Sunday, September 6, 2020

Back to School 2020

Most New Jersey public schools are scheduled to open this week, and like much of the rest of the country, districts are generally hoping that cases don't spike and that students follow the health guidelines that the adults have set for them.

In reality, this is all one big science experiment.

To our credit, and to Governor Phil Murphy's, New Jersey is in fairly good shape as far as the virus is concerned. Our transmission rate is low, cases numbers are dropping, and although we are tragically seeing deaths from Covid-19, we are in an environment that is far different from the carnage of March and April. Much of this occurred because we distanced ourselves, wore masks, and generally stayed home. Now that's going to change.

There has been copious and wide-ranging news coverage of the debate between those who called for opening schools for student and faculty attendance, and those who wanted them closed and for education to be delivered remotely. Each district has made their own call. Now we'll see what happens.

It's inevitable that we will see more cases in districts where students attend schools, either as a cohort on certain days or five days per week. The major issue will be the number of cases a district will tolerate before they go to all remote teaching. I'm thinking that we'll get through September, but with a 14 day lag time between virus and symptoms, the end of the month and the beginning of October will guide us.

For teachers, this has been nothing less than a summer filled with anxiety and stress. News reports citing research that showed that students need to be in school for their own learning, and for parents to be able to go back to work, minimized arguments that it is the teachers, the adults, who will be more negatively impacted by the virus. We were told to be like the medical workers who put their lives on the line for their patients. We were told, finally, that we are essential, but far many wrong reasons. Add in a national administration tilted heavily against public schools and a president who wants normalcy but does nothing to support it, and even threatens to withhold funds in the face of rising cases in many states if schools don't fully open, and you are guaranteed to have a school opening that is both chaotic and dangerous. And education becomes null and void when conditions are chaotic and dangerous.

What to do? In a word, teach. Do your best. Engage students in the curriculum. Keep in touch with parents. Be available for extra help. But more important, be safe, and if you believe you are not safe, say something. New Jersey, among too few states, has a robust association in the NJEA and its local affiliates. If you are not safe, then you need to say something to your local leadership, and they need to either address the issue or escalate it to the county or state level. 

If you believe that the district is not following the health protocols or if students are not wearing masks or distancing or coming to school sick, then you must say something. If you have been denied an accommodation because of your health or the potential for you infecting a vulnerable member of your family, then say something. Get a doctor's note. Push the district on health grounds. There is no other way.

I understand that teachers without tenure are fearful that they will lose their jobs if they push too hard. Speak with your leadership and find the most effective strategy to overcome that. Unfortunately, some districts are more punitive than others.

This pandemic has shone a bright light on the failings of the nation's education system. We need more money to implement new teaching and learning techniques. Every child should have a computer and a functioning Internet connection. Every school building should have adequate ventilation and physical supports. If teachers are being asked to put our lives on the line like medical professionals, then we must have the same up-to-date equipment that they do. New technology. Modern facilities. Desks that are comfortable. Air conditioning (!). Books. Training. Respect from the political system. 

And that leads us to the more disgraceful of the reasons to reopen schools. Schools should not be the last refuge for children needing food, shelter, protection from physical harm, health care, and emotional support. Those should come from a society that values children and families rather than one that blames them or discriminates against them or demonizes them based on their ethnicity, gender, race, beliefs, economic status or any other metric.

Perhaps this pandemic will be the catalyst for change. I hope so. That change, though, is going to have to come from teachers. We will need to speak out, and to agitate, agitate, agitate. No, this will not be an easy year or even a year that is kind to personal fulfillment. It will be a year of difficult choices,  imperfect solutions, improvisation, and mistakes made twice. It will also be another year where the country's teachers again lead the way, educating our students, advocating for children, and fighting for social justice.

After all, that's what we really signed up for.

Have the best year you can.

For more, go to or Twitter @rigrundfest

Friday, August 28, 2020

The Trump Riots

Let's face facts: Americans are protesting because, in part, the Trump administration and the president himself refuse to acknowledge the racial problems that are wracking the country. Even worse, the president continues to make baldly racial appeals to suburban voters by opposing and demonizing affordable housing plans. This is in addition to his dismissive attitude towards Blacks, and the Black Lives Matter movement, who have been killed or wounded by police officers and calls for racial justice from all corners of American society.

The resulting responses are what we have now: The Trump Riots. He owns them. He owns the response. He owns the neglect. He owns the feeble response. He owns the divisiveness.

Of course, the president is not one to see the reality of what's going on, so he's trying to say that terrible things will happen if Joe Biden is elected president. The problem is that terrible things are happening because Donald Trump is president and because of Donald Trump's racist domestic policies. Worse, the disorder and divisiveness will continue as long as Donald Trump is in the White House. The president is uninterested in actually solving the racial problems, which means that things might get worse before they get better.

The best action this country can make is to elect Joe Biden as president, because he will actually do something to address the concerns of those who are protesting, making it less likely that we will have more violence. Make sure you register and vote.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

The Real Voter Fraud

We have come to the point in the conservative movement that began in 1980, where all of the mainstream ideas have been exhausted. Only the fringe ideas are left. That's why we're seeing slavish adulation of tax cuts that mainly benefit the wealthy and the administration slashing government regulations simply because they are government regulations. This is why it's now easier for companies to pollute, require anyone with a dispute to endure arbitration, which is administered by the companies themselves, instead of being able to go to court, and for huge corporations to essentially pay zero income tax.

And now come the conspiracy theories, the biggest one being the amount of voter fraud that takes place during elections. The real fact is that there is no voter fraud problem, only a problem of those who are afraid of losing power to non-whites or who see that a majority of Americans do not support the Republican agenda, so they need to protect their tiny Electoral College advantage in presidential elections.

Add in a president who only understands issues that relate directly to him and who is still freakishly focused on the idea that he did not win the popular vote because of illegal voting, and whose policies, or lack thereof, are responsible for the country's chaotic and deadly approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, and what you get is a big smelly mess.

It would be really nice if the president would work toward a solution to the challenges of voting by mail. Making sure that all voters have access to their ballot, perhaps asking states to allow voting to begin two weeks prior to election day, funding the post office and stations where people can drop off their ballots rather than mailing them would be a wonderful start. But the president is actively working against those improvements even as he and his family continue to vote by mail. The upside down world must be a beautiful place, because so many people are willing to live there.

In the end, it's up to people to require changes in their local communities and states, because that's who has jurisdiction over elections. Organize with other voters and make sure that your town or county has a plan that will enable people to vote in a manner that safeguards their health and safety. The federal government can't tell states how to run elections or that they can't send out mail-in ballots to all voters.

But above all, make sure that you are registered to vote and that you do so. That's the only way we can safeguard our democracy.