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Parents Express Frustration With City School District’s Plan To Delay School Year

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

A special public hearing is scheduled Monday night to discuss plans to delay the start of the school year in city schools, but school districts have already been hearing from parents frustrated by the short notice the district gave about the changes.

Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators say they are committed to offering in-person learning five days a week though they are short on transportation options for nearly 11,000 students. They say proposals to push back the start of the school year and adjust school start times will get them closer to making sure all kids have a safe way to get to buildings.

"School will start on the 8th," said Superintendent Anthony Hamlet during a Monday-morning Facebook Live “talk back” session with district parents. "If we can’t get to it, get to all of our students being transported, we have to look at some hybrid form or fashion to make sure school starts on the 8th."

Still, Hamlet said he was committed to having in-person learning five days a week, and appeared to push back on a WESA story that said the district might be walking back that commitment. "A report interpreted that I was [wavering] on my commitment to coming back five days a week," he said. "That is not the case. I was being honest about our current reality about living in a pandemic. We are still in a pandemic and as such it would be foolish to not expect change or adversity."

Mike McNamara, the district’s interim chief operations officer, said on Facebook Live that the district has known of the bus driver workforce shortage for more than a year. Last year the district was able to transport students when schools returned to a hybrid model because about half of students needed transportation daily. District students learned remotely for more than a year when the district moved to a model where students were in-person two days a week.

Many asked during the webinar why the district waited so long to announce that it would delay school to address the driver shortage. McNamara said the district has been transparent about its transportation shortage during the past year.

“We’ve explored every avenue possible to solve for the problem that would minimize the impact on students, teachers and our communities," he said. "When we were still coming up short for seats for students, we knew we had to make district-wide start time changes. These start time changes are linked to the tentative agreement with the [Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers]. And once we learned that the process for approval of these changes would not be completed until at least Aug. 25, we immediately notified the stakeholders of the need to change the first day of school."

The district and teacher’s union have been negotiating a contract since January 2020. Changes to the start of the school day have to be approved through contract negotiations. PFT members are set to vote on the contract by mail and results are expected Aug. 23, two days before the board is to vote on the start-time changes.

The district has already expanded the “walking” zones around schools so that fewer students will receive district transportation. The district has also moved more students to Port Authority buses, and launched a “release your seat” campaign incentivize parents to find alternative transportation. Those families will be reimbursed by the state, according to district officials.

Comments during the “talk back webinar” expressed frustration that the district was playing “catch up” and should have given families more notice of a delay in the start of the school year Other parents were upset that their sixth-grade children would be riding public transportation without a lot of time to learn the routes. They asked why students couldn’t start the year remotely, if students would lose their magnet placement if they moved to the online academy, and if the district will provide child-care options during the two-week delay.

Administrators said they were working with out-of-school time partners to address care needs.

The Monday-night special public hearing can be streamed at pghschools.org at 6 p.m.

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.
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