Contact Tracing Does NOT Prove Schools Are Safe During a Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Contact Tracing Works

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

Where did she get it from?

Let’s do some contact tracing to find out.

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

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

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

We don’t know.

And contact tracing rarely produces an answer to that question.

In fact, that’s not really its point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His response:

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

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

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

How Contact Tracing is Used to Make Wild Claims

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

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

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

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

Where did all these people get COVID-19?

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

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

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

Nonsense!

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

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

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

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

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

Balderdash!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Advantage of Our Ignorance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She told CNN:

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

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

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

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

What About When Outbreaks Happen?

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

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

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

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

Which kind of disproves his position.

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

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

Keeping Schools Open During a Pandemic Increases Reckless Behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

We have not been doing that.

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

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

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

Decisions should be made with an abundance of caution.

Protecting life and health have to be the overriding concerns.

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

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

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

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

The virus definitely is spreading in our schools.

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

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


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INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Remote Teaching is Better Than In-Person Instruction During a Pandemic

Hundreds of teachers have died from Covid-19.

More than 1 million children have been diagnosed with the disease.

Yet a bipartisan group of seven state Governors said in a joint statement Thursday that in-person schools are safe even when community transmission rates are high.

Safe – despite hundreds of preventable deaths of school employees.

Safe – despite mass outbreaks among students.

Safe – despite quarantines, staffing shortages, longterm illnesses and mounting uncertainty about the longterm effects of the disease on children and adults.

State Governors must have a different definition of safety than the rest of us.

The message was signed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, Delaware Governor John Carney, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

Only Baker is a Republican. The rest are all Democrats.

We expect such blatant untruth from the Trump administration, and Vice-President Mike Pence was quick to add his voice to the septet.

But the facts remain.

More than 300 teachers and other school employees have died across the country from the virus, according to the Associated Press.

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

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

More than 250,000 people have died nationwide.

More than 11 million Americans have been diagnosed with the disease at an ever increasing rate. One million of those cases came about over just six days last week.

In many states like Pennsylvania, hospitalizations have passed their peak in April.

That is not safety.

And it is beyond reckless that these Governors would make such a counterfactual statement.

FACT: It is NOT safe to have in-person schooling in any community where infections are high.

FACT: It is BETTER to have remote education unless the virus has been contained.

But these are inconvenient truths that business leaders, politicians and policymakers are doing everything in their power to ignore.

The Governors’ statement begins:

“Medical research as well as the data from Northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates.”

This is just not true.

It is based not on research by epidemiologists, not on studies conducted by doctors, scientists or pharmacologists.

It comes from the work of an economist – Emily Oster.

The Brown University professor analyzed data from all 50 states over a two week period in September and came to the conclusion that when students or teachers get Covid, they rarely catch it at school.

And her analysis has become the Gospel truth for supply-side marketeers all over the country.

However, Oster has been wrong before.

Notoriously wrong.

Oster is infamous for publishing a paper advising women that drinking alcohol during pregnancy is safe. WRONG, says the National Organization on Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. WRONG, says a slew of recent studies from the University of Bristol, Oxford, the British Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

She wrote her dissertation explaining that there were less women in China not because of the one child policy and traditional attitudes toward girl children, but instead because Hepatitis B skewed sex ratios.

And then after that paper made her famous, she published another one proving herself wrong.

Oster is not a serious academic. She is someone who constantly says something controversial to court the media and public opinion.

She is a contrarian, an attention seeker, a celebutante – the economist version of someone who shouts “fire” in a crowded movie theater and then sells fire extinguishers to those rushing for the exits.

It is because of people like her that Mark Twain is reported to have remarked, ”There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

She was shopping her thesis around about people not catching Covid at school back in May before there was any data one way or another.

Moreover, she homeschools her own children. She has nothing to lose getting us to believe her latest economic whopper.

Since providing this cover story, various county departments of health have claimed that contact tracing rarely indicates students or teachers catch the virus at school. However, these conclusions are based on voluntary anecdotes, not hard data. At the local level, there is often a lot of pressure to find the cause of an outbreak somewhere else when childcare is at stake or administrative coercion involved.

There has, however, been actual science done on the matter that sheds increasing doubt on Oster’s findings and those like her.

A study of more than a half-million people who were exposed to Coronavirus suggests that the virus’ continued spread is driven by only a small percentage of those who become infected.

Moreover, children and young adults were found to be potentially much more important to transmitting the virus than previous studies had identified, according to the study by researchers at Princeton, John Hopkins and the University of California at Berkeley.

This was the largest contact tracing study for any disease ever conducted.

It suggests the role of schools in the spread of the virus is also much greater than previously believed.

The evidence is so convincing that the CDC took down controversial guidance pushing for schools to remain open during periods of increased infections.

This is a lot more important than what some dipshit economist said.

However, the Governors’ statement continues:

“In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.”

Talk about overstating the issue!

So kids can’t learn if their instruction is interrupted? It’s a good thing we never take any time off school, say during the summer months.

And way to use poor and special needs kids as props to drum up support. Funny how you never seem to care so much about them when issuing budget priorities or school funding formulas.

But it’s the callousness with which these governors paper over health concerns that really sounds like Oster, herself.

“There are people who would say if even one teacher acquires COVID at a school and dies, then it would not have been worth it to open schools,” Oster said. “I think that argument is complicated because people are going to suffer tremendously from schools being closed, but that is a tricky calculus.”

One would have hoped only an economist would weigh people’s lives vs the cost of health care and boosting standardized test scores. But apparently Democratic Governors feel the same way.

In-person schooling IS preferable to remote instruction if everything else is equal. But everything else is not equal right now.

What kind of mental health issues do children experience whose teachers die suddenly and preventably? How do kids suffer with the loss of a loved one knowing full well that they may have inadvertently been the cause of that person’s death?

What is the longterm cost to children or adults who have their lungs, digestive system or brains suffer irreparable damage as a result of Covid complications?

This disease was only discovered two years ago.

We cannot make bold statements of certainly about its effects without being deeply dishonest. There’s a lot we don’t know about it and how it affects people. And in light of that uncertainty it makes more sense to be extra cautious than reckless.

The fact is remote learning can be done effectively.

We can focus on ensuring that all students have the technology, infrastructure and training to access instruction on-line.

We can prioritize virtual curriculum created by classroom teachers and taught synchronously over video platforms like zoom instead of canned ed tech credit recovery programs like Edmentum.

Administrators and academic coaches can be of more use helping struggling students stay on track than endlessly spinning their wheels about how best to reopen schools.

Bottom line: No one should have to go to school in an unsafe classroom.

Students shouldn’t feel like the only way to get a quality education is to risk their health and put their families in jeopardy.

Teachers shouldn’t be bullied into working in unsafe environments where they or their loved ones may get sick – especially since educators are more susceptible to the virus and often suffer worse consequences of getting ill.

But despite all these arguments, it is the daily reality of schooling during a pandemic that is winning the argument.

Schools simply can’t operate in-person when large segments of the staff are sick and/or quarantined.

No one is buying the argument that in-person schooling is safe when whole kindergarten classes are quarantined as happened at my district this week.

The problem of childcare and other economic hardships are very real. But we will not solve them by closing our eyes to reality and putting our kids and teachers into unsafe classrooms.

It’s high time our government passed a new round of Covid relief. We need to pay people to stay home so they don’t spread the virus. We need mortgage protection, universal healthcare and a host of services to help people weather the storm.

It is embarrassing that so many Governors don’t have the courage to do that and instead indulge in the deranged fantasies of an economic death cult.

It sad that so many Governors lack the courage to issue real Stay-at-Home orders, close schools, bars and restaurants, and issue stiff penalties for those who disobey them.

We do not need in-person learning while Covid runs wild.

Until the danger has passed, we need quality remote learning conducted, planned and supported by educators.

And we need Governors with the guts to listen to science, not B.S. economists.


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As District Covid Cases Increase, McKeesport Schools Remain Open Temporarily

Next week, McKeesport Area School District will go fully remote to keep students safe from an ongoing outbreak of Covid-19 at several district buildings.

Two new cases are suspected today at the western Pennsylvania district, says a source close to the school board.

However all district buildings were open, and administrators say classes will continue in-person Thursday and Friday.

On Monday, the district will close for three days while all students learn on-line. Buildings will remain closed through Thanksgiving Break. Classes are scheduled to begin in-person again on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Meanwhile, two staff members – one at the high school and one at Founders Hall – were reported having undergone tests for the virus this morning, according to a source close to the school board.

Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) has not yet returned results for these two staff members.

This potentially brings the district total to 21 cases since September – 11 students and 10 staff.

Yesterday, I reported six new cases, four of which were confirmed by ACHD and two which had test results pending.

Since then, one negative test result was returned for a Twin Rivers staff member and one remains pending.

The district’s Covid Tracker on its Website has been updated to include one more case (bringing its total to 15) but district officials have not added the six additional cases reported on this blog over the last few days of which only three are pending test results.

The district Website and Facebook page explain the shortfall thus:

“Our case tracker is live on our website. We receive documentation when a case is confirmed to us by the Allegheny County Health Department. Only after we receive that documentation can we update the tracker.”

However, the county health department does not limit itself so when reporting new Covid cases. It reports a total number and then differentiates between confirmed cases and those pending test results.

For instance, the ACHD reported today that there were 620 new COVID-19 cases in the county. Of those, 506 are confirmed and 114 are probable.

The district should do the same.

Parents cannot wait until cases are confirmed before making decisions about whether to send their children to school buildings or not. The mere fact that additional cases are suspected is enough for some parents to exercise caution.

After all, if your child is swimming in shark infested waters, the mere sight of a dorsal fin might be enough to call him or her back to shore. Cautious parents will not wait to see exactly what shark-like creature is gaining momentum swimming toward their child before removing him or her from danger.

In fact, that’s why many have kept their children in the district cyber program despite a distinctly inferior academic program.

And make no mistake – these are shark infested waters.

Cases are spiking throughout the country, state and county.

The state announced there were 6,339 new COVID cases today – another record for the highest daily increase.

The ACHD is recommending a stay-at-home advisory unless people are going to work, school or need essentials like groceries or medical care.

Given such dangerous conditions, it is surprising the district has only committed to closing buildings for three school days.

The Thanksgiving holiday is unlikely to be a time when infections decrease. Family gatherings and holiday shopping are more likely to do just the opposite.

Many districts are closing through the end of the year or until the end of January – at least.

In any case, the district would better serve parents and the community at large if it were more transparent about exactly what is going on in its buildings.



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McKeesport Schools Are Hiding At Least Six More COVID Cases at the High School & Twin Rivers

At least six more cases of COVID-19 have been identified at McKeesport Area School District, but you wouldn’t know it from administrators.

The information at the Western Pennsylvania district is being kept quiet instead of being released to the public.

So at the high school, two students tested positive, and at Twin Rivers Elementary, three staff and one student were identified as having the virus last week, according to a reliable source close to the school board.

Of those, two of the three Twin Rivers staff are awaiting confirmation of their test results from Allegheny County Health Department. The rest have all been tested and their results confirmed.

However, there are a few additional potential cases that remain to be investigated, according to the same source.

The district used to send out telephone, email and conventional mail alerts when students or staff tested positive.

However, the district created a Covid Tracker on its Website in October after I suggested it at a school board meeting.

Though the tracker has not yet been updated to include this information, it is being considered as the sole source of information to the community about cases, according to the school board source.

As of Monday night, the tracker only lists 14 cases in the district since buildings reopened in September – seven students at the high school, a student and a staff member at Founders Hall, two staff at Francis McClure Elementary and three staff at Twin Rivers.

The new cases would bring the district total to 20 – nine at the high school, seven at Twin Rivers with the numbers at other buildings unchanged.

That’s 11 students and 9 staff total – not counting any additional cases that may be coming.

I still think the tracker is a good idea, but it shouldn’t be the sole source of this information.

Parents should not have to check it every day to discover if an outbreak is underway. Administration should continue to provide this data with parents as things happen so parents can make informed decisions about continuing to send their children to in-person classes or not. (Many parents have their children enrolled in the district cyber program instead.)

And school directors should be using this data to determine if it is safe to keep buildings open at all.

Moreover, the tracker has its own glitches.

It does not come up when accessed through certain browsers like Firefox. Unless you use the most reliable browsers like Chrome, you can get nothing but an empty white screen.

With the county in the midst of a steadily increasing surge in Coronavirus cases, now is not the time to hold back on information.

On Sunday, the county broke precedent to report over the weekend an increase of 527 cases of COVID-19, the highest daily number reported since the pandemic began in March.

This followed a week of record-breaking reports from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, with an all-time high of 5,551 cases reported on Saturday throughout the state.

There have been 4,230 cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County this month, alone.

Nationwide, it took the country 300 days to reach 11 million cases, but over just the last six days, that number increased by another million.

Over the last week, the country has averaged more than 1,080 deaths a day – more than 30% higher than two weeks previous.

The McKeesport community deserves up-to-date information about viral spread in our schools.

Administrators need to step up the transparency.


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Covid-19 Has Eroded My Faith in Public Schools

I am a public school advocate.

I teach at a public school.

My daughter goes to a public school.

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

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

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

I’m actually kind of embarrassed about it.

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

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

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

I don’t.

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

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

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

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

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

SCHOOL BOARDS

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

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

Seriously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is very personal to me.

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

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

I am not allowed to teach remotely.

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

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

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

Answer: you can’t. Ever, ever again.

UNIONS

And the same goes for many in my union.

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

I just wish my local did, too.

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

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

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

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

Answer: I can’t. Never, ever again.

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

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

This after months of…. Nothing.

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

Nothing…. So far.

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

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

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

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

My God! That’s a human right!

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

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

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

OF COURSE I’M ANGRY!

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

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

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

That is not worth risking.

EDUCATION ACTIVISTS

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

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

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

But that’s obviously false.

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

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

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

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

That’s nonsense, too.

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSIONS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just not THESE duly elected members.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are sick with outdated and malicious economic ideas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have failed us all.


 

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

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

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

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

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

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

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

So what am I to do?

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

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

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

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

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

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

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

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

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

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

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

But no. He said he knew all about it.

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

I couldn’t believe it.

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

I got the same answer.

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

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

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

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

I have a wife and daughter.

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

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

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

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

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

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

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

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

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

You just have to look at the facts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

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

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

But I feel like I have no other choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.

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

Just imagine it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imagine this large scale.

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

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

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

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

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

The result is an increase in infections.

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

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

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

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

Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.

It will result in many, many people getting sick.

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

That’s just not worth it.

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

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

Thank you for hearing me out.


 

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An Originalist Reading of Public Schools

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

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

“What’s wrong, Sir?”

“There’s no meat in my sandwich.”

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

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

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

“But that’s not what I ordered!”

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

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

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

The meanings of words change over time.

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

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

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

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

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

THAT’S judicial originalism.

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

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

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

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

And our public schools wouldn’t even exist!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But let’s not forget segregation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any judge that disagrees has no place in our courts.

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

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

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

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

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


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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!

Virtual Instruction: Top 5 Pros & Top 5 Cons

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

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

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

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

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

These have been an absolute disaster.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pros

1) There is Less Pressure Day-to-Day

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

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

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

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

And that’s not all bad.

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

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

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

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

2) It is Harder for Students to Disrupt Class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are many reasons for this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) It’s Easier to Read a Text Together


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Online it isn’t such a straight line.

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

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

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

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

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

Cons

1) Student Absences

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

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

However, there are two important points to be made.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) The Camera Conundrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not always.

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

This is related to the previous point.

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

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

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

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

4) Technological Issues

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

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

The list is endless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Danger of a New Normal

This is particularly scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like giving tests through Google Forms.

I like giving paperless assignments on Google Classroom.

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

I like being able to pee whenever I need.

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

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

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

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

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

These are all dangers of the new normal.

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

That’s equal parts scary and exciting.

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

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


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R.I.P., R.B.G. – The Lesson She Lived

“I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”

US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

There are few people known for their whole name – first, middle and last.

Even fewer known just for their initials.

And maybe no other white, Jewish, woman in history to be christened with an honorific reminiscent of martyred rap royalty.

But Ruth Bader Ginsburg was all that and more.

R.B.G.

The Notorious R.B.G.

Let it never be said that she was given that title out of public relations or pique.

No matter where you stood, she earned the designation “notorious.” Because she WAS. In nearly everything she did.

Whether it was issuing the dissenting opinion on Bush v. Gore or lifting weights in a blue sweatshirt emblazoned with the words, “SUPER DIVA,” she was in your face and indomitable.

She was an icon, a pioneer, a living piece of “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven,” as Tennyson might say.

And though she made her most indelible mark as a Supreme Court Justice, in a 2018 documentary about her life, RBG, she said she felt like a teacher:

“I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex-discrimination existed. One of the things I tried to plant in their minds was, ‘Think about how you would like the world to be for your daughters and granddaughters.’”

She did eventually teach law at Columbia University where she enumerated the changes in sexual discrimination litigation throughout her career. While in private practice, she won five cases involving women’s rights before donning the Supreme Court robes. At the time, she was quoted in Time magazine as saying her strategy was to “attack the most pervasive stereotype in the law – that men are independent and women are men’s dependents.”

To live at the same time as such a figure is not that uncommon.

We’re often surprised to read obituaries of great historical heroes we hadn’t known were still alive until their passing.

But that such a model was still WORKING, still doing that for which she had built her reputation, still holding together the fragments of our system as it threatened to crumble! That was truly amazing.

She was there. STILL there. For all of us.

Working well into her 80s through colon cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer.

And now she’s gone.

It’s hard to fathom.

This is the horror story we’d been warned about every election season for as long as I can remember. This is the nightmare scenario used to shepherd the Democratic flock together, to keep us all under one big tent while lightning flashed and thunder raged.

And it is here. Now. Today.

I never met Justice Ginsburg. Never talked with her. Never had the honor.

But I don’t think she accepted being used in this way. After all, if her biggest concern was the Chief Executive or even Congressional politics, she could have stepped down near the end of President Barack Obama’s first term and been replaced.

Or could she?

Perhaps she had to rethink her own retirement plans after the whole Merrick Garland affair when Senate Republicans refused to even discuss Obama’s Supreme Court nominee in the wake of Justice Antonin Scalia’s sudden death a full nine months before the election.

There’s no way to know for sure.

But given Ginsburg’s record of tenacious dissent in the face of injustice, I can’t imagine her counseling moderation as solidarity.

She stood for justice when no one else would.

That’s what she did!

In 2007, her dissent in a case involving Lilly Ledbetter – a supervisor for Goodyear Tires – was so compelling it sparked the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She literally explained why the court was wrong and that this was a case of discriminating against women in employment, and that led to a change in the law two years later!

In 2013, when the court all but struck down the 1965 Voting Rights Act, her dissent was equal parts logic, prophecy and prescription. The majority of the justices made the bizarre argument that the Voting Right Act – and one of its features, known as “preclearance” – had already solved voter suppression.

Ginsburg responded:

“Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

When she read the dissent aloud in court, she went beyond her written remarks quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Then she added that it only bends that way, “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

Her remarks about what would happen in the wake of this decision have largely proven true with waves of voter suppression sweeping the country – especially in areas where this would have been impossible had the court ruled differently.

There’s a lesson here for all of us.

Dissent should not be dismissed as divisive.

In the presence of injustice, it is the only proper response.

When refugee children are being locked away in cages at the border, there is no other viable response than dissent.

When police are being militarized and used as thugs to violently put down largely nonviolent protests, there is no appropriate response other than dissent.

When the President is lying to us, flouting our laws, and Congress refuses to hold him accountable, there is no other response than dissent.

We must all have the courage of the Notorious R.B.G. to stand up against injustice and call it by its true name – even to its face.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that doing so will somehow be enough to dismantle that injustice.

But we have to try.

And even if we don’t succeed today, we will have saved ourselves from becoming a part of the injustice around us.

Just days before her death, Ginsberg told her granddaughter, Clara Spera:

“My most fervent wish is, that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

If Republicans retreat from their own precedent and push through a new justice 47 days or less before the election, there are still things we can do.

We can fight like Hell to get rid of the worst President in American history, Donald J. Trump, and elect Joe Biden. We can vote like our lives depend on it to get a progressive majority in Congress.

And when we win, we increase the number of justices in the Supreme Court and pack them full of progressives.

We undo all the chicanery Republicans have done for decades – end the filibuster, make Puerto Rico and DC states, end gerrymandering and pass a new Voting Rights Act that actually protects the most important principle of our system of government – the one without which our system is nominal at best.

This and more is the dissent we must wage.

They give us injustice, we respond with its opposite.

We must look this fetid, decaying nation in the eye and say with all the ferociousness of our fallen Supreme Court Justice:

I dissent!

I dissent!

I dissent!


 


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!