Archives for category: Safety

I thought you might want to read this. It’s a sobering story. There are about 300 million guns in the U.S.

This story appeared in The Washington Post.

This story is adapted from “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” which will be published March 30 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book examines the devastating effects of gun violence on the nation’s kids and offers a new way forward.


WEST PELZER, S.C. — The boy knew where the key to the gun safe was. He had always known.


It was a balmy evening in summer 2014, just five days after Tyler Paxton celebrated his 11th birthday with chicken nuggets and meatballs. His dad, Jonathan, kept the key atop the safe it opened, never hiding it from his only child because he trusted Tyler. An avid shooter, Jonathan had taught his son how to fire guns and how to handle them safely.


That night, as Tyler’s parents relaxed in front of the TV in the living room, the fifth-grader announced that he wanted to watch cartoons and headed to their bedroom, where he did something else instead. Tyler reached up and took the key, opened the cabinet door and pulled out a .357 magnum revolver with a snub nose. In a safe packed with rifles, it was the only loaded firearm.


Every day in America, children handle guns that they’re not supposed to touch, and every day, they hurt people with them. Kids younger than 2 have killed siblings. Older children have shot friends, parents, neighbors, classmates and, thousands of times, themselves. And yet, after two mass shootings fuel a push for universal background checks and an assault weapons ban in Congress, few of America’s political leaders are championing laws that protect children from accessing deadly weapons.




This is not a partisan issue. A 2019 poll by American Public Media found that 8 in 10 people in this country — including 7 in 10 Republicans — supported legislation mandating that guns be properly locked up when they’re not in use. Such laws are proven to save lives and have never been more essential than they are right now.


Gun sales in the United States exploded during the coronavirus pandemic, a time when kids were confined inside their homes more than ever before. An analysis of publicly reported incidents from Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group, found that the number of people killed by children in unintentional shootings between March and December of 2020 spiked 33 percent, from 97 deaths to 129, compared with the same period in 2019.




Tyler had been around guns all his life, but, to his parents, he seldom seemed interested.


His mere existence was, to the conservative, evangelical Christian couple, something of a miracle. It had taken his mother, Olivia, seven years to conceive, and the pregnancy that followed proved no less fraught. A heavyset woman, she had only one kidney and high blood pressure, and after she carried him for four months, doctors told her that they didn’t believe both mother and baby would survive. A 3-D ultrasound the next day would determine whether the fetus was viable.


Distraught, Olivia and Jonathan drove to Books-A-Million, where he bought her a baby name book. After her husband fell asleep, Olivia stayed up crying and praying. At 5:30 the next morning, she reached for the book, opening it to a page that began with the name “Tyler” and a Bible verse, Matthew 21:22.
“If you believe,” she read, “you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”


At an appointment hours later, the doctors told her their original assessment was wrong. Both she and the baby could survive, and they did. In rural West Pelzer, population 810, her son grew into a thoughtful and intensely curious child. At an age when most of his classmates were picking out storybooks from the library, he brought home encyclopedias. He became particularly interested in dinosaurs, memorizing the taxonomic names of dozens of them, although his favorite wasn’t a fearsome carnivore. It was the Maiasaura, an herbivore whose name meant “good mother reptile.” This dinosaur took care of its children. He liked that.




Tyler was serious about the things he deemed important, and he took nothing more seriously than karate, which he earned a junior black belt in at age 10, and church, which he attended almost every Sunday, even when his mother and father didn’t. Tyler brought his devotion home with him, too, requesting that he and his parents pray together each night before they went to sleep.




“Dear Lord,” he always began when his turn came, and sometimes it took four or five minutes for him to reach “Amen.”


“An old soul,” relatives often called the boy, who named his beagle Johnny Cash. Still, Tyler was, in many ways, just a kid. He thought SpongeBob SquarePants was hilarious, and he could play Minecraft for hours.


He didn’t get in trouble often, but when he did, his parents confiscated his many electronics, because nothing irritated him more than that. In a letter to Olivia, he once tried to head off any potential punishment. “I love you mom. You are the best Mom ever,” he wrote, signing it “Love Tyler,” before adding, “P.S. I made a 61 on my math test. I’m sorry.”


A lanky kid who inherited his mother’s green eyes and freckled skin, he liked to play with her long, curly brown hair and pretend that it had special powers. At bedtime, he often fell asleep to her rendition of “La La Lu,” from Disney’s “Lady and the Tramp.” As Tyler got older, he asked her not to tell anyone that he still liked it so much.
Tyler adored Olivia, who had been a stay-at-home mom since he was an infant, but the boy most wanted to be like his dad, a bearded, thick-armed Army veteran who worked as an operations manager at an asphalt plant.





Jonathan taught him how to field and throw and hit a baseball, how to hook and clean a bass, and, as he got older, how to fire a gun. Jonathan, a competitive pistol shooter, had been enamored with firearms since childhood, and he wanted Tyler to be, too. He often suspected, though, that his boy acted interested only because he was.




Tyler got bored sitting in the tree stand when they hunted deer, and he went to gun shops with Jonathan just to keep him company. When Tyler was 10, his dad bought him a .22-caliber rifle for Christmas, but the boy cared far more about his new Amazon Fire tablet.
As his 11th birthday approached in 2014, Tyler seemed as content as he’d ever been. He had lots of friends and was excelling at karate. As they did every July, his parents took him to Isle of Palms, on South Carolina’s Atlantic Coast. As usual, they went to Coconut Joe’s, where he ordered fried shrimp and peeled off the breading before he ate them. He played in the ocean, ran on the beach with Johnny Cash, his beagle. He smiled in every photo.


Tyler Paxton, 11, plays on the beach on a family vacation to Isle of Palms, S.C., in early July 2014. (The Paxton family)
On the Sunday before he opened the safe, Tyler went to church, standing up to share prayer requests for a family friend who was having heart surgery and for his grandmother, whose husband had taken his own life, with a gun, two years earlier.
“She’s still missing my Papa,” he explained.
Then came July 25. The Paxtons picked up dinner from Taco Bell and brought it home, and after Tyler finished his nachos, he went to his parents’ room. Sprawled on the bed in blue-jean shorts and a greenish-yellow tank top, he scrolled through YouTube on his mom’s phone until the battery ran down. He briefly came out to the living room and showed Olivia a funny video of an otter trying to dig a snack out of a tool box, then he plugged her phone into a charger.
“I’m gonna go watch cartoons,” Tyler said, before he walked back to their bedroom.
[At 15, Ruben Urbina couldn’t bear his depression anymore. So he called police with a threat.]
Not long after, he reached up to the top of the free-standing gun safe in the corner of the room, got the key, opened the door. Tyler then sat on the floor and faced a mirror, gripping the pistol in his left hand. He raised the barrel to his temple. He pulled the trigger.


To Jonathan, the source of the noise didn’t register right away. He’d heard gunshots thousands of times, but never in his home. Maybe a lightbulb had popped, he thought. Worried that Tyler had shocked himself, his dad rushed down the hall and into the master bedroom. There, he found his son, who was still breathing, and screamed for his wife to call 911.
This was the sort of violence people seldom talked about, or even considered, in communities like theirs, where guns are held dear — where they’re ubiquitous in closets, dresser drawers and unsecured safes. Education, many people argued, was all that mattered, but now a boy educated on every aspect of what to do and what not to do with a gun was being cradled in the arms of his father, the pistol by his side, his blood pooling on the floor.


Tyler, then a young boy, out on a boat. (Family photo)
‘Help my son’
Bob Maxwell knew how that night would end the moment he walked into the Paxtons’ bedroom. Then one of only three police officers in all of West Pelzer, he had heard the “shots fired” call less than a minute earlier, and now he was standing over a father telling his boy how much he loved him. The smell of gunpowder still hung in the air.
“Bob, help my son,” his friend pleaded.
“Jonathan,” Maxwell said, “there’s nothing I can do.”
Jonathan had, up to that point, persuaded Olivia to stay out of the room, fearful that what Tyler looked like then would become the final, lasting image she had of her son. Her patience gone, she approached the doorway.
“Do not let my wife come in this room,” Jonathan told Maxwell, and the officer did as he asked.


“Let me in there,” Olivia demanded, but Maxwell wrapped his arms around her and held on, keeping her out until paramedics arrived and rushed past.
Soon, she and her husband were headed to the hospital.
“God, don’t take my son,” Jonathan prayed, but what he didn’t say aloud, to God or to anyone else, was that an overwhelming sense of shame had already begun to take hold. “How’s my wife gonna ever look at me the same?” he wondered, because, to him, this was his fault.
At the hospital, more than 50 people who knew Tyler from church prayed alongside his parents as they waited for an update. Then word came.
“We weren’t able to save him,” the doctor said, and the sound of wailing spread through the room. Jonathan braced for the blame.
“I deserve it,” he thought.
Police separated the couple, interviewing each of them to ensure that their stories matched and raised no suspicions. With investigators satisfied, the coroner ruled Tyler’s death a suicide, which his parents refused to accept. He had never acted depressed or been the victim of bullying, they said, and in a family that talked openly about feelings, they could not imagine that he wouldn’t have spoken up if something was bothering him.
His parents wondered if he knew the gun was loaded or if he didn’t comprehend the finality of death or if a thought about his grandfather’s suicide had suddenly made him curious. No one could convince them that Tyler understood the consequences of pulling that trigger.
What they didn’t know was that simply owning a gun significantly increased Tyler’s chances of killing himself. In fact, a 2019 study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that the best predictor of a state’s youth suicide rate is the proportion of homes that contain a firearm. Remarkably, one of the study’s authors said, that single piece of data is a “far more accurate” indicator than the percentage of children in the state who have previously attempted suicide.


“There’s this mythical idea that you can teach kids not to want to handle a gun. … You can’t train or educate curiosity out of a little kid, and teenagers are impulsive, and they act without any thought to the future,” said Denise Dowd, a physician and researcher who has treated more than 500 pediatric gunshot victims. “You have to separate the guns from the kids: the thing that does harm from the thing that’s harmed.”


Bob Maxwell was the first police officer to reach the Paxtons’ house after the shooting. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post).
A survey of 153 teenagers and young adults who survived suicide attempts found that a quarter of them tried to kill themselves within five minutes of deciding to. That makes easy access to guns considerably more dangerous than easy access to, say, a rope or a knife or a bottle of pills, all of which are far less deadly. Because of firearms’ extreme lethality, they’re responsible for half the nation’s suicide deaths, and in the past two decades, nearly 10,000 children have used them to end their own lives.
To Olivia, the coroner’s ruling — why it happened and how it happened — didn’t matter much anyway.
“I don’t care what you write on that paper. It’s not going to change anything for me,” she said. “The only thing I know right now is that I’m never going to see my son again. I don’t care about anything else. Nothing else to me matters, except how am I supposed to live now? What do I do now?”
The why and how did matter to Jonathan, though, because he knew he could have prevented it. He’d gotten the revolver for Olivia back in 1997, at a time when he often worked late. She never liked guns, but Jonathan worried about her being alone at night without him, so he’d bought the pistol and kept it loaded, just in case. He hadn’t once considered hiding it from Tyler because he always assumed his son knew better than to handle it.
“It’s just something I never thought about,” he said.
Not long after Tyler’s death, Jonathan’s brother, his hunting partner since they were kids, approached him.
“Don’t get mad at me,” he said, “but can I take your guns out of the house?”
“I’m not gonna hurt myself,” Jonathan said, although as the words left his mouth, he wasn’t certain they were true. So he agreed. At the house, his brother went in without him, because Jonathan still couldn’t bear to step through the front door. Afterward, he acknowledged that he had one more gun, a 9-millimeter pistol, locked in his truck.


“You’re telling me that because you want me to take it,” his brother said.
“It’s there,” Jonathan responded. “Get it.”


Tyler sits on an all-terrain vehicle with his dad, Jonathan. (Family photo)
Keeping kids safe
So often lost in the debate about guns in America is that the most obvious and urgent step to protect kids from harm would do nothing to infringe on a person’s right to buy or own one. Demanding, by law, that a man with a dozen AR-15s must prevent his deadly weapons from falling into the hands of a child doesn’t mean the man can’t own those weapons, nor does it mean he can’t buy a dozen more. It simply means he must behave responsibly with the ones he has. If everyone in the United States locked up all their firearms today, researchers estimate, the number of gun-related accidental deaths and suicides among children and teenagers would drop by as much as a third.
And yet, a huge number of Americans don’t take that simple step, either because of ignorance, in most cases, or negligence, in some. Researchers who surveyed gun-owning families in the rural South found that a significant proportion of parents had no idea what their children knew about or had done with their firearms, according to a study in JAMA Pediatrics. Nearly 40 percent of parents who claimed that their kids didn’t know where they stored their guns were wrong; the kids said they knew. More than 20 percent of parents who claimed that their kids had never handled one of those guns were also wrong; the kids said they had. Notably, children who had been educated on gun safety were just as likely to say they’d played with the weapons. As of 2015, as many as 4.6 million children lived in homes with at least one loaded, unlocked firearm.
[A teen calmly shot 16 classmates, police say. Is his stepfather also to blame?]
Because Congress effectively banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from researching gun violence for two decades, it has been exceedingly difficult to determine which gun safety measures work best. A comprehensive review of available studies by the Rand Corp., however, found that no policy was backed by stronger evidence than child access prevention laws, the most robust of which allow prosecutors to criminally charge adults who negligently store firearms where children can reach them.


Twenty-one states, including South Carolina, had no child access prevention laws as of March, the Giffords Law Center noted. Of the ones that did, only 17, and the District of Columbia, had passed the most stringent versions. But even those statutes, researchers say, are often not enforced, are too limited or carry weak penalties, rendering them far less effective than they could be.
A Washington Post review of 145 school shootings committed by children in the two decades after the Columbine High massacre in 1999 found that the weapon’s source had been publicly identified in 105 cases. In total, the guns those children used were taken from their own homes or those of relatives or friends 80 percent of the time, but in just four instances did the adult owners of the weapons face any criminal punishment for not having locked them up — and none of those prosecutions stemmed from negligent-storage laws.
“We’re looking at a class of crimes where deterrence might actually work,” said Russ Hauge, a former Washington state prosecutor and Second Amendment supporter who tried, in vain, to imprison a gun owner after a third-grader found the man’s .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun and took it to school, where it went off, leaving a bullet lodged near the spine of an 8-year-old girl. “If there was a clear law that says felony punishment will ensue if you don’t handle your weapons safely, I think we could get some people’s attention.”
Proponents of safe storage gun legislation have compared it to seat belt laws. As recently as 1984, 65 percent of Americans opposed regulations that made seat belts mandatory. But legislators ignored public opinion, and thanks to new laws, education and technology, seat belt use in this country increased from 11 percent in 1981 to nearly 85 percent in 2010. That single device, and the relentless push to make people secure it across their waists, has saved more than 250,000 lives since the 1970s.


It’s difficult to imagine a prosecutor ever going after a father like Jonathan Paxton, but what if the law Hauge described existed when Jonathan bought that revolver for his wife? What if the pistol came with a pamphlet that outlined the statute and the reasons for it? What if he saw government-sponsored ads that explained why his child’s unfettered access to a loaded firearm dramatically increased the boy’s chances of being harmed? What if he had heard one warning, one piece of data, one personal story, that led him to hide the key that opened the safe that held the gun?


Olivia and Jonathan with the urn containing the ashes of their son, Tyler. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post)
‘Mama loves you’
Eight days after their son shot himself at their home, Jonathan and Olivia moved back in, because they had to. It was Tyler’s home, too, the place where their memories of him lived and always would. In every room, around every corner, Jonathan could see his son’s face, spotted with that one freckle just above the left eye that he kissed each day. Night after night, Olivia’s mind replayed the bedtime routine she shared with her son.
“Mama loves you,” she’d say.
“Baby loves you,” he’d say, and back and forth they’d go. On quiet evenings after he was gone, Olivia would recite both parts to herself.
The Paxtons left Tyler’s bedroom just the way he had. They didn’t touch the Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper border that they’d put up before their son was born and that he’d insisted they not take down. They didn’t remove the martial arts trophy draped in medals, or the school project about polar bears, or the other one about a local farmer who let Tyler pet his goats and sit on his John Deere tractor.


A school report Tyler wrote about his hero, Jesus. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post).
They didn’t remove his assignment from first grade that began with “I am” next to a blank line. “A good boy and a fisherman,” he answered. “I dream”: “about cookies.” “I say”: “I believe in God.” “I understand”: “my Mom is so lovely.” “I wonder”: “what Heaven looks like.” “I worry”: “everyone that gets hurt.”


In their own bedroom, Tyler’s parents kept turning the pages of the calendar that featured a different photo of him for each month. Olivia’s favorites were the ones that showed his beautifully imperfect smile, caused by what she called a “pull,” which had left one side of his bottom lip slightly higher than the other. At the end of each December, they’d start the calendar over.
For the first two years after Tyler’s death, they didn’t travel back to Isle of Palms for his birthday. On the third, they went to another beach, in Florida, where Jonathan woke up one night with such extreme chest pain that he feared his heart was about to stop. They rushed to the emergency room, but the tests showed nothing.
“You’re just having an anxiety attack,” the doctor told him.
The couple didn’t let Tyler’s death destroy their marriage, as Jonathan had worried it might. Instead, they leaned on each other, and on their faith, more than ever before. Jonathan became an ordained minister and began to preach at the church Tyler used to attend without them.


Olivia and Jonathan at Living Praise Fellowship Church in Greenville, S.C. Olivia cries listening to the bishop talk about their son, Tyler. (Michael A. Schwarz for The Washington Post).


Because they wanted people to remember his life, Olivia and Jonathan talked often of their son’s empathy, his humor, his devotion to God and to his family. As painful as it was, they didn’t shy away from talking about how he’d died, either.


“If it can happen to me, it can happen to anybody,” Jonathan would tell his friends. “You can never be too safe.”
Bob Maxwell, the police officer who first responded to the 911 call, didn’t need to hear that to be convinced. He’d followed the ambulance carrying Tyler to the hospital, and on the way, he phoned his ex-wife and asked her to put their two children on the phone. His daughter was a bit older than Tyler, his son a bit younger.




“I love you,” he told his kids, because he needed them to hear it. He stayed with Tyler’s body that night until the coroner arrived, and afterward, he returned to the Paxtons’ home and helped clean up. In their bedroom, he wiped blood from a pair of Tyler’s baby shoes.


Maxwell had come upon gruesome sights before, but what he saw that night unmoored him. He had nightmares. The smell of gunpowder made him feel nauseated. After the funeral, he sat in his patrol car, holding a radar gun as tears cascaded down his cheeks. Eventually, therapy helped him work through the trauma, but the experience had transformed him in at least one way.


For years, Maxwell had returned home from work and left his gun, strapped to a service belt, on his bedroom floor. He had told his kids many times never to touch it, but he suddenly realized that wasn’t good enough. So, he bought a gun safe, shared the code with no one and locked every weapon he owned inside it.


This story is adapted from “Children Under Fire: An American Crisis,” which will be published March 30 by Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.

The Port Washington Union Free School District on Long Island in New York wrote an excellent letter to their representatives in Congress. It is a model letter that should inspire other local and state school boards.

We are the officials entrusted with overseeing the education of over 5.300 students in the Port Washington Union Free School District in Nassau County, New York. We arc writing to urge that Congress act ‘immediately’ to enact legislation that will waive all testing mandates under the Every Child Succeeds Act for the 2020-2021 school year. This would include not only the grades 3-8 ELA and math assessments, but also the 4th and 8th grade science assessments, any ELA, math, and science assessments required at the middle and high school levels, as well as any English Language Learner assessments required, and alternative assessments.

The pandemic has caused our country’s children immense psychological harm and stress. Children arc best served by face-to-face interactions and connections with teachers. staff. and know students, in a school building setting. Our school buildings arc our children’s ccosystem, and for many, it’s their primary source of emotional and social sup, (not to mention food and nutrition and sometimes even clothing). Last March. all of that was taken from them. literally overnight. Sadly. to this very day. many schoolchildren nationwide. including in Ncw York Statc, have yet to rctum to in-person instruction, and even for those who have rcturned. in-person instruction is often not full time and is plagued by constant quarantines of both students and staff.

Safely reopening our schools during this pandemic and creating a fully virtual K-5 school required spending to the mine of over S3.7 million – a staggering amount for any local school district. Yet. even with this immense expenditure. only our elementary school kids arc attending school in person full time, and our secondary students arc still in a hybrid cnvironmcnt that is less than ideal. Additionally. we have the constant quarantines of classes and teachers that further stalls Teaming.

These federally-mandated tests constitute an unfunded mandate. Many districts, such as Port Washington, have already dipped into reserve funds in order to safely reopen our schools. Administering the ESSA assessments is an incredibly wasteful endeavor, and a breach of our fiduciary duty to our taxpayers. Every moment that a teacher has with our nation’s children should and must be spent on substantive learning while focusing on their social and emotional well-being. Our students arc living in crisis. The very last thing these children need is to be subjected to assessments. Congress must act now to enact legislation that will waive all testing mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act for the 2020-2021 school year.

For immediate release

March 5, 2021

Media contact:

Anna Bakalis / 213-305-9654

91% YES: UTLA members overwhelmingly unite behind a safe return

LOS ANGELES — UTLA members have voted overwhelmingly to resist a premature and unsafe physical return to school sites. Over five days of voting March 1 through 5 conducted by Integrity Voting Systems, 24,580 ballots were cast, with 91% Yes ballots (22,480) and 9% No (2,100). 

“This vote signals that in these most trying times, our members will not accept a rushed return that would endanger the safety of educators, students, and families,” UTLA President Cecily Myart-Cruz said.

The vote result means members remain committed to distance learning until the three safety criteria are met:

  • LA County is out of the purple tier
  • Staff are either fully vaccinated or provided access to full vaccination
  • Safety conditions are in place at our schools including PPE, physical distancing, improved ventilation, and daily cleaning

“Last March when educators first closed our classrooms and offices, we didn’t know that a year later we would still be physically separated from the students and communities we love,” Myart-Cruz said. “It has been a painful and difficult year for everyone. As much as educators long to be back to in-person instruction, it must be done safely for the sake of students, staff, and families. That has been our guiding principal from Day 1 of this pandemic.”

With COVID vaccines for school staff rolling out and infection rates decreasing, LA County is making progress toward the necessary conditions for a safe return, but we are not there yet. Some educators are having difficulty securing vaccination appointments, infection rates are still too high in many of the hard-hit communities we serve, and COVID variants could change the trajectory of the virus.

“With this vote, teachers are saying what I am hearing from parents in my community — it’s just not safe to physically return to schools yet,” said LAUSD parent and Reclaim Our Schools LA parent leader Alicia Baltazar. “I want to thank teachers for taking this stand and for all that you have been doing to educate my child during this pandemic.”

The overwhelming solidarity of the vote comes as legislators and Governor Newsom made last-minute changes to AB 86, the school reopening bill, redefining the COVID-19 tiers to try to push districts into returning to in-person instruction at levels that have been considered dangerous for close to a year.

LA continues to be the epicenter of the return-to-school debate, and the pressure on UTLA educators individually and collectively has been intense.

“Teaching in a pandemic is not easy. Standing up for students and our most marginalized communities is not easy. But our members continue to do both of these things, day in and day out because that’s our job,” Myart-Cruz said. 

###

I am breaking my recent promise not to post articles that were previously published, but this is one of those rare exceptions to the rule, because it would not get the national audience it deserves without reposting it here. This article by Sandra Vohs, president of the Fort Wayne Education Association, appeared originally in the Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, one of the few newspapers in Indiana and the nation that appreciates our public schools and their teachers.

Vohs writes:


These days, it’s impossible not to hear cries of “get kids back in school” and “we need to reopen schools.” These declarations certainly suggest that schools are closed.

In this era of alternative facts, there is some bizarre belief out there that, all over the nation, school leaders have decided just to skip this year, allowing teachers to take a long, paid vacation. Of course, that would mean students have a year of free time with no lessons to complete, no grades to earn and no chance of moving on to the next level next year.

I suppose that means that virtual school or remote learning will no longer be officially considered “school.” What does this mean for all the virtual schools that have been enrolling, teaching and graduating students for years?

Will all the students who have earned credits from virtual schools see their credits reversed and their diplomas voided?

Of course not.

Though arguably inferior to in-person classes, virtual school has been an educational option available to students for quite a while.

Educators from traditional, in-person, brick-and-mortar schools have long been cheerleaders for theirs as the best option for students – sensibly pointing to supporting research to back their claims.

For the vast majority of students, there is no equivalent alternative to the academic and social advantages offered by in-person classroom settings.

So, while virtual education is not the best option for most children, it is still a viable secondary option in circumstances where in-person learning is impractical or potentially unsafe.

It is worth pointing out that, until the COVID-19 pandemic, there weren’t a lot of supportive voices joining the proponents of in-person school over virtual education; tax dollars in multiple states were siphoned from traditional schools and diverted to online schools under the guise of supporting “school choice” initiatives.

Some of the very same voices shouting about the need to reopen schools that are currently virtual – as if virtual school isn’t really school – are the same voices that supported pre-pandemic virtual schools over traditional public schools in the first place.

So, to all the school districts that have had to instantly offer virtual instruction to students, compliments of the pandemic: thank you. Thank you for rushing to get resources and training to students, parents and teachers.

Thank you for finding creative ways to allow some students to return in person, from creating blended schedules of in-person and remote classes to finding unorthodox spaces for classrooms to allow for smaller class sizes and social distancing.

Thank you for implementing ever-changing public health recommendations from local, state and national health departments.

And thank you for offering virtual classes when in-person school posed too much of a risk to the adults and children of your communities.

Since public school funding isn’t consistent, even within individual states, some school districts have been able to be more proactive against the spread of the virus.

To those districts, thank you for upgrading ventilation systems (if you could afford it), adding buses and drivers (if you could afford it), bringing in trailers for additional classroom space (if you could afford it), hiring extra teachers to lower class sizes (if you could afford it), providing free masks and hand sanitizer (if you could afford it), providing free breakfasts and lunches for remote students (if you could afford it), supplying computers and internet connectivity to students (if you could afford it), and being able to provide the safest possible environment for the children you serve.

By far, the biggest thank you of all should be reserved for teachers, the boots-on-the-ground first responders to the educational consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers are working both in person and virtually, often at the same time.

They have been charged with mastering virtual technology that is only as good as the virtual framework supplied by their districts. They have had to become software experts and tech support for students and parents, all while implementing standards of best practices for remote learning in the lessons they design.

They are working nearly twice as many hours, typically for no additional pay, yet these are the teachers whom politicians and pundits often publicly disparage as “not wanting to work.”

Teachers who have returned to in-person classrooms have to implement and sustain pandemic protocols with children – cleanliness, social distancing, mask-wearing.

They have to modify their curriculum to adapt to those protocols (no group work, no shared supplies, etc.).

They risk exposure to COVID-19 every day; the safest and cleanest school buildings have no impact on what students are exposed to outside of school.

Teachers are being asked to risk their health, or the health of their loved ones, all while TV news and social media are full of ignorant vitriol claiming teachers just don’t want to work.

While some states have prioritized vaccinating teachers, others (such as Indiana) have not made vaccinating teachers a priority.

Teachers have been ensuring the continuation of school all year, both virtually and in person, yet they and their professional associations are routinely and publicly disrespected for their efforts.

The next time you hear anyone say students need to get back in school, or that schools need to reopen, please remember that schools are open and performing miraculous feats to keep public education available to all.

Sandra Vohs is president of the Fort Wayne Education Association.

Leonie Haimson, executive director of Class Size Matters, board member of the Network for Public Education, and expert on student privacy, pulls together some interesting threads in this post.

If Biden wants schools to reopen soon, she says, he should make sure that every teacher gets vaccinated so schools can safely reopen. Instead, he has broken his promise to get rid of the federal testing mandate and turned responsibility for the decision over to a junior staff member. She wonders who is making decisions at the Department of Education.

Why prioritize standardized tests over vaccinations for teachers?

The decision to restart testing was advanced recently by EdTrust. She shows how much money each of the signers has received from the Gates Foundation over the past decade. The total is at least $200 million.

Is the Biden administration dancing to the Gates’ tune?

The United Teachers of Los Angeles are not satisfied with the new CDC guidelines:

Feb. 12, 2021

For immediate release

UTLA Media Contact: Anna Bakalis / 213-305-9654 / abakalis@utla.net

UTLA Statement on new CDC guidelines for returning to in-person instruction

We applaud the CDC’s efforts for a national strategy to return to in-person instruction, but the new guidelines released on February 12 do not do enough to address the specific challenges of large urban school districts like LAUSD. And most troubling is that it does not require vaccinations for school staff, six-foot distancing in all schools, nor improved ventilation as a key mitigation measure. 

We reiterate that the path to a safe reopening must include: vaccines for all educators and school staff, multi-tiered mitigation strategies (such as COVID testing, physical distancing, use of masks, hand hygiene, and isolation/quarantine procedures) and lowered community transmission rates — LA County must be out of the purple tier. 

On the same day as the CDC released its new guidelines, LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom, calling for the immediate reopening of K-6 classrooms, even without proper funding for mitigation measures nor vaccinations for school staff. It’s clear that political pressure is rising to force a return to in-person instruction. Without important health and safety protocols in place, we know whose lives will be on the line — the low-income communities of color disproportionately impacted by illness and death from the virus.

We ask those like Barger who are pushing to reopen in the purple tier and without lowered community transmission rates: How many infections and deaths are considered ‘safe?’

While LA educators want nothing more than to be back in classrooms, the risk of community transmission of COVID-19 in Los Angeles County is still too high. 

UTLA remains committed to the health and safety of our students and our communities.

###

UTLA, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union local, is proud to represent more than 35,000 teachers and health & human services professionals in district and charter schools in LAUSD

This article in the New York Times magazine describes a protest at the Capitol in Virginia on January 20, 2020. It is supposed to be an annual event where people peaceably assemble to exercise their Constitutional rights and express support for their causes.

But last year was different. And it raises this question: Can Americans peaceably assemble when many of them are armed with military-grade weapons that threaten those who dissent?

There are 400 million privately owned guns in America, by some estimates, and on Jan. 20, 2020, some 22,000 of their owners arrived at the State Capitol of Virginia, a neoclassical building designed by Thomas Jefferson that sits on a rolling lawn in the hilly center of downtown Richmond. The occasion was Lobby Day, a recent tradition in Virginia, held annually on Martin Luther King’s Birthday, on which citizen groups come to the Capitol to directly air their concerns to their representatives in the State Legislature. The concerns of the gun owners, who were assembled by an organization called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, were in one sense specific: They were protesting a raft of firearms-related bills the Legislature’s new Democratic majority was taking up that would tighten the state’s generally permissive gun laws. Seventy-eight counties in the state, making up the near-entirety of its rural areas, had declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” according to the V.C.D.L.

Gun owners see any restriction on guns, no matter how reasonable, as a threat to their “rights.” They are certainly unaware that the Federal Government banned the manufacture of assault weapons for civilian use in 1994.

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act or Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a United States federal law which included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms that were defined as assault weapons as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as “large capacity.”

The 10-year ban was passed by the US Congress on September 13, 1994, following a close 52–48 vote in the US Senate, and was signed into law by US President Bill Clinton on the same day. The ban applied only to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban’s enactment. It expired on September 13, 2004, in accordance with its sunset provision. Several constitutional challenges were filed against provisions of the ban, but all were rejected by the courts. There were multiple attempts to renew the ban, but none succeeded.

So there is nothing in the Constitution or in the Second Amendment that prohibits limits on the sale or manufacture of military-grade weapons to civilians.

Will Congress act again? Not likely with a Congress so evenly divided along ideological lines. Not likely with the Republican Party in thrall to the gun lobby, which opposes all restrictions. The Sandy Hook massacre of twenty babies and six staff members at an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012 did not move Congress to limit gun purchases, nor did the Parkland massacre of seventeen people in 2018. Nor did the Orlando massacre of 49 people in 2016. Nor did the Las Vegas massacre of 2017, when a lone killer murdered 60 people and injured others who were attending an outdoor concert.

What will it take?

Politico reports that Republicans have come up with a “compromise” COVID relief bill that slashes funding for schools. President Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion relief bill, that includes $170 billion for schools. Republicans have offered a COVID relief bill of $600 billion with a dramatic cut for schools, reducing the school aid to $20 billion. In the previous COVID relief (the CARES Act), charter schools, private schools, and religious schools received far more funding per-pupil than public schools. Republicans want public schools to reopen without the resources to reopen safely.

SENATE GOP PLAN WOULD SLASH BIDEN’S REQUEST FOR SCHOOL FUNDING: A group of 10 Republican senators is set to unveil the details today of a $600 billion counterproposal to Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief plan, and Biden plans to hear them out. White House press secretary Jen Psaki announced on Sunday evening that Biden had invited the group to the White House early this week. Her statement also touted the “substantial investment in fighting COIVD and reopening schools” in the administration’s original proposal. 

— The GOP lawmakers, led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), requested the meeting to make the case for a bipartisan deal — even as Democratic congressional leaders prepare to move ahead this week on a budget resolution that would unlock a path to passing Biden’s plan along party lines through budget reconciliation. 

— Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), a member of the group, said on “Fox News Sunday” that the proposal would provide $20 billion “to get kids back to school,” which is a major decrease from the $170 billion for education in Biden’s relief plan.

— “We’ve already given schools 110 percent of what they usually receive from the federal government,” Cassidy said. “Parochial schools are open with a fraction of that money. Charter schools are open. The real problem is public schools. That issue is not money. That issue is teachers unions telling their teachers not to go to work. And putting $170 billion towards teachers unions’ priorities takes care of a Democratic constituency group, but it wastes our federal taxpayer dollars for something which is not the problem.”

Mitchell Robinson is a professor of music education at Michigan State University who writes frequently about K-12 issues.

In this post, he explains what is necessary for schools to reopen.

The solution isn’t rushing to open schools before they are safe–the solution is for Congress to pass a stimulus package large enough and bold enough to pay people to *not* go to work, and that provides bonus/hazard pay for those who *do* need to work–health care workers, public safety personnel (fire and police), grocery store workers, etc.

And that stimulus package also must provide the federal and state resources to actually *do* something about making schools safe, which to my knowledge has happened in very few places. It’s not enough for school districts to “encourage” their employees to get vaccinated–school systems should be proactively securing enough vaccine doses for all employees to get two shots, and immediately set up the infrastructure for that to happen.

Now, what are the chances of that occurring? Slim and zero.

Because you can not systematically defund public schools for decades, eliminate teaching positions, school nurses, counselors, psychologists, and other support staff from school budgets, and fail to maintain school facilities, while simultaneously increasing class sizes, cutting health care and retirement benefits for school employees, lowering standards for who becomes a teacher, increasing the number of charter schools that compete for tax dollars, and implement voucher programs and “tax credit” schemes that function exactly like vouchers, and then expect public schools to function like well-funded, adequately resourced public institutions.

Shaming teachers and blaming unions won’t work.

Schools must be safe.

Then they can reopen.

So far, no one has been willing to pay the price.

If they are serious, they will.

John Ewing, president of Math for America, skewers the concept of “learning loss” in this article in Forbes.

I have been a fan of Dr. Ewing ever since I read his article “Mathematical Intimidation: Driven by the Data,” in which he eviscerated the idiotic idea of rating students by the test scores of their students. If you have not read it, you should.

In his latest essay, he shows how various interest groups, politicians, and pundits have used the idea of “learning loss” to promote reopening of schools, regardless of local conditions. The same concept is now used to promote the useless requirement of standardized testing in the midst of the pandemic.

You might say that he is the anti-Emily Oster; Oster is the Brown University economist who has written extensively about why schools should reopen and how young children are unlikely to catch or carry the coronavirus.

Ewing disagrees.

He writes:

With a mix of exasperation and despair, many writers (and quite a few politicians) have demanded that schools open for in person instruction during the pandemic. They are exasperated because they believe schools were closed unnecessarily, since children don’t get sick and schools don’t contribute to Covid’s spread. They despair because remote learning has led to disastrous “learning loss” for an entire generation of students. 

But they are wrong about the science— schools do contribute to community spread—and they are wrong about the disaster as well. While remote learning surely affects students, we don’t know yet exactly how or how much. Learning loss isn’t a meaningful answer.

Early in the pandemic, people observed that children didn’t get sick as readily as adults. Children were tested much less often than adults. Asymptomatic spread was unknown or uncertain. Studies focused on sickness in schools rather than transmission, and they suggested that keeping schools open had few costs. 

But this is wrong. A recent article in the German magazine Spiegel International details an Austrian study that shows schoolchildren are infected at the same rates as adults and quite efficiently spread Covid-19 to others. There are now many other studies that draw similar conclusions. A review of studies from a group of scientists and doctors in Sweden (disclosure: my brother is among them) links to 25 studies from around the world and provides summaries of each. The science is clear: Children become infected and spread covid-19 to their parents, grandparents, siblings, and next-door neighbors. Those infected get sick. Some have long-term complications. Some die. Opening schools costs lives. If you believe in science, you have to accept even uncomfortable truths.

Should we open them anyway? What about that disastrous learning loss? As the pandemic plays out, learning loss has become the focus of education policy. Research firms (McKinsey is the best known) publish reports that cite, with great precision, the number of months of learning loss; politicians and pundits hysterically lament a coming lost generation; parents and the public angrily demand a return to in person learning. Learning loss drives all this; it’s become the central educational feature of the pandemic.

But what’s it mean—”five months of learning loss”? What exactly is lost? Do students forget facts?  Skills? Are memories erased? Can they find what’s lost? And what does “five months” mean? Yes, I know, it’s calculated from a mathematical formula, but formulas are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into them. Mathematics is not magic. What are the assumptions? What’s the data? Where does it come from? When people discuss learning loss, they generally don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And if the notion is so vague, how can it be so easily and precisely measured? 

Of course, the term “learning loss” comes from the language of test enthusiasts. For them, learning is a substance that’s poured into students over time. One measures the accumulated substance by the number of correct answers on a test (standardized, usually multiple-choice). By administering two comparable tests at different moments in time, one measures success or failure for learning. An increase in correct responses is gain; a decrease is loss.

Learning loss is usually illustrated by the summer break. We are told that students experience about three months of loss each summer. Again, what’s this mean? If a student does more poorly on a test in September than in May, is learning really lost? Seems doubtful, or at least incomplete. Mathematicians know that stepping away from a topic for a while requires time to recollect the bits and pieces when you return. Those bits and pieces aren’t lost—they only require reassembling, and often the reassembling leads to greater understanding. Similar things occur in every subject, and in other areas of life as well, like riding a bike or playing the piano.

Learning is complicated. Plutarch famously wrote that minds are not vessels to be filled but fires to be kindled. Fires don’t leak. You don’t measure them in months. Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept—a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept.

Of course, those who talk about learning loss might mean the absence of (new) learning. Fair enough. In the spring, remote teaching and learning were novel to both teachers and students. They struggled because remote instruction was an unfamiliar skill. Mastering skills takes practice and requires dedication. In the spring, everyone planned in two-week intervals, hoping the pandemic would soon be over, and dedication was in short supply. But remote instruction improved this fall, and while it’s very far from ideal, remote teaching and remote learning are much, much better … and getting better still. Kids are resilient. We don’t yet know how resilient they will be in the pandemic.

There remains an enormous problem of equity. Students who live in poverty are at a severe disadvantage in remote instruction. No internet, no computer, sometimes little parental support. But while the pandemic exacerbates this problem, it’s not the cause. We need to solve the equity problem permanently, not just in the pandemic. We had an opportunity to do so in the spring by providing free internet access and computing devices to every student in need. It would have been roundoff error in the stimulus package. It would have entailed massive logistical issues, but that’s what responsive governments do in times of crisis. Our politicians chose not to do so.

Should schools open for in person learning? Maybe. But not because of some ridiculous idea of learning loss. If schools choose to return to in person instruction, it’s because, like bars and restaurants, they serve a vital social and economic function. For younger children especially, the socialization afforded by schools is crucial for a child’s development. For parents, the childcare provided by schools allows them to work (or just to take a soul-saving break). The societal cost of eliminating these functions has been substantial. 

We have to balance that cost against the sickness and death that will be caused by the opening of schools. Balancing livelihoods against lives can be agonizingly complicated. It requires clear, precise thinking. Above all, it requires putting the right things on each side of the scale … and learning loss isn’t one of them.