Public School Boards Need to Do Better at Embracing Transparency 

 


They say sunlight is the best disinfectant.  


 
So why do so many public school boards hide in the shadows?  


 
 
One of the shining virtues of public schools is the requirement that they be transparent and open to the public.  


 
And they are! 


 
But too often school directors do so in ways that are unnecessarily burdensome, equivocal or combative.  


 
Let me give you an example.  


 
I live in the McKeesport Area School District (MASD) – a community just south of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania.  


 
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:  


 
“Preliminary Budget Information for 2022-23 School Year.”
 


 
I clicked on it and got this: 


 
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.


What the heck!?  


Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy? 


It’s not like I can even turn to my local newspaper to tell me about the district’s budget. With so many cutbacks in local media, our papers rarely even cover school districts anymore unless there’s a big story.  


If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.  


We should be able to do better than this. 


Don’t get me wrong. 


 
Authentic public schools are way better than privatized schools.  


 
They’re preferable to anything you’d find at charter or private schools that take school vouchers.  


 
And one of the biggest reasons why is this requirement of local control, self-government, and a free exchange of information between representatives and the community who elected them.   


 
Authentic public schools HAVE TO hold public meetings to conduct their business.  


 
They HAVE TO take comments from the community. 


 
They HAVE TO make their documentation available to the public.  


 
And except under extreme circumstances, they HAVE TO be run by elected school boards.

 
 
None of that is a given at charter and voucher schools. 


 
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations. 


 
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.  


 
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.  


 
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it. 


 
The same thing goes for school board meetings.  


 
Before I became a public school teacher, I was a journalist often covering public schools.  


 
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.  


 
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.  


 
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.  


 
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.

 
 
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.  


 
Now I know it’s unreasonable to expect members of the public who volunteer to serve as school directors to spend all night listening to rambling or incoherent comments. But these time limits are often way too restrictive – especially when only a handful of people actually turn up to speak.  


 
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.

 
 
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.  


 
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.  


 
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line. 


 
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.  


 
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.  


 
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked. 


 
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.

 
 
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.  
 


Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.  


 
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available. 


 
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.  


 
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic. 


 
It is so unnecessary. 


 
Things don’t have to be this way.  


 
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.  


 
After all, this is one of the major factors that distinguish authentic public schools from privatized ones.  


 
School directors complain about losing revenue to charter and voucher schools. If they treated the public more like valued members of the decision-making process, they would do a lot to boost their own reputation.  


 
President James Madison wrote


 
 “[a] popular Government, without popular information, or­ the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy.”  


 
School directors should take this to heart. 


 
Public schools should not be shadowy corners for school directors to try to sneak through policies under the nose of stake holders.  


 
They should be shinning centers of the community. 


 
The sooner school boards understand this, the better it will be for the state of public education and the students, families and communities we are supposed to be serving in the first place. 


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Covid Has Hobbled Public Schools. Here’s Why They’re Worth Saving 

 
 
 
Is public education worth saving? 


 
That’s the question in the air these days.  


 
In the last century, the US academic system helped us reach the moon, defeat Communism and become the world’s largest super power.    


 
However, today our public schools are more damaged than ever before.  


 
An increasing number of families are leaving them for charter and voucher schools.  


 
Teachers are quitting their jobs in droves with few people willing to fill the vacancies they leave behind.

 
 
And above all, many people seem to think the schools, themselves, are failing


 
Isn’t it time to move on to something else? 


 
I’m here to tell you – no, it is not. 


 
In fact, we need to guard and cherish our public schools more than ever before. Because we face the real possibility of losing them for good.  


 
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice. 


 
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess. 


 
 
The Pandemic Effect 


 
 
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.

 
 
After decades of segregation, inequitable funding, incentives to privatize, and federally mandated standardized testing, it took a deadly virus to finally hobble the system.  


 
Being forced to contend with the uncertainties of Covid-19 damaged people’s faith in public education more than anything that had come before it. 


 
Issues of masking, contact tracing, safety of immunocompromised students and staff, and when to open or close buildings (among other issues) lead to inevitable dissatisfaction from all fronts.  


 
However, none of these issues should have been decided at the local level in the first place.  


 
These were issues of national significance. We needed a unified strategy to fight a global pandemic as it washed over our shores – not scattershot policies by part-time officials unequipped to deal with them


 
These problems should have been tackled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and enforced by the federal government without deference to big business.  


 
Instead, the CDC made conflicting decisions based more on the needs of the economy than public health (many of which were roundly ignored anyway). Then federal and state governments either refused to decide safety protocols leaving it up to individuals or municipalities, or when they did decide matters, they were embroiled in partisan battles over any kind of restrictions.  


 
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be. 


 
Public health should be decided by scientists not school directors


 
The result was widespread dissatisfaction no matter what school boards decided and an exodus of students and faculty. 


 
Many families, upset at local school board decisions, enrolled their children in charter, cyber or voucher schools.  


 
Overall, charters saw a 7% increase in enrollment – an influx of roughly 240,000 students -during the 2020-21 school year, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. This is the largest increase in five years. By comparison, public school enrollment dropped by 3.3% – or 1.4 million students – in the same period. 


 
The biggest increases were in cyber charter schools. For example, in Pennsylvania 99.7 percent of the charter enrollment growth occurred in virtual charter schools. Enrollment at the Commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools swelled from about 38,000 students in October 2019 to more than 60,000 students in October 2020, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education. 


 
But it wasn’t just students leaving our public schools. It was staff, too. 


 
Teachers and other school employees who felt unsafe or were crushed by the incredible pressure thrust on their shoulders either quit or retired in droves.  


 
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available. 


 
 
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.

 
 
 
Why Are Public Schools Important? 


 
 
Because of what they are and what they represent.  


 
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.  


 
A public school is a school meant for everybody and anybody.  


 
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.  


 
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.  


 
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.  


 
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US. 


 
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.  


 
We simply define education differently. We look at it as a right, not a privilege. And for a full 13 years (counting kindergarten) it’s a right for every child, not just some. 


Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs. 


We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year. 


In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities. 


That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it. 


 
There are plenty of ways we could improve. Even before the pandemic, we were incredibly segregated by race and class. Our funding formulas were often regressive and inadequate. Schools serving mostly poor students didn’t have nearly the resources of those serving rich students.

 
 
But at least at the very outset what we were trying to do was better than what most of the world takes on. You can’t achieve equity if it isn’t even on the menu. 


 
Without public schools, equity is definitely not on offer. 


 
 
 Public is Better Than Private 


 
 
That’s really the point.  


 
Charter, cyber and voucher schools are not set up around this ideal.  


 
They are not instruments of inclusion. They are instruments of exclusion.  


 
They are about who is sent away, not about letting everyone in.  


The United States is a big country – the third most populous in the world. We have 332,630,000 people and growing. That’s about 50 million students in public schools. 


 
No private system in the world has ever been able to work at that scale. If we lose our public schools, many kids will be left wanting.  


The market-driven approach does not guarantee an education. It guarantees competition for an education


 
It forces students to compete to get into schools and schools to compete for their very existence. Think of how that affects instruction. Schools have to spend a considerable amount of time and money attracting students to enroll. That’s time and money that doesn’t go to education. It goes to advertising. 


  
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate. 


  
Another major change with this approach is how privatized schools are run. Many are operated behind closed doors without the input of a duly-elected school board, without transparency for how they spend tax dollars, without even the guide rails of most regulations


  
Like in the charter school sector, these schools get almost free reign to do whatever they want.  


This means corporate interests get to run charter schools while cutting services and increasing profits. In fact, administrative costs at charter schools are much higher than at traditional public schools. Students lose, the market wins. 


  
Moreover, many charter schools provide a sub-par education. To put it more bluntly, they do things that would be impossible for public schools to do. One in Philadelphia literally transformed into a nightclub after dark. Another funneled profits into the CEO’s personal bank account to be used as a slush fund to buy gifts and pay for rent at an apartment for his girlfriend. Another CEO used tax dollars to buy a yacht cheekily called “Fishin’ 4 Schools.”  


 
And virtual charter schools are even worse. A study found that cyber-charters provide almost less education than not going to school at all. Even brick and mortar charter schools can close on a moments notice leaving students in the lurch. 


  
It’s a Darwinian model made to benefit the predators, not the prey. It’s a boon for any unselfconscious businessman who doesn’t mind getting rich stealing an education from children. 


 
We Must Fight 


 
That’s why we must fight to keep our public schools.  


 
As flawed and bruised as they are, the public school model is far superior to the alternative.  


 
But many will look only at their own individual situation and stop there.  


 
They will say, “At MY charter school we do this…” Or “That’s not the way things are at MY voucher academy…” 


 
First of all, a well-functioning privatized school is like a castle built precariously on a cliff. Things may work well now, but they could change at any moment and there’s nothing you could do but vote with your feet. When authentic public schools go bad, you have a democratic process to fix the problem.

 
 
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?  


 
Because it’s not all about you and your child. Selfishness cannot be the foundation of a just society.

 
 
Even a well-functioning charter or voucher school is publicly funded. It splits the funding that would normally go to one school and divides it among two or more. So students at both have to make do with less. 


You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?  


 
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.  


 
It is a necessary condition for democracy, shared economic prosperity and a just society.  


 
I know it may sound like an insurmountable task, but saving our public schools can be done.  


 
It will require collective action. 


 
We will need to actively participate in our school board elections, go to school board meetings and possibly even run to serve on the board, ourselves. 


 
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community. 


 
We will need to change the way our system treats teachers. If we want to encourage educators to stay on the job and even entice young people to enter the field, we need to make the profession more rewarding. That means higher salaries, more autonomy, more respect, smaller classes, less paperwork, and actually listening to educators on the subject of education.  


 
We also need to discontinue countless policies and programs that have been dragging our public schools down for decades. We need to eliminate high stakes standardized testing. We need to ensure every school is adequately, equitably and sustainably funded. We need to actively integrate our schools and classrooms. We need to stop supporting privatization through charter and voucher schools and instead support authentic public schools.  


 
And to do that, we need real political change at every level of government – local, municipal, state and federal.  


 
None of this is easy. All of it takes work.  


 
But it is the fight we must wage if we are ever to keep our democracy.  


 
It is the fight we must win to create the better world our children deserve.  


 
Public schools are worth saving, but it is up to you and me to do it. 


 

 


 

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McKeesport School Directors Investigating Validity of Superintendent’s Contract

A majority of McKeesport School Directors is questioning whether the previous board broke the law in giving the Superintendent a new contract.

In July of 2021, the previous board both accepted Dr. Mark Holtzman’s resignation as Superintendent and then immediately rehired him with a new 5-year contract.

Pennsylvania law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.

Moreover, three of five school directors who voted to extend Holtzman’s hire were lame ducks. They were stepping down from the board. Voting on this matter early robbed new board members of the chance.

So a month after new board members were sworn in, the board voted 5-4 in January to look into whether Holtzman’s resignation and subsequent rehire are enforceable.

His term at the district located just south of Pittsburgh had been set to expire in 2023 and will now continue until 2026.

In response to the board’s request, school directors received a letter in February from lawyer William C. Andrews stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the school code.

School director Mindy Lundberg read from Andrews letter at the board’s Wednesday meeting:

“…this resignation would arguably not be valid and the acceptance of it could be viewed as an attempt to confer a benefit upon an employee in contravention of the legislature’s intent. Here that benefit is a contract extension beyond the statutory limit.”

Dr. Holtzman responded with a letter from his own legal council, Mark E. Scott.

“We are confident that we will prevail in this issue if ever litigated,” Holtzman read from Scott’s letter. The practice of Superintendents resigning and being immediately rehired is common at other local districts, he said.

However, even if the district proved the new contract was void, Holtzman would return to the previous contract, and the district would be liable for all the Superintendent’s legal fees regardless of the outcome in court, Scott wrote.

For his part, Holtzman says he wants to remain as McKeesport’s Superintendent but is willing to negotiate a way out of his contract with the district if the board wishes to pursue that.

He said:

“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”

However, board members were not about to let the matter drop at that.

Both Lundberg and fellow school director James Brown (both of whom were on the board when Holtzman resigned and was rehired) said that they had not been given a copy of his new contract or his letter of resignation before being asked to vote on the matter. That may explain why they did not vote in favor of it.

Lundberg had questions for Joseph Lopretto who had been board President at the 2021 meeting and voted in favor of the new contract.

“Mr. Lopretto, just for the record since you were president… was there a contract presented to the board in the back room to know what we were voting on?” Lundberg asked.

“A Contract was presented. Yes,” Lopretto said.

“No, it was not. It was an outdated contract,” Lundberg responded.

Brown became extremely agitated and stated three times, “There was not a contract presented that night!”

“Nor did we receive a resignation letter,” Lundberg added.

“We never received a resignation letter. I still have not seen a resignation letter,” Brown said.

It is unclear where the board will go from here.

Will school directors seek legal action?

Will they ask Holtzman to resign – for REAL this time?

Will they all be able to move forward together?

Holtzman said the reason the previous board had given him a new contract in the way they did was because he was interviewing at a neighboring district and was eventually offered a Superintendent’s position there.

To keep him at McKeesport, the board needed to offer him more job security and compensation. However, since he still had two years on his current contract, the school code forbade them from just extending it. He needed to resign and then be given a new 5-year contract. Once this was done, he turned down the job at the other district.

According to Holtzman, Scott postulates that the argument against the new contract relies on Holtzman’s resignation being a “sham.” In effect, he didn’t really resign so the new contract was actually a contract extension – which would be illegal this early.

“Obviously we believe that it is not a sham and Dr. Holtzman was fully prepared to move on to the new district,” Scott wrote.

“Clearly the district cannot claim that the resignation was a sham for the purposes of rescinding his current contract but it’s not a sham for the purposes of terminating his employment with the district effectively July 5, 2021.”

In other words, if Holtzman didn’t really resign, then he’s still under the terms of his previous contract.

Scott also took issue with the fact that protests are being made about what the previous board did for Holtzman but not about what that same board did to extend the contract of another district administrator – Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo. She, too, resigned her position and was immediately rehired with a new contract.

However, this was done at another meeting AFTER Dr. Holtzman got a new contract. Cynics might even say it was done for the express purpose of demonstrating that Dr. Holtzman’s resignation and rehire weren’t a solitary case.

At a meeting in September, 2021, Dr. Holtzman even insinuated that objections toward both his and Wanzo’s rehires were racist because Wanzo is African American.

It will be interesting to see what the board does to resolve the issue.

VIDEO OF THE MASD REGULAR MEETING:


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The Absurdity of PROTECTING Kids from the Holocaust Narrative ‘Maus’ 

 
Nudity and bad language.  


 
That’s a Tennessee school board’s excuse for banning Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus.”  


 
Not Holocaust denial.  


 
Not antisemitism. 

Not a hundred other things they don’t want to admit to themselves about themselves.


 
It was simply a dirty drawing and some curse words. 


 
The graphic novel focuses on the cartoonist and his estranged father. Spiegelman slowly unravels the true story of how his dad survived the Holocaust. All the while, the son draws the narrative portraying Jewish people as mice and Germans as cats. 

It’s a work of literature that looks directly into the unfathomable and recontextualizes it into something we can attempt to understand.

The committee at Columbia University awarded the story a Pulitzer Prize – the only graphic novel yet to win such a prestigious award.

But the Tennessee school board awarded it their walking papers.

And why?

Naughty words and risqué images.


 
In particular, the board objected to eight bad words and the drawing of a nude woman.  


 
On its Website, district administrators posted the following explanation of their action


 
“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves. The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.” 


 
Can you imagine living in a community that values refraining from swear words and covering up the human body more than telling the truth about genocide


 
Can you imagine putting a premium on decorum and propriety over an honest portrayal of events? 


 
And who are the McMinn County Board of Education to say these words and this image are “unnecessary” to tell the story!? 


 
It’s the Holocaust! It’s not a Disney theme park! 


 
If you’re talking about the systematic murder of 6 million Jewish people and 5 million non-Jewish people, wouldn’t it be appropriate to use some bad language!?  


 
To their credit, the image the school board objects to isn’t one of mice being tortured and murdered in a concentration camp. It’s not the genitals of naked mice – after all, aren’t mice always naked?  


 
It’s the drawing of the author’s mother who couldn’t live with the atrocities she endured and committed suicide. His father discovers her naked body in the bathtub.  


 
There’s nothing salacious about it.  


 
It’s shocking. It’s disturbing. It’s deeply sad.

But that’s exactly what it’s meant to be.

To react – as this board has – is the height of callousness.

Here we have the story of so many deaths, so many murders, and all they can do is decry the way it is told.

As a person of Jewish ancestry, it hits me hard.

Imagine being told that the story of your family’s murder is only acceptable if it isn’t upsetting.

It’s only acceptable if it doesn’t provoke a reaction in your heart – only if it keeps your eyes dry and your throat unstopped.

But that’s the point! It SHOULD be upsetting! It should hurt your heart! It should make your eyes leak and your throat close up.

However, school director Tony Allman said something that disproved the fiction that the board’s action was limited to pure decorum.

In the meeting minutes he was quoted as saying, “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy. Being in the schools, educators and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.” 

You’re wrong, Sir.

You DO need to promote this stuff.

Not encourage people to engage in future Holocausts but to promote that it DID happen so that it will not happen again.

Because on Oct 27, 2018, it happened again at the Tree of Life synagogue in my hometown of Pittsburgh when a gunman killed 11 and wounded six.


 
In August 2017, it happened at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of marchers threw Nazi salutes and waved Swastika flags while shouting “Siege Heil” and “Jews will not replace us!”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) recorded more than 2,100 acts of assault, vandalism and harassment against Jewish people in 2021 – an increase of 12 percent over the previous year. This is the highest level of antisemitic incidents since ADL’s tracking began in 1979. This includes five fatalities directly linked to antisemitic violence and another 91 individuals targeted in physical assaults. 


Assault, harassment and vandalism against Jews remain at near-historic levels in the U.S.


The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s 2020 hate crime statistics showed not only that hate crimes were up for all minority groups, but crimes targeting Jewish people made up 54.9% of all religious bias crimes. 

According to the American Jewish Committee, nearly one out of every four Jews in the U.S. has been the subject of antisemitism over the past year.


Seventeen percent of respondents in the committee’s survey said they had been the subject of an antisemitic remark in person, while 12% said they were the victim of an antisemitic remark online. Three percent of Jews who responded to the poll said they were the target of an antisemitic physical attack. 

And this school board thinks the problem is a book that merely reports such events in the past.

Your children don’t need protection from the STORY of the Holocaust.

They need protection from the Holocaust, itself.

They need protection from it happening again – from the kind of violence and bigotry on the rise today.

They need protection from becoming the mice.

They need protection from becoming the cats.

They need adults brave enough to take a stand against these horrors.

It’s just too bad that you aren’t brave enough to do it, yourselves.


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Remote Teaching is Much Different This Year 

  
I couldn’t believe what was happening.   


  
It was 8:30 am and nearly all of my students were in class.   


  
Or technically none of them were.   


  
It all depends on how you look at it.   


  
This was a remote teaching day, after all, and the classROOM was empty somewhere across town.  


 
My middle schoolers and I were all snug in our various homes communicating with each other via Zoom. But through the magic of the Internet, we were all together in one place and ready to get started.   


  
It was surprising because on most days of in-person learning it takes at least 30 to 40 minutes in the morning for students to stumble in. 


  
But today it just took a click of the mouse.  


  
Not only that but we were awake, and chatting, and happy to be together!  

 
  
“Hey, Rian! Nice to see you!” I said as I clicked in a student.   


  
“Morning, Mr. Singer. Did you have a nice weekend?” she responded.  


  
“You bet. You all staying warm out there?”  


  
“Nah. I made a snowman with my little brothers. But it was fun.”  


  
“I’m so excited!” another student offered.  “My mom just had an ultrasound of her new baby. She says its nose looks just like mine.”  


  
“That’s fantastic,” I said.   


  
“Yeah. I’m going to be the oldest. There will be 12 years between us.”  


  
Who were these children and what had they done with my students?  


 
This is not what I had come to expect of students on-line. 


 
Through the pandemic, the last two years of on-and-off remote learning were a slog. Most days getting students to respond verbally was like pulling teeth. They’d hide behind screensavers, their cameras off and for all I knew they could be on Mars. 


    
Admittedly today the screensavers were still in place, but the ebullient chatter was like something you’d hear… well… in school!  


 
In the physical classroom some of my kids might engage in this kind of banter. But not before 9 or 10 am!  


  
My language arts students and I went over the homework and the kids even volunteered to read the directions and attempted the questions about prepositional phrases and appositives.   


  
They wrote in depth answers to thematic questions about the book we’d been reading together, S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders.”   


  
And then we discussed those questions together in a virtual Socratic Seminar.   


  
These are all things I’d done before in previous years with remote students. But it never came off like today.   


  
They put up hand raising emojis to indicate they wanted to speak and gave some of the most thoughtful comments I’d heard from them all year.   


  
They talked about the main character, Ponyboy, and his responsibility to save some kids from a burning church. And others argued that he had no responsibility – it was the adults who should have watched the kids more closely. Or they argued that Ponyboy losing his life wouldn’t have helped the trapped kids any. Or they argued that it didn’t matter whether they saved the kids but whether they were willing to put more good into the world by trying…  


  
I was astonished. We laughed. We pondered. It was a lot of fun.   


 
How did this happen on-line?  


 
I think it was a combination of several factors.  


 
First, this was a high interest lesson of a high interest text.  


 
Give kids something meaningful to do and they’ll exceed your expectations more often than not


 
But even more than that – and this may come as a shock – I think they were actually grateful to be learning on remote. 


 
That’s not to say they just naturally love the cyber school experience. But it’s been a scary few months in the school building. 


 
We’d all watched in fear as COVID-19 spread through the district like wildfire. 


  
All last week students and staff had steadily been going missing.  


 
We got phone messages daily telling us how many people had tested positive but not who they were or how many additional folks had been quarantined because of close contacts.  


  
Even several administrators and our building principal mysteriously vanished, and with them so did some of the secrecy.   


 
One of my students was removed from class with an apparent positive test and the next day students were called to the office in ones and twos not to be seen again. Until the rooms were nearly empty.  


  
On Friday, my last class of usually 20 had been whittled down to four. 


 
And of those left was a child who sniffled and coughed  complaining that his mom wouldn’t let him go anywhere after school until he had a negative COVID test.   


  
So when they finally announced we were going to remote this week, the dominant feeling I had was relief.  


 
I just wasn’t the only one. 


 
No one wants to catch this thing.  


 
You don’t know whether it’s going to manifest as a week-long cold, symptoms that last for months, a stay at the hospital or worse.  


 
And don’t tell me kids aren’t affected. They may not often get as sick as adults, but they’ve seen the impact of this disease on others.  


 
They know catching COVID is taking a chance. 


 
That’s why most of them still wear face masks at school – even after the state Supreme Court overturned the Governor’s mask mandate. Even after school directors chose not to require masks on their own.  


 
Policymakers roll the dice but it’s the rest of us who pay the tab


 
I think my students were grateful that for once their safety and that of their families was being put first.

 
 
Or there just wasn’t enough staff available to keep the schools open. And not enough students left to teach in-person. 


 
Don’t get me wrong. Today wasn’t perfect.  


 
There were a few absent students – though much fewer than on any regular day. 


 
There were a few who hid behind their screensavers – though less than those who checkout in the classroom. 


 
Nor do I think remote learning is the best way to teach. Under normal circumstances, in-person is much more effective.  


 
But these aren’t normal circumstances. And until cases come under control and we take adequate precautions to ensure everyone’s safety, they won’t be normal circumstances. 


 
My students get that.  
 


I hope their parents do, too.  


 
I hope the administrators who’ve been out sick understand it.  


 
Because they’re going to be back soon, and then it won’t just be a battle with COVID.  


 
It will be a battle of egos, too.


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McKeesport Superintendent Gets 5 Year New Contract A Day After Resignation

McKeesport Area School Directors voted at a special meeting on Tuesday to give Superintendent Dr. Mark Holtzman a new five year contract – a day after he had resigned from the position.

A video of the entire five minute meeting was published on Youtube by the Pennsylvania district located just south of Pittsburgh.

The five board members who voted in favor of the new contract were Board President Joseph Lopretto, Vice President Diane Elias, Ivan Hampton, Jim Poston and Tom Filotei.

In fact, they were the only school directors at the meeting. Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order. Dave Donato was absent.

Holtzman’s new contract goes from July 7, 2021, to June 30, 2026.

Solicitor Gary Matta explained on the video that according to the state school code, the board couldn’t extend Holtzman’s old contract because he had more than a year left on it. The only way was for him to resign and then be given a new contract.

However, much about Holtzman’s performance and his new contract remain unclear.

The board had not yet completed an evaluation for the Superintendent for this school year and much about his new contract was not disclosed.

Many are speculating that this move was done to circumvent a change in power on the board after November.

Three of the five school directors voting for Holtzman’s new contract will be stepping down from the board in 2022.

Hampton, Poston and Filotei all will be replaced in January. They either lost re-election during the May primary or decided to step down. The other two board members – Lopretto and Elias – will be up for re-election in two years.

With five new candidates still in contention for four seats, much could happen politically.

Even if Matthew Holtzman, the Superintendent’s brother, wins a seat on the board in the fall, he wouldn’t be able to vote on the Superintendent’s contract because it would be a conflict of interest.


There is also a question about whether this week’s special meeting was legal at all.

On the YouTube video, it is announced that the meeting was advertised as being about “personnel.” Nothing more.

While that is true, it certainly goes against the spirit of the Sunshine Act. Most districts at least give the public a chance to comment on renewing a Superintendent’s contract.

Holding a last minute meeting right after a holiday with hardly any information about what is being voted on is not what most people would call good governmental transparency.

If the board had been secure that the public approved of Dr. Holtzman’s performance and wholeheartedly wanted his contract extended, it is doubtful any of these shenanigans would have been necessary.

Whether Dr. Holtzman did a good or bad job in his first contract with McKeesport will forever be overshadowed now by the shady way in which mostly lame duck school directors forced through his new contract.

Voters in the McKeesport Area School District deserve better.


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


 
 


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


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


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


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


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


 
The response was in answer to citizens comments.  


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
“I know I would not feel comfortable.” 


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Holtzman disputed this: 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



 
 
Kristen:  


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


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


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


 
 
 Dr. Mark Holtzman: 


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
MY COMMENTS: 


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


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


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


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


 
2) How many are students? How many staff?  


 
3) How many are located at each school building?  


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


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


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


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


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


 
Haven’t we met this threshold?  


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


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


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


 
Why haven’t these buildings been closed?  


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 
Please do your duty.” 


 
 
Holtzman: 


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


 
Voice: I don’t have them with me. 


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


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


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


 


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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.


 

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School Officials Should Pass Safer Reopening Plans, Not Beg For Protection From Liability

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Don’t tell me what to do.

 
But don’t hold me accountable for what I do, either.

 
That seems to be the position of school officials on reopening classes during the Coronavirus pandemic.

 
On the one hand, school boards don’t want a state or federal mandate about how to reopen schools in the fall.

 

On the other hand, they don’t want to be sued by children, families or staff who get sick or die as a result of reckless reopening plans.

 
The National School Boards Association (NSBA) is behind a push at both the state and federal level for temporary, limited liability protections in case students or staff become infected with Covid-19.

 

The organization is asking state legislatures and US Congress to pass bills including such protections.

 

At the same time, the organization is pushing state governors and the President to pass the plan through executive orders.

 
None of which should fill residents with confidence.

 

After all, would you want to eat at a restaurant where the chef refuses responsibility if diners get sick?

 

Would you want to fly on an airline that doesn’t guarantee you’ll make it to your destination in one piece?

 

If school officials are worried that students and staff may catch Covid-19, they should pass reopening plans that greatly reduce the likelihood of that happening.

 

But many of them aren’t doing that.

 

When hundreds of new cases are being reported in your county every week, you shouldn’t be opening the school buildings even with a hybrid model balancing both in-person and distance learning.

 

You should keep students learning online.

 

Safety should be the first concern of every school board member making these decisions.

 

Even one new case of Coronavirus is too much.

 

The fact that so many school directors are afraid of being sued means they are afraid their plans will not stop people from contracting the disease.

 

And that’s a real problem.

 

In states where schools have resumed in-person learning, large groups of students have been forced to quarantine.

 

So far, children have been hospitalized at a lower rate than adults when infected. However, until recently children have been kept mostly isolated. As they have been further exposed to the virus, some have developed complications. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine said there are 43 confirmed cases of a serious inflammatory syndrome in young people throughout the Commonwealth. Nineteen additional cases are under investigation.

 

We need to take this issue seriously.

 

If schools were reopening safely, why would they need protection from lawsuits?

 

Frivolous litigation is always an issue, but there is nothing to suggest that living through a global pandemic makes it more of a problem.

 

If school directors can prove they took every precaution to guard against people getting sick, their districts should be fine.

 

But they haven’t done that. And school directors know they haven’t done it.

 

In Pennsylvania, this has lead to discussions of the reopening guidelines issued by Gov. Wolf.

 

“I keep hearing the expression, ‘We are simply giving guidance or recommendations,” state Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester, said. “In the end, is it not true that what you say is a recommendation, ends up being a mandate because school districts are afraid of being sued and taxpayers losing millions of dollars?”

 

Dinniman – who I often agree with – seems to be saying that districts should be free to ignore safety guidelines. And they are.

 

But doing so should come with a price.

 

The guidelines – which are too lenient in my opinion – at least set up some benchmarks.

 

They designate a county as low, medium or high risk depending on cases per 100,000 residents and percentage of positive tests in the last seven days.

 

However, these guidelines miss a vital component of epidemiology. One week’s worth of data is insufficient to get an accurate picture of viral spread. Covid-19 symptoms take up to two weeks to show up.

 

You could have low numbers this week and decide to reopen school buildings to a hybrid model, but then next week have a surge. And those people would have been sick when you reopened – you just didn’t know because it took another week for their symptoms to develop.

 

Moreover, I think it is ludicrous that the state is stopping at mere guidelines.

 

This is a public health issue. It is not open to debate. At least, not debate by politicians and functionaries.

 

Follow the scientific consensus.

 

When disaster strikes, you don’t dither. You don’t give people options when there’s a killer shark in the water. You close the beaches.

 

But the very question of whether it is government’s responsibility to keep people safe has been called into question here.

 

It is yet another example of the social fabric of our nation coming apart at the seams.

 

We are continually ignoring the dangers of the moment in which we live to secure a false sense of normalcy.

 

We refuse to take the proposer precautions to lower the infection and instead try to live with it.

 

Take yesterday’s decisions by The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) to beginning the fall sports season on Monday.

 

Fall sports like football, soccer, tennis, field hockey, girls volleyball, etc. can start up if school boards decide to do so.

 

However, two weeks ago Gov. Wolf recommended that sports be postponed unit January 2021.

 

Though the PIAA originally voted to postpone the start of the season by two weeks, yesterday’s 25-5 vote put the season back on track.

 

This despite student athletes from the area already catching Covid-19 after practices.

 

We do not live in a healthy society.

 

We are acting like spoiled children who want to do what they want and refuse to be held accountable for their actions.

 

Sadly it is our children who will most often pay the price for adult recklessness.


 

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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