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City Councilors Call For 'Educational Emergency' Declaration

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA
PPS' Arsenal School in Pittsburgh's Lawrenceville neighborhood.

Pittsburgh City Councilors Ricky Burgess and Daniel Lavelle want to declare a "state of educational emergency" for Pittsburgh Public Schools, and on Tuesday proposed a bill urging a speedy return to in-person learning in district buildings. The move comes a week after the school board decided to continue online learning for the district -- and the board's president did not welcome the move.
Burgess said he drafted the resolution in part because of a chronic and worsening achievement gap between Black and white students.

“The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission in the fall gave a report talking about how Pittsburgh Public Schools have not closed the achievement gap,” he said. “There’s significant disparity between African-American students, which are a majority of the district, and their white counterparts.”

According to the legislation, the Commission did acknowledge that PPS has been trying to close the gap. But Burgess said the school board’s decision to not do in-person learning has only deepened the crisis -- and the district should be thinking of expanding the length of the school day, and the number of days in the school year.

City officials have no direct oversight of school district policy, and the emergency declaration appears largely symbolic in nature. But Burgess said the goal was to focus attention on addressing a crisis for Pittsburgh youth.

“We need all of us to make a commitment to educating these kids, to catch them up and get them grade-level proficient,” he said. “That means we’re going to probably have to put them in school this spring and keep them in school all summer long into September. It could be year-round schools the next two, three, four years. … It is a crisis, it is an emergency and we must do everything in our power to change the lives of these kids and give them a future.”

The legislation also proposes that the city, along with “interested stakeholders,” partner with the school board and superintendent to address the emergency. Recommendations to focus on include: reinstating in-person school instruction beginning with elementary schools as soon as possible; considering extended school days and school calendar; and eliminating the wait list for Early Childhood Education programs.

Sylvia Wilson is president of the school board, and represents a swath of the city that overlaps Burgess' own council district. She said the school board is already discussing Saturday schools and intense summer programs. Wilson said school districts across the country are addressing how to handle education amid the pandemic.

“If we’re in a state of emergency, we’re in a state of emergency around the country,” she said. “We’re not the only school dealing with COVID and learning and remote learning. The whole thing is about safety.”

Wilson also said city officials should talk directly with the school board before putting up legislation.

“It would be nice for somebody to talk to us first before making resolutions and making noise in the public,” she said. “Wouldn’t you talk with the people who you would need to work with on this? It’s not helping anyone to point fingers. We have meetings and they’re livestreamed, we have public hearings, people come out to speak. There’s no need for confusion, our families don’t need that. If you want to talk about the issues, talk to the people in the middle of it all. Why do you have to do a resolution about this?”  

Wilson said she did not hear from anyone in the city about the resolution, but Burgess said he did try to communicate with school officials

“I absolutely reached out to the president of the board, the superintendent, I reached out to a variety of stakeholders and was willing to have dialogue with them prior to the release of this legislation.”

Council will further discuss the legislation next Wednesday, and Burgess says he hopes to have a series of post-agenda meetings to discuss the matter.

Born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., Ariel finally made a “big move” 45 minutes down the interstate to the University of Alabama where she studied Journalism and International Studies. During her time in college she interned with Tuscaloosa News, a daily newspaper in her college town. After college, she got her first job back in her hometown with Birmingham Times, a weekly where she served as reporter and editor. Ariel made an even bigger move to Pittsburgh and joined the 90.5 WESA family as digital producer. She is adjusting to experiencing actual cold weather.
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