Almost a month after states began shutting down schools, virtually every U.S. school building is closed. Seventeen states, including Pennsylvania, have said they won’t reopen this year.
Like in many areas of the country, Pittsburgh education leaders and advocates say the closure is exacerbating inequities like the digital divide between wealthy and poor communities. Families that already had access to the internet and enough devices for kids were able to transition to learning from home quickly.
Others are waiting for districts to provide those resources and move to remote learning for the remaining weeks of the academic year.
Pittsburgh Public Schools began training teachers to use online platforms like Microsoft Teams on March 31. So far it has spent $1.5 million to purchase devices for students in need.
Of the district’s 23,000 students, 69 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. When schools closed March 16, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said it had to make sure the most essential need was met – feeding students.
Almost two weeks later PPS issued surveys to gather the technological and connection needs of its students. When asked why the district waited to send the survey or to transition online, Hamlet said it takes time to move a large district online.
“Nobody was prepared for this,” he said. “But now that we’re here, it’s going to take a little time to make sure that we roll out a product that is going to meet the needs, the equitable needs, of all of our students.”
Who was prepared
Some more affluent districts in the Pittsburgh region were able to move to online learning soon after the statewide closure.
Pine Richland School District, just north of the city, started instruction the week after schools closed.
“Once we knew that we needed to go down this path, it was just like flipping a switch,” said Superintendent Brian Miller.
Only 3 percent of Pine Richland’s 4,600 students live below the poverty line. Miller said more than 90 percent of families have internet access.
But, he said technology wasn’t the key factor in “flipping the switch.” He says he sent his first message to parents about preparing for the coronavirus on Feb. 5.
“I would say the most important thing we did wasn’t the fact that we had families with internet access, it was the fact that we invested, I mean hundreds of hours, in planning and preparation before the need to close occurred,” he said.
Guidance from the federal and state departments of education has been confusing at times. Pennsylvania’s Department of Education can’t mandate that districts teach remotely, though it has stipulated they submit a plan to do so. Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera said he can only strongly encourage districts to move to remote learning. He said they shouldn’t let the fear of legal action stop them from making a good faith effort to teach all kids.
Students with disabilities are guaranteed a ‘Free Appropriate Public Education’ under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Districts were concerned that they would violate that act if they tried to teach remotely. Some students require daily therapy, others require one-on-one instruction that might be difficult or impossible to guarantee.
Cheryl Kleiman, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center in Pittsburgh, said there’s a difference between delaying instruction in order to make a plan for those students, and rejecting remote instruction because of fears of lawsuits.
“Many of us working in the education and students legal rights community are working very hard to try to support families and schools as being a resource to figure out how do we creatively and innovatively problem solve to work together, to put the child in the best position.”
She said schools need to make sure they’re tracking what students with disabilities have missed during this time and have a process in place for when schools resume.
“So that in the future, we're not having to go back and make up for having received nothing. Instead, we're saying ‘this is what was able to be provided. This is how the child benefited or wasn't able to benefit as much as they would have when they were in school.’ And then let’s come up with a plan together about how to move forward and help get the student back on track,” she said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools said it delayed online learning because of equity concerns. Hamlet also said that closing schools in two-week increments made it challenging to plan ahead.
PPS Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins said the district distributed enrichment packets to maintain skills. But she said they needed technology.
“We definitely wanted to plan long term,” she said. “But it starts with getting the resources and we just don’t have that.”
Not a return to normal
Kleiman said she is concerned that technology won’t translate into quality education for students who don’t understand the language, or have the access to a trusted adult, for example.
“It's hard to imagine that putting a laptop and an Internet connection in the hands of a kindergartener when the parent in that household is an essential worker right now, is going to ensure that that child has access to education and learning experiences that are meaningful to them right now,” she said.
Jenkins said teachers are trying to provide materials that will take the burden off of parents.
“We've also asked teachers that when they're grading students, that when they're giving feedback, the feedback is being meaningful and something that students can use to improve in that area,” she said.
Making up ground
Jenkins said it will be a long process to make up for this year’s educational shortfall.
“It’s not something that’s going to be addressed just in curriculum writing alone,” she said. “There’s going to have to be a lot of factors we have to consider when we start to plan for the future.”
She’s also concerned about the summer slide. At the beginning of every year teachers have to make up for what students have forgotten during summer break. This year that will undoubtedly be worse.
The district is also still grappling with how to advance students after a significant education disruption. Hamlet said he has considered moving to a pass or fail system. The school board is expected to vote on grading practices this month.
Moving forward, Tina Chekan the CEO of the largest system of charter schools in the region – Propel – said she is optimistic that the closure will lead to a broader conversation about the “glaring inequities that exist digitally” for a majority of the system’s 4,000 students.
Propel also issued a technology survey to parents and found that more than half of students need devices. Chekan said Propel doesn’t expect to begin online instruction until late April. In the meantime the schools have also provided enrichment materials.
“I believe the state needs to take a look at resources and how they're distributing those resources,” she said. “Many communities have access to technology, but the underserved communities, we just don't have the same amount of resources. I believe that they need to look at policies and they need to look about ensuring equitable access to resources.”