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Most Pittsburgh Public Students Will Remain Online Until January

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA
Students participate in online learning at a Millvale Boys and Girls Club.

After two days of public testimony, multiple amendments and hours of discussion, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board voted Wednesday to delay the return of in-person learning for most students.

The district had originally planned for students to return two days a week starting Nov. 9 in cohorts. Students in cohorts A and B would have spent two days a week in buildings and the rest of the week learning virtually. The district’s 23,000 students have been online since March.

Now, students in cohort D will have the option to return to buildings on Nov. 9. That cohort now includes students with disabilities, medically fragile students and English learners.

Cohorts A and B will now continue learning online until at least Jan. 4 and no later than Jan 25, 2021.

Cohort C originally was the only group that would remain fully remote. Students and families opted into that cohort. Those students will have the option to return to in-person learning when cohorts A and B do so.

Board member Kevin Carter introduced the resolution to delay the changes.

“I don’t think that with the cases today [being] higher than they were seven months ago when we started this journey that it would make any logical sense … to re-open schools when cases are higher today,” he said.

As of Monday, the district said 15,488 students, or about 70 percent of enrollment, had opted to go back in-person.

Board President Sylvia Wilson voted against the amendments and abstained from the final vote. She said that many families are struggling and need the option to send their kids back to school.

“I’ve been contacted by quite a few parents who were taken by surprise that so many parents were speaking against returning to school," she said. "They didn’t realize that there was a campaign out there to do that. They said that if they had realized that there were so many people speaking to keep kids from going back on November 9th that they would have been more involved,” she said. “There’s a lot of kids that are not in the D cohort that really need to be in some type of in-person education right now.”

This week, the board heard from more than 150 teachers, parents and students during a public hearing that stretched over two nights. The vast majority were against returning in-person. Teachers said they didn’t want to disrupt established routines, and were concerned that Wi-Fi in the schools won’t be able to handle all of the new devices the district purchased for students. Teachers also said that students would get less instruction time because they would have to monitor students in the classroom and students on the computer at the same time.

Many speakers during the public hearing noted that the board itself continues to meet virtually. According to Wilson, the board will begin to meet in person in November.

Wilson also questioned how schools would be staffed under the amended plan. The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the district are still working on an agreement that would guide hybrid learning.

Board member Pam Harbin said that cohort A would only return for 13 days in person and cohort B would return for 10 before the end of the year. They would still be online the other days.

“Open up the buildings because there are definitely students that cannot and are not learning in the remote environment," she said. "I think we can all admit that for different reasons. That’s where cohort D was brought about for students … with complex needs."

Board member Sala Udin said while he and other board members know that in-person learning is more effective, he questioned whether the benefit was worth the risk of bringing students back in large numbers.

“Given time, we can fix and improve the learning," he said. “If children or staff get infected, we may not be able to fix that. I am not able to justify in my mind bringing kids back into large groups even though we have the promise of a better learning environment than if they are remote.”

Board member Veronica Edwards proposed adding “students who are low-achieving” to cohort D, but that proposal was voted down. Board members said that principals would have discretion to bring those students back in person. The language in the resolution says that cohort D also includes “other groups."