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Local School Districts Go Back To (Virtual) School, Plan For The Year Ahead

Seth Perlman
Many Pittsburgh-area school districts will start the new school year online rather than in-person.


On today's program: A conversation with Pittsburgh-area superintendents about the start of the new school year; some parents turn to small-learning groups to supplement online learning; and local teachers anticipate this fall’s hurdles to education. 

Local school districts move forward with online learning, prepare for unusual school year
(00:00 — 16:53)

A new school year starts this week for some. Amid the pandemic, “back to school” has taken on a whole new meaning, with some students returning to their classrooms, and others starting their virtual school work in kitchens and living rooms. The changes challenge administrators, teachers, parents, and students as they continue to make adjustments to their learning arrangements.

There’s not one plan for reopening that fits all, saysJames Harris, superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District. “And the last call I was on with the Department of Ed, it was ‘do what’s best for your kids,’ so that tells every district ‘well, you’re on your own and make it work,’ and that’s what we’re all trying to do,” he says. 

Woodland Hills, Pittsburgh Public Schools and Northgate School District all plan to begin the school year through virtual learning, with hopes to move to a hybrid or in-person model in the future. However, administrators are still planning for an untraditional school year. 

“Even if we are able to return in a hybrid model, we’re still going to have disruptions,” says Northgate School District superintendentDr. Caroline Johns.

Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the pivot to online learning has given schools the opportunity to think about how they will educate children in the future, saysDr. Anthony Hamlet, superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools. 

“If you look at every other industry, they have actually evolved,” he says. “It’s time for us to evolve into a different way of teaching our kids based on the current context.” 

“Pod schools” could help establish “normalcy” this school year, says Point Park professor
(17:03 — 23:03)

This fall, tens of millions of students across the country will return to school in some form, many of them online. Some parents are supplementing a remote school year by opting for small-group learning called “pod schools.”


The concept of learning pods isn’t new, saysLinda Hippert, an assistant professor at Point Park University’s School of Education and the former executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit. It has gained popularity in recent months as parents look for ways to mimic the school environment outside of the classroom.

“By creating neighborhood learning pods, it provides an opportunity for children to have that sense of structure,” Hippert says. “And they’re bringing them together to create some sense of normalcy of school.”

Schools to face learning loss, other complications from the pandemic this fall
(23:10 — 27:42) 

Pittsburgh Public School students were supposed to return to virtual learning this week. However, the district delayed the start of the year for another week because many of the 23,000 students don’t have computers. Thousands of the devices that the district purchased are back-ordered.

But as 90.5 WESA’sSarah Schneider reports, that’s just one of the hurdles that teachers anticipate this fall. Students face potentially huge gaps in learning that could set them behind. 

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.


Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at
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