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Pittsburgh Public owes students nearly 603,000 hours of services missed during COVID

Adaptive bicycles school hallway
Jillian Forstadt
90.5 WESA
Pittsburgh Public Schools owes students with disabilities nearly 603,000 hours of physical therapy, emotional support and other services missed due to pandemic school closures. Only a fraction has been delivered so far.

During the pandemic, Rachel Schlosser’s son attended online school for just 45 minutes a day.

He has a rare neurological condition that impacts how he learns, and prior to COVID-19, received instructional support both individually and in small groups during his classes at Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Schlosser said that once the district moved online, however, the fifth-grader had a hard time staying on task. PPS remained remote for more than a year, and was among the last districts in Allegheny County to return to in-person learning.

“He absolutely missed an incredible amount of content and he regressed in many areas,” Schlosser said. “But three, four years later, how are we determining what he needs now to recoup for that loss?”

Like districts across the country, PPS is now working with families to answer that question, as required under Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act.

According to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, schools closed due to COVID-19 must comply with the law by delivering services missed due to pandemic disruptions to students with disabilities.

It’s a massive undertaking: more than 7,800 Pittsburgh students enrolled in the district between March 16, 2020 and June 16, 2022 are eligible for what PPS is calling COVID Compensatory Services, including students who have since graduated or chosen to enroll elsewhere.

According to district data obtained through a Right-To-Know request, nearly 603,000 hours of missed services are owed to current students alone.

Each student is owed 272 hours of instruction, on average, whether for missed academic support, emotional support, physical therapy or a combination of other services.

Students’ families, teachers and case managers were tasked with considering a host of factors when determining the number of hours and services owed, including the extent to which their abilities regressed during the pandemic period and their ability to access remote learning during closures.

For Schlosser’s son, now in ninth grade at Taylor Allderdice High School, the remedy she and the district agreed upon looks like hundreds of hours of special education instruction.

“The longer it takes to provide the service,” she said, “the more challenging and the more difficult it becomes to determine what that service needs to be.”

According to the district’s Program for Students with Exceptionalities, just 3,000 hours of compensatory services — approximately half of 1% — had been completed as of Jan. 31.

How the district’s latest attempt to rectify the loss came to be

Within PPS, the program is known as “CCS 2.0” — a second go at a process already once attempted.

School officials initially used the district’s 2021 summer learning program to deliver compensatory services to students. According to PPS, both federal and state authorities then extended the period schools must account for when making CCS determinations to the 2021-2022 school year, necessitating a redo.

A December 2022 settlement agreement between PPS and the Pittsburgh-based law firm KidsVoice, however, tells a more complex story.

According to the agreement — also obtained through a Right-to-Know request — in August 2022, attorneys with KidsVoice filed a complaint against the district with Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Special Education.

The settlement cites the district’s “inability” to implement a “comprehensive plan in accordance with state guidance,” in turn hurting the firm’s student clients.

As a result, the district agreed to completely overhaul of the process and implement a plan drawn up alongside KidsVoice. The firm agreed, in return, to withdraw both the complaint it filed with the bureau and another one with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

Despite delays — the settlement agreement dictated that the district begin delivering CCS in April 2023, but many schools didn’t fully launch their program until October or later — teachers are now working to deliver them as quickly as possible.

That includes after school, on weekends and during the summer.

“We wanted to provide the hours as quickly as possible because the entire goal of CCS is to make children whole,” said PPS assistant superintendent Patti Camper. “We don't want to take ten years to make them whole. We want to do it as quickly as possible.”

Offering the requisite services in each of the district’s schools, however, also requires extensive staffing. Camper said each school is offering its own CCS program based on how many hours of services the students enrolled there require, as well as how many teachers are willing to provide services. 

“It's not easy to get teachers to agree to work a ten-hour day because it's an exhausting career,” she said.

To sweeten the deal, Camper said the district entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers that set the additional pay rate at $40 per hour of CCS instruction — nearly double the after-school rate in the union’s bargaining agreement.

As of Friday, all but nine of the district’s 57 schools have posted information about its CCS offerings to the district’s website. The number of hours and services provided varies greatly.

At Sterrett 6-8 — where close to a quarter of students have a disability-related individualized education plan — teachers will be available after school nine hours a week offering reading, writing and math support, as well as social skills development.

Meanwhile, at Weil PreK-5 — which has a slightly higher share of students with disabilities — a wider variety of supports will be provided, but for just a three-hour window each week.

Camper said school leaders are tailoring their programs to meet their students’ specific needs.

“School leaders know their parents, their kids, their staff, better than anyone else,” she explained. “And so they needed that level of control to design a program that would meet the needs of their families and students.”

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Families still face roadblocks to accessing services

Even with CCS 2.0 in near-full swing, many parents remain frustrated with the district.

“And a lot of parents are just giving up, and they're so angry at this point,” said Kristen Schreiber, the mother of two students at Brashear High School.

Schreiber told WESA that the staff at Brashear has failed to respond to questions about her daughter’s compensatory services on multiple occasions.

“I asked if she could do one hour, one day a week to start, and then we could see if we can add an extra hour in somewhere,” Schreiber said. “It is just really frustrating that nobody answers, like I'm ignored.”

Like many other students owed compensatory services, Schreiber’s daughter works and participates in after-school clubs.

In other cases, the students have graduated and want to move on.

Ms. Paulette Foster was the primary guardian for her nephew while he was a student at PPS. He was still a student at the district during the pandemic, but graduated from its special education program once he turned 21.

“He can now say, ‘Auntie, I don't want to do that right now,’” Foster said. “I'm not going to push him into that if he wants to move forward in learning how to be grounded in being an adult.”

Camper emphasized the “parent choice” aspect of the program, noting that just because families are eligible that doesn’t necessarily mean they are interested.

She added that the district wasn’t able to get in touch with some families at all. According to a district breakdown of the student population eligible for CCS posted online in June 2023, 4,426 current PPS students were owed remedial instruction.

The breakdown of hours owed that WESA obtained, however, only included service agreements for 3,614 students. The same data show the families of nearly a third of those students declined to accept them.

Eileen Gorry, co-chair of the district’s parent-led task force on special education, said being the parent of a student with disabilities often leaves little free time.

“The kid might be getting physical therapy after school or occupational therapy after school, or other private services,” she said. “Or maybe their siblings have things going on and it's not always possible to last minute get your kid into a program.”

Gorry added that while she appreciates all the work district administrators have put into CCS 2.0, she remains concerned that not enough outreach has been done throughout its development.

“If you want parents to send their kids to the CCS programming, they should have been asking families when they were developing it.”

Gorry is also among those concerned about a lack of oversight for the program. The district has yet to contract with a third party to monitor and evaluate the program — one of the primary stipulations of the settlement agreement with KidsVoice.

The district issued a request for proposals for the position in June 2023. According to Camper, the district did not get the response it had hoped for.

As of this month, administrators are still actively seeking and interviewing candidates for that position.

“A level of diminishing returns”

During the district’s 2024 budget vote, school board president Gene Walker said that $5 million from the district’s federal COVID-19 aid allocation — also known as ESSER funds — was designated for COVID compensatory services.

According to Walker, $4 million of that will go toward staff wages and benefits, with the $1 million allotted to transportation costs.

“Although we don’t have an estimate of how many hours that’s going to cover, as of yet,” Walker said.

Any ESSER funding must be used by September as well, meaning the district will need to find other funding sources to pay for CCS after this year.

“Our goal is to make a push to see how many of those hours we can satisfy…and then after ESSER we’ll have to reevaluate,” PPS chief financial officer Ron Joseph told WESA.

Joseph noted the district is funding summer compensatory service programs, as well as programs through outside providers. Last month, board members approved payments to Literacy Pittsburgh, Contemporary Craft and several local camps to provide CCS programming to both current students and graduates.

The district also recently set aside $62,000 for up to 225 graduates owed compensatory services to take both in-person and online courses at the Community College of Allegheny County.

Even if the district can figure out more ways to quickly allocate the expiring ESSER, Lauren Morando Rhim with the National Center for Learner Equity said no district across the country should expect services to be delivered quickly.

“There's going to be a delay because you cannot just throw all those services [at students],” Morando Rhim said. “There's a level of diminishing returns.”

She explained that a child owed 30 hours of speech therapy, for instance, “can't cram 30 hours of speech therapy into a single week.”

At the same time, Morando Rhim said that there is an urgency schools must address, or risk leaving students with disabilities to continue to struggle.

While the average U.S. student lost more than half a school year of learning, students with disabilities nationally experienced even sharper drops in achievement.

“Students who are struggling in school have higher discipline rates. Kids who are struggling in school are more mobile. They drop out more often. They don't go on to college,” she said. “There really could be a cascade and impact from not getting those services.”

Corrected: February 12, 2024 at 3:23 PM EST
The graph depicting the composition of students eligible for COVID compensatory services by gender has been corrected. The labels were previously swapped. We regret the error.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.