By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
Students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools will remain out of the classroom until at least April 6, according to a resolution approved by the school board.
At it’s Wednesday legislative session the board voted 7-2, with members Devon Taliaferro and Sala Udin opposing the move.
The resolution has been criticized by parents and education advocates since it was introduced at last week’s agenda review meeting but is supported by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. The PFT executive committee approved a resolution asking the board not to resume classes until teachers can get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Board President Sylvia Wilson said she wanted to see students in school, but had solicitor Ira Weiss explain that when a small group of students were returned to the classroom in November, 300 teachers sought leaves from the district including COVID-related and Family and Medical Leave Act and the district had difficulty hiring substitutes.
“The reality is if we don’t have a staff there, you can’t have the children come to school with no staff,” Wilson said.
It’s unclear when the district’s teachers will be able to get the vaccine. District officials have been working with UPMC on a distribution plan but Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said he does not yet have a date for when the vaccines will be available.
More than 120 speakers offered opinions during a public hearing that stretched over two nights this week. The group was split between those who want students back in the classroom and the teachers who said they did not want to return to school buildings until they receive vaccinations.
The board resolution contained an amendment that calls for abandoning the cohorts created in the fall for hybrid learning and instead creating new cohorts based on students’ needs, with priority given to students with disabilities, English language learners and those who are struggling academically.
The initial cohorts were based on families’ desires to have their children attend school. But school directors Pam Harbin and Terry Kennedy, who sponsored the amendment, said they believed that students with the greatest needs should be the first returned to the classroom. The board unanimously approved the amendment.
The amendment calls for a new survey to determine if parents of students with the greatest needs are comfortable with their children attending in-person learning and riding district or public transportation.
Board members held a lengthy discussion on the resolution, with some expressing frustration that students are still out of school, but at the same time citing safety concerns for keeping them online.
School director Veronica Edwards has been the most vocal about returning students to the classroom saying she believes that African American students are falling further behind academically. Pittsburgh schools have a long-standing achievement gap between Black and white students. However, she voted in favor of the resolution.
Board member Kevin Carter blamed district administrators for not having a plan to return students to school and not having a plan for providing adequate education for students with disabilities during remote learning.
Hamlet said the district has had a ready plan for a hybrid model that was ready to be put into action at any time. Hamlet had announced in early January he planned to start phasing students back into the classrooms by Jan. 27. He later pushed that back to Feb. 8.
But last week the board presented at its agenda review meeting the resolution for students to remain in remote learning until April 6.
Parents and officials from A+Schools advocacy group have complained that most suburban districts in the county have been able to offer hybrid plans that have brought students into the classroom two days a week and online for three days.
But district officials argue that Pittsburgh, with its nearly 23,000 students, is much larger than suburban districts and has more issues to consider, including the fact that some students ride public transportation.
Earlier this month, the state Department of Education and Department of Health recommended that districts bring elementary students back to the classroom and this week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it appears it is safe for students to attend school as long as masks are worn and social distancing is maintained.
But a press release issued at the conclusion of the meeting said COVID numbers released for Allegheny County “this past Friday” prompted the board to consider halting students’ return to school to give after staff the chance to be vaccinated.
In the release, Hamlet said he agreed with the board and that he also took into consideration “the genuine concerns raised by our teachers and staff of returning to school before the vaccine is available to them.”
School director Veronica Edwards was the lone opponent to the resolution.
“I believe the school district of Pittsburgh is not doing our part and we need to pick it up. Our kids have been out of school since March 13, 2020. On April 6, 2021, they will be out of school for one year and that is unacceptable,” Edwards said.
Edwards said she was particularly concerned about African American students whose academic achievement was far behind their white counterparts before the pandemic.