Pittsburgh Public students won’t return to brick-and-mortar school buildings until April 6 at the earliest, following a decision by the school board Wednesday evening and a two-day, 127-speaker public hearing in the days leading up to the decision. 

The board approved a resolution in a 7-2 vote, following amendments, to keep students at home in remote learning through the beginning of the school year’s fourth quarter.

Board members Sala Udin and Devon Taliaferro voted against the amended resolution, signaling a desire to bring students and teachers back sooner than April.

Board members Pam Harbin and Terry Kennedy presented an amended version of the original resolution at Wednesday’s meeting, which had more than 1,000 stream viewers, with additions to address transportation challenges and growing student needs.

Among the changes to the resolution:

  • The district is expected to conduct a current survey of student needs for support, transportation availability, staffing levels and building health and safety protocols.
  • A parent/guardian survey will be circulated on or before Feb. 15 to gauge how comfortable parents are with in-person learning and transportation availability. 
  • Learning cohorts AA/BB/C/D were dissolved with the approval of the resolution, with the intent that new cohorts will be formulated based on these needs assessments by the district.

The directors will vote again on the in-person phase-in to instruction in March, when they will monitor state and federal COVID guidelines of the moment, as well as the progress of vaccinations, to determine whether in-person instruction will begin.

Parents, teachers and community members who spoke at the public hearing in favor of an in-person return to buildings in February pointed to neighboring school districts in the county that have reopened school buildings in some capacity during the school year and questioned why Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] couldn’t follow suit.

Nichole Sims, a parent and parent leader with education advocacy group A+ schools, gave the 16th testimony on the first night of the public hearing. She asked the board and district leaders to begin phasing in in-person learning in February “for the students that need it most.”

Students are “missing the deep level of learning and the strong motivational relationships with teachers and peers that help them in their school buildings each day,” Sims said.

“Like so many surrounding districts, you too can safely open our schools and offer an option to return, at least partly,” Sims continued. “Not all families want to return now, but for those students that will continue to fall further behind until they do, why won’t you learn from the other districts in our region about best practices that reduce risk to staff and children so that students with the greatest needs have an option to get the in-school support necessary to be successful?”

A map circulated in January by education advocacy organizations, based on data from Allies for Children, shows Pittsburgh is one of only three districts in the county to have remained fully online. Many bordering districts have returned in some capacity since the beginning of the school year, either hybrid models (a mix of remote and in-person learning) or with students attending school in person four to five days a week.

Education advocates have circulated this map which shows Pittsburgh Public Schools as one of three districts in Allegheny County to have remained fully online since March 2020. (Courtesy A+ Schools and Allies for Children)

None of the districts that opened in some capacity to in-school learning are comparable to PPS in student population, which reported more than 21,400 students enrolled this year. Some of those districts have also needed to close some doors due to outbreaks in COVID cases

As an example, North Allegheny School District has repeatedly opened and closed its brick-and-mortars to students. Most recently, the district returned K-8 students on Jan. 19 to full in-person instruction and grades 9-12 to hybrid instruction, according to the district website. The district has a student population of about 8,500.

Fox Chapel Area School District – with its student population of just more than 4,000 – moved its kindergarten through fifth-grade students to in-person learning five days a week.

Shaler Area School District resumed with hybrid learning for some students on Jan. 11; it has a student population of about 3,900 students.

Advocates for keeping PPS students in full-time remote learning through March say the districts that have reopened aren’t comparable in size to the city’s district and have had their own challenges managing the COVID pandemic. At its peak, the public hearing had nearly 600 viewers. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to put federal resources toward reopening schools, though the effort faces many challenges, including a slow rollout of vaccines.

Kim Winters, a teacher at Pittsburgh Arlington, wrote to the board that when it comes to PPS being compared to other districts about the return to in-person instruction, “there is no comparison.”

“We are a unique district and have a large number of students,” Winters said.

She also asked the board, “Why is it OK for you to send us back pre-vaccine when you’re still meeting virtually? There is a small number of you compared to the number of staff members in a building but yet you are still not meeting.”

TyLisa C. Johnson covers education for PublicSource. She can be reached at tylisa@publicsource.org

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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...