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The Politics Behind Reopening Pittsburgh Public Schools

Pittsburgh Public Schools

An increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that in-person learning, especially for younger students, presents a low risk for spreading the coronavirus. But last month, Pittsburgh Public Schools delayed reopening at least until April, a move that frustrated many working parents.

Rebekkah Ranallo’s oldest daughter was supposed to start kindergarten this year at Allegheny Traditional Academy. But because Pittsburgh Public Schools has continually pushed back reopening, her family had to make adjustments. Ranallo and her husband can not work from home. So they rely on grandparents babysitting and other care. They pay extra to the daycare provider they use for their two younger kids, so staff there can supervise their oldest daughter’s virtual education.

“Instead of our daycare bill going down when our child enters kindergarten, it went up,” Ranallo said. “Because we now have to pay the wonderful child care workers at our daycare to provide a kindergarten experience for our child, in a classroom with 12 other children who are all logging in to 12 other schools at the same time.”

It’s not an ideal situation. But Ranallo said she’s impressed with the center’s ability to manage about 100 kids safely.

“They've had less than five COVID cases in the entire center since the pandemic began," she said. "So the protocols work!”

Ranallo’s experience raises a question a lot of parents are asking: Why can't schools in the city and other districts follow similar protocols to get kids in classrooms now?

Credit Isabelle Schmeler / 90.5 WESA
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Pittsburgh Liberty K-5.

The Pittsburgh district’s future is murky. When asked at a school board meeting last month about the plan to reopen in April, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet didn’t provide one. But across the country, some critics blame the delayed reopening on teachers unions, who they say prioritize teachers’ health over students' needs. Colin Sharkey heads the American Association of Educators, a group with 20,000 members that often argues unions have too much power.

“The teachers see this,” Sharkey said. “They're watching these kids who they've been trying to help this last school year just fall back and then some disappear. And I don’t think anybody means that, but I think they're overlooking how devastating this is for kids based on concerns about possible exposure.”

In Pennsylvania, teachers unions are powerful. They gave about $6 million to state level candidates in 2020 alone, according to the Campaign Finance Institute. Much of that money backed Democrats, who have kept quiet in the reopening debate.

State Sen. Lindsey Williams represents parts of Pittsburgh and the North Hills. She worked for the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers before running for office.

“I do understand that the teachers union voice is loud, but I do think school board members are hearing parents,” said the Democrat. “We have these working families, they want their kids in school. Unfortunately, because of a lack of a coordinated plan statewide and the inequities that already existed in our school system, we are further exacerbating those inequities.”

Williams said one roadblock is access to the vaccine. Educators are in the second priority group of Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout. But many in the first category haven’t gotten their shots yet. Williams and teachers unions believe educators need priority within their group.

“I’ve heard a school district refer to it as fighting for an Xbox on Black Friday. So, there are problems that go beyond the school district that the school district cannot control,” she said.

Teachers also want additional protections before returning to school -- like assurances that students will be physically distanced. Temple University Professor Will Jordan says there’s a long history of teachers fighting school districts for resources. And the coronavirus raises the stakes.

“There tends to be [an] extreme lack of trust between teachers and teachers unions and the administration,” he said. “The administration says, ‘Ok, let's go back in, we're going to have ventilated rooms, we’re going to have PPE.’ and I think that there's a lot of doubt as to whether that would actually happen.”

Within urban districts like Pittsburgh, some buildings will need a lot more resources than others, and schools that serve mostly Black students are often in the most dire condition. Jordan said district officials would be calling attention to those inequities by taking a piecemeal approach to reopening. As a result, Jordan said administrators often choose to keep their entire district closed.

“You'd be admitting that the schools you tagged to reopen are schools that are better resourced,” he said. “And if there's some racial dynamic that depicts how those schools are different, that would be a politically untenable place for people to be.”