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The empire has no clothes: A pandemic exposes the wreckage of the US education system - AlterNet

The empire has no clothes: A pandemic exposes the wreckage of the US education system - AlterNet

The empire has no clothes: A pandemic exposes the wreckage of the US education system - AlterNet

Posted: 11 May 2020 12:00 AM PDT

Do you hear that silence?

That's the absence of footsteps echoing through our nation's public school hallways. It's the silence of teaching in a virtual space populated with students on mute who lack a physical presence. It's the crushing silence of those who are now missing, who can't attend the classroom that Zoom and Google built.

Maybe you heard the shouted pleas of teachers across the country last year as we walked out of our classrooms and into the streets, begging for affordable housinghealth care, and access to equitable funding and resources for our students? Or maybe you heard the impassioned screams of frightened kids as they stormed into the streets and onto the news, demanding safety and an end to the threat of gun violence in our nation's school buildings? Now, there's nothing left to hear.

Today, all we're left with is a deafening silence that muffles the sound of so much suffering. The unfolding public health, mental health, and economic crisis of Covid-19 has laid bare the fragility of what was. The institutions charged with caring for and guiding our most valuable assets — our children — were already gutted by half a century of chronic underfunding, misguided curricular policies that prioritized testing over real learning, and social policies that favored austerity over taking care of the most vulnerable members of our society. Now that so many teachers are sequestered and alone or locked away with family, our bonds of proximity broken, we're forced to stare into that void, scrambling to find and care for our students across an abyss of silence. The system is broken. The empire has no clothes.

Not so many weeks ago, I used to be a teacher in a sprawling public high school outside Portland, Oregon. Before the virus arrived, I taught painting, drawing, ceramics, and filmmaking in three different studio classrooms. There, groups of students ranging across the economic, ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic spectrum sat shoulder to shoulder, chatting and creating, day after day, year after year. Music played and we talked.

On some days, the classes were cacophonous and chaotic; on others, calm and productive. In those spaces, we did our best to connect, to forge thriving communities. What I now realize, though, is that the physical space we shared was the only thing truly tying us all together. Those classrooms were the duct tape securing the smashed bumper on the wreck of a car that was our public education system.

Now, it couldn't be more obvious: no one's going to solve the problems of our present and near future with the usual solutions. When desperation leaves us without imagination, clinging to old answers, scrambling to prop up systems that perpetuated and solidified inequity, it means missing the real opportunity of this otherwise grim moment. The "great pause" that is the Covid-19 shutdown has allowed us all to stare into the void, to see far more clearly just how schools have long shouldered the burdens of a society that functions largely for the privileged, leaving the rest of our nation's children and families to gather the crumbs of whatever remains.

The Privilege of Homeschooling

In the first weeks after schools closed across the country, as parents struggled to "homeschool" their children, memes, rants, tweets, and strongly worded emails to school administrators popped up across the Internet. They expressed the frustrations of the moment. Those shared tales of the laughably insane trials and tribulations of parents trying to provide a reasonable facsimile of an education to kids sequestered at home, while still trying to work full time under the specter of a pandemic, amazed and depressed me.

Television producer and writer Shonda Rimes tweeted, "Been homeschooling a 6-year old and 8-year old for one hour and 11 minutes. Teachers deserve to make a billion dollars a year. Or a week." Rimes's tweet seemed to encapsulate the absurd reality of life at home with kids in the time of the coronavirus. As I read her tweet, I laughed out loud and in utter solidarity with her. A teacher no less, I, too, was trying and failing spectacularly to oversee the "education" of an increasingly frustrated and resistant third grader from home.

For those of us siloed in our privilege — healthy, with plenty of food stocked away in cupboards, quiet rooms with doors that shut, ample Internet access, and enough Wi-Fi-enabled devices to share among the members of our households — our quarantined home life is challenging, but not impossible. Our daily frustration continues to be a function of that privilege. For those without it, those who were already living in poverty or at its brink when the pandemic struck, homeschooling poses yet another crushing hurdle in life. How can you provide an education for your children when simply securing food, work, and shelter is your all-consuming reality?

Meanwhile, as exhausted parents screamed at school districts, teachers, and administrators on the Internet about providing virtual learning resources and online curricula to engage students during the school day, public school officials (at least in my world) were scrambling to deal with a far more immediate threat: kids going hungry. What this pandemic promptly revealed was that the most fundamental and urgent service schools provide to many children is simply feeding them.

The gravest and most immediate threat to our most vulnerable students was, and continues to be, hunger. If schools are closed, so is the critical infrastructure that helps keep our nation's children fed. Aside from SNAP (the food stamp program), the National School Lunch Program is the largest anti-hunger initiative in the country. It feeds 29.7 million children on school days, with an additional 14.7 million children fed thanks to the School Breakfast Program and more than 6.1 million via the Child and Adult Care Food Program. And those numbers don't even include the informal system of food distribution that teachers often provide students in their classrooms. On average, teachers spend upwards of 300 of their own dollars yearly providing food to students.

So, no wonder that, as soon as Covid-19 closed the doors of our schools, administrators, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and volunteers across the country mobilized on a large — and downright heroic — scale to attempt to keep those students fed. In the Beaverton school district where I teach, a "Grab and Go" curbside meal distribution program was quickly set up, making daily meals accessible to every student in the district. As economic conditions head for Great Depression-level misery, think of these as 2020 versions of the infamous breadlines of that era, only in this case they're for children (and sometimes their families).

The responsibility for feeding students was not the only immediate concern. The adults in our school typically also serve as first responders for those students. We monitor their moods and listen to their stories. We notice when kids are struggling emotionally and, as mandatory reporters, step in when we suspect a child is living in a perilous or unsafe situation.

In the first weeks after we left our classrooms, calls to Oregon's child abuse hotline dropped by more than half. Other states across the nation reported similar declines. The drop in calls has frightening implications. Coupled with increasing economic insecurity and social isolation, rising rates of child abuse are undoubtedly imminent. When teachers, counselors, and school social workers are no longer able to observe and communicate openly with students, signs of neglect or abuse are much more likely to go undetected and unreported.

The closure of our buildings also poses a huge barrier to the normal support of students struggling with mental-health issues. Our children are already suffering from alarming rates of depression and anxiety. Isolating them from their friends, peers, mentors, caregivers, and teachers will only compound their mental-health challenges.

Trying to Bridge the Digital Divide

Add the surreal nature of an invisible foe to a lack of clear directives from both the federal and state government and you have a formula for problems. When we were finally instructed to leave our school, it was without advanced warning. In my classrooms, half-finished clay projects littered the countertops, while palettes loaded with acrylic paint and incomplete canvases were left to desiccate and gather dust on the shelves.

Students departed without cleaning out their lockers or often even gathering their schoolwork and books, not to speak of the supplies they'll need to complete that work at home. And even though our students do have access to technology — three years ago, our district adopted a policy of providing a Chromebook to each student — it soon became apparent that there were huge obstacles to overcome in transforming our brick-and-mortar classrooms into virtual spaces. Many students had, for instance, broken or lost their Chromebooks. Some had missing chargers. And even many of those who had their Chromebooks with them at home had limited or no access to Wi-Fi connectivity.

Trying to reach all my students across that digital divide became the central focus of my waking hours. I made calls; I texted; I emailed; I posted announcements in my digital classroom stating that we'd be reconvening online. Still, none of these efforts mattered for the students stuck at home without Wi-Fi or lacking the necessary devices.

Before our nation's schools closed, the Federal Communications Commission estimated that around 21 million people in America did not have broadband Internet access. According to data collected by Microsoft, however, the number who can't access the Internet at broadband speeds is actually closer to 163 million. While districts across the country scrambled to provide mobile hotspots and working devices to students, teachers like me began the demoralizing and herculean task of scrapping years of thoughtfully crafted curriculums in order to provide an entirely new online learning experience. We stepped into our virtual classrooms with the knowledge that, no matter how many shiny new digital resources we have at our disposal, there's nothing we can do to provide equitable access to education remotely.

And even if we were to solve such problems, we couldn't offer the space or the support students need to learn. Kids living in cramped situations will struggle just to find a quiet place to attend our online classes. Those whose working parents suddenly need childcare for younger siblings have sometimes found themselves taking on the roll of primary caregivers.

Some students whose families were in ever more perilous economic situations increased their work hours and scrapped the idea of attending school altogether. And many of our English-as-a-second-language, or ESL, students, as well as the 14% of students nationally who require additional "learning supports," are now in trouble. They've been left to navigate a complex web of digital platforms and new learning approaches without the individualized attention or frequent checks for understanding that they rely on from their teachers.

What virtual learning can never stand in for is the moment when a student leans over and asks me or a peer for help. That simple act of vulnerability that builds a bridge to another human being may be the most important moment in any classroom and now it's gone. In Covid-19 America, when school kids need help most, they can't simply lean over and ask for it.

The Time to Pivot

Today, I teach from my kitchen, my dining room, or the floor of my bedroom. I stare across the digital abyss into the pixelated faces of just a handful of students. It's impossible to read their emotions or body language. Even when I unmute them, most choose not to speak.

Each day, fewer of them show up to class. Sometimes, students turn off their videos, and I speak only to a sea of black rectangles, the white text of the student's name the sole indicator of his or her presence in my new classroom. Not surprisingly, our sessions together are stilted and awkward. I try to make jokes and connect, but it's impossible to replicate online the intimacy of a face-to-face interaction. The magic of what was, of 25 to 40 students working cohesively in community, is lost.

And in the darkest hours of the early morning, when I wake with a start, crushing anxiety pushing on my chest, I think about all the third graders unable to participate in my daughter's distance-learning classroom. I wonder about the students I've still been unable to reach — the ones who haven't responded to my emails or completed any assignments, and whose faces I never see online. Where are they? How are they? I have no way of knowing.

Our world no longer looks the same. This pause, which has caused, and will continue to cause, so much suffering may also be a gift, offering a shift in perspective and a chance to pivot. Perhaps it's a rare opportunity to acknowledge that our nation's public schools should not be left so alone to provide food, mental health care, and digital connectivity for our nation's children. That should be, in a fashion almost unimaginable in America today, the role of the larger society.

Now is not the time to be silent but to raise our voices, using any privilege we may have, be it in time, money, or simply access, to demand major changes both in how all of us think about our American world and in the systems that perpetuate such inhumane and unconscionable disparities for so many.

There is no way to continue putting yet more duct tape on that smashed bumper of a public education system that was already such a wreck before the coronavirus arrived on these shores. Nor is this the time to retreat into our silos, hoarding privilege along with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, too cowardly to demand more for all the children in this country. It's time instead to reach out across the six feet of social-distancing space that now divides us all and demand more for those who aren't able to demand it for themselves.

Belle Chesler, a TomDispatch regular, is a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, and is now teaching from her home in Portland, Oregon.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Belle Chesler

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Speech Improvement Chapter Newsletter - March 2017 - United Federation of Teachers

Posted: 24 Mar 2017 12:00 AM PDT

It's hard to believe it's spring. That means the celebrations for Better Speech and Hearing Month are around the corner and the school year is more than half over.

Much of this year has been devoted to our Medicaid agreement, so I have a lot to report since the February newsletter. Every aspect of the agreement and our other rights come from our chapter's hard work and perseverance. Without the union's advocacy, you would not see changes and improvements in your working conditions. Each month, we meet with the full Labor Management Committee on the Medicaid agreement, and we meet weekly with a smaller committee to resolve issues. Most member issues, i.e., name changes and an inability to enter information into the New York City Automated Personnel System, have been resolved with the DOE Office of Medicaid Operations and the Office of Related Services.

You've had many questions about Medicaid referrals and coding. Please review our PowerPoint presentation, Medicaid in Education on the UFT website to read answers to common questions. We are also working with the DOE to provide citywide staff development on writing session notes, codes and referrals.

Last, politics is often considered a dirty word. Members don't want to get involved but now more than ever, I urge you to keep current by reading the NY Teacher, signing up for UFT texts and learning about what is happening throughout the country in education, health care, pension "reform" and immigration.

Changes to health care and immigration systems affect many of us, our students, our families and/or those we love. U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy Devos' agenda could irrevocably harm public education as we know it. On the state level, a constitutional convention could destroy our pensions and benefits.

With the help and support of your executive board, we address your issues at our monthly meetings. All of our meetings this year have been well attended. We do need more volunteer liaisons from districts in Queens and District 75 in Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx. If you can attend meetings and make announcements on behalf of the chapter, contact me at the chapter's hotline, 1-212-598-7774. Be sure to check our website for all of our newsletters and news-briefs and other relevant chapter information as well.

Our next chapter meeting is on April 5 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the Queens UFT borough office, 97-77 Queens Blvd., Rego Park, New York, 11374. We'll be discussing the new policy on make-ups and location of services plus reviewing the implementation of the Medicaid agreement. I invite all of you to attend, as always.


Mindy Karten Bornemann
Speech Improvement Chapter Leader

Good news on CTLE and CEU requirements

When the new state requirements were adopted last year, continuing education unit credits (CEUs) from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) were not accepted by the state for Continuing Teacher and Leader Education hours as ASHA was not an approved provider. That meant that teachers of students with speech and language disabilities who held speech-language pathology licenses were required to do the state's Continuing Teacher and Leader Education hours in addition to the ASHA continuing education units. That now has changed.

Chapter Leader Mindy Karten Bornemann urged the union to become involved. UFT Vice President Evelyn DeJesus and Nanette Sanchez-Rosario, UFT special representative for certification, worked with the State Education Department and the Board of Regents to ensure that TSSLDs who are ASHA members have options for relevant and discipline-specific continuing education course content.

As a result of their advocacy and that of ASHA, courses and programs delivered by ASHA-approved continuing education providers will now be accepted as meeting the CTLE requirements.

Allowing ASHA CEUs to meet CTLE requirements lifts a substantial burden from members who hold both a professional teaching certificate and a professional license. We are pleased that the Regents have been fair; we also thank Evelyn and Nannette for their efforts on our chapter's behalf. We'd also like to thank the New York State Speech-Hearing-Language Association's efforts for speaking with the Board of Regents and successfully advocating for this change.

For more information about CTLE requirements for teachers holding professional certificates, visit the UFT website.

Per Session Hours for Speech Teachers

As part of the Labor Management Agreement and at our urging, the DOE sent an email on Feb. 17 advising that you could use the 20 per session hours allocated to all speech teachers during the break to catch up on encounter attendance. Many of you are also using the time before and after school to work on IEPS and continue working on encounter attendance. (You cannot work on IEPs at home and get paid.)

Under the agreement, speech teachers who have a caseload of more than 30 students are entitled up to 40 hours of per session. For this year, the DOE will determine which speech teachers have the required number of students by looking at encounter attendance. If the speech teacher entered at least one certified encounter with a student (that involved providing service) between Jan. 17 and March 9, that student will count toward the speech teacher's caseload.

So, speech teachers who enter at least one certified encounter for more than 30 different students between Jan. 17 and March 9 are entitled to 40 hours of per session, rather than 20.

To be clear, the certified encounter must have occurred between Jan. 17 and March 9. Encounter attendance data should be entered as close as possible to the service date, but for this purpose, the data must be entered by March 26.

Do your best to make entries for each of your students as soon as possible to ensure the DOE knows you are serving all the students in your caseload. Be mindful that the DOE is checking regularly to see progress on your attendance, so use your time wisely.

Differentials for Teachers with Speech-Language Pathology Licenses

The DOE reported more than 2,000 speech teachers with an SLP have been processed or staffed for the differential per the Medicaid agreement.

Approximately 1,200 SLPs have received their differentials and about 800 are either being processed or just were processed. DOE officials admitted that some members who enrolled in the city's Automated Personnel System (NYCAPS) in December of January have not yet been paid due to unforeseen technical issues. The DOE is now manually processing these enrollments and has assured us that DOE staff is making every effort to get these members paid.

As per the agreement, members who are licensed speech-language pathologists become eligible for the differential once they have obtained and provided their NPI and Medicaid Billing or Non-Billing Identification Number to the DOE and affiliated this information to their record in NYCAP. The differential is programmed into their payroll beginning the month following the completion of the affiliation.

If SLPs can make a student referral in the system, the DOE can then bill through Medicaid. All the information you enter into NYCAPS is time stamped and can prove that you have successfully entered your information into it.

If you do not possess a current license or you have an issue with any of the three items, processing your differential may be delayed.

Begin the registration process immediately if you have not already done so. The DOE reported that approximately 500 speech teachers and speech evaluators with SLP licenses have not completed the registration process. Under the agreement, all speech teachers and evaluators with an SLP license must provide proof of their NYS SLP credential, their NPI number, and Medicaid Billing or Non-Billing Medicaid identification number and affiliate this information in NYCAPs.

The DOE will soon be reaching out to members who have not taken the required actions.

Please note: Some members have asked whether the DOE can backdate claims for Medicaid reimbursements. The DOE is not allowed to do that. Even if your Medicaid billing or non-billing identification number bears an earlier date, the DOE may only submit claims for services rendered after a referral has completed and entered into the child's record.

If you have not received your salary differential or to find out the status of your differential, please contact the salary representatives at the UFT borough offices.

IEP-mandated services: Protections for speech therapy

The DOE may not assign speech teachers to duties that would prevent him or her from providing IEP-mandated services including coverages, scoring exams or proctoring, except in extraordinary circumstances. While the DOE had previously issued guidance to this effect, this directive was one of many working conditions issues memorialized in our speech Medicaid agreement.

Please contact us if you are given any assignment preventing you from serving your students. Remind your administration of the terms in our agreement, document the issue and then notify your speech supervisor and call the chapter's speech hotline, 1-212-598-7774, as soon as possible. You may not refuse to do the coverage or the assignment.

Appropriate uses of your new Chromebooks

By now, most of our members have received new Chromebooks and cases. We are pleased because now you have the technology to enter your encounter attendance. The DOE tells us connectivity should be better since it has improved bandwidth. We will monitor the situation, of course. If you are having any issues with Chromebook connectivity, please contact medicaidops@schools.nyc.gov.

You should use your Chromebooks for their intended purpose: IEPS and encounter attendance. All work done on DOE computers can be monitored, so it is not a good idea to allow students to use them. If you have any questions, feel free to contact the hotline.

Shortage-area payments are on their way

Many members have experienced issues with shortage-area payments this year. Since the last newsletter in mid-February, UFT officers and staff have brought this issue to the chancellor's level. As a result, almost 1,100 members received payment and the DOE was working on about 300 additional payments.

The DOE, at our urging, is working on clearing up these payment issues. To clarify the grievance process, some chapter members have filed payroll grievances. Payroll is school-based although funds for shortage areas are not. Therefore, your principal will be summoned to this grievance. If the matter is resolved, you, as the grievant, can withdraw it.

If you want to find out the status of your shortage-area payment, please contact the salary representatives at the UFT borough offices.

Make-up sessions and location of services

Many of you have raised questions about your responsibility to make up missed sessions and how to document location of services on your students' IEPs.

Unlike the policy on location of services which is well-settled but sometimes poorly implemented, the make-up issue came to the forefront last year as a result of special education quality assurance reviews conducted by the New York State Education Department.

At our request, the DOE Office of Related Services provided guidance to supervisors on these two issues. As reflected in this guidance, you cannot be required to give up your contractual rights, e.g., your duty-free lunch or preparation period to provide make-up services, and the provision of the make-up must be instructionally appropriate for the student and consistent with the student's IEP.

If you have questions or concerns, you should contact your supervisor.

The following information on make-ups and location of service with regard to occupational therapists, physical therapists and speech providers was sent to supervisors on March 14.

Make-Up OT/PT/SP Services

1) The DOE is obligated to comply with any NYSED formal findings pertaining to make-up sessions. However, certain labor and instructional factors must be considered in determining how to deliver make-up services.

2) The DOE OT/PT/SP providers are not required to provide more than eight direct treatment sessions per school day as per the UFT contract.

  • Speech providers assigned to middle schools or high schools are not required to provide more than five 45-minute direct treatments sessions per school day.

3) Make-up sessions to be provided only as the providers schedule allows.

4) Make-up sessions to be provided in a manner instructionally appropriate for the individual student.

5) Make-up sessions to be provided in compliance with student IEP recommendations.

6) In the event neither a DOE provider nor agency provider can provide identified make-up sessions, related service authorizations, also known as RSAs, will be issued in accordance with the DOE cascade of services. Providers should reach out to their OT/PT/SP supervisor if any student is identified as requiring make-up services which they can't provide.

Location of Service

1) Location of services should be commensurate with IEP annual goals; service should be recommended in a location that supports IEP goal attainment.

2) The decision as to the location of service should be made in consideration of the least restrictive environment.

3) The location where services will be provided needs to be stated specifically enough so the recommendations are clear.

The following text is excerpted from the NYSED Guide to Quality Individualized Education Program (IEP) Development and Implementation.

The determination of location for the special education services may influence decisions about the nature and amount of these services and when they should be provided.

For example, an appropriate location for the related service of occupational therapy may be the English class during which the student may have opportunities for writing activities.

The location where services will be provided needs to be stated specifically enough so the Committee's recommendations regarding location of services is clear, e.g., English class; gymnasium; separate therapy room; cafeteria; playground; community; special class; general education summer school academic program.

It is not sufficient to simply state within general education classes or outside general education classes. Nor is it sufficient to indicate total school environment, natural learning environment or provider's discretion as service location. Providers must enter specific location(s) where services will take place.

If the IEP team determines that services should be provided in a "separate location," specific location(s) must be included in the location section of the IEP.

Service recommendations should have a focus on providing support while continuing to build independence.


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