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‘This School Year Will Forever Have An Asterisk Next To The Date,’ Says Area Superintendent

Scott Sonner
n this Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, students return to Greenbrae Elementary School in Sparks, Nev., for the first time since March with mandatory masks and social distancing to help guard against the spread of the coronavirus.

On today's program: We catch up with three Pittsburgh-area superintendents we spoke with in August about how their districts have managed the pandemic; The Pittsburgh Promise has given out 10,000 scholarships, and the organization is looking at becoming more equitable during the pandemic; Experts answer how the U.S.’s international image impacts economics and how a fertilized egg becomes a human


Superintendents seek consistency in online learning
( 1:00 - 20:25 ) 

Online, hybrid, staggered schedules, and back to online. 

This back-and-forth, almost like a dance, that school districts have done left some questioning if students are learning, concerned about staff wellbeing and looking ahead to next year. 

Five months ago, the Confluence spoke to three superintendents from area districts. We invited them back to discuss how things have changed since August. 

Dr. Caroline Johns, Superintendent of Northgate School District, says her district began the school year remotely and transitioned to a hybrid model in October, until coronavirus cases began to spike leading to a return to remote learning.

“The hybrid was absolutely more challenging,” Johns says as the inconsistency took a toll on students. 

All three superintendents agree the back and forth from virtual to hybrid learning models has not only impacted students, but also teachers and parents in trying to schedule plans in advance. 

Special education and English Language Learners are considered particularly vulnerable to falling behind during the pandemic because they often need specialized instruction and in-person assistance. 

Dr. Anthony Hamlet, Superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, says the district tried to bring special education and English Language Learners back to school, but the district saw COVID-19 positivity rates double. 

All three superintendents agreed attendance rates have been relatively high despite having to manage virtual instruction and classrooms, but there are still students falling through the cracks and struggling. 

Superintendent James Harrisfrom Woodland Hills School district says he’s noticed students don’t feel as motivated on the virtual learning platform. 

“We’ve sent social workers to their homes, teachers have gone out, administrators have gone out to engage with the families to ensure that they have systems in place to help them get on,” Harris says.

Along with instruction from schools, students also access mental health resources from schools. The superintendents all echoed that there needs to be more consistency moving forward for families to get the mental health resources, such as webinars, counseling, and social emotional learning methods.  

The remaining question for educators across the country is: How will this year impact students moving forward? While each superintendent agreed their students are meeting academic benchmarks, they are concerned about the social-emotional aspect of education. 

“I think this school year will forever have an asterisk next to the date and I really do believe the teachers and staff in the buildings will have those students academically where they need to be,” Harris says. “Now social and emotional, they’ve missed out on a year of engagement with their peers, and they can never get that back.” 

Pittsburgh Promise plans for the future
( 20:28-25:00 ) 

The Pittsburgh Promise has provided its 10,000 scholarship this year. 

The fund, along with providing financial aid to students, spent this year focusing on equity as more Black students fail to reach the attendance and GPA eligibility requirements. Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Promise, Saleem Ghubril, sat down with 90.5 WESA’s Sarah Schneider to talk about some of the organization's past shortcomings and plans for the future. 

“Our goals were to solve everything that’s ever ailed the city of Pittsburgh, but frankly there was a little bit of naivete to our early days” Ghubril says.  

The Promise doubled its scholarship amount from $5,000 a year to $10,000 but recently had to scale back from that amount as Ghubril says the increase was not feasible. 

“That was a mistake, we should have never doubled the amount. The financial model was never designed to sustain that,” he says.

The organization increased its fundraising goal from $250 million to $265 million, which Ghubril says will provide scholarships up to the class of 2028. 

Ghubril says the Promise is having internal conversions about scholarship eligibility requirements in light of the coronavirus pandemic, starting with adjusting the attendance requirement for the class of 2021.  

“It’s kids who are most vulnerable that are being most impacted by this, so we will do everything we can to be human and hopefully provide some support for the kid who starts at a limp to hopefully get to a run,” Ghubril says.

Good Question Kid! If the U.S. is not liked around the world, does that mean big corporations will move out of America into better liked countries? How do different parts of your body become those parts from a fertilized egg?

( 25:10-29:35 ) 

The Confluence has been asking families for questions: Those very good questions that a kiddo in your life might have that leaves you scratching your head.

As part of 90.5 WESA’s Good Question, Kid! Series, Dr. Josephine “Jo” Olsen, professor of managerial and international economics at the University of Pittsburgh, explains how our international image influences business.  

We also hear from Dr. Kasey Chistopher, a teaching assistant professor at Duquesne University focusing on developmental biology, about how a fertilized egg turns into a human being. 

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 hereor wherever you get your podcasts.


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