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City School District Changes Start Times, Negotiates Staff Vaccine Mandate

Robert F. Bukaty

Most high-schoolers who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools will begin classes next Friday about 15 minutes earlier, and many elementary students will start about 15 minutes later.

In an 8-0 vote Wednesday, the board approved the 7:15 a.m. and 9:25 a.m. start times in an effort to get more kids to school. Board member Kevin Carter was absent.

The district faces a significant bus driver shortage. Administrators say staggering start times will allow the district to more efficiently use the bus drivers it does have by enabling them to take on multiple routes.

The board also voted 8-0 to begin collective bargaining with all district unions to mandate employee COVID-19 vaccinations. If its mandate is approved, the district would be the second in Allegheny County to enact such a measure.

District Solicitor Ira Weiss confirmed Wednesday that the district and the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers are in talks regarding a vaccine mandate. Weiss said the agreement is expected to be finalized within the next few days.

PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis told WESA earlier this month that she supported a mandate, though the district hadn’t approached a union about one at that time.

The Philadelphia Board of Education passed a resolution Tuesday mandating all district employees receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Pittsburgh Public spokesperson Ebony Pugh said Wednesday that vaccination, as a condition of employment, “is a mandatory subject of collective bargaining and would require the district to engage in dialogue with its multiple bargaining representatives.”

Staggering Schedules

Transportation Director Megan Patton said Wednesday that high schools will begin earlier because buses on average were already dropping kids off before 7:15 a.m., so the shift wouldn’t be much of a change.

Parents and students have criticized the school schedule changes, saying it’s unhealthy for teenage bodies to wake up that early. Many major health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend that adolescents start no earlier than 8:30 a.m.

Teachers, though, approved the schedule changes, which were included in a tentative contract that members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers approved by mail-in ballot. The contract was approved with 87 percent of the vote, the union announced Monday. Of its 2,300 members, 66 percent cast a ballot.

PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis said Monday that she agreed to the changes because she wants kids back in school as soon as possible. The district was one of a handful in Allegheny County to remain online for a majority of the 2020-21 school year.

Board member Pam Harbin said before the board approved the contract that the tiered schedule would allow the district to transport the largest number of students.

“As we see how this rolls out this year, if we can continue to adjust and make changes and consider a later start time for our high school students, I would appreciate that,” Harbin said.

The tentative start date to return to classrooms changed twice this month as Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s team wanted to delay the year by two weeks to address the driver shortage. After receiving substantial negative feedback, Hamlet then proposed an eight-day delay, which the board approved. Students will now return Sept. 3.

Parents won’t know the bus route their children will take or what time the bus will pick them up for another week, according to a robocall sent to families on Wednesday. In the robocall, Transportation Director Megan Patton said that information will be mailed early next week and that families will receive a personalized robo call on Sept. 1.

Earlier this month, the district also launched a campaign to reimburse families who find alternative transportation for students. In the call Wednesday, Patton announced that families will receive $10 a day for a round trip of less than 12 miles and $20 a day for a round trip of less than 20 miles.

Hamlet is scheduled to hold a press conference at 10 a.m. Thursday, although district officials would not confirm what the superintendent would address.

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.