Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet says he wants students back in classrooms, learning in front of teachers. But’s hard to pinpoint when that will happen for most of the district’s 22,000 students who have been learning remotely since March.
Teachers are expected to return to buildings the week of Jan. 18 while some students could return Jan. 27, the start of the second semester. Hamlet said Tuesday during a press conference on the district’s 2021 priorities that his administration is monitoring community spread of COVID-19 to decide if the district can safely bring students back.
PPS’s contracted physician Dr. Martin Gregorio said in-person start dates depend on whether there is a case surge after the December holidays as there was after Halloween and Thanksgiving. Hamlet said the district will evaluate and finalize dates of return based on Jan. 15 state data broken down by county.
The state’s Department of Education recommends that districts in counties with “substantial spread” use a fully remote learning model rather than a hybrid model with both in-person and online instruction. The level of spread is determined by two numbers: incidence rate per 100,000 residents and the percent positivity rate.
As of Jan. 1 all Pennsylvania counties were at the “substantial” level of spread. Gregorio said recently the county’s rate was at 231 out of 100,000 down from 336. He said he wants that number to be closer to 100 or trending that way before most students return to buildings.
Hamlet did not make any guarantees Tuesday. He said the safety of students and staff is most important.
“Trust me, we understand and we know that the best place for students is in front of a teacher in a classroom and in a live version. But right now the best we can do right now based on the safety precautions and where we are in this pandemic, is to continue remote learning and begin the idea of phasing in students at the beginning of the second semester as we strive for,” Hamlet said.
A group of students who have had an especially challenging experience with remote learning – Cohort D – returned for a few days in November before COVID cases increased and they went back to remote learning. Cohort D includes students with disabilities and students learning English as a second language (ESL). Those students would be the first to be phased back into in-person instruction.
The district will soon survey faculty and staff about vaccinations. Hamlet said teacher vaccination will be “strictly voluntary.”
He has also directed school principals to create “action plans” for students who have and currently are losing learning time.
“Once this pandemic is over, the lasting effects on the learning of our students will last a lifetime for our students,” Hamlet said. “So thinking to the future, what supports do we put in place that’s really going to support our students and catch them up academically?”