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Pittsburgh Public Schools Again Delays Return To In-Person Learning

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh Public Schools students will not return to buildings until at least April, nearly 13 months after the district shuttered all of its schools due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The board voted 7-2 Wednesday to again delay a phased-in return for some students. Board members Devon Taliaferro and Sala Udin voted against the resolution.

Board president Sylvia Wilson proposed the resolution earlier this month. Those who supported the delay said it was for the health and safety of students and staff. They noted transportation issues, as many students ride Port Authority buses, which limit the number of passengers. They said it was unfair to compare PPS to suburban districts that have opened because they are smaller and have updated facilities and technology. They said it wasn't safe for students and staff to return. 

Taliaferro said her vote to return was for the Black and brown women who work at learning hubs across the city, helping students log into their classes and complete their homework, and for the parents who have facilitated their childrens' learning for nearly a year. 

"We've been putting the burden on people for far too long," she said. 

The resolution directs the administration to evaluate which students will return first based on criteria including attendance, grades, Individualized Education Plans for students with disabilities, English language learners and students experiencing homelessness.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet told the board that his administration has a plan to return all 22,000 students. He said that plan was not available, but would be once it was updated based on the latest delay.

"Based on this evening’s resolution, we will pivot and adjust our student cohorts based on an evaluation of student data in a way that equitably identifies students who are struggling the most in E-Learning," Hamlet said in a statement after the meeting. 

He warned, though, that the new variant of the virus and holdups with vaccines could further delay returns.

This week, the board heard more than six hours of testimony from more than 120 teachers, parents and students.

For the most part, parents urged the district to bring students back. They gave various examples of how their children were struggling socially and emotionally. Many said they feared that their students were not receiving a quality education. Parents said the district repeatedly moved the goal posts. They said they wanted better communication and clear criteria the district is using to make decisions.

The Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative, a group of 70 local organizations and individuals, also advocated for a return to buildings.

Most teachers who submitted testimony said they did not feel safe teaching students in-person. Many took issue with comments board members had made about the lack of learning across the district. They acknowledged the shortcomings of online learning. Many said they were frustrated that they didn’t receive comprehensive training to teach remotely. The most repeated ask from teachers was to wait until they can get vaccinated.

Neither the district nor the teachers’ union have surveyed staff about their willingness to return in-person.

The district did survey staff about vaccinations. Seventy percent said they wanted the vaccine. Seventeen percent said they were undecided and 8 percent said they would decline it.

The district surveyed families in the fall and as of October, 70 percent of students had opted to return in some form.

Teacher Vaccinations

Educators are in phase 1B of Pennsylvania’s vaccination program. Neither the state nor the county have said when that phase will begin. Rodney Necciai, assistant superintendent for student support services, said that as of Wednesday the district had not been given a projected date of when teachers will be vaccinated.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said she had “no words” to express her frustration that the state expanded phase 1A. She is advocating for teachers to be put in 1A.  

The PFT board unanimously approved a resolution last week urging the district to continue remote learning until staff have received two vaccine doses, which have to be taken as much as a month apart.

Udin said Wednesday that it is reasonable for teachers to want to have the first dose before going back to school. But, he said it was unreasonable to also require teachers have the second dose.

Esposito-Visgitis said she wants the board to be transparent about other issues impacting the delay, including transportation and building ventilation issues.

District solicitor Ira Weiss said Wednesday that when the district briefly returned some 800 students in November, there was a dramatic increase of staff leave requests.

“It’s very clear that many staff utilize the leaves that are available to them … it creates a situation where you can’t staff a school to educate the children,” Weiss said.

When Is It Safe?

Hamlet has said that the district is following the state department of education’s guidance for reopening. It recommends that districts remain fully online if their county is at the “substantial” level of transmission for two consecutive weeks. The department updated that guidance this month and now recommends that districts in the substantial level return its elementary school students.

Allegheny County Health Director Dr. Debra Bogen said this month that classrooms “seem to be a very low-risk activity in terms of the spread of the virus.”

Credit Allegheny County Department of Health
Allegheny County Department of Health
The total number of COVID-19 cases connected to K-12 schools in Allegheny County. Dr. Bogen said that case investigations found that just as many cases were reported in districts that were fully remote as those that were in-person.

Data from the fall semester show that there were just as many cases of the coronavirus among those who were in school, hybrid or online.

“The cases tended to be more in the older students and mostly among staff,” she told the Board of Health earlier this month. “Many of those who reported cases also had household contacts.”

Bogen on Wednesday noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's most recent findings show little evidence that schools that opened for in-person instruction in the fall contributed in a meaningful way to the spread of COVID-19. 

The article authored by three CDC scientists found that "the type of rapid spread that was frequently observed in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites has not been reported in education settings in schools."

Support For Students

Taliaferro said she wants a plan from the district on how it is going to support the students who are at a disadvantage with remote learning. The district has said that 99 percent of students have logged into the learning platform this year. The district also boasts a high daily login rate.

Earlier this month district administrators presented first quarter grades, which have declined from last year.

Credit Pittsburgh Public Schools
Pittsburgh Public Schools

Taliaferro said the district needed to have “an honest conversation” about how the district will support students who won’t return in April.

Board member Kevin Carter echoed that sentiment. He said he thought the district was making the same “rookie mistakes” it made at the beginning of the pandemic. He said the board hasn’t been provided the adequate scientific data to make an informed decision. Carter proposed an amendment this summer that was approved to remain remote through November.

“Here we are months later talking about the same thing about data and reopening. And we’re being scorched by the public for what I see as an administrative failure,” Carter said. “You guys should have spent July through November coming up with the plans necessary so that we could reopen our buildings and get our kids back.”

Hamlet said he respectfully disagreed. He said that the district received community input during its “All In To Reopen Our Schools” work where community members, staff and students collaborated on a plan to reopen schools in the fall.

Carter said the district should have been discussing how it could pivot based on COVID-19 case numbers rather than continuously delaying a hybrid model.  

“At some point we have to own what didn’t happen and make something that works happen,” Carter said.