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Education

PPS Teachers Approve New Start Times, Clearing Way For Busing Changes

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Seth Perlman
/
AP

As Pittsburgh Public Schools board members heard from parents who urged them to not change school start times, the union representing teachers announced Monday that its members had overwhelmingly approved a contract containing start-time shifts.

Of the teachers’ union members who returned a ballot, 87.8 percent approved a tentative contract with the district. About 66% of the 2,329 members of the professional unit cast ballots.

Now the school board will vote on whether to ratify the contract during its meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

District administrators have sought to shift the start and end times for schools in order to use bus drivers more efficiently; the district is significantly short on drivers and has said so since the spring. The shifted schedule had to be included in the collective bargaining agreement with the teachers’ union, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, because of its impact on the work day.

PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis on Monday said the contract “advances teachers and professionals economically, [and] secures our high-quality health care.”

“[Administrators] have a very firm belief that they will be able to bring more students in, and they really want to be able to fill the seats, which is an interest of all of ours,” she said. “The driver shortage is not just a Pittsburgh phenomenon … we know it’s happening everywhere. We have to figure out something.”

In a statement, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said the new agreement brought the district closer to returning students for in-person learning five days a week.

“Allowing us to implement a multi-tiered busing schedule … will increase the number of routes one driver can make, narrowing the seat gap. I am truly grateful to these invaluable employees and hopeful for the upcoming school year and beyond,” he said in the statement.

The district says it has a plan to get all students to school on the first day – Sept. 3. But part of that plan hinges on the contract being approved with shifted school start-times.

The union and district have been in contract negotiations since January 2020. The parties came to a tentative agreement at the beginning of this month, including the subject of schedule shifts.

Earlier this month, Hamlet proposed a two-week delay to the start of the school year to give the district more time to solve the transportation issue. Parents reacted strongly, with some calling the last-minute announcement disrespectful as families scrambled to find child care. Based on that feedback, Hamlet then proposed an earlier date and apologized for causing confusion and stress. Now students will return Friday, Sept. 3.

Earlier Start Times

Parents recently have expressed frustration regarding the proposal, as several high schools would start the day at 7:15 am, which is about 15 minutes earlier for most of the schools. Parents have noted that the decision contradicts research from major health organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics which recommends that adolescents start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Nearly 50 people spoke to the board during a public hearing Monday night, with about half of them addressing the earlier start-times for high school students. Most of them did not want the schedules to shift.

Angela Eagle, a parent of an Allderdice student, said the proposed schedule changes are not that drastic. She was the only speaker who did not oppose the changes.

“It’s a fair tradeoff to get kids into school where they belong,” she said in submitted testimony.

The national organization Start School Later, along with the group's local Western Pennsylvania chapter, sent a letter to Hamlet and the school board urging them to reverse the proposal.

“This [transportation] crisis may be a hidden opportunity to re-evaluate status quo start times and transportation logistics,” the group said in a letter from Executive Director Terra Ziporyn stated. “Many districts facing similar challenges have found, for example, that creative use of transportation software can identify opportunities to improve bell schedules and bus tiers to improve the safety and health of all students. In any evaluation, however, starting middle and high schools before 8:30 a.m. should no more be on the table than not paying for heat in February or not removing asbestos.”

Esposito-Visgitis said the PFT weighed many opinions about early start times. She said she will be “interested to see how many children it affects. What I’m seeing are schools pulling together and working together to make things best for kids.”

The contract vote showed awareness and understanding that something had to be done differently to get kids in school, she added.

“Everybody has a different opinion on this. I must say everyone has a different side of opinion on this,” she said. “This is something that has been debated for years and will continue to be debated for years.”

Esposito-Visgitis said the contract also upheld health care benefits, which was important for teachers.

“It’s not that we gained in our health care. We did give up one point in health care,” she said, although she declined to elaborate on that point.

WESA’s Julia Zenkevich contributed to this report.