Virginia Paul, a biology teacher at CAPA 6-12, thought she was prepared for this latest wave of the pandemic. 

She took on a student teacher at the beginning of the school year to help in tough spots. And expecting an increase of COVID cases over the holiday, Paul adjusted her January lessons, so her students could do all of their work on their phones from anywhere.

But she didn’t anticipate what actually happened the last two weeks: CAPA has had enough staff to stay open, but Montesorri PreK-5, where two of her three children attend, did not.

Her husband took a week of vacation to take care of the kids, but he couldn’t take more. So Paul called into CAPA and said she couldn’t come in. 

“Me calling off makes another school short-staffed, which makes it more likely that CAPA will go remote,” she said. “Which means more kids will go home. It’s like one thing triggers another thing.”

Paul’s dilemma highlights the many criss-crossing decisions faced by parents, teachers and schools as the omicron variant of the coronavirus surges. After the first day back to school from the holiday, between 17 to 27 of the 54 district schools have had to close or operate remotely each day. At the same time, about a third of the childcare centers in the area have also closed at least partially.

The district dealt with closed school buildings last year. The start of this school year was delayed with 15 days’ notice. And now the decision of whether to open up schools to in-person learning is happening at the last minute. So Paul has to plan two to three versions of her lessons, depending on whether her classes will be in person or remote and whether she will be there to teach it or not.

Virginia Paul and her husband Cary Miller didn’t know whether their two oldest children would attend school the next morning until after 7 p.m. on Tuesday. (Photos by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

On Jan. 7, for example, her students were supposed to make stop-motion videos that showed how viruses enter cells. But after in-person instruction was changed to remote instruction, she had her students watch a video about viruses instead. 

Then on Monday, Jan. 10, Paul had to stay home to take care of her children. So her student teacher had to teach the original in-person lesson about viruses. 

Even though the omicron variant is more transmissible, it isn’t as harmful as other variants, especially for those who are vaccinated, according to early studies, but it’s leading to an unprecedented surge in cases. Many people and institutions are still adjusting how they make decisions to this new reality, including parents, teachers and the district.

 “I think we’re being a little slow to adapt our thinking and our choices regarding the virus right now,” Paul said. 

Several bad choices

The district is taking a different approach to this year’s coronavirus surge. It’s trying to both follow procedures to keep students and teachers safe from COVID, while also keeping schools open as much as possible. But the district says the reason it is closing certain schools is largely because there isn’t enough staff to safely open. The district didn’t make anyone available for an interview.

The complexity of figuring out how many staff are available at each of its 54 schools has meant that the decisions are not being finalized until the night before. That is leaving many parents scrambling to find child care at the last minute at a time when options are scarce.

Nina Esposito-Visgitis, the president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, said Gov. Tom Wolf and Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said early on the goal was “getting so nimble that with remote we would be able to go in and out with remote learning, so kids could have as much in school time as possible,” she said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wonder if we’ll ever get there.’ And I guess we’re there now. But it sure messes with child care and how difficult it is for teachers and parents alike.”

 “I can handle it now because it feels like nobody wants this to keep going on, and it didn’t feel like that before.”

Abby Foulds, Pps Parent

Some parents are happy the district is doing everything it can to keep schools open. Others are upset about how last-minute the decisions are. And some wish they could keep their kids home indefinitely during the current surge without it jeopardizing their children’s health or attendance record. Some parents just want more consistency and advance notice, whatever the decision is. 

The impact of moving to remote learning isn’t felt equally. Younger children and children from low-income backgrounds are not able to navigate online learning as well, according to both local and national studies of the last school year. 

The school closures have implications beyond education, potentially putting a damper on the economy, as parents take vacation days or stay home with kids rather than work. 

Two views: Stay safe and close? Do everything possible to open up?

Abby Foulds and Shawna Brown, two moms of PPS students, are just trying to do what’s best for their respective children and to get by themselves. 

Foulds has two children, a first-grader who attends Phillips K-5 and a 4-year-old in daycare. She and her husband work from home, but it’s hard to focus on their jobs with kids at home. Her son hasn’t been in school since Dec. 23. And now her other son’s daycare has closed because of COVID.

Brown has two kids as well, a first-grader at Lincoln Elementary School and a freshman at Westinghouse High School. She hasn’t been able to work as a home health aide since the pandemic began and is only surviving financially, she said, because “God is making a way for us. It’s hard.”

Young children, like Fould’s first-grader, have suffered the most learning loss during the pandemic. Foulds lets her son toggle between class and “creepy YouTube videos” because she doesn’t have the energy to get her work done and keep her son on task all the time. She thinks her son started to read a few months later than he would’ve otherwise because of online learning last year.

Although the last two weeks have been difficult, Foulds said, it’s a lot more manageable than last year. She believes the district is finally doing its best to try to keep kids in school. “I can handle it now because it feels like nobody wants this to keep going on, and it didn’t feel like that before,” she said.

Brown was previously sick with COVID for three weeks and doesn’t want her children to experience that. More recently her family has had four colds but tested negative for COVID each time. She and her children are not vaccinated, and she would prefer to keep her kids safe at home until the current wave of COVID passes. But she’s worried the district would come after her for truancy

“I don’t really think further than 7 p.m. every night. Right about this time, all I can do is press refresh on my phone.”

Virginia Paul, Pps Parent and teacher

Brown’s happy her younger son is remote but isn’t sure it helps keep them safe when her older son has to attend in person. “How are we supposed to get better and fight this virus when you have one kid in school still around the germs and he’s bringing home germs to us and my other kid?”

Foulds said she thinks the virus has become more like the flu for people like her and her first-grader, who are vaccinated, and she’s willing to take the risk with her unvaccinated 4r-year-old. 

“I’m not going to parties or anything but, at this point, I feel it’s inevitable to get COVID,” she said. “I feel like we the people who want the precautions have taken them.”

It’s 7 p.m. Still waiting for a decision

During a virtual parent-teacher association meeting for Pittsburgh Montessori PreK-5 parents on Tuesday night, principal Kellie Meyer said she understood how frustrating it was for parents to have to wait until the last minute to know whether school would be in person or remote the following day.

Meyer presents her staffing numbers to the district at around 2 p.m., she said, and then the district deliberates about whether it’s enough to open the school. Confirmed cases and exposures impact the decision, she said.

Virginia Paul says she is worried that her choice to stay home and take care of her kids (Archer, 4-year-old Noe and 2-year-old Juno) instead of reporting to her teaching job at CAPA 6-12 could put her employment in jeopardy. (Photos by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

“The numbers change from hour to hour, who can physically be in the building, who cannot, who had exposure, who has not,” she told the parents at around 6 p.m. “It is a very fluid situation. At any moment now, I could get an email from Central Office saying we are remote or in person. I am anxiously awaiting that so I can turn that around to all of you so you can plan for the next day.”

Raneen Jeries, one of the parents waiting for a call, said she can’t look for work as a social worker because she hasn’t found an open daycare spot for her 2-year-old. She’s on nine waiting lists. So she stays home with her daughter and sends her 4-year-old son to pre-K at Montessori.

Jeries tried to provide music and art stimulation for daughter, but she had to cancel her music class for Wednesday. The reason: She didn’t know in time whether or not she would have to stay home with her son if Montessori closed. She has an iPad in her closet that she received from the district, but her son can’t stay focused on it. Jeries wants to know why the district can’t open some classrooms, rather than closing down the entire school.

Nino Matthews, who has two children at Montessori and two children at Allderdice High School, said his children would have to miss school Wednesday, no matter what happens. He works for the City of Pittsburgh in the permitting department. He worked remotely the first week of 2022 to help his kids with school but his bosses want him to come  to the office. Starting Wednesday, he had to have his older kids help watch his younger kids. 

Beth Anne Humphrey, who has kids in first and third grades at Montessori, managed the school closures better last year. But she said the stress of the pandemic led her to separate from her children’s father, and now she has to handle all three of their kids on her own during the week. She’s fallen behind on rent and utilities. She’s only managed to stay in her current house because of federal rent relief. Humphrey could be making bonus money as a nurse’s aide at UMPC Mercy this week but instead, she’s at home with her children. 

“The numbers change from hour to hour, who can physically be in the building, who cannot, who had exposure, who has not. It is a very fluid situation. At any moment now, I could get an email from Central Office saying we are remote or in person.”

Kellie meyer, principal at Montessori PreK-5

One parent at the PTA meeting Tuesday asked Meyer if the district could be more transparent about staff availability and potentially share staff projections earlier in the day.

As various parents presented their concerns, one parent urged her to “go rogue” and open the school on her own. Meyer, who was juggling a squirming 5-month-old child during the PTA meeting, said the decision was in the district’s hands. By 7 p.m., when the meeting ended, Meyer still had not heard whether school would be open the next day.

Paul, who was waiting on the Montessori decision to decide whether she could teach at CAPA, said her mind was circulating with questions about whether she would continue to get paid or whether her boss would get fed up and fire her. 

“I don’t really think further than 7 p.m. every night,” she said. “Right about this time, all I can do is press refresh on my phone.”

On Wednesday night, Virginia Paul learned that her children would be going back to school in person for the first time in 2022. (Photos by Lucas Zheng/PublicSource)

A little before 8 p.m. parents began posting on the school’s Facebook group: School would be remote on Wednesday.

One parent wrote: “It’s that bit of hope each time, thinking it might be open tomorrow, that really kills you.”

On Wednesday night, parents got the news they were hoping for: Montessori would be open on Thursday for the first time since December.

After more than a week of Facebook posts, often with dozens of comments and complaints, there was only a single comment after the opening was announced: A gif of a dancing bear.

Oliver Morrison is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. He can be reached at oliver@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ORMorrison.

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Oliver reports on K-12 education for PublicSource. Before becoming a journalist, Oliver taught English and drama in the Arkansas Delta for seven years. He has previously written education features in New...