Twelve-year-old Ava is known in the halls of the Pioneer Education Center for her zestful spirit and wide, expressive blue eyes. She’s engaged and gregarious. “Little Miss Personality,” her mother said. But Ava’s eyes were often shut behind the computer screen this school year, as she went without face-to-face access to her teacher or hands-on services, such as physical therapy stretches to relax her tight muscles.

“She’d fall asleep in her wheelchair because she’s bored,” her mother, Lauren Price, said.

Ava, who is non-verbal and still learning to communicate, usually receives services including physical therapy and occupational therapy at the center, but most were unable to happen in a virtual learning setting.

“Everything just kind of got ripped away,” Price said.

Now that students are back in the building, Pioneer educators and parents are reflecting on the year of COVID school and hoping to move forward with new perspectives on how a community can come together to preserve its children’s education. This makes them part of a larger call for systemic change in the education system to better serve students who have been historically underserved by public school districts.

Pioneer is a single-story boomerang-shaped building tucked away in Brookline. The Pittsburgh Public Schools’ [PPS] special education center is a school unlike any other in the city.

Each part of the Pioneer Center was designed to address the needs of the students, who are medically fragile or experience multiple disabilities. The wide doorways accommodate wheelchairs with ease. Bathroom stalls are finished with changing stations and heavy tan curtains instead of doors in case of emergency, and there are tailored rooms dedicated to teaching students how to navigate the world beyond the classroom.

Image shows objects including a bed and mirror in the Activities of Daily Living room at the Pioneer Education Center in Brookline.
The Activities of Daily Living room at Pioneer Education Center in Brookline, where students learn skills including making a bed and washing dishes by hand. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

It’s a small school community of about 12 teachers and 70 students ages 5 to 21. They are students whose individualized education plans [IEP] require a more comprehensive school environment. About 50% of students are Black, and 56% come from families earning low incomes.

Outside, the school boasts a sensory playground and garden where students can play on the adaptive swing sets or run their fingers through textured grass or knock on toys to create vibrations and sounds.

When schools were shuttered from March 2020 to April 2021, these students had nearly all normalcy snatched from them. Not only did they struggle with using technology in some cases, but no Pioneer center to go to largely meant losing out on effective therapies and social interactions.

The sensory garden outside the Pioneer Education Center in Brookline offers modified swing sets to accommodate special needs. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

Students couldn’t complete physical therapy on the computer without fear of injury. They couldn’t learn to plant a garden or iron clothes through a camera.

A spring 2016 Pew Research Center survey of Americans 18 and older found people with disabilities expressed lower levels of comfort with using technology. At Pioneer, it was no different.

Parents who worried about their children regressing mobilized and spent the fall semester demanding school leaders bring Pioneer students back to the building.

“You can’t lump them with the thousands of students that go to the other mainstream schools,” Price said.

Some Pioneer students were among a group of 800 students brought back for in-person learning Nov. 9. But district leadership re-closed buildings Nov. 16 due to increases in COVID rates.

Pioneer students returned for in-person learning four days a week on April 6, about a month before all students made the return. Educators and parents still worried about the impact of this year are looking to district leadership for solutions to recover learning loss, and they have gleaned some lessons to carry into future school years.

There’s no question Pioneer students experienced loss.

Principal David A. Lott said he doesn’t know if there’s any sure way to mitigate loss and some regression from virtual learning for his students. Pittsburgh Public Schools said in May it plans to use upcoming relief funds from the American Rescue Plan to address learning loss and upgrade facilities, but are required to first engage stakeholders, including special education administrators.

A practice Lott hopes to adopt permanently from this past year is using new ways of communicating with parents to keep them involved, such as virtual meetings on Microsoft Teams.

Photo shows Pioneer Education Center Principal David A. Lott
David A. Lott is the principal at Pioneer Education Center in Brookline. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The virtual setting, to his surprise, built stronger connections between parents and special ed educators, which helped to cut down on disruption for vulnerable students, Lott said. Teachers and parents texted throughout school days. Parents coalesced around a common goal to get students back in buildings.

Students fared well in academics throughout the fall and early spring semesters in most classes even with the new barriers, Lott said. But students fell behind most on physical therapy and occupational therapy and they faced challenges in trying to learn life skills like making a bed or washing dishes by hand. “Some of that does not translate well online.”

The loudest voices, the biggest change

Pioneer parents and educators pleaded for the students to be granted permission to return to buildings, citing the difficulty and, in some cases, inability to transfer the educational services they provide to virtual settings.

Some district parents pointed out to the school board that there’s no special education director in the district’s executive cabinet, an important voice missing from discussions about when to bring students back to school.

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said the executive director for special education falls under the academic cabinet.

Ann Herrmann was the most recent leader of the district’s special education program but retired from the position on March 10. However, Pugh said she still remains as a consultant and support to the district “while we seek a replacement for that role.”

Going forward, “There needs to be more parent involvement in the decision-making versus school board officials who do not understand each child’s need and the impact school, therapy has on their overall health and well-being,” said Marisa Costa, who was among the coalition of parents who sent testimony earlier this year to the school board and emailed Superintendent Anthony Hamlet about quickening a return to school buildings. She still didn’t feel heard.

If parents had more choice this year, she said, “children like my son wouldn’t have regressed, had medical impacts due to lack of therapies and social development.”

Marisa Costa and her son, Gianni, in their living room.
Marisa Costa and her son, Gianni, in their living room. Gianni is a 14-year-old 8th-grader at Pioneer. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

Costa was against virtual learning for her 14-year-old son, Gianni, from day one. Learning from a small laptop “is pretty much null and void” for her son, who has a vision disorder called cortical visual impairment and is legally blind.

She didn’t pick up a device for him at the beginning of the school year because she saw it as a waste of time. In mid-September, school employees delivered a laptop to her South Hills home.

“My son slept, I’ll be honest with you, through 85% of the entire year of the online learning because of boredom,” Costa said. “You cannot learn therapy through a computer or a device or remote.”

She continued, “I will never know how much he actually saw or what he was getting out of it or seeing.”

In the rooms of Pioneer, Gianni has access to large, expensive equipment including treadmills and standers, which help him to stand and balance himself. He is stretched by therapists, and practices skills he needs daily, such as how to round his mouth to grasp and slurp through a straw.

Specialized equipment for students at Pioneer Education Center lines the hallways.
Equipment that assists students stand and walk, among other activities, line a hallway inside Pioneer Education Center in Brookline. (Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

The only equipment she said he had consistent access to at home was an adaptive bicycle and gait trainer. She worried that she would injure her son or herself trying to pick him up or administer his other types of therapy, including speech, vision and occupational therapies.

Gianni returned on April 6 with the rest of the students who chose in-person learning. His mom says “he’s thriving,” with plans to attend the district’s summer learning programs.

Bouncing back

The Pioneer community was its own salvation in the months leading up to the April return, with staff delivering devices and equipment to families, and texting and calling each day with updates about students.

“Every single member of our classroom, both staff and students…really came together to try to bridge this enormous gap that we had,” said Multiple Disabilities Support Teacher Barbara Earley.

There was a palpable excitement fizzing in the halls in April. Maria Paul was with her handful of students again, mostly in-person, for the first time since the fall. “It really felt like a fresh start,” said Paul, also a multiple disabilities support teacher.

Paul spoke with PublicSource last July when parents and educators were torn between the children’s vulnerability to the virus and a deep desire for students to return to school to avoid regression in development or life skills.

Lauren Price dropping off her daughter, Ava, for in-person learning at the Pioneer Education Center.
Lauren Price dropping off her daughter, Ava, for in-person learning at the Pioneer Education Center. Ava is a 12-year-old in 6th grade at Pioneer. (Photo by Nick Childers/PublicSource)

Throughout the year, Paul wrote to the school board multiple times to petition leadership on its decision to bring students back to school sooner.

“I feel like we are kind of like a forgotten piece” of PPS, she said in April. “I feel like that’s part of my job. I need to advocate and be a voice for my kids and my family because sometimes it’s just ignorance and the fact that people don’t know about us or don’t understand.”

Now back in classrooms, Paul said there are times when she has to be flexible to respond to student emerging needs on top of the typical responsibilities of providing lessons, wiping noses, changing diapers and sanitizing classrooms.

“These kids really lost a year of learning that I don’t know if some of them will be able to get back,” Paul said.

Adapting, advocating, empathizing — it’s all in a day’s work for Pioneer teachers.

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at

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TyLisa C. Johnson is the Audience Engagement Editor at PublicSource. She’s passionate about telling compelling human stories that intersect with complex issues affecting marginalized groups. Before joining...