By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer

The Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative has asked the Pittsburgh Public Schools to provide $2 million for the continued operation of the community learning hubs set up by nonprofit agencies throughout the city and county that serve students whose caregivers cannot be home during online school hours. 

Without an infusion of funding, the 24 hubs, with 64 locations, face closure at the end of December. They are currently serving 1,000 students, including more than 700 who attend Pittsburgh schools. 

Initial funding for the hubs came from $4.35 million in CARES Act funding from Allegheny County’s $59.9 million share of the federal funding.  

Pittsburgh Current published a story about the hubs in August.

The Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative (PLC) includes more than 70 organizations and individuals and was organized by the A+Schools advocacy group to respond to the COVID crisis and to work to ensure equitable educational opportunities for all students. 

In addition to the financial request, the PLC has asked PPS officials “to be transparent in their needs and guidelines for reopening for in-person instruction.” 

The demands were made by the coalition during a Zoom press conference just before the start of the Pittsburgh board’s monthly public hearing Monday.

Kaitlyn Brennan, an educational consultant with the PLC said the hubs are not only providing support and supervision to students but are allowing parents and caregivers to go to work and are creating jobs at a time when unemployment is at record levels. 

Brennan pointed out that when the Pittsburgh school board voted in July to provide online-only school rather than the planned hybrid model, part of the resolution instructed Superintendent Anthony Hamlet to “develop a contingency plan for parents of students who are essential workers and those not able to support their child’s remote learning journey.”

James Fogarty, executive director of A+Schools, said the hubs cost about $800,000 a month to operate. In addition to the funding sought from Pittsburgh schools, the county Department of Human Services is looking for funding within its budget to allocate to operation of the hubs, Fogarty said. 

He said he has spoken to individual school board members about the $2 million allocation and they have said they were supportive but said they had to discuss it with the full board and administration. 

Brennan stressed that remote learning is inequitable for many students, but especially so for those who are homeless or living in unstable conditions, which accounts for about 7 percent of Pittsburgh’s 23,000 student enrollment. 

Testimony at the public hearing from the Homeless Children’s Education Fund said students living in unstable situations “desperately need” access to in-person opportunities such as the learning hubs and consistent access to the technology that is needed for online classes. 

The testimony said homeless children are missing school for long periods of time and drifting in and out of contact with school. The HCEF statement said the organization “has struggled to receive attendance data” from PPS, but contended it “is not uncommon for high school students experiencing homelessness at our county districts to have missed 15-40 days of class in the first semester alone.”

The HCEF testimony included the story of a high school student living in a hotel with poor internet service who knocked on doors asking others if she could use their wifi for her school work. 

While acknowledging the dramatic surge in COVID cases in the county, some PLC members pointed to data that shows low virus transmission among children in grades K-5 and suggested returning that student group to in-person classes.. 

“We understand that reopening presents with significant challenges. However, we ask the district to provide the public with up-to-date and accurate information on what it will take to reopen buildings for in-person instruction,” Brennan said. 

Fogarty pointed out that two-thirds of families indicated before the start of school they would like their children to return to school in the hybrid system the district initially planned. 

“We’ve got to open up our schools for some days for some people,” Fogarty said. 

On Nov. 9, the district brought back a cohort of about 800 students that included those with disabilities and English Language Learners. The students were housed in 19 of the district’s more than 50 buildings. 

But those students were returned to online education after one week when COVID cases surged and percent positivity rates rose.

Fogarty and the PLC want to know the Pittsburgh district’s plans and guidelines for a return to in-person learning. Specifically the coalition and Fogarty are asking what level of community transmission and percent positivity would allow for a return to some type of in-person learning. 

PLC member Maria Cohen, executive director for the Squirrel Hill Urban Coalition, called in her testimony for more funding for technology and internet service for low-income families. She said a number of families do not have enough wifi bandwidth for parents to work from home and children to attend online classes. 

“The result is that students are falling very behind and in some cases dropping out,” Cohen said. 

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