Two days before the school year was scheduled to begin, Pittsburgh Public Schools delayed virtual learning until Sept. 8 because not all students have the needed technology.
The district said it experienced an unexpected delay in computer and tablet deliveries, though in July it had said that most of its purchases were backordered and that some might not arrive until October.
“Honestly, I don't, I don't know what we're going to do,” said Melanie Williams a seventh grade math teacher at Pittsburgh Classical Academy in the West End. “There’s just so many unknowns. That there’s not going to be enough laptops for the kids. We just need more time or direction or something.”
The week before school was scheduled to begin, only a handful of Williams' 23 students had computers.
In a press release, a district official said that up to 7,000 devices are expected to arrive before Sept. 8 to “fulfill outstanding need.” As of Saturday, more than 1,800 students had yet to exchange their devices to be updated so that they will work for online learning this year. The district is asking families that have a personal device for their student to wait, so that only those in need get a device.
“By delaying the start of school we can ensure that no student is inequitably disadvantaged because they do not have access to the tools they need to start the school year successfully,” Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in the release.
Even if the technology does come, teachers who spoke to WESA say that’s just one hurdle they expect to face this fall.
Technology and perseverance
The district is using Schoology, an online learning management system. Teachers will be able to see their students in real time through the video chat function on Microsoft Teams. That’s a big change from the spring when the district chose to not enable the cameras on district-issued computers because of privacy concerns.
“We’re thrilled about that,” Williams said.
But Williams is worried that if learning the technology is too difficult for students, they’ll give up.
“It’ll be a lot of ‘stay with me, stay with me’,” she said. “Because if they check out, it’s hard to get them back.”
Of the 10 PPS teachers interviewed for this story, all were glad the year would begin remotely, though they desperately want to be back with their students. Jess Vishner, a culinary teacher at Westinghouse Academy in Homewood, is concerned about the health of his family. His wife had COVID-19 in March and is still recovering. But, he said it will be challenging to earn trust from students he’s meeting virtually. He said he and his colleagues connect well with students in person.
“You see the look on a student's face and you know something is just off. I think it will be tremendously difficult to do that aspect of our jobs, which is something that we all have gravitated to because that's how we make those academic gains by having those emotional gains with our students,” he said.
Quality of instruction
Another potential loss with virtual learning is hands-on exercises. Experiments and class discussions will be possible if students have computers and can see their teachers in real time. But many younger students might need an older sibling or a parent to facilitate the process.
Edwina Kitchington teaches science at the Science and Technology Academy in Oakland. She said she is fortunate to have enough supplies to send home lab kits with test tubes and other materials for a group of 30 students.
“I am a very lab-based class, very hands-on, doing science to learn science,” she said. “I think we’re all working really hard to try to make it rigorous but doable for students and the teachers in our school.”
Monica Dugan teaches biology and astronomy at Westinghouse Academy in Homewood. She said she does not have supplies to send home to her students.
“Science is ... something you do in the world," she said. "They don't have that hands-on experience. They're definitely losing part of their education. So I think my job at this point is to make as much of their content, very real world applicable."
Michele Halloran teaches social studies at Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill. Her classes are discussion-based and interactive. She’s figuring out how to adapt to a new way of teaching, but like other teachers, she’s concerned about her kids even showing up for virtual calss.
Toward the end of last school year when students were learning remotely, about 80 to 90 percent of her students participated.
“That was really difficult,” she said.
Bill Baumann also teaches social studies at Allderdice. He said he is confident that they’ll get better at online learning with time, but it will be a slow start.
“If I do what I normally do, which is Wednesday of the first week, maybe even Tuesday, actually doing work, how many kids will get left behind because they're uncomfortable with the platform or they don't understand how things work? So it's gonna be a real slow build, and this is all about being patient and being flexible for everybody,” he said.
Wellbeing of students and teachers
Teachers say they likely won’t introduce new material as soon as they would if they were back in their classrooms. They will need to check in on the wellbeing of their students first.
Doreen Allen is a learning environment specialist at Faison K-5 in Homewood. She supports classroom teachers and now her work is focused on making sure teachers are doing well both emotionally and professionally.
“Over the summer, I wrote down probably three pages of challenges that we faced,” she said.
One of the biggest hurdles for teachers, she said, will be both learning and teaching students how to use the new platforms at the same time. She said not all teachers are comfortable with online learning and will have to ask for help.
“Kids are very savvy, they’ll figure it out,” she said. "We might have to hold teachers' hands like we're holding kids' hands."
Her hope is that families and educators can be patient and understanding during the first nine weeks.