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‘Too Much Scrambling’: Frustrated City School District Parents Weigh In On Proposed Delay

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA

After his daughter spent a year learning from kindergarten teachers via an iPad, Matt Diersen prepared a backup plan if the city school district again moved to remote learning: sending his daughter to a Catholic school.

And now that administrators want to push back the return to school by two weeks, he says he's a step closer to using it.

If the delay lasts no longer than Sept. 8, as the administration proposed this week, Diersen said relatives can help with child care. But, he said, "If Sept. 8th starts to approach and they’re talking about [returning] Sept. 16 or something … or they shuffle over to virtual learning again, we’re going to have to pull the plug" — and pull his daughter out of public schools.

“We can’t keep her at a daycare that we’re paying for and … things are going to have to get back to normal,” Diersen said. “It feels like PPS was given a year to kind of play it by ear, and my concern is that they’ll carry that forward.”

The father of two says he and his wife believed that Pittsburgh Public Schools would return to in-person learning for five days a week. The district says it is holding to that promise, but it’s struggling to secure transportation, and the rise in COVID-19 cases in the region could threaten the return that families like Diersen’s are relying on.

On Tuesday, district Superintendent Anthony Hamlet announced during a morning press conference that he would ask the school board to approve a two-week delay. Later a robocall went out to parents that said to avoid making children and staff wear masks in hot schools, the district would return Sept. 8, rather than Aug. 25 and 26, as planned. It went on to say the delay would give the district time to implement its “transportation strategy."

The school board does have to approve the calendar change. It is set to vote at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 18. (The meeting can be streamed live at pghschools.org.)

But scores of parents turned out at the district's central office in Oakland Wednesday evening, a full week before that vote, to register their disapproval in a quickly-called protest.

"They need to either start school on time, or they need to resign," said PPS parent Nathan VanHoudnos. "And that’s Hamlet and everyone that works for him. This is ridiculous.”

"Tonight is just not about the school starting late," said Brandi Fisher, a longtime community activist. "It’s about the many, many issues that we face here and not having a quality education as taxpayers and as a city. ... The superintendent needs to go. We need new leadership, and we need a change here.”

Hamlet has said the two-week delay will give two new bus companies the district has contracted enough time to onboard more drivers. There are nearly 11,000 students who don’t have district-provided transportation, according to Director of Transportation Megan Patton — largely because of a nationwide bus driver shortage.

Now as parents scramble to find child care, they’re running into another workforce shortage.

Cara Ciminillo, executive director of early learning advocacy group Trying Together, said Wednesday that some providers in the city can’t reopen classrooms because they don’t have enough staff to meet health and safety student-to-teacher ratios.

“[Providers are] starting to see a greater need because parents and families are inquiring about space. Some providers have waitlists, but they don’t have the staff to meet the need,” she said. “The PPS decision in some ways is another stressor on the system, another identified need that they won't necessarily be able to respond to.”

'Never clear, concise or quite enough'
The transportation problem isn’t new. Historically, the district has contracted drivers and buses because it says it would be too expensive to operate a fleet of its own. In the past, district officials have said they contract with almost every available company in the area and still often run short.

But last month some transportation companies with which the district contracts told WESA that they had little contact with the district during the past few months. Garage managers said they continue to struggle to find people to work in the part-time position that requires licensing and background checks. Some blamed the gig economy. Hours are more flexible and wages are higher when driving for ride-share and delivery companies.

The district began to post recruiting material for bus drivers in the spring. On Tuesday the district announced it was also asking parents who could provide alternative transportation to “release your seat.” Patton said the district is working with the state to reimburse parents who do give up a bus seat.

The district already eliminated some bus routes to reduce the number of needed drivers. More students were designated to walk to school, while others were moved to Port Authority buses.

Parent Leah Hohman is now devising a plan for her three children, one who will ride a PAT bus and two younger ones who are supposed to walk more than a mile to school. She hopes her older student will be able to meet them at their school and walk to their dad’s workplace.

“I come up with a good plan in my head and then I think, ‘We have to have a rain plan’,” she said. “We need more because these are places they need to be, and we can’t decide to go or not to go because of the weather.”

She said she doesn’t feel well-informed about the decisions the district makes.

“It has felt a little bit as of late like PPS does too much scrambling and too close to go time,” she said. “What is provided is never clear, concise or quite enough.”

The delay announcement took teachers by surprise, too. Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said Wednesday that she had spoken to Hamlet about the plan, but getting a signed contract for teachers after a year without one is her primary goal.

Esposito-Visgitis said she’s now concerned about the delta variant of COVID-19 and getting more teachers vaccinated. The union doesn’t track how many of its members have received the vaccine, though she says she has no problem with a teacher vaccine mandate.

“Nobody wants to delay the school year, but watching the [COVID-19 case] numbers makes me very nervous,” she said. “We all need to work together to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

Julia Zenkevich contributed to this story.

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.