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Pittsburgh Public Schools Proposes Delayed Start To Address Bus Driver Shortage

Robert F. Bukaty

Pittsburgh Public Students may return to school two weeks later than originally planned as the district figures out how to get students to buildings.

District administrators announced during a press conference Tuesday that they hope to have students back in school on Sept. 8, with teachers returning Aug. 30. Students had been scheduled to go back Aug. 25 and 26.

The school board will hold a special meeting Aug. 18 to vote on the calendar changes.

According to administrators, the shift in start date will give two new bus companies that the board approved contracts with last month time to recruit and train drivers.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said Monday that the district is short 426 drivers impacting 10,996 students. The district has proposed school start time changes that Hamlet says will cut that shortage in half. Those changes still have to be approved by the school board at the regular August legislative meeting Aug. 29.

The proposed changes took many by surprise. Teachers and parents posted on social media Tuesday that they were notified by robocall hours after a Tuesday morning press conference announcing the proposals. The robo call noted that the delay would prevent students and teachers from wearing masks during hot summer weather and would allow the district time to implement its "transportation strategy."

Parent Katy Rank Lev has three children in the district and said she doesn’t understand why the district thinks two weeks will be enough time to fix the problem.

“I’m pretty angry,” she said. “I consider myself a really involved parent … I feel like they’ve had one job which is to get kids in seats. I don’t understand what they’ve been doing since March 13, 2020 (when the district moved to remote learning).”

Some parents say the proposed start times are unhealthy for children. Nearly 400 have signed a petition asking the board to not approve the changes.

Multiple major medical organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that middle and high school students start no earlier than 8 a.m. Some area school districts have raised the concern that adolescents are chronically sleep-deprived because of early start times that don’t match their natural sleep patterns.

Tamara Dubowitz started the petition. Her oldest attends a Pittsburgh Public School but she recently pulled her two younger children from the district because of how it has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Students learned remotely for more than a year. Dubowitz said she received little to no communication from her younger children's school principal. That combined with the looming fear that this school year could be similar to last led to her pulling her younger children from the district.

“We knew we just could not do another year of basically what turned into a disaster for all kids,” she said. “Ultimately it came down to the ability of Pittsburgh Public to handle and manage a school district. And I think things really started spiraling out of control last year.”

Dubowitz acknowledged the privilege of parents who can pull their children from the public school district.

“The parents that are the most fed up are the parents that have the ability to be most fed up. But the parents who are stuck in this situation are being punished the most,” she said.

Director of Transportation Megan Patton said Monday that she is confident that the modifications the district is making will reduce the transportation gap to “nearly zero."

The district already moved some students to Port Authority buses and expanded the walk zones to eliminate some routes. Now it wants the board to approve later start times and a tiered bus schedule, which is says would more efficiently use its drivers.

The district also launched a campaign Tuesday to get parents to “release your seat,” which would reimburse parents who transport their own children to school. Patton said the district is working with the state to finalize the plan, and she did not know Monday how much parents would receive for participating.

When asked if the district was considering a hybrid education model that offers options for both in-person and remote learning because of the rise in COVID-19 cases, Hamlet said hybrid could still be an option for PPS. The district has promised that it will return five days a week, but Hamlet said Monday that the plan could change.

“We don’t know where this delta variant is going … so there may be a time during certain situations that (hybrid) may happen. There may be hybrid, there may be remote based on several factors,” Hamlet said.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.