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Here’s what Pittsburgh Public Schools families need to know heading into the new year

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Katie Blackley
/
90.5 WESA

While Pittsburgh Public Schools is experiencing a number of district-wide challenges, most students should expect a typical return to schools on Aug. 29. Kindergarten students begin Sept. 1.

This summer, the school board hired a new superintendent, longtime administrator Wayne Walters, who served as the interim superintendent last school year. He inherits numerous staffing issues, declining enrollment and students and staff still recovering from three years of interrupted teaching and learning.

The district recently furloughed more than 20 teachers, though Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers president Nina Esposito-Visgistis said the union is working to return them to the classroom.

The district continues to face staff shortages in other areas and will host a job fair next week for food service workers and substitute teachers. Walters said the district is prepared to welcome students back on time with enough bus drivers to get them there. Despite staff shortages in its food services department, schools will continue serving free breakfast and lunch for all students, though menus could change based on supply chain issues.

PPS also has enough computers and devices for all students. In 2020, it purchased a computer or tablet for each of its more than 20,000 students. While not all students returned their devices at the end of the school year, Chief Technology Officer Mark Stuckey says they’ve replaced broken devices and will have enough for all students and staff.

Next week the board will vote on updates to its health and safety plan with COVID mitigation strategies. It’ll also vote on new academic initiatives and discipline protocols.

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Health and safety plans

Students and staff will likely be required to wear face coverings when they return to buildings.

The district’s policy mandates masking when Allegheny County is in a medium or high level of COVID-19. The county is currently at the medium level meaning everyone on school grounds will mask.

The school board will vote next week on a few changes to the state-required Health and Safety Plan, outlining mitigation strategies.

The biggest change to the plan is the elimination of quarantine for students who have been exposed to the virus. The CDC no longer recommends that students quarantine after an exposure unless they develop the virus. The PPS plan would require students exposed to the virus to wear a mask for 10 days

The district’s plan would allow students who tested positive for COVID-19 to return five days after testing positive compared to the 10 days they were required to stay home last year. Students who return would be required to wear an N95 or KN95 upon return. Those living with someone who contracts the virus can return to school but must wear an N95 or KN95 for 20 days.

The board will vote next week on a resolution to encourage all staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Employees who are not vaccinated or don't have a medical or religious exemption would need to undergo weekly testing.

Board member Pam Harbin wants the district to require unvaccinated staff to wear either an N95 or KN95 mask during medium or high levels to reduce potential spread.

“It’s not going to be just one thing that’s going to protect everybody, so we have to make sure we continue with the [layered mitigation],” Harbin said during a meeting this week.

Administrators have said they want to reduce the number of days that students are out of school without a remote learning option. The district is negotiating a memorandum of understanding with the teachers’ union that would outline what teachers are expected to plan for students who are out sick.

Harbin asked the administration to come up with a plan to take something off of a teacher’s plate, so that they can make lesson plans for sick students.

Transportation  

Last year, the district delayed the start of the year by two weeks as it was short about 400 drivers and unable to provide transportation for 6,000 students.

Over the last year, the district has worked with its 19 contracted carriers to recruit more drivers with sign-on bonuses and increased wages. It adjusted school start times to allow drivers to complete multiple routes and assigned more students to take public transportation to schools.

Chief Operations Officer Mike McNamara told the board this week that it eliminated more than 500 routes and more than 300 school vehicles for a savings of more than $1 million.

He said with the changes the district has enough drivers to get all kids to buildings this fall.

“We don’t have a surplus of drivers, so routes still may be affected by driver call-offs. We’re actively recruiting new drivers, and we’re still offering bonuses,” he said during a board meeting.

Bus schedules were mailed to families on Wednesday, and McNamara said that they should arrive at homes this week.

The district is also launching a “Bus Patrol” program this fall in an effort to reduce the number of drivers who pass school buses with stop sign arms extended. It’s partnering with the tech company Bus Patrol to equip school buses with cameras that use artificial intelligence to identify violations.

The company will hand over video evidence to local police, who will review the material and determine if there was a violation. Drivers will be cited and fined $300 for not stopping for school buses.

The program won’t cost the district and could earn money as the district will receive some of the fine money.

The program won’t ticket violators until Sept. 30, when its grace period ends.

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.