students to come into the physical classroom on a part-time or full-time basis. This isn’t as safe as complete on-line learning, but if the numbers of students are small enough, precautions such a temperature screenings and social distancing were in place and exposure mitigated, this could be a viable option.

 
The same goes for protection from abuse. Some students live in unsafe home environments. It is observation by responsible adults who are mandated reporters like teachers that reduce the likelihood these children will be mistreated and provide a solution when abuse is reported. However, noticing the telltale signs of such mistreatment or even communicating with a teacher privately outside of the hearing of an adult in the home is more difficult on-line.

 

Special arrangements could be made for students who have already been identified as at risk. They could meet with counselors and psychologists in the school every week or so. Safety precautions would be necessary but the risk could be reduced enough to make it worth taking.

 

The biggest problem is probably the most widespread – childcare.

 

Having children at home to do their schoolwork on-line puts additional pressure on parents.

 

It requires them to perform some of the disciplinary functions typically provided by educators. Parents have to ensure their kids are awake and ready to do their lessons. They have to monitor their children and help ensure the work gets done.

 

This is less difficult for parents with higher socioeconomic status who have jobs that allow them to work from home. But for those who do not have such employment, it becomes almost impossible.

 

In short, the economy requires some kind of daycare for these children.

 

Many European countries that have best managed the Coronavirus have paid workers to stay home. This allows them to take care of their own children and reduce their own exposure to the virus.

 

Frankly, it is the only sustainable solution.

 

However, our government has almost completely abrogated its responsibilities to working class people.

 

Parents with similar age children can create childcare networks where the same families take turns watching each others’ children. This reduces exposure to some degree.

 

Childcare centers also have been kept open in many communities to meet this need. However,there have been massive outbreaks at such centers across the country that would only be worsened if we rely on them more. Any sane country would close them just as it closed schools.

 

Until our lawmakers get off their butts and do their jobs, we will have no good solution to this problem.

 

Reopening school buildings to serve as childcare centers certainly won’t solve anything except put a premium on respirators, coffins and graveyard plots.

 

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

 

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

 

That point cannot be made too often.

 

We’re talking about human life here.

 

Reopening schools is seen as a silver bullet to so many of our problems during the pandemic.

 

It isn’t.

 

It is shooting ourselves in the foot.

 

If we really want to solve our issues, we need to listen to science, logic and reason.

 

We need to keep schools closed and teach students online until the virus is under control.

 

We need to make it possible for parents to stay home with their children.

 

And we need to do it now.


 

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

Schools-Tour-2-1024x683

 

“The Buck Stops Here!”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

First, you’re making policy by Tweet.

 

Second, you are side stepping your obligations.

 

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

 

That’s what you sound like today.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

And those are the outliers.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

This is YOUR responsibility.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

You can do something about that.

 

You have a responsibility to do something about it.

 

Do your duty.


 

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The Hybrid Model of School Reopening is Not Safe Either

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Safety is in the eye of the beholder.

 

No matter what you do, life involves some risk.

 

The question is whether certain actions or courses of action involve acceptable risk and exactly what you consider to be acceptable.

 

These issues are not academic. School directors across the country are juggling such questions in their reopening plans.

 

With federal and state officials largely leaving the decision up to local elected school boards of how to hold classes in August and September, people used to choosing between bids for text books and whether to renovate the gymnasium are forced to make life and death decisions for hundreds or thousands of students, staff and their families.

 

There are three main options:

 

  • (1) Open schools completely to in-person learning with safety precautions
  • (2) Keep classes entirely on-line as they were in April and May
  • (3) Offer some kind of hybrid of the two

 

Many schools are opting for this hybrid model.

 

This means reopening to in-person classes part of the time and on-line learning for the rest.

 

There are many ways to do this.

 

In my home district of McKeesport, this means having half of the students attend in the morning and the other half in the afternoon with the balance of their class work being done via the Internet.

 

In Steel Valley, the district where I work as a middle school teacher, this means half of the students attending full days on Mondays and Tuesdays, half on Thursdays and Fridays and the building is deep cleaned while students are taught completely on-line on Wednesdays.

 

In either case, parents can opt-in to an entirely virtual plan, but it’s expected that most adults would choose the hybrid model with its partial in-person classes for their children.

 

Let me be clear – the hybrid plan is preferable to the completely in-person proposal.

 

It reduces exposure to other people and environments compared to the entirely in-person program.

 

For instance, being in class half the day reduces student exposure by half. Being in class two out of five days reduces it by 60%.

 

However, let’s be real.

 

Any in-person instruction during a global pandemic incurs some risk. And that risk is far from negligible.

 

Moreover, the amount of risk is greater for adults than it is for children – both because adults would experience much higher exposure under such systems and because COVID-19 seems to affect adults more severely than children.

 

The hybrid model, then, is tantamount to putting children, teachers and families at risk for a reduced amount of time.

 

Why take the risk? On the premise that in-person instruction is more robust than on-line learning. Students learn more in the classroom from educators who are physically present than they do on the Internet.

 

There is significant evidence to back that up. However, this premise ignores the fact that invasive but necessary safety measures like wearing masks and practicing social distancing throughout the day will inevitably have negative effects on learning.

 

In short, mask-to-mask learning will not be as productive as face-to-face learning. We are in uncharted territory. It is entirely up in the air whether the necessary safety precautions of in-person learning – even during a hybrid model – will be better or worse than distance learning.

 

So the hybrid model tries to balance the unproven and questionable promise of increased academics against the threat of increased danger of disease.

 

How much danger? Well that depends to a large degree on where you live and the rate of infection present there.

 
I live in western Pennsylvania just south of Pittsburgh.

 

When schools closed in Allegheny County last academic year, a handful of people got sick each day, a hundred or more a week. For instance, 23 new COVID-19 cases were reported on March 19, and 133 for the week.

 

Now there are hundreds of new cases in the county every day and a thousand a week – 198 on July 24, alone, and 1,363 for the week.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 11.34.44 AM
Source: PA Department of Health
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Source: PA Department of Health

 

That is not an insignificant risk. We have an infection rate of nearly 10%. We have some of the highest numbers in the state.

 

I don’t know how anyone can look at those numbers and conclude anything except that the risk of infection is GREATER today than it was when we took more precautions against it.

 

Moreover, the situation is little better nationwide.

 

Not a single state has met guidelines for reopening schools issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in May.

 

Moving into Phase 1 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases over a 14-day period.” Moving to Phase 2 would require a “Downward trajectory or near-zero incidence of documented cases for at least 14 days after entering Phase 1.”

 

No state has experienced a “downward trajectory” for COVID-19 cases for 28 straight days. In most states, cases are increasing.

 

Nor does any reopening plan that I have seen – including McKeesport’s and Steel Valley’s – follow the 69-page CDC guidelines published by The New York Times earlier this month, marked “For Internal Use Only,” which was intended for federal public health response teams as they are deployed to hot spots around the country.

 

That document suggested several expensive and difficult safety measures such as broad testing of students and faculty and contact tracing to find people exposed to an infected student or teacher – none of which is being done locally.

 
The issue gets complicated though because this month the CDC bowed to pressure from the Trump administration and publicly softened its tone about reopening.

 
However, no matter how you look at it, reopening school buildings – even with a hybrid approach – increases risk significantly.

 
If school buildings are reopened with students and staff coming and going – even at a reduced rate through a hybrid plan – one would expect the virus already present in the community to gain access to our schools where it would be further spread to different segments of the community.

 

Schools are great meeting points. They are where local neighborhoods connect, learn, grow and share. Reopening them in a physical fashion allows for greater sharing of any easily communicable diseases in the area.

 

So exactly how communicable is COVID-19?

 

It’s often compared to influenza which infects millions of people every year yet these outbreaks rarely close schools.

 

Unfortunately, the consequences of getting COVID-19 are much more severe. So far the Coronavirus has shown itself to be 52 times as deadly as the flu.

 

Only about 0.1 percent of the people who got the flu in the US last year died of it, according to the CDC. Yet about 5.2 percent of those who came down with COVID-19 have died, based on the reported totals of cases and deaths.

 

During the 2018-19 flu season, about 34,000 people in the US died, according to the CDC. So far, 143,193 people have died of COVID-19 in the US, as of July 23.

 

And keep in mind there is a vaccine for the flu. There is nothing as yet that fights COVID-19.

 

Some say that even given such statistics, children are less susceptible than adults.

 

However, the virus was only discovered in 2019. So little is known about it – for instance, the low percentage of cases in children may be because schools were closed in April and May before many kids were exposed to it.

 

A recent South Korean study – the most in depth of its kind to examine how the virus affects children – found that it is especially active in older kids.

 

“For people who lived with parents between the ages of 10 and 19, 18.6% tested positive for the virus within about 10 days after the initial case was detected — the highest rate of transmission among the groups studied. Children younger than 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen,” wrote Stephen Stapczynski for Bloomberg News.

 

Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University agreed.

 

“So long as children are not just a complete dead end – incapable of passing the virus on, which does not seem to be the case – putting them together in schools, having them mix with teachers and other students will provide additional opportunities for the virus to move from person to person,” he said.

 

Do such facts represent an acceptable risk for opening schools – even with a hybrid model?

 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos says it does.

 

She said, “there’s nothing in the data that suggests that kids being in school is in any way dangerous.”

 

However, if even .02% of public school students were likely to die if school buildings were reopened, that’s 11,320 children!

 
Are we willing to risk the lives of tens of thousands – perhaps more – children on the unproven promise of a slight improvement in academics?

 
And keep in mind that doesn’t even take into account the cost to adults.

 
According to a new report from the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), 1 in 4 teachers in the U.S. – roughly 1.5 million people – are at increased risk for complications if they become infected with the Coronavirus. This includes educators over the age of 65 and those – like myself – with a pre-existing health condition that makes them more vulnerable.

 
According to the CDC, death from COVID-19 is significantly more common in older adults. Though the median age of U.S. teachers is 42.4 years, nearly 19 percent of teachers are 55 and older, reports the National Center for Education Statistics.

 

Health conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and kidney disease also increase one’s risk for serious illness from the virus. The CDC warns that roughly 60 percent of American adults have at least one chronic medical condition, and about 40 percent have two or more.

 

The situation is even more dire when we look at parents and grandparents in students’ homes. The KFF issued a report in July concluding that 3.3 million adults 65 or older live in a household with school-age children.

 

And let’s not forget the racial component.

 

Most minorities are more susceptible to COVID-19 because of the higher rates of social inequality they are forced to live under.

 

According to the CDC, Native Americans and Black people are hospitalized from the Coronavirus five times more often than White people. Hispanic and Latino people are hospitalized four times more often than White people.

 

Physically reopening school buildings in communities that serve large populations of people of color, then, invites greater risk than in predominantly white communities.

 

Screen Shot 2020-07-25 at 1.24.46 PM
SOURCE: the CDC

 

In any case, though, reopening school buildings – even under a hybrid model – significantly increases the risk for all the people living there.

 

So in summary, it is clear that the three basic options for reopening schools each offer different levels of risk.

 

A full reopening of schools even with safety precautions brings the highest risk. However, the hybrid model also brings significant danger to students, teachers and families – even if somewhat less than full reopening.

 

Distance learning has the lowest risk of all. It keeps most children physically separate from each other and thus limits exposure to the virus to the greatest extent. Likewise, it limits jeopardy for educators and other adults because teachers would mostly come into contact with children through the internet and parents would not be further complicated through potential viral contacts of their children.

 

From an academic standpoint, distance learning certainly has its drawbacks compared with face-to-face learning. But compared with mask-to-mask learning, virtual instruction may actually be preferable.

 

In any case, increased risk of death or debilitating disease has a chilling effect on learning for all involved.

 

In most communities – perhaps all – a decision on school reopening that balances safety with academics would lean toward distance learning above anything else.

 

Even if on-line learning turns out to be less effective than that provided in the hybrid model, any deficiencies can be targeted and ameliorated once the pandemic ends.

 

As yet, death admits of no such remedies.


 

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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!

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

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Going to the mailbox each time, my heart flutters.

 

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

 

Is today the day?

 

Has my teaching assignment finally arrived?

 

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

 

It’s whether I get to live or die.

 

And that’s no hyperbole.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I’m sorry? What?” I said.

 

He had just given me a clean bill of health.

 

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

 

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

 

I heard much the same from my gastroenterologist.

 

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

 

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

 

Refuse?” I said.

 

I still don’t have a better answer.

 

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

 

I love my job.

 

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

 

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

 

I love every minute of it.

 

But I love breathing more.

 

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

 

I don’t want to die gasping for breath.

 

Not if I don’t have to.

 

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

 

But there’s really nothing to smile about here.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

It doesn’t have to be this way.

 

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

 

And it’s not too late.

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

My assignment wasn’t there.

 

It may arrive tomorrow or the day after.

 

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

 

But if it does, I will not go quietly.

 

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


 

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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!

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Mask-to-Mask Instruction May Be More Problematic Than Distance Learning

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People talk about the upcoming school year as if we have a choice between in-person classes or distance learning.

 

We don’t.

 

The fact is there will be NO face-to-face learning this year.

 

Neither in our school buildings or on-line.

 

No matter which path we choose, we will be teaching behind a mask or behind a computer screen.

 

There is no middle ground here – nor should there be.

 

Even if schools try to execute some hybrid model where kids only attend classes in-person two or three days a week and go on-line for the remainder of the time, when they are in the school building everyone will be wearing masks.

 

And that’s as it should be.

 

When in a public place during a global pandemic like that of COVID-19, we need to wear face masks to reduce the spread of the disease.

 

But let’s not pretend this has no side effects.

 

Social distancing, limited mobility, plexiglass barriers, cleanliness protocols – all will have an impact on academics.

 

So if we reopen physical school buildings, we will not be returning to the kind of face-to-face instruction students enjoyed as recently as January and February.

 

It will be a completely new dynamic that may present as many difficulties – if not maybe more – than learning on-line.

 

That’s something people would do well to understand before deciding which course is best.

 

Mask-to-mask learning will not be face-to-face learning.

 

Social distancing may rob the physical classroom of almost all of its benefits over distance learning.

 

Again, I’m not suggesting we do without PPE or safety measures. But let’s be honest about how these measures will alter academics.

 
First, let’s look at masks.

 

Admit it. It is hard to be heard in a mask.

 

Imagine trying to get a message across to a classroom of middle school children with a piece of fabric hiding half of your face, obscuring your expressions and garbling your words.

 

I’m not saying it’s insurmountable, but it’s not indistinguishable from classroom teaching at the beginning of last school year, either.

 

It generates distance, just as it’s supposed to do. But teaching requires connection, understanding and relationship building.

 

Many of my students come into my class with trust issues. They’ve been let down by adults and authority figures. They aren’t about to put in their best work for just anyone. They have to know the teacher can be trusted and cares about them as individual people.

 

How are you supposed to generate trust when students can only see your eyes?

 

Moreover, masks are a permanent symbol of the danger we’re all in just being together. Every time we look at each other we’ll be reminded of risk, threat and our own vulnerability.

 

These do not make for good teaching. On Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of 
Needs, only physiological necessities like food and water take precedence. Without a sense of safety, it is difficult to impossible for students to achieve their full potentials.

 

Unfortunately, facial coverings aren’t the only problem. Consider physical proximity.

 

As a teacher, I rarely sit when students are in the room.

 

During a 40 minute class, I probably lap the space as many times going from desk to desk observing students progress, answering questions, reading work, making suggestions, etc. This will be much more difficult with the threat of Coronavirus in the room.

 

How can I closely observe my students from a minimum of 6 feet away?

 

I would suspect this will be even more profound with kids with special needs. Just because they’re in the classroom with the teacher does not mean the teacher will be able to serve them as well as under normal circumstances. This is bound to lead to increased frustration and acting out.

 

The most common diagnosis my middle school students have is ADHD. The most common adaptation I’m told to make to help them overcome this is to repeatedly prompt them back on task. And you don’t want to do this in a way that will draw attention to the issue. I often walk up to students and ask questions privately, or point to something on their papers.

 

This will not be easy when trying to avoid their physical space. Any verbal queues would be loud enough to be heard by the rest of the class.

 
Nor does this allow for students to work together on group projects. They can’t push their desks together and work on assignments cooperatively in the physical classroom. In fact, in the time of COVID, these kinds of projects may actually be better served on-line.

 

Finally, imagine the difficulty of getting children to comply with social distancing mandates.

 

If we can’t get adults to wear masks, how can we expect to get their kids to do it?

 

Moreover, children are mischievous. Some may try to purposefully cough on their classmates just to get a reaction. Others could intentionally take off their masks to annoy classmates. As every teacher knows, some kids will do anything for attention. Even negative attention.

 

In-person teaching could easily degenerate into a game of trying to get kids to obey the rules with little to no actual instruction going on.

 

Are administrators and school boards really prepared to suspend students for endangering their classmates? Are parents willing to accept such punishments?

 

And let’s not forget the elephant in the room.

 

What do we do when safety measures fail?

 

When a student gets sick, do we quarantine for two weeks all the other students who came into contact with him? When a teacher gets sick, who teaches her classes while she is in isolation? And do we keep her students home, too?

 

Before we can reopen schools to in-person instruction, there are a host of problems we have to solve.

 

We have to figure out how to get kids to and from school without crowding them together on buses. We have to arrange classes and move students safely from point A to point B within the building. We have to figure out how to safely feed them – since no one can wear a mask while they eat. We have to figure out how to adequately ventilate buildings that were in need of repair for decades prior to the crisis.

 

One has to wonder – is it worth it?

 

With so many challenges involved with reopening school buildings, might it not be better to just continue distance learning initiatives?

 

As we’ve seen, the push for in-person schooling isn’t justified by academic concerns.

 

Though under normal circumstances face-to-face learning is worlds better than on-line learning, that is not what we’ll be doing if we reopen schools this year.

 

In truth, the pressure to reopen schools during this crisis comes more from political and economic considerations than pedagogical ones.

 

Lawmakers and policymakers don’t want to put forward the funding necessary to reduce the risks. Teachers fear they’ll be laid off if they speak out against unsafe working conditions. Parents fear they won’t be able to return to their own jobs if they have to stay home to take care of their children.

 

These issues can all be solved by good government. Our lawmakers need to follow the lead of nearly every other country that has lowered infection rates. We need federal relief checks so people can pay their bills without having to risk their lives working through a pandemic. We need personal protective equipment (PPE), protection from evictions, and universal healthcare so that we can weather the storm.

 

It is not the job of schools and teachers to fix these problems. We can’t. We can only further enable bad leadership.

 

But putting aside political and economic issues, there is an obvious best course of action.

 

Under these circumstances, continuing distance learning is the best choice from the standpoint of both safety AND academics.

 

In any other year, having a teacher physically present in the classroom with a cohort of students is worlds better than Brady Bunch style ZOOM meetings or assignments posted on-line.

 

But this isn’t any other year. It’s 2020 and Coronavirus cases have topped 3 million in the United States. There were nearly 60,000 new cases just yesterday.

 

You don’t close schools when there are only thousands of cases and then reopen them when there are millions.

 

One thing to recommend on-line learning at the present time is that we know it can be done. We already tried it last school year. There were certainly major problems but we have a good idea what they are and can make changes to at least attempt to solve them.

 

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

 

Don’t get me wrong. Distance learning will never be as effective as face-to-face instruction.

 

But we will not have face-to-face instruction this year. It will be mask-to-mask or screen-to-screen.

 

That cannot be emphasized enough.

 

None of the possible solutions does a perfect job overcoming the problems.

 

There are not enough adequate virus screenings to tell who has the disease. Nor can we screen those who have it and keep them quarantined from the rest. Nor do we have adequate PPE to reduce infection. Nor does any vaccine appear to be forthcoming.

 

With the exception of the last point, many other developed countries have done much better with these things and so are in a better position to reopen schools.

 

But we have to face facts. The United States is not in the same position. In fact, we’ve made wearing a mask a political statement instead of what it is – a public health concern.

 

Until we solve these issues, there will be no perfect solution for schools. We just have to choose the best of several imperfect options.

 

In my opinion, the only way forward is distance learning.

 

To do otherwise is like trying to figure out how to live in a burning building instead of putting out the fire.

 

The only sane option is to get to a relatively safe place first.

 

I hope we can do that for our children, families and communities.

 

I hope that the death cult of capitalism doesn’t require teachers to jump on the pyre of economic growth.

 

We all deserve better.


 

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

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

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

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