Heeding the calls from dozens of families and teachers, the Pittsburgh Public Schools nine-member board voted unanimously Friday to both postpone in-person instruction for the first nine weeks of the fall semester and approve the district’s health and safety plan, putting to rest some anxieties for many teachers, staff and families.

The resolution to kick-off the school year remotely for the district’s nearly 23,000 students was first introduced by Board Member Kevin Carter at a July 22 meeting.

At the meeting, Carter said he knows the stress a nine-week delay will cause families, however, “we must be mindful that this virus” is impacting the education community worldwide, not just Pittsburgh.

“Are you willing to gamble the lives of the students and staff? Because that’s what this vote means today,” said Carter, who listed the multiple school districts nationwide, including Los Angeles and Philadelphia, which have opted to begin the school year with remote learning for all.

From Pittsburgh Public Schools legislative meeting on July 31, 2020
Board President Sylvia Wilson at a virtual special legislative hearing for Pittsburgh Public Schools on July 31, 2020

More than 1,200 people tuned in to the meeting as all board members chimed in on the resolution.

Terry Kennedy of District 5 said that she’s been wary to leave her house — only twice this month — with the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County and because of that, “I cannot, in my heart, force people to return to a building at this time.”

“It’s easy to say that we should return to school in-person, but there are so many details to be ironed out and to be resolved that I don’t see … that that can happen…,” Kennedy said.

Schools closures in the spring caused “immeasurable damage to the educational mission of public school students, their families, the teachers and staff and, indeed, this board of directors,” said Sala Udin of District 3. He continued, “I believe we did the best we could do,” given the circumstances.

COVID anxieties show up at public hearing

Two days prior to the vote, the board held a special public hearing that lasted nearly five hours. The hearing was a final opportunity for the community to share thoughts about the health and safety plan and resolution.

Most of the 141 impassioned public testimonies about the return to school this fall supported the resolution presented by Carter last week.

However, some implored the board to open school for in-person instruction, even if for just a few days a week.

For many special needs and elementary-aged students, “remote instruction is ineffectual,” parent Stephanie Pawlowski wrote.

 “It does not provide the teacher or peer engagement that young children need to grow, develop or let alone learn. It cannot provide the tailored instruction that many special education students need,” Pawlowski wrote. 

The mother of two advocated in favor of in-person instruction, “even if it’s only a day or two a week,” because both her children struggled with remote learning. While her second-grader will catch up with academics eventually, she wrote, “her social development and the continued isolation from her peers is a huge concern.”

For her third-grade child who has autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD], “remote learning was impossible.”

“We stopped trying after a week, because her mental health deteriorated so drastically.” Her daughter has “violent meltdowns, six to eight bathroom accidents a day and expresses extreme anxiety about school her peers.”

“Her IEP just cannot be implemented remotely, even if it could, her needs have increased well beyond what her current IEP covers.”

Students at hearing: What is online learning teaching us?

Students struggle to learn when all they can do is stare at a screen watching YouTube and other online videos for hours on end, according to one student who submitted a testimony to the board in which the student pleaded to go back to in-person instruction. In the spring, they wrote, some students struggled the entire duration of virtual instruction.

The Board of Public Education of Pittsburgh Administration building in Oakland. (Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource).

That student, who attends Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, opposed Carter’s resolution, saying nine weeks, or 45 days of looking at a computer screen, is not learning.

“It is way too hard to learn online, especially when we are just watching videos on a computer screen for hours on end. What is that teaching us?  Nothing,” the student wrote. Instead, students learned “what websites and apps to download to give us the answers.”

“All in all, online school is completely pointless in giving kids an education and we need to go back to school,” the student wrote.

The board also approved payment for a virtual COVID-19 safety awareness training for staff in the district to begin Aug. 10.

The board will hold an Aug. 4 education committee meeting to address district plans moving forward, available for the public to watch by livestream

Digital divide and tech distribution

Shortly before Friday’s legislative session, Pittsburgh Public Schools released a report detailing the distribution of devices across schools in the district.

“This accountability report will spell out what our District currently has in computer inventory, what is usable, what is incompatible with new software platforms, and what has been ordered (new). It is important to note, as of today, we have a remaining 18,719 computer/electronic devices on backorder, with an approximate date of delivery between July 31, 2020 – October 20, 2020…,” the report said.

“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for remote learning has increased significantly. The demand for laptops, Chromebooks and iPads is at an all-time high, thus causing an over-arching backlog to school districts across the nation.”

The release of the report comes after City Controller Michael Lamb said on Thursday he would be willing to audit the district’s device inventory after Udin said he was unable to get a comprehensive response from the district.

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...