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No, Mt. Lebanon families, we shouldn’t be opening our schools

Let’s start with the facts (and, no, unlike claims from the current presidential administration, there are no alternative facts). They alone will make clear Mt. Lebanon schools need to remain closed for the foreseeable future.

First, Allegheny County had the state’s highest number of coronavirus cases earlier this week. I accept that on any given day the county might have the second, third or even fourth highest number, but we’re missing the point in that argument: The reality is the data indicate throughout the county and the commonwealth that coronavirus cases are rapidly increasing. We knew that was going to happen as the warmth of the summer and early fall gave way to colder temperatures.

We also know too many people are going to ignore the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies and will treat the upcoming holidays as their “right” to get together with as many people as possible, no matter where they have to travel to make that happen. That misguided, dare I say arrogant, choice will lead to even more coronavirus cases in January, with the expectation right now that the peak likely to be around the middle of the month.

(In case any of you’re wondering: No one in the Moretti family is traveling to Ohio to see my wife’s parents and other relatives later this month. We’re remaining in Mt. Lebanon and celebrating Christmas as a family of four. And our older son will be working in the ER at Presby on Christmas Day. His grandmother turns 70 that day.)

Next, and speaking of hospitals, all across Pennsylvania and the country hospitals already are caring for more and more people suffering from coronavirus, and the stress on those facilities and, more importantly, the care providers is obvious. You can find almost every day a story in the (legitimate) media about doctors and nurses near and far who are burned out and pleading with the public to take coronavirus seriously.

If we’re not listening to them, we need to be. The worse our behavior, the more difficult the lives of those medical professionals becomes.

Third, the state’s education and health secretaries are asking Pennsylvania’s colleges and universities to delay the start of their spring semesters because, as mentioned, coronavirus numbers will spike (yet again) after the Christmas and New Year period.

I’m aware that some local universities already have decided to alter their spring term schedule, including when it starts. As someone who teaches at one of those institutions, I say with confidence that the presidents of our area colleges are listening to the advice from the medical communities in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and elsewhere as they determine what to do in the coming weeks.

Do those leaders want their universities open? Of course. Will it be safe to do that in 30 or so days? The unsatisfactory, but obvious, answer: We don’t know.

And that brings us back to Mt. Lebanon. The decision by the school board last night, when it voted to remain with remote delivery of instruction until the holiday break and then resume hybrid instruction in January (on different dates for the elementary and secondary schools), is nothing more than a weather forecast; it’s almost definitely going to change.

Based on what you’ve read here, the Board likely will have no choice but to again (and correctly) choose to keep our school buildings closed.

I know there are many of you reading this and saying “baloney, keep the schools open.” Nonsense. Pandemic viruses relish your elitism and your arrogance; attitudes like that invite the virus to spread to even more people. Much like you wouldn’t put booze in front of an alcoholic, you shouldn’t wantonly put a virus in the path of people who might suffer the worst of it.

Mt. Lebanon residents speak often of the pride they have in their community, and, in part, that means we rally together in times of crisis. Think of the number of times we responded from all corners when one of our own was in need, in distress or in danger. That’s what a community does.

That’s what we need to do right now.

We’re fortunate to live in a community where our children have all sorts of educational opportunities. And those who choose to attend college end up in private and public institutions of all sizes. They’ll continue to do so. Short term blips in learning right now because of the pandemic and the need to keep school buildings closed? Of course. Long term ramifications? Hardly.

Keep our school buildings closed.

An open letter to families within the Mt. Lebanon School District

Hi everyone,

Let’s begin with the obvious: Roughly half of you are going to support the words you’re about to read, and roughly half of you aren’t.

Roughly half of you will think I’m sane and rational, and roughly half of you will think I’m something else.

The board of the Mt. Lebanon School District continues to be guided by the best available science and health information as it determines how the school year should unfold. Unless you have specific evidence the board is lying or otherwise deceiving us, you need to clam up and support those members who are demonstrating ethical and strong leadership; it’s desperately needed at the moment.

The decision to shift to remote-only instruction for the next couple of weeks (and let’s be honest, it likely will be for longer) is absolutely the right decision.

Full stop.

Our schools should NOT be open right now.

Our sports teams should NOT be playing right now.

A normal school year is NOT possible right now.

The notion that our sons and daughters somehow “deserve” sports, musicals, proms and more is foolish. It’s also dangerous. Of course, we want these opportunities for our children, and we’re blessed to be able to have a school district that can offer so many extracurricular and social programs to our kids. However, we’d be derelict in our duties as parents if we threw our children into those activities knowing what we do about coronavirus.

Many of us have had to deal with crises in our lives or in our families lives during which we temporarily scaled back what we were doing. Whether that crisis was physical, emotional or something else, it required us to invest much more time in taking care of the person or people in need of attention; everything else became irrelevant.

That’s where we are in late November of 2020 with coronavirus. The school board’s first and only obligation right now is to ensure our sons and daughters are educated and in the safest environment possible; everything else — including those prized perks of living in a community like ours — gets put on the back burner.

Full stop.

COVID-19 is a vicious virus that has taken advantage of horrible leadership from our federal government and from too many of our states’ governors in order to spread like wildfire. Coronavirus also has benefited from that often admired, but at times misguided, sense of individuality embedded into the DNA of too many Americans. We love to do what we want, when we want, and we want no one telling us we can’t.

Well, right now, we can’t. Pandemics will happily take advantage of your precious individuality to help it infect even more people.

As you consider that, please also divorce yourself of the idea that Mt. Lebanon’s teachers “work for us” and therefore must teach in a face-to-face environment. Of course, face-to-face instruction is best, and we’re fortunate to have some of the best teachers anywhere in Allegheny County in our high school, middle school and elementary school classrooms. But don’t ever forget they, too, are husbands, wives, sons, daughters and parents. They ought not be required to risk their health because they “work for us.” Such arrogance benefits no one.

If the chance to work remotely — and many of us in this community have that option right now — is available, our teachers ought to take advantage of it, as well.

The county relays coronavirus information each day, and those data tell us quite clearly the number of people diagnosed with the virus and the number of people dying from it are increasing. Sadly, we can anticipate that narrative to be familiar in the coming months. Thankfully, no Mt. Lebanon school teacher, staff or student has yet died from coronavirus. But pay attention to the news and you know that school districts throughout the county and the country haven’t been as lucky.

This school year will be a great one if we get to June and no teacher, staff person or student is lost because of COVID-19.

We’ve received some remarkably positive news in recent weeks about vaccine trials. It’s possible that as early as next month some Americans will receive that vaccine. As the winter months unfold, we can anticipate more and more Americans also being vaccinated, presuming of course that the vaccine is working properly and without side effects.

The stories I read suggest that we could see something resembling normal life returning in 2021. (Here’s one such story; it comes from the Associated Press, which enjoys a reputation for producing solid journalism each day.) Whenever that day comes, we ought to celebrate it like our forebears did when World War II ended.

But until it does, a variety of limitations on this atypical school year are necessary.

We who live in Mt. Lebanon should recognize many of our school board members are doing the right thing. We also should recognize many of our teachers want to remain in that role, nurturing our sons and daughters. We should join with those board members and teachers showing wise and ethical leadership.

Mt. Lebanon, PA., residents have formed their camps

The community in which I live has formed camps.

As you might guess, the argument involves whether our K-12 school buildings should open at the end of this month, which would allow for face-to-face or hybrid instruction, and whether school teams ought to be allowed to play.

So that you know where I stand, which means multiple people are sure to stop reading at the end of this paragraph, all K-12 buildings around the country ought to be closed and there ought to be no competitive sports this fall.

I’m a soft liberal (or worse) in the minds of some people.

I’m a practical person in the minds of other people.

Doesn’t matter what you call me.

Let’s start with sports.

If my memory is accurate, four of our high school’s teams have had at least one player contract coronavirus since summer workouts started. In each case, the athletic director announced the affected team’s workouts would be halted for roughly two weeks. That time lag will provide assurance that no other players on the team are infected with the virus.

Now imagine we’re in September or October, and those players also are in school buildings, which are sealed tightly and with air conditioning running, as they sit in and move from classroom to classroom. Let’s not forget crowded hallways; no social distancing there. A whole lot more than one player or one team now is at increased risk of a potential quarantine.

I’ve heard all the arguments — “teenagers aren’t going to die from coronavirus” and “the athletes could get coronavirus from anywhere” are the most consistent ones — and those arguments fall flat. Our community, like communities in all 50 states, is still grappling with a pandemic. It’s irrelevant who’s to blame for the position the country is in at the moment; we’re here, and we have to deal with reality as it is.

And the reality is while young athletes might indeed not suffer from the worst of the virus, they will help spread it, simply because their athletic events violate social distancing. That’s true at every practice and at every game. The people they give coronavirus to will include older generations, all of whom are more susceptible to coronavirus’ worst effects.

Let’s summarize sports this way: They do far more good than they do bad, but they are NOT an essential part of the high school experience. (Remember, I was a sports journalist before I became a professor, so please don’t you dare suggest I hate sports.) There’s nothing in any education mandate that states participation on a sports team is required for graduation.

Sports are out, folks. And that’s true even if you accept my offer of you footing the full bill to cover all sports costs this fall. Shockingly, no one has accepted the deal.

End of story.

Now let’s talk about the school buildings. Our district’s leadership has waited as long as it possibly could before choosing how to begin the school year. (Side note: A cyber academy will be part of whatever happens this school year; many parents, this one included, have signed up our children already.)

A couple of nights ago, the district’s superintendent made a recommendation that all education be taught by remote delivery for at least the first 9 weeks of the school year.

Remember, the important word: RECOMMENDATION. He didn’t order it like some bully. He didn’t say it would last for the entirety of the school year. The school board will vote tomorrow night and make a final decision.

Needless to say, the superintendent is either an idiot or sensible, depending upon what you think about open buildings.

The buildings ought to be closed because hundreds of students and dozens of teachers and staff will be breathing the same recycled air for roughly seven hours. (That’s the equivalent of a flight from New York to London each day. Would you make that trip right now? Would you want your loved ones to make it?) I applaud the district for the excellent health-and-safety plan it has put in place for the school year, but the central part of that plan — and this is true of thousands of other district plans as well — is dependent upon children and teenagers keeping a mask on for hours on end while staying six feet apart from their friends and classmates.

Get real.

As you might guess, generally speaking, the “let the kids play” crowd is also part of the “open the buildings” crowd.

There was a scheduled early evening rally tonight demanding the school board reject the superintendent’s recommendation. Some of them — I repeat, SOME (not all) — have forgotten decorum.

One parent took note of that and then took to social media to write the following:

I don’t ordinarily get harsh on social media anymore, but the response of some bulldozer parents to the Mt Lebanon School District’s proposal to opt for remote learning for the first 9 weeks of school is appalling. We are in a pandemic and extraordinary times and I can’t fathom the blatant disrespect of other people. I fully support the superintendent, school board and teachers. These decisions are agonizing, so pull your shit together Mt Lebanon and act like grown-ass adults. Seriously pathetic. Full disclosure, any lame-ass comments arguing anything I’ve said here will be deleted. As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t up for debate.

Exactly. This isn’t up for debate.

Let me offer a scenario that further illustrates my point. If you know someone who is recovering from alcoholism, then you know you limit the opportunities where the temptation to drink will be present. He or she knows that one slip up — just one drink — can restart the downward and dangerous spiral of alcoholism.

Because you love that person, you’d do all you could to protect him or her from getting their hands on a drink.

Returning to school buildings, because you love your children, you’re also going to do all you can to protect them, their teachers, their coaches and anyone they know from increasing the opportunities of contracting and spreading a virus that has killed more than 165,000 Americans.

Closed school buildings.

End of story.

Finally, the superintendent’s recommendation letter is long, but it is a logical and sensible argument. The board ought to support it.

Here it is:

In my 32 years as an educator, I can think of no decision that has weighed more heavily on me, and my team, as this one. To say these past six months have been challenging for all of us would be a gross understatement. 

The question of how to safely reopen schools has kept me awake many nights, an experience I’m sure I share with you as you consider how your family will return to school, how you will return to work, and how the world will return to a new normal. 

It is imperative that we determine the path forward quickly and have the opportunity to fully prepare.

As many of you know, in early April the School District embarked on a path to return to in-person schooling. We established the region’s first recovery team and enlisted the help of hundreds of people including teachers, parents, students, administrators, health care professionals and more. 

Every person I know believes the right place for children during normal times is in our buildings, in our classrooms, with our teachers. This is where we are best positioned to expertly address all of their academic, social, emotional, and physical needs through our carefully crafted programs. 

In addition, we recognized that we needed to provide a safe option for students and families who would not be able to return to school for the foreseeable future because of their personal, medical, or specific circumstances.

These were our early goals, and given the COVID environment at the time, my team and I were optimistic that we could follow all of the PDE, CDC, PaDOH, and ACHD guidelines to safely bring students and staff back into our schools, as well as develop a cyber learning academy.

However, in just the past few weeks, we have seen the COVID environment change very quickly.  Just this afternoon, the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Education finally provided guiding metrics for schools to use when making decisions related to instructional models.  

According to these guidelines, we should be considering either a hybrid or fully remote option. 

Over the past several weeks, we have had more than 150 of our teachers and staff indicate that they may not be able to safely return to an in-person environment. These requests are made based on documented health issues and eligibility under the various leave allowances. 

In addition, the Mt Lebanon Education Association sent our School Board notification of their support for a full remote start to the school year, which was based on their concerns for the safety of their members and community. 

Based on the current COVID situation in our region, the guidance we have received from the Governor, PDE, PADOH, and ACHD, the observations of behaviors and adherence to proper personal safety and hygiene practices, and the many other factors mentioned above, I am recommending that the school district begin the school year with fully remote instruction for all students for the first nine weeks.

Our community has not hesitated in making their perspectives and opinions known. And while I understand and respect the varied opinions in our community, I truly believe that I have the duty to recommend what I believe is the best pathway forward for the safety of our students, their families, faculty and staff. 

What I can assure families is that the fully Remote teaching and learning will be far better than most of the instruction that occurred in the emergency shutdown this spring.  

In our fully remote learning strategy, your child’s teachers will lead their instruction throughout the day. 

I can assure you that our teachers have committed to provide a high quality learning experience similar to what you have experienced in our schools. 

We have obtained the tools, resources, and training to provide a much more robust learning environment for our students.

As a result, and while admittedly not quite as effective as being in the classroom, we believe that this is the best and safest possible way—at least for the first 9 weeks—to provide the quality education to our students which our community expects and deserves. 

This will also allow us to maintain continuity of instruction, without interruption, regardless of the potential impact of COVID.  We have seen the disruption in other districts in the country who opened the schools only to have to close their buildings due to large numbers of infections. 

For our students with the greatest individual educational needs, we are working toward ensuring access to in-person IEP programming. We are carefully considering how to accomplish this while protecting both their health and the health of those who will be working with them.

This recommendation does not come lightly, and I understand the significant challenges many of you will face because of it. I know that this decision relieves some families and frustrates others. However, I believe that the challenges and risks of returning in-person are too great at this time. 

We will continue to work towards reopening in a hybrid or full in-person model when and if conditions allow. 

I know that every recommendation I make, and particularly this one,  impacts the lives of over 5500 students. Beyond the students, I also have a duty to protect the health of our entire school community –  which includes 700+ employees and over 33,000 residents. This is also the community where I live, where I raised my family, and a community that I deeply care about and value. 

Small group of protesters gather outside Rep. Tim Murphy’s office, voice displeasure with Trump

A group of about 25 protesters gathered outside the South Hills office of Rep. Tim Murphy (R-PA) on Monday.

They voiced their displeasure at Donald Trump for what they felt was a tepid response to the events in Virginia, where on Saturday a white supremacist rally spiraled out of control and eventually led to a woman being run over by a man described as being  “infatuated” with Nazis.

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 14Aug2017

The group called on Trump to forcefully denounce white supremacists and the violence that often accompanies their rallies. They also demanded that Rep. Murphy take a more aggressive posture in responding to racism and white supremacist ideology.

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 14Aug2017

Two members of Murphy’s office circulated a one-page print out of the statement he posted to his Facebook page that indicated his disgust with “racist extremists.” They engaged in casual conversation with the protesters, many of whom often appeared more interested in attracting the attention of passing motorists than listening to the speakers railing against the president.

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 14Aug2017

Across the street from the protesters, three people gathered, encouraging passing motorists to honk their horns in support of Rep. Murphy.

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 14Aug2017

Murphy did not appear at the event, and there was no indication he was inside his office, which is located on a busy street.

A police officer briefly appeared to remind the protesters to keep the sidewalk clear for anyone who was walking by. He immediately left.

Meet a group of Mt. Lebanon residents who celebrate diversity

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 19Nov2016

Photo: Anthony Moretti, 19Nov2016

About 50 Mt. Lebanon, PA., residents gathered Saturday afternoon for a photograph and to send a message: diversity makes our community stronger.

We do not see ourselves as Muslims, Jews or Christians, but, rather, as good people.

We appreciate our ancestries that can be traced to South Asia, the Middle East, Europe and Asia, but we say proudly that those geographic disparities are celebrated and honored.

We have each other’s back, to borrow a cliche, and we will not tolerate any hateful word or action directed at any of us.

The photo above includes parents who have known each other for years (and some we met just today). It includes kids who have known each other since they were in diapers; those kids are now in high school, middle school and elementary school. They have played sports together, done Scouts together, enjoyed more video games than can be counted, goofed off together. They will have many years of friendship together.

The parents have cooked meals for many of those kids. We’ve hosted sleepovers. We’ve hosted cookouts.

We invite everyone.

So, you may foster hate if you wish, but you won’t find a receptive audience for your filth here.