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'Woefully Inadequate' - City School Board Questions District’s Remote Learning Rollout

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Brashear High School staff sort computers to distribute to students.

Two Pittsburgh Public Schools board members told administrators Wednesday that the way the school district has transitioned to remote learning is unsatisfactory.

Kevin Carter and Sala Udin, board members representing Districts 8 and 3 respectively, both had tense exchanges with district administrators Wednesday about the pace of equipping students with computers and the quality of material that has been distributed.

Carter said the district was taking a “tortoise pace” to move kids online. He said parents are complaining about the “lackluster approach” to resolving issues. Udin called the district’s response “woefully inadequate,” and expressed frustration with its inability to get laptops into the hands of students who need them.

“I would hope that the administration would develop a workable strategy for raising money,” he said.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said he begged to differ. He said no one was prepared for the shutdown and to have online education within a month, “is amazing in itself.”

“For you to think that having it at a snap of your fingers it is going to be there, that’s not the case. I can tell you that my team is working hard to make sure that we get to kids at some point but also the information that we’re putting out.”

The district rolled out a system of remote learning for 23,000 students last week. But some districts in the region have been teaching students for weeks.

Seniors were prioritized and started work on April 16. Instruction is not happening in real time because not all students have access to internet or devises. 

Ted Dwyer is the chief of data, research, assessment and accountability. He said 3,386 computers have been distributed to high school students and 240 hotspots were issued. The district is collecting donations on its website to purchase more.

Hamlet said between 80 and 85 percent of families responded to the district’s technology survey. Schools were asked to reach out to students who did not respond to determine their needs. Hamlet did not say the total number of students who need devices.  

Students who do not have technology were given paper packets of material. There was a printing error with a number of the packets that made pictures and words on some pages blurry. Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins said that issue has been resolved and would not happen again.

Dwyer said he expects to have laptops purchased for remaining students in need by the end of May. Board member Carter said that was too late because school is out June 12.

“Now we have kids that will have gone two to three months without daily instruction and that’s a problem,” he said.

Dwyer said the goal is to have a laptop or device for every student in the district, but that will require thousands of more devices.

Many suburban districts began remotely learning quickly because students already had the technology. Schools refer to it as a 1 to 1 model. Before the closure only two PPS schools were one to one with devices: The Creative and Preforming Arts school downtown and the Science and Technology Academy in Oakland, both magnet schools that accept students through a lottery system.

“In a perfect world we would have a one to one situation but we were not positioned to have one to one devices that the district issues to students that they could take home,” Dwyer said. “It will take us time to get to that position.”

Board President Sylvia Wilson noted that the district can't afford to buy devices for all kids.

“To be quite honest we haven’t had the money to provide devices for every single person. That was one of the reasons we’ve been looking for donations,” she said. “You can’t provide things quickly if you don’t have the money and you don’t have the devices.”

The board increased taxes last year for the first time in five years because of financial concerns.

Hamlet said getting more computers is also a supply and demand problem. He said even if they had the money, districts across the country are trying to buy computers at the same time.

Carter said the district should put other projects on hold and prioritize purchasing devices, especially if there’s a chance schools could still be closed in the fall.

“The fact that we have to waste four more weeks to get students device’d up … that’s unconscionable,” Carter said.

Grading Guidelines

The board was set to vote Wednesday on how to grade student work during remote learning.

Board Member Cindy Falls moved to uphold a district policy that gives full control of setting grading standards to the superintendent. She said the board is meant to evaluate the Superintendent’s work rather than set standards.

Udin said that move was hiding behind policy.

“If we are saying that Dr. Hamlet has full responsibility for this, then Dr. Hamlet you have full responsibility for the consequences that will come from it. It’s in your lap,” he said.

A previous iteration of the guidelines suggested that students would have to be “engaged” in order to pass the quarter. Multiple community members were concerned by that and told the board during a public hearing this week that students without resources shouldn’t be harmed because of the pandemic.

Board member Pam Harbin said the state department of education should have set grading standards rather than leaving it up to individual districts.

“Now when you apply to colleges, colleges are going to have to say ‘well Bethel Park did this, Mt. Lebanon did this and Pittsburgh Public did this’,” she said. “I think the whole process was messy. I am just going to continue to push as a board member for us to do it the right way which I think is our right no matter if we’re voting on it or not.”

Most Allegheny County districts are using a pass/fail model for remote learning.

Colleges were the first to either make all grades pass/fail this semester or to give students the option to do so. University presidents have said that online courses are dramatically different and that Grade Point Averages shouldn’t be altered because of adverse circumstances.