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Pittsburgh Public Schools and child care providers grapple with staffing shortages

Gabriel Watson, 3, works on a puzzle during his preschool class at Children's Playhouse Whitman in South Philadelphia.
Emma Lee
Gabriel Watson, 3, works on a puzzle during his preschool class at Children's Playhouse Whitman in South Philadelphia.

The omicron variant may cause less severe disease in those who contract it, but the spiraling caseloads are deepening the pandemic crisis for many Pittsburgh parents.

Over the past two weeks, staffing shortages driven by the disease have led Pittsburgh Public schools to close many of its buildings, often with little warning. Nearly a third of Allegheny County child care providers have also temporarily shuttered classrooms or entire programs.

“The needs are so great, and family capacity to handle juggling jobs and remote learning is even less with additional resources that were provided last year having been depleted,” said James Fogarty, executive director of education advocacy group A+ Schools.

And while there is broad agreement that the situation is dire – especially for working parents – there is little consensus on what to do about it. Among some parents, Fogarty said, “There's a desire to close all schools until this omicron wave passes.” But to other parents, “The fact that there isn't a contingency plan for child care from the district when schools have to close is unconscionable. Others are just frustrated at [getting] calls going out after 7 each night telling folks that their school will be closed or open tomorrow.”

But in any case, the response from local government has been halting.

‘How do we make sure that every kid is safe if schools close?’

Last school year, the county’s Department of Human Services paid for service providers, like the Boys and Girls Club, to open their buildings and hire staff during the day to serve as “learning hubs” for around 1,000 county students who were in remote learning. The hubs provided adult supervision as students learned online using their district-provided computers or tablets.

But a DHS spokesperson told WESA last week that the county has no plans to relaunch the learning hubs for schools where closures are temporary. The county used federal relief money and its own budget last year to support the hubs.

Fogarty notes that even if all the hubs reopened from last year, there wouldn’t be enough spaces for all children that need supervision. But he said the district could and should focus on providing services for at-risk kids — those whose parents have to work and can provide little oversight during a school day conducted remotely from home.

“If there was a clear plan where school or community-based learning locations that supported our students most at risk of school failure, the public would rally behind such a plan,” he said.

No such plans seem imminent.

Some have suggested that PPS use a closed school building with a smaller staff as a learning hub — assuring parents who have to work that their children are being supervised as they learn. But PPS spokesperson Ebony Pugh said this week that district leadership has not discussed doing so. She said that she couldn’t speak to why.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgitis says the omicron wave has exacerbated staffing problems that have been building for some time.

“We are not retaining teachers in the way we have,” she said. “A lot of it is COVID: If people can retire, a lot of times now they’re going to because it’s a rough time.”

School board member Tracey Reed acknowledged that a lot of families rely on school to be open during the day while they’re working.

“I think that whose responsibility it is less important than, you know as a community we just get it done,” Reed said. “How do we make sure that every kid is going to be safe if schools close?”

She said it’s “time for all hands-on deck,” and that the district must work with community groups to direct families to potential resources. She said that she thinks the district's out-of-school time department does a good job at forging relationships with community groups for after-school programs and summer activities. But she said that now is the time for the district to think deeply and creatively with partners, "about the issue of care for kids and about how to forge those really strong partnerships with outside with community organizations so that when issues arise... we need that partnership to be strong in order to provide the best possible education for kids that we can."

Reed suggested that the district survey families to determine the extent of need and prioritize child care for those most at risk. The district surveyed families in the fall about transportation needs in a similar way when it faced driver shortages.

Board member Devon Taliaferro said the district is relying on community groups to step up to help with solutions. She also called the district's staffing issues an 'all hands-on deck' situation.

“It’s just really a time where we have to come together, not be divided,” she said.

She said her goal is to keep as many schools as open as possible to provide stability for students.

"After [students] being out of school for 18 months or more, I just think that normalcy is a very difficult thing to find during this time. But, I think as much of it we can find, we need to apply to our students," she said.

‘What’s the point of going back to work?’

But child care providers outside the school system are struggling too.

Cara Ciminillo, the executive director of early childhood advocacy group Trying Together, said that roughly a third of Allegheny County's providers have had to halt operations in a classroom or entire program at least temporarily due to staffing shortages because of illness or exposure.

“We have never seen this great [a number] of closures as we have seen in the past week and a half,” she said on Wednesday.

Even providers that remain open, she said, tell her they don’t have the capacity or staffing to fill the gap when schools close. Providers must abide by strict teacher-to-student ratios and can’t quickly adjust for a temporary closure.

Jeremiah’s Place, an emergency child care provider in East Liberty, is a case in point. The facility reports record-breaking requests for service. Executive director Tammy Aupperle said that in a typical pre-COVID year the center cared for 250 children; in 2021 it cared for 370.

This month alone, Aupperle said that 16 families called because their child care center was closed because of COVID. Another 26 called because they were going back to work after being laid off but couldn’t find child care.

“We definitely are having increased calls and requests for service,” she said.

Staffing has been an issue for early-childhood programs even before the pandemic. As Ciminillo says, child care is not a well-funded system, and staff who care for young children are paid lower wages than public-school teachers. The pandemic magnified those challenges and added heavy responsibility for a population – children under 5 – that still doesn’t have access to vaccinations.

The centers, “are the backbone to all the other sectors' ability to do their work,” she said. “You still have a really vulnerable population, and it’s really important that those that are with young children are being safe and following all the protocols.”

Ciminillo said the most immediate solution to those problems would be for county residents to get vaccinated. As things stand, she said, “You’ve got families or parents that make the decision to say ‘until this really settles down, what’s the point of going back to work? Because I can’t be in and out, I don’t have an employer that’s sensitive to this and can allow me the flexibility.’”