By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing writer
The transition of school districts from brick-and-mortar to virtual education in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s order that all schools remain closed for the remainder of the academic year has exposed shortcomings and obstacles to the current system of public education that are leaving some students out of the loop.
The shortcomings include:
*Remote learning is magnifying inequities in education as some students have access to technology and internet service, while others are left to work with paper and pencil. Those without access to technology are often among the already educationally vulnerable, including those from economically disadvantaged homes, in foster care or homeless.
*Remote learning, with its lack of face-to-face interaction, makes it difficult to provide services to students who depend on schools for special education and related therapies such as speech, physical and occupational therapy, ESL instruction, social and emotional counseling, behavioral supports and daily management of chronic health conditions by nurses without face-to-face interaction.
“The situation (the pandemic) has exposed a weakness and shown a light on the inequities that have existed, that we’ve been talking about for years. It’s the fact that we have a system that is structured in a way that the kids who are deserving of more, get even less,” said James Fogarty, executive director of A+Schools advocacy group.
Fogarty is frustrated that the Pittsburgh Public Schools have not offered any remote education since March 13 when the governor initially closed schools for 10 days. The Pittsburgh district is currently planning for an April 22 launch of district-wide remote learning, though as of last weekend it was still in need of 7,500 additional technology devices and 800 families do not have internet access.
He’s also frustrated that a portion of Pittsburgh’s 23,000 students, including those who attend Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, have personal technology devices provided by schools while the rest of the district’s students do not.
“If that’s the standard for our best kids, then why not the standard for kids at other schools,” Fogarty questioned.
Education experts, including Fogarty, worry that the inequities and obstacles exacerbated by remote learning will create an even wider achievement gap between the races and between students from well-resourced families and those who are economically disadvantaged.
“I am deeply concerned about the inequities we are seeing now and how they are going to have long lasting consequences,” said Cheryl Kleiman, a staff attorney with the Education Law Center.
There’s also a 3concern in the special education community throughout the county about the regression of academic and life skills as parents struggle to fill in for teachers and therapists.
“The overall message and reality is that the existing inequities have only been intensified by the pandemic,” said Leigh Patel, associate dean of equity and justice at the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education.
Patel said in addition to a possible lack of access to technology and the internet, many students in vulnerable populations face the obstacle of having caregivers who are overwhelmed by their current responsibilities of working and caring for their families during this pandemic.
Those pressures generally don’t exist in middle and upper-class homes, Patel said. But are issues in homes of poor families, which are more often those of minority students.
In addition, there are health concerns in poor communities.
“Half of black children have asthma because they live in poor neighborhoods with environmental pollution. They are more susceptible for contracting the virus. Schools are where they most likely saw a healthcare practitioner,” Patel said.
When the governor initially closed schools for 10 days on March 13, only a handful of Allegheny County districts were ready to start virtual instruction for all students almost immediately. They included Elizabeth Forward, Fox Chapel and Pine-Richland.
But other districts, including Pittsburgh, took a wait-and-see approach as to whether schools would reopen, while others started to prepare remote voluntary academic work. When Wolf announced March 30 that schools would remain closed indefinitely, those districts that had not previously started mandatory remote learning started to offer remote lessons either online or in paper packets.
Pittsburgh,which has offered no remote lessons to students, is an exception. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet was not made available for an interview, but a district press release said a remote learning fund has been established through the Pittsburgh Foundation to raise money for the still-needed technology.
The hodgepodge of remote learning methods currently provided by districts are created by a number of factors. Even in districts where students have access to technology devices, not all have internet access. In other districts, such as Woodland Hills, some devices have been distributed but the district is still raising money to purchase more.
One thing educators appear to agree on is that virtual learning systems that provide all students with devices and internet access are essential for a future where districts must be prepared to provide long-term, equitable remote education.
“We can get through 30-40 days,” said Elizabeth Forward Superintendent Todd Keruskin. “If there is a resurgence in October and we have to do this for 120 days, we have to figure out how to do this long-term.”
Keruskin said superintendents are holding frequent conference calls to discuss plans.
“The first thing you have to have is the devices for all students,” said Linda Hippet, former superintendent of the South Fayette School District, retired Allegheny Intermediate Unit executive director and now an assistant professor of education at Point Park University.
“The second is the internet access. The third is the learning curve,” she said.
For some schools that learning curve is happening now as they set up their systems, creating kinks along the way they will eventually correct through trial and error. Students and parents will need to be patient, Hippert said.
“If you are learning while the plane is flying it makes it more challenging than if you were learning it in small increments,” she said.
“No one could have predicted this. If you had said a year ago that something like this would happen we would have said ‘Have you lost your mind?’ But then it happened. It happened so quickly,” Hippert said.
Building the systems will take money. Hippert, Kleiman and others said the state should provide funding for districts to help purchase the hardware and software needed to creating virtual learning systems and to provide remote services to vulnerable groups.
That may become possible soon, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on April 14 announced a $3 billion Governor’s Emergency Education Relief fund to provide block grants to governors for the use of continuing education and providing services to students through the pandemic.
Governors can apply for grants from the fund by completing an application.
In most cases, creating effective virtual education systems will happen more quickly in smaller suburban districts than in larger urban districts such as Pittsburgh, said Cindy Walker dean of the School of Education at Duquesne University.
“It’s a scale issue. So you have the same problems but on a much greater scale in Pittsburgh Public Schools. You might have the same issues in rural districts (with large geographic areas) as well,” Walker said.
Getting internet service to all students may take some creative action, including providing portable wi-fi devices, parking wi-fi equipped buses in neighborhoods or encouraging students, if possible, to work from school grounds or parking lots if district wi-fi signals are strong enough.
But even if all students are provided with a device and internet access, obstacles still exist for providing some special education services as physical and occupational therapy.
Ann Hermann, executive director of special education for the Pittsburgh district, held a lengthy webinar for parents on April 9 during which she warned them that while the district will make a “good faith” effort to provide education to their children, as required by federal law, it will not match the quality of instruction and services they get when they are in the school buildings.
She used, for example, the way physical therapy will be administered with therapists instructing parents. “We know that because of COVID-19, we can’t have face-to-face contact. We can’t have providers coming into homes,” Herrmann said. “But a good faith effort is let’s try to figure it out as close as we can.”
She told parents to expect to receive telephone calls from their teachers starting this week and that the district would do its best to send home devices used for education and therapies, including adapted iPads, devices that help students with speech disabilities and gait trainers for students with mobility issues.
James Palmiero, assistant executive director for special education and pupil services at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said districts and parents throughout the county are doing their best to provide services to students with disabilities. But the inability to interact with many of the students makes it difficult.
The AIU serves 363 full-time students and 84 part-time students at its three special education centers in Allegheny County — The Pathfinder School, Mon Valley School and Sunrise School. It also provides therapists for speech and language services and physical and occupational therapy to many of the 42 suburban school districts in the county.
AIU teachers and therapists are using virtual platforms to communicate with students. Some disabled children are able to receive lessons and therapy through virtual methods such as ZOOM. Google Meet and Facetime. But others are not, prompting worries about regression in skills.
Palmiero said school officials realize that when students are back in school buildings academic and skills assessments will have to take place and students will likely need to be offered additional services to make up for deficits.
Falling behind is not an issue exclusive to special education, Fogarty said.
He is hoping the Pittsburgh district is planning not only for the upcoming remote school session but also for what additional resources it can provide over the summer and when students return to school such as after school tutoring programs.
He’s also hoping the district will start to consider new methods of education beyond what is traditionally offered in the brick-and-mortar setting. “There is going to have to be a mix of strategies,” he said.
Patel agreed. “I think one of the opportunities here is for us to rethink what learning is and how it happens and that may mean more flexibility and time to make that happen. Again, this will happen more easily in homes where there are more resources. But we now have a window where we can collectively think how learning happens in many different ways.”
Kleiman said she believes that as schools move forward with their plans for remote education, more important than providing technology and internet access, is creating systems where schools have good relationships with families and use them to erase inequities.
“This is a time to be working not only on getting schools through this crisis but to address the issues underlying these inequities,” Kleiman said. “Such major changes will only happen when schools and communities come together to meet these challenges. Let’s use this moment to build a different education system that is more just and equitable.”