The coronavirus exposed inequities across Pittsburgh Public Schools. To parents like me, it also revealed the district’s inability to imagine learning outside of schools.

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The author, Marijke Hecht (center), plays a board game with her daughters: Ruby (left) and Anya (right). (Courtesy photo)

My daughters are spending their stay-at-home days watching a lot of TV. But they are also drawing sketches of their rooms, exploring old hip-hop, and listening to audiobooks they checked out from the library. They may not be in their seventh- and 10th-grade classrooms at Pittsburgh Public Schools CAPA, but they are learning. 

Unfortunately, all of this learning is happening without guidance or support from our school district. By the time most children in the district re-engage with their teachers and peers through “remote learning” on April 22, nearly six weeks will have passed since their last day of school. 

According to Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS], the main obstacle to jumpstarting remote learning is the troubling lack of access to technology for many families in the district. In the Home Technology Survey conducted by PPS, 41% of families responded that they did not have a device for each child in their home, while 5% said they didn’t have internet access. This scarcity is a serious issue that reveals stark inequities in our district.

My daughters both already had district-issued laptops that they had been using long before the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, not all PPS students are given these tools, and the current challenges brings this inequity into sharp relief. The district has been scrambling to address this major pre-existing weakness in our public school system.

But the focus on educational technology obscures another major obstacle to remote learning – our district leaders’ inability to envision learning as something other than what happens in school. Our educational leaders do not appear to recognize the rich learning opportunities that exist in our homes and communities.

The vast majority of learning actually occurs throughout our lives and in informal learning environments such as libraries, parks and after-school programs, according to the LIFE Center, a National Science Foundation-funded collaboration between the University of Washington, Stanford University and SRI International.

Learning also happens every day in our kitchens and living rooms, on our streets and in our communities. In fact, during the years that children and youth are engaged in K-12 education, more than 80% of waking hours are spent in these informal, out-of-school spaces.  

Recognizing that learning is happening across all of these settings requires a richer understanding of what learning means. School-based learning tends to focus on the transmission of knowledge and skills. But learning is about more than just absorbing information. Learning is also intertwined with motivation and interest in a subject. 

When I was a middle school science teacher, I learned this lesson all too well. It was impossible for my students to learn about the parts of a cell if I wasn’t able to spark their curiosity about how cells worked and connect this with why cells mattered for their lives. 

Families and communities have always played a big role in our children’s learning, especially when it comes to motivation and interest. PPS claims to value out-of-school learning and has a six-person Family, Youth, and Community Engagement team. Unfortunately, the best practices outlined on their website are focused only on how families might support the learning that happens during the school day – things like reviewing homework and asking what your child may have learned in school. 

What if PPS instead saw its role not as the center of all learning, but instead as the facilitator of a more expansive and reciprocal kind of learning – one where families and communities supported school-based learning and where schools supported family- and community-based learning? 

Marijke Hecht’s 13-year-old daughter, Ruby, baking a chocolate cake on April 8. (Courtesy photo)

An open letter from the Spencer Foundation, a national educational research funder, noted that changes to our educational system have been more drastic since the COVID-19 shutdown than at any time over the last 50 years. They ask, “What possibilities does this open up for the future of learning, for the reorganization of our institutions, for the centrality of families and family life?” Sadly, PPS has yet to demonstrate the kind of creative thinking we need to effectively engage youth and families in learning during this very difficult time.

District leaders have spent more than a month trying to figure out how to transmit knowledge through technology and have missed a vital opportunity to engage and support families. They’ve ignored the values and strengths of out-of-school learning opportunities. Parents like me need their help to reduce the stress on families who are juggling work from home or loss of work with supporting their restless and frustrated children.

My family listened to robocall from PPS while we were playing a board game in the dining room. Both my girls were devastated to learn that remote learning, which had been set for April 16, was pushed back yet another week. The recorded voice asked us to wait patiently as PPS developed the “instructional materials” for students to use at home, either with or without technology. 

Yet another robocall informed us that CAPA would actually be starting on April 16 because all the students have laptops, reminding us again of the district's inequities. As we wait, we are afraid these materials are likely to be the kind of rote-learning packets that my daughters dread. Isn’t there a more inspired and inspiring vision for learning that we might adopt right now? 

The Pennsylvania Department of Education announced on weeks earlier in mid-March that they would be canceling all PSSA testing and Keystone exams for the 2019-2020 school year. When the news came down through social media, my girls were ecstatic. The timing of the announcement, five weeks before PSSAs were scheduled to begin, meant that the final crunch of test prep that they typically endure could be skipped this year. I have no doubt that many teachers were just as enthusiastic about this change. 

Marijke Hecht’s 15-year-old daughter, Anya, playing stick ball while on a family walk with their dog on April 12. (Courtesy photo)

As a parent, I felt a moment of hope. Without the tiresome test preparation, maybe actual learning could take place. Maybe PPS would foster the kind of interest-driven learning that families and out-of-school programs are so good at supporting. I checked the PPS website and found a list of virtual out-of-school opportunities, but these remained disconnected from being counted as schoolwork, presented as an extra just as they typically are.  

From the very first week that face-to-face school was disrupted, PPS could have shared low or no-cost suggestions for sparking imagination and interest at home: Looking out the window and writing about the life that you see, or interviewing your parent or guardian about a challenging time in their childhood. Those are both simple activities that require no special tools or technologies and could be modified for all ages. They connect communication skills with science and social studies, and I have no doubt that PPS teachers could think of dozens more activities like these. Children, youth and families could be encouraged to share their work through social media as a way to help connect us in these isolating times. 

Even in these challenging times, our community still has an opportunity to help our children discover the joy and wonder that comes from learning. These feelings have never come from packets of instructional materials or test-taking skills. We need learning activities that connect with and value the rich cultures of our families and communities.

 I hope that Pittsburgh Public Schools leaders will see the remainder of this school year as an opportunity to develop the kind of remote learning that all learning ought to be – an experience that leaves you asking questions and wanting to learn more. 

Marijke Hecht is a PPS parent who completed her Ph.D. in education at the University of Pittsburgh and spent nearly 20 years as an educator, both in and out of schools. If you want to send a message to Marijke, email firstperson@publicsource.org.

PublicSource has a special page dedicated to our reporting on COVID-19 for the Pittsburgh region. See it here and sign up for our newsletter to stay informed. We hope you are following the news and, if your situation allows, social distancing guidelines. Have a tip or an idea? Please email mila@publicsource.org.

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