U.S. pension funds sue Allianz after $4 billion in coronavirus losses

By Tom Sims

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Pension funds for truckers, teachers and subway workers have lodged lawsuits in the United States against Germany’s Allianz, one of the world’s top asset managers, for failing to safeguard their investments during the coronavirus market meltdown.

Market panic around the virus that resulted in billions in losses earlier this year scarred many investors, but no other top-tier asset manager is facing such a large number of lawsuits in the United States connected to the turbulence.

In March, Allianz was forced to shutter two private hedge funds after severe losses, prompting the wave of litigation the company says is “legally and factually flawed”.

Together, the various suits filed in the U.S. Southern District of New York claim investors lost a total of around $4 billion. The fallout has also prompted questions from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Allianz has said.

A spokesman for Allianz Global Investors said in a statement to Reuters: “While the losses were disappointing, the allegations made by claimants are legally and factually flawed, and we will defend ourselves vigorously against them.”

The plaintiffs are professional investors who bought funds that “involved risks commensurate with those higher returns,” the spokesman added.

The latest claims against Allianz and its asset management arm Allianz Global Investors last week include one from the pension fund for the operator of New York’s transport system, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). It has 70,000 employees and made an initial investment of $200 million.

Similar suits have been filed against Allianz by pension funds for the Teamster labor union, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and Arkansas teachers. The suits are seeking a jury trial to award damages.

The suits allege that Allianz Global Investors, in its Structured Alpha family of funds, strayed from a strategy of using options to protect against a short-term financial market crash.

The SEC’s inquiry continues and Allianz is cooperating. The SEC did not respond to requests for comment.

Attracting investors with an “all-weather” investing approach, Allianz “bet the house” and “out of greed … sacrificed the hard-earned pension and benefits of the MTA’s workers, who at the time were risking their lives under COVID keeping New York alive,” the MTA’s lawsuit said.

The cases are a second front of litigation for Allianz, one of Europe’s largest insurance companies. The Munich-based company and its competitors face suits for not paying claims related to business closures during the pandemic lockdowns.

The company’s insurance business as a whole has been under pressure as it faces claims for cancelled events, and a decline in demand for car and travel insurance. It expects to post the first decline in annual profit in nearly a decade.

At the end of March, Allianz informed investors it was liquidating two funds, as well as an offshore feeder fund. Investors lost 97% on one of the funds, the suits say.

In April, Morningstar downgraded its rating for the remaining funds to negative “because of the failure in risk management protocols and the uncertainty”.

Allianz disputed that rating and in July published an internal report that found that the losses “were not the result of any failure in the portfolio’s investment strategy or risk management processes”.

(Reporting by Tom Sims; editing by David Evans)

How to prepare for a school year like no other

By Beatrix Lockwood

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Parents, teachers and students nationwide are preparing for a school year like no other. As part of our #AskReuters Twitter chat series, Reuters gathered a group of experts to discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed K-12 education.

Below are edited highlights.

How can parents, students and teachers prepare for the coming school year?

“Slow things down! Take your expectations of what’s possible in classrooms and cut them in half. Generally, teachers haven’t been given nearly enough time to reconfigure their teaching practices. Give them some slack. Zoom fatigue is real.”

— Antero Garcia, assistant professor at Stanford University

“Being prepared means being flexible. Schools will likely have to open and close based on transmission rates in their communities and cases in schools.”

— John Bailey, visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute

How will learning in 2020-2021 academic year look different, now that we’ve had a few months to plan?

“We hope to see districts adapt and improve quickly. There are a lot of thoughtful and creative reopening plans. Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting promising approaches to address both health and learning needs, whether in person or remote.”

— Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education

“One of the questions of this school year is: Will remote instruction be improved? District officials say yes, but still many kids don’t have what they need tech-wise and much time this summer was spent working on health and safety, not instruction.”

— Matt Barnum, education policy reporter at Chalkbeat

Are there ways to replicate the social, emotional and non-academic experiences children get in school if they are not physically in the classroom?

“That is the hardest part for both K-12 and higher ed. Youth life is gradually resuming in places where the virus rates are low enough – distanced soccer and the rest. We need to get kids together physically at a distance to do some of these things.”

— Jal Mehta, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Can you talk about the technology gap, and how it is impacting learning? What resources are available to breach the digital divide?

“Far too many students are being left behind from distance learning as they lack internet access at home and a dependable device. Many teachers also lack the connectivity they need to deliver remote instruction and support student learning.”

— National Parent Teachers Association

“From a culturally responsive-sustaining perspective, we see that young people access tech in ways that are not fully clear to those who design education – through video games, cellphones, and other digital devices that could also be used to curate a learning experience.”

— David E. Kirkland, executive director at The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools

How is the pandemic impacting children with special needs? What advice do you have to help kids with developmental challenges learn now?

“Communication will be key. Parents need to understand what schools are doing to provide their children with the needed interventions, related services and accommodations. And educators will need to check-in with parents to see what’s working.”

— Laura Schifter, lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Disruption can lead to transformation. How will education change, post-COVID?

“Frankly, we will have failed our children if this next decade isn’t transformational. We can’t wait any longer to take on the major systemic problems holding kids back. Now is the time to build a world grounded in the real needs and aspirations of all students.”

— Teach For America

“The transformation of education will be shaped by how we perceive the disruption. Education is always evolving and opportune. This is an opportunity to increase attention to inequity in education and the critical social and emotional needs of students ahead.”

— Rebecca Kullback, co-founder of LaunchWell and Metropolitan Counseling Associates

(Editing by Lauren Young and Aurora Ellis)

Teachers protest across U.S. over re-opening schools in pandemic

By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Teachers and support staff at more than 35 school districts across the United States on Monday are protesting the re-opening of schools while COVID-19 is surging in many parts of the country.

They are demanding in-person classes not be held until scientific data supports it, safety protocols such as lower class sizes and virus testing are established, and schools are staffed with adequate numbers of counselors and nurses, according to a website set up for the demonstrations.

On Twitter, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association showed protesters making fake gravestones that said “Here lies a third grade student from Green Bay who caught COVID at school” and “RIP Grandma caught COVID helping grand kids with homework.”

Teachers are also demanding financial help for parents in need, including rent and mortgage assistance, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and cash assistance.

Many of these issues are at the center of a political tussle in Washington, where Congressional Democrats and Trump administration officials will resume talks on Monday aimed at hammering out a coronavirus economic relief bill after missing a deadline to extend benefits to tens of millions of jobless Americans.

The coronavirus, which first appeared in China late last year, has infected 4.6 million people in the United States and killed more than 155,000 Americans since February, according to a Reuters tally. Deaths rose by over 25,000 in July and cases doubled in 19 states during the month.

President Donald Trump has made school re-openings for classroom instruction, as they normally would in August and September, part of his re-election campaign. The Republican president is trailing in opinion polls against Democratic candidate Joe Biden ahead of the Nov. 3 election.

“Cases up because of BIG Testing! Much of our Country is doing very well. Open the Schools!” Trump tweeted on Monday.

While reported case numbers may be linked to more testing, recent increases in hospitalizations and deaths have no connection to more people being tested for the virus.

The United States is in a new phase of the outbreak with infections in rural areas as well as cities, Deborah Birx, the coordinator of Trump’s coronavirus task force, said on Sunday.

“What we are seeing today is different from March and April. It is extraordinarily widespread,” Birx said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

On Monday, Trump lashed out at Birx for her comments. Trump accused Birx of capitulating to criticism from Democrats that the federal government’s response to the pandemic has been ineffective.

“So Crazy Nancy Pelosi said horrible things about Dr. Deborah Birx, going after her because she was too positive on the very good job we are doing on combating the China Virus, including Vaccines & Therapeutics. In order to counter Nancy, Deborah took the bait & hit us. Pathetic!” Trump wrote.

House of Representatives Speaker Pelosi said on CNN on Monday that Birx has “enabled” Trump, who played down the seriousness of the virus in the early stages and pushed for a quick reopening of the economy and schools following weeks of lockdowns.

“I don’t have confidence in anyone who stands there while the President says swallow Lysol and it’s going to cure your virus,” Pelosi said in a reference to Trump at a coronavirus briefing in April with Birx present.

Trump had asked whether injecting disinfectant into the body could be a treatment for the virus, leading makers of those products to issue warnings against doing so.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago, Gabriella Borter in New York; writing by Grant McCool; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Special Report: U.S. school closures dramatically shrinking public education, Reuters finds

By M.B. Pell, Kristina Cooke and Benjamin Lesser

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jennifer Panditaratne’s third-grade daughter had been seeing a reading specialist once a week before her Florida school closed abruptly in March due to the novel coronavirus.

Since then, her child has had no contact with the specialist. Panditaratne is left to download her daughter’s special education material and sit with her as she does her school work—in between her own calls as a maritime lawyer in South Florida.

“Is it the same material? Sure,” she said. “But is it being administered by a professional who knows what they are doing? No.”

More than two months after schools across the United States began closing in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the shutdown is taking a profound toll on the nation’s system of education, Reuters found by surveying nearly 60 school districts serving some 2.8 million students.

Almost overnight, public education in the United States has shrunk to a shell of its former self, the review found, with teacher instruction, grading, attendance, special education and meal services for hungry children slashed back or gutted altogether.

The survey encompassed school districts from large urban communities, such as Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the Houston Independent School District, to the smallest rural settings, including San Jon Municipal Schools in eastern New Mexico and Park County School District 6 in Cody, Wyoming. The survey reflects what is happening only in those districts that responded.

Reuters found:

– A large majority of responding districts, 47 of 57, reported they are providing elementary and middle school students with half or less the usual face time with teachers. Eight of those districts said students receive little to no direct instruction. In Philadelphia, tens of thousands of elementary and middle school pupils receive little to no live instruction—and high schoolers receive none at all.

– Fewer than half of districts even take attendance and many of those that do say fewer kids are showing up for class. Riverbank Unified School District in Stanislaus County, California, no longer takes attendance. But educators there learned through Google Classroom and phone calls that only about half of their 3,000 students are participating in virtual school and completing assignments.

– Public schools play a crucial role in feeding America’s poor children—but the lockdown is gutting that role. About three-quarters of districts reported they served a cumulative 4.5 million fewer meals a week. In Washoe County, Nevada, the school district provided 251,000 meals a week before the shutdown. Since then: Just over 39,000 a week.

– About a third of districts aren’t providing federally required services to their special needs students, such as physical and occupational therapy like they did before schools were closed. “One of the many things keeping me up at night is, how are we providing education to those who most need it?” asked Michael Lubelfeld, superintendent of the North Shore School District 112 outside Chicago.

In the School District of Philadelphia, superintendent William Hite already sees young children falling behind, including those missing critical face-to-face teacher time through the district’s early literacy program. For older students, he worries that the loss of the school structure’s safety net could lead to delinquency and crime.

“This is in no way a sufficient replacement of teacher instruction of students in classrooms,” Hite said. “I think the impact has already been felt here.”

Several education researchers who reviewed the survey results said that, if anything, the responses likely represent a rosy picture of what is actually happening in the nation’s schools.

Betheny Gross, associate director at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, believes the results reflected more “optimism” than may be warranted. “This is reflective of what superintendents think is happening,” Gross said, while the reality may actually be worse.

Gross cited the high percentage, 84%, of districts reporting that at least some students are still receiving at least some live instruction. She said her own review of material posted online detailing what administrators across the country expected instruction to look like during the closure revealed that only a “small share” of districts were setting a standard that included live instruction.

While few children have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, and serious complications for them have been rare, public officials shut down schools to prevent the disease from spreading. Nineteen children under the age of 14 died from COVID-19 from February 1 through May 23, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a figure hovering just above 0% of all U.S. virus deaths.

Data on how school closures affect the disease’s spread in the community is limited because the pandemic is still under way. But researchers at University College London found evidence from past epidemics, previous research and modeling of coronavirus transmission in other countries that closing schools has only a slight impact on preventing contagion.

To be sure, public schools, like businesses and governments, were forced into a sudden new world with the pandemic’s spread.

Teachers, parents, researchers and district administrators told Reuters that while distance learning can improve, for the vast majority of students it will fall far short of in-person instruction. If students are not in front of teachers next school year, the public should expect only a fraction of the live instruction, special needs services going unfulfilled and far fewer meals served.

“I just don’t know how we call off school next year,” said Gregory Cizek, who studies education at the University of North Carolina.

For students, parents and educators, the Reuters survey shows, the loss of live instruction has been significant.

LIMITED HOME RESOURCES

Eliza McCord, 16, wasn’t able to participate in her math class for the first six weeks after her Fort Wayne, Indiana, high school went virtual, because her sister had a college class at the same time. Inside their home, there weren’t enough devices to go around.

Even now, her family writes a class schedule on a white board. Also in the rotation for devices and WiFi: Her mother, an elementary school special education teacher; her father, a librarian; and her younger brother, in sixth grade.

Many of Eliza’s classmates have told her they don’t have regular access to a computer to download files, or reliable access to the Internet to join Zoom calls. That said, Eliza thinks some students are not participating because their grades for the final quarter of the year don’t count.

“There are students who just have essentially given up on the rest of the school year,” she said.

Charles Cammack, chief operations officer for Fort Wayne Community Schools, said the majority of students remained engaged after schools were closed. Still, he acknowledged that after the system announced grades would not count for the fourth marking period, some students checked out.

“It would be naïve to say we didn’t know there was a risk some kids would take that position, but given the circumstances I don’t know how we could avoid that happening,” he said.

Special education services such as occupational and physical therapy are challenging to provide remotely, and some services can only be provided face-to-face, survey respondents said.

Schools also rely heavily on parental support. “For any therapy, the parents will need to follow the instructions of the teacher to complete the exercises with the students,” said Dr. Jason Lind, superintendent at Millburn School District 24 in Illinois. “This works well if parents have time to spend helping their children. If parents are also working full-time, this does not work.”

When Fort Wayne’s public school district shut down, Eliza’s mother, special-ed teacher Dawn Cortner-McCord, called the parents of her students. She gave them her personal cell number, and talks with about a third of her students daily, dropping off books and other learning materials at their homes.

But talking on the cell phone is no match for in-class teaching, Dawn said. She cited the example of twin third-grade girls who do math at a first-grade level and had been making progress with hands-on learning. Now she worries they, and other students, are falling back.

“We are just trying to maintain the skills that they have,” she said. “A lot of my students still need that sensory input.”

In Broward County Public Schools in Florida, where Jennifer Panditaratne’s daughter has not seen a reading specialist since schools closed, the district found not all teacher engagement is equal. Panditaratne said her third-grade daughter has a daily 15 minute group Zoom call with her class teacher, going over assignments for the day. Her daughter in fifth grade is getting more live video instruction, but it varies by teacher.

In March, the teacher’s union and district agreed teachers would provide at least three hours a day of deep engagement with students. Many teachers conducted live video instruction, while others used email, phone calls or discussion boards, said Daniel Gohl, the district’s chief academic officer. That left a sense of inequity. So starting this summer, all teachers will provide at least three hours of live-video instruction daily.

“We now know students and teachers need to see and talk to each other,” Gohl said. “We acknowledge we did not get everything right and we are committed to improving.”

MISSING MEALS

By law, U.S. public school districts are required to provide free or reduced-cost meals to children in need. With schools shut, getting those vital meals to the qualifying students has been hindered, in several instances, by significant hurdles.

Despite school districts’ efforts, Reuters found children are missing school meals they should have received. Thirty-four districts, or about three-quarters of those that responded, said they were providing fewer meals a week than before the closure, the Reuters survey found.

Miami-Dade County Public schools provided 1.33 million free breakfasts, lunches and after-school meals a week to its students prior to the March 16 closure. As of May 1, the district said it was serving less than one-third of that number, about 420,000 meals a week.

One reason, according to four parents in the county, was that the district made meals available, but limited pickup to twice a week, leading to long lines. Another roadblock: Lack of transportation to reach the pickup locations. Three of the parents said they were forced to find other sources of food, such as a food bank or a state-funded lunch program.

Victoria Lynn Dennis, a 29-year-old customer service agent in Miami, said she hasn’t been able to access school meals for her 5-year-old pre-kindergartner and 6-year-old kindergartner because she doesn’t have a car. A week after the schools closed, someone from a nonprofit program that partners with the district came to her door with macaroni and cheese. There have been no visits since.

“Telling my kids they can’t eat as much, because we have to save it, it kills me,” she said.

Penny Parham, the food and nutrition officer for Miami-Dade schools, said her heart goes out to the students they aren’t serving. But while they are serving many students, the system can feed more young people in school cafeterias than in the district’s 50 remote distribution sites. As unemployment rises in Florida, she’s seen the lines at these sites grow longer.

“How long can it keep up and are you missing the most critical person?” she asked.

BUDGET DEFICITS, QUESTIONS LOOM

As they look ahead, nearly 70% of districts told Reuters they face a budget deficit. The total shortfall of these districts alone exceeds $450 million.

Philadelphia already faces a $38 million deficit, even after receiving federal assistance. With local revenue plummeting, that number could expand in the weeks to come.

Many school districts are now confronting a question most on the minds of parents: Will they reopen schools in the fall, or continue the distance learning?

Dan Domenech, executive director of AASA The School Superintendents Association, a group representing school district chiefs, meets every week with a task force on reopening consisting of 30 superintendents from across the country.

Three options are being considered for the fall, he said: fully reopening schools as they were prior to the pandemic; a hybrid model in which some students attend school in-person and some continue with remote learning; and continuing with complete remote learning.

The hybrid option, Domenech said, appears to have the most support. But staying entirely remote, he added, is “beginning to get some traction because the cost of opening schools and following the guidance the CDC has offered is going to be cost prohibitive.” The added costs include more buses to maintain social distancing, protective equipment for students and staff and the daily cleaning of each school.

As districts weigh that question, some parents and teachers worry what comes next.

Portia Hudson, a math teacher at Edwin Fitler Academics Plus School in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia, recalls teaching virtually this spring and watching one student, already battling anxiety problems, fall five weeks behind. During another session, a second student played on a swing during class time.

“If we have virtual learning in September, that’s when I’m really going to be concerned, because virtual learning will look like it does now,” Hudson said. “Kids not logging on. Kids on swings.”

(Reporting by M.B. Pell and Benjamin Lesser in New York, and Kristina Cooke in Los Angeles. Editing by Ronnie Greene)

Indiana teachers use their ‘outside voices’ to demand higher wages

Indiana teachers use their ‘outside voices’ to demand higher wages
By Bryan Woolston and Brendan O’Brien

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) – Thousands of red-clad Indiana teachers swarmed the state capitol building on Tuesday, chanting loudly to protest low salaries and evaluation policies and forcing half the state’s school districts to cancel classes for the day.

“Indiana legislators drew first blood against public education,” read one of the signs hoisted by Indiana State Teachers Association demonstrators wearing red hats and sweaters as they stood at the steps of the capitol.

The “Red for Ed” protest was the latest in a wave of work stoppages by U.S. educators. In 2018, teachers in Arizona, West Virginia and Oklahoma staged largely successful days-long strikes to demand higher salaries.

Teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles also went on strike this year and secured more resources, especially for underfunded schools.

Indiana teachers make an average of $51,000 a year, in the bottom third of U.S. states for teachers’ pay, according to the National Education Association, the country’s largest labor union. The state school system has about 1.2 million students.

Teachers in the Midwestern state are asking the Republican-controlled state legislature to commit $700 million this year to boost the average salary statewide to $60,000, near the national average.

Amid frigid temperatures, chanting protesters waved placards reading “I can’t stay for the day, I have to go to my second job,” and “It’s time to use our ‘outside voices.'”

The teachers’ union expected some 15,000 teachers to use personal days to walk off the job as Indiana’s state law blocks them from striking. The state’s department of education could not confirm the number of teachers who were expected to attend.

Still, so many teachers had signed up for the protest that half the state’s 289 school districts have canceled classes, the union said.

“It all comes back to one word, which is respect,” said union Vice President Jennifer Smith-Margraf. “Teaching and education in general are not respected the way they used to be.”

State teachers are asking lawmakers to prevent new standardized testing scores from counting against teacher and school evaluations for this school year. They are also seeking to repeal a new law that requires them to take private-sector jobs for a time to renew their teaching licenses.

Republican Governor Eric Holcomb set up a commission to provide recommendations on teachers’ salaries before the 2021 legislative session.

“Governor Holcomb has made finding long-term sustainable solutions to improve teacher compensation a top priority,” a spokeswoman said on Monday.

(Reporting by Bryan Woolston in Indianapolis and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Scott Malone, Peter Cooney and Bernadette Baum)

‘More than just money’: Chicago parents warm to teachers’ contract demands

‘More than just money’: Chicago parents warm to teachers’ contract demands
By Brendan O’Brien

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Carmen Rodriguez, a life-long Chicagoan who lives on the city’s Southeast Side, sends her two children to a predominately Hispanic elementary school where she says teachers are struggling with class sizes of up to 40 students.

The crowded conditions at Virgil Grissom Elementary School makes Rodriguez, a 45-year-old stay-at-home mom, sympathetic to Chicago’s 25,000 teachers, who have authorized a strike against the public school system unless the two sides can reach a contract deal by Thursday.

In addition to wage increases, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is demanding more funding to ease overcrowded classrooms and hire more support staff, two perennial issues plaguing the third-largest U.S. school district.

“I don’t think the teachers are being unreasonable whatsoever, because they are fighting for more than just money,” she said.

Interviews with about two dozen parents of children in the system suggest Rodriguez’s point of view is widely shared, even though most parents are uncomfortable with the prospect of a strike. Thousands of teacher staged a one-day walkout in 2016 to protest the lack of a contract at that time and failures to stabilize the finances.

“They are fighting for the kids. Someone has to stand up for these things,” said yoga instructor Angela Steffensen, 34, after dropping her child off at school. “But a strike sucks for everybody.”

A strike would mark the latest in a recent wave of work stoppages in school districts across the United States in which demands for higher salaries and benefits have receded to the background.

Instead, in Chicago and elsewhere, teachers have emphasized the need for more resources for under-funded schools, framing their demands as a call for social justice that resonates with parents, said Jon Shelton, a justice studies professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

“There are a lot of eyes on this strike,” he said. If Chicago teachers are successful “it shows that this model of organizing and working with the community is a significant way to build power for teachers.”

The district has said it is making progress to cut classroom size and has offered to spend $10 million to provide 200 teaching assistants for the most overcrowded schools. It also pledged to double the number of social workers and nurses over the next five years as more qualified applicants and funding become available.

“We expressed a willingness to find solutions on these two core issues that would be written directly into the contract,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Janice Jackson, chief executive of Chicago Public Schools (CPS), said in a statement.

Overcrowding and a shortage of support staff are reflections of a systemic inequality throughout the system, according to many parents and educators.

CPS provides 67% of what it needs to educate its 361,000 students, according to Advance Illinois, an educational policy and advocacy organization.

To make up some of the difference, parent organizations in some schools, mostly in more affluent neighborhoods, provide additional funds.

As a consequence, the funding shortfall hits low-income and special-needs pupils the hardest, especially when it comes to class size and support staff, advocates and parents said.

“We are always getting the short end of the stick,” said Chamala Jordan, 43, who lives on the South Side. “There is always an explanation from CPS for why class sizes are astronomic and there is always an excuse to why they are under resourced.”

Nearly one in four elementary classrooms have 35 or more students. Many of those are in low income and minority schools, the union said, citing district data.

Teachers want mandatory maximums of 20 students in kindergarten classrooms, 24 children in first through third grade classes and 28 in grades fourth through eighth and 28 for core classes in high school. The current limits are higher and principals are allowed to deviate from them.

The union wants the number of social workers, counselors and other clinicians to meet the recommended ratios set by each profession’s national associations.

The district has a single guidance counselor for every 475 students, on par with the national ratio. But for nurses and social workers, it lags the recommendations badly.

Even so, not all parents are sympathetic with the teachers.

Willie Preston, a 34-year-old father of six, sees bad blood between the teachers union and the mayor behind the strike threat. Lightfoot won election last April without the union’s endorsement.

“They are using our children as leverage, bargaining chips,” he said.

Despite the political overtones, many parents said they have focused on the harm that overcrowding and the lack of support staff does to their children’s education.

“Smaller classrooms mean more attention to your child and more attention means that they learn better … and they can excel,” said Stefanie Gambrell, 48, the mother of a child in a CPS school.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Frank McGurty and Nick Zieminski)

Florida teachers can arm themselves under new gun bill

FILE PHOTO: A selection of Glock pistols are seen for sale at the Pony Express Firearms shop in Parker, Colorado December 7, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

By Daniel Trotta

(Reuters) – Florida’s legislature on Wednesday passed a bill allowing teachers to carry guns in the classroom, expanding a program launched after the deadly high school shooting in Parkland with the aim of preventing another such massacre.

Florida’s House of Representatives voted 65 to 47 to pass the bill after hours of debate over two days in which the Republican majority thwarted Democratic efforts to amend, stall or kill the measure. Florida’s Senate approved it 22 to 17 last week.

Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is expected to sign the bill into law, enabling school districts wishing to take part in the voluntary Guardian program to arm those teachers who pass a 144-hour training course.

On Feb. 14, 2018, a former student armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others.

President Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association have argued an armed teacher could provide the best defense against a shooter bent on mass murder.

Opponents questioned whether the solution to gun violence should be the presence of even more guns and warned of the danger of a teacher misfiring during a crisis or police mistaking an armed teacher for the assailant.

Passage marks a victory for gun-rights advocates, who were on the defensive a year ago when Parkland students inspired nationwide protests in favor of gun control.

After the Parkland shooting, Florida lawmakers rushed through legislation that required schools to place at least one armed staff member or law-enforcement officer at each campus.

The law also imposed a three-day waiting period for gun purchases and raised the age limit for buying rifles from 18 to 21 – remarkable measures in a gun-friendly state.

Although last year’s law allowed some school personnel to carry weapons, guns were still banned from the classroom.

Backers of arming classroom teachers revived the issue this year, arguing that school shootings often erupt too quickly for law enforcement to respond.

In anticipation of passage, school employees in 40 of Florida’s 67 counties already enrolled in or planned to take the 144-hour course, a spokesman for the Speaker of the House said. Some counties have resolved not to participate in the Guardian program.

Florida’s gun-control advocates had made stopping the proposal a top priority, among them Moms Demand Action For Gun Sense, which is funded by billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta; additional reporting by Steve Gorman)

At least 18 people, mostly children, die in flash flood in Jordan

A child survivor is helped as residents and relatives gather outside a hospital near the Dead Sea, Jordan October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

DEAD SEA Jordan (Reuters) – At least 18 people, mainly schoolchildren and teachers, were killed on Thursday in a flash flood near Jordan’s Dead Sea that happened while they were on an outing, rescuers and hospital workers said.

Thirty-four people were rescued in a major operation involving police helicopters and hundreds of army troops, police chief Brigadier General Farid al Sharaa told state television. Some of those rescued were in a serious condition.

Many of those killed were children under 14. A number of families picnicking in the popular destination were also among the dead and injured, rescuers said, without giving a breakdown of numbers.

Hundreds of families and relatives converged on Shounah hospital a few kilometers from the resort area. Relatives sobbed and searched for details about the missing children, a witness said.

King Abdullah canceled a trip to Bahrain to follow the rescue operations, state media said.

Israel sent search-and-rescue helicopters to assist, an Israeli military statement said, adding the team dispatched at Amman’s request was operating on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

Civil defense spokesman Captain Iyad al Omar told Reuters the number of casualties was expected to rise. Rescue workers using flashlights were searching the cliffs near the shore of the Dead Sea where bodies had been found.

A witness said a bus with 37 schoolchildren and seven teachers had been on a trip to the resort area when the raging flood waters swept them into a valley.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Alison Williams)

Texas leaders want more screening and more guns to prevent more shootings

Ten roses are left in memory of the victims killed in a shooting at the Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, U.S., May 20, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

By Jon Herskovitz

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Texas political leaders are considering installing airport-style security at public schools and screening students for mental health issues as alternatives to gun control to thwart a repeat of last week’s deadly shooting at a Houston-area high school.

The focus on school security and mental health has emerged since the shooting because Republican Governor Greg Abbott is facing few calls to overhaul gun laws in a state where the majority of the electorate backs gun ownership. The governor’s office said he would hold roundtable discussions from Tuesday to focus on the best options.

Eight students and two teachers were killed when a 17-year-old student opened fire at Santa Fe High School last week in the latest mass shooting at a U.S. school.

Craig Bessent, an assistant superintendent of the Wylie Independent School District in Abilene, said in an interview that he will take part in the roundtable and that he favored more police or security officers and more screening of students as they entered school campuses.

He also supports arming some teachers as “a good first line of defense,” a position that President Donald Trump has advocated.

“There’s not just the one thing you can do that will stop this and be a cure-all,” Bessent said. “There’s not a single answer.”

The shooting at Santa Fe High School occurred about three months after 17 teenagers and staff were shot dead at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, stoking the national debate over gun control.

About two-thirds of Texas Republicans believe if more people carried guns, the state would be safer, according to a statewide survey in late 2017 from the University of Texas and Texas Tribune.

The shooting rampage in Florida sparked a gun control campaign by students and parents that has piled on pressure nationwide for lawmakers to enact gun control legislation.

“Texas Republicans look at this tragedy and they do not see the gun as the problem,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston. “They see the person as the problem and security as the second problem.”

One of the state’s most prominent Republican leaders, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, said he wanted to limit entrances to schools and stagger class starting times to allow for searches. He acknowledged that such airport-style screening would carry a high cost for the thousands of school districts in the state.

The Republican-controlled legislature is out of session until January 2019, making it nearly impossible for the state to implement and fund any major changes that come out of this week’s three roundtable discussions.

“The roundtables are more political theater than anything else,” Jones said.

The governor has said he sees the roundtables as an essential step in coming up with a consensus approach to enhance school safety. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Political analysts said if Abbott wanted to implement changes already floated, such as adding more metal detectors in schools and allowing for court orders to remove firearms from a person who presents a danger, he would call for a special legislative session. Abbott has given no indication that he would do so.

Texas has 5.4 million students enrolled in its public schools and any changes it made statewide would be costly.

One program being run out of Texas Tech University in Lubbock to screen students who could harm themselves or others has Abbott’s attention. He said after the shooting that he wanted to use it across the state.

The program trains people, using FBI threat-assessment criteria, to go to schools and screen students, according to Billy Philips, an epidemiologist and director of the Office of Rural Health at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.

About 42,000 students have been screened through the program, according to data provided by Texas Tech. About 1 percent of them were referred to licensed counselors.

“Roughly about a third of those that were triaged were for suicidal intention, and they’re mostly female; females act in, males act out,” Phillips said.

Before the shooting at Santa Fe High School, Texas Democrats had filed about 15 bills related to gun violence, almost all of which died when the legislative session ended last year. They included measures to buy back guns, improve gun safety education and create a lethal violence protective order to stop a potentially dangerous person from buying or possessing a firearm.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York, Rich McKay in Atlanta, Liz Hampton and Erwin Seba in Santa Fe, Texas; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Frank McGurty)

Arizona governor signs bill to boost teachers’ wages amid strike

The U.S. and Arizona flags flutter in the wind in Fountain Hills, Arizona, U.S. on September 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ricardo Arduengo

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) – Arizona’s governor signed a budget bill on Thursday that will boost teachers’ wages by 20 percent over the next three years, after dozens of the state’s school districts canceled classes as part of a strike to demand pay raises.

Tens of thousands of Arizona teachers, whose pay is more than $10,000 below the national average of $59,000 per year, have held a week-long walkout that has been the largest teachers’ strike in U.S. history and has kept most of state’s 1.1 million public school students out of class.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled state legislature worked through the night to pass the $10.4 billion budget. Outside, hundreds of red-clad teachers held a overnight rally, local media reported.

The bill allocates more than $600 million for salary increases, meaning teachers would get raises of nearly 10 percent this year and about five percent in each of the following two years.

“Arizona teachers have earned a raise, and this plan delivers,” Ducey said in a statement issued as he signed the bill. “This plan not only provides our teachers with a 20 percent increase in pay by school year 2020, it also provides millions in flexible dollars to improve our public education system,” added Ducey, a Republican.

The budget also includes about $371 million over five years to restore cuts imposed on education spending during the U.S. recession that ended in 2009, starting with $100 million this fiscal year, according to state officials. This figure is far less than the $1.1 billion teachers say has been cut from their budgets since the recession.

Although the budget bill was passed, districts in Phoenix, Tucson and Tempe, along with more than three dozen districts throughout the state, had already notified parents and local media that classes were canceled on Thursday, according to the Arizona Republic newspaper.

The protests are part of a national teacher action that began in West Virginia and spread to other Republican-controlled states, including Kentucky and Oklahoma.

Walkout organizers in Arizona had previously said they could not support the budget, but recognized it was likely the best offer they would get.

(Reporting by David Schwartz and Andrew Hay; Additional reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry)