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Education Advocates Ask City School District For Transparency In Reopening Plans

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA
Colleen Vilsack, left, helps a student during virtual learning at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania's Millvale location.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools board will vote next week on a proposal to again delay the return to in-person learning. A coalition of local groups that advocate for children want the district to better communicate why students and staff haven’t returned to in-person learning.  

A vast majority of the district’s 22,000 students haven’t been in a school building since March.

The Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative includes 70 organizations and individuals, and says the district must be more transparent what what criteria will be used to open schools. District administrators have said they are using the state Department of Education’s guidance that recommended districts remain remote if there is “substantial” spread of the virus within the district’s county. Allegheny County is in the substantial level of spread. 

That guidance was updated this month. Now, the department encourages elementary schools in counties with substantial spread to move to a hybrid model, but PPS has said it would continue with its original plan to phase students back into buildings. Students and staff were to return this month. Instead the plan is for a February return, though board president Sylvia Wilson has proposed pushing the return to April. The district wants to first bring back Cohort D, which includes students with disabilities and those learning English as a second language. 

The PLC wants the district to clarify the rational for delaying the start of in-person learning.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis has said she doesn't want teachers to return to classrooms until they have the opportunity to be vaccinated. 

James Fogarty the Executive Director of A+ Schools, a PPS watchdog group, said Friday that because of the uncertainty around vaccination roll out, the district should focus on returning its most vulnerable students first. 

Carlos Carter, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Education Fund, said that he expects dropout rates to increase, which could mean increased homelessness. In the 2018-19 school year, 3,400 Allegheny County children were identified as experiencing homelessness, which includes living in a shelter, on the street or temporarily staying with family or friends. That year PPS identified 7%, or more than 1,853 students, experiencing homelessness.

“A remote education has drastically reduced the number of students experiencing homelessness that PPS has even been able to identify because they rely on hearing a family’s need for transportation to school to trigger as counting them as homeless,” Carter said.

He said while in-person learning could be a health risk, remote learning is “creating a huge risk” for students experiencing homelessness. The pandemic has exacerbated educational inequities that existed before the pandemic. Carter said students with unstable housing are missing more days of school than their peers with stable housing.

One student the organization works with was issued a laptop with a faulty charger. Carter says the student has to hold the charger in place for the computer to hold a charge.

“So for a large part of the day, she’s adjusting for her broken equipment with one hand while attempting to navigate her schoolwork with the other hand,” Carter said. “This is not an adequate learning environment for anybody.”

He said the district has typically fixed technology issues, but that takes time that results in a loss of learning. Carter spoke of families who are rationing food because of unreliable transportation or not having time to pick up meals offered by the district at schools.

Technology has also been an issue for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Western PA. The organization operates learning hubs where students participate in their remote classes and complete homework.

“Frankly for some of our young people, the devices they received are not really adequate or working effectively to actually meet the assignments that the teachers are requesting that they do,” said Executive Director Lisa Abel-Palmieri.

BGC of Western PA raised money and purchased hundreds of Chromebooks and computers for students.

“The challenge that lies ahead is really making sure that we are closing this gap that we are seeing so many of our kids fall deep into because of the challenge of adopting online learning,” she said. “I’m really glad our staff and the other providers of learning hubs are stepping up to make sure our most vulnerable kids are getting the support they need. But there are many, many kids that none of us are reaching that are out there with no support.”

The Learning Collaborative also asked for those concerned about remote learning to testify Monday during the board of directors’ monthly public hearing. It can be streamed at pghschools.org.