By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
With or without the remainder of its needed computers, virtual classes will begin in the Pittsburgh Public schools on Tuesday.
The Pittsburgh Current reported Saturday, Aug. 29 that the start of classes in the district would be delayed until Sept. 8 because of a huge shortage of computer devices. The district said it was still waiting to receive 7,000 devices.
Online classes were supposed to start Monday, and for weeks, district officials said they expected to have enough devices for all students if those who had access to family-owned computers continued to use them. As the Pittsburgh Current reported on June 16, after a disastrous spring of online learning, superintendent Anthony Hamlet said that every student would have a laptop or tablet by the start of school.
In fact, as late as Monday, Aug. 24, PPS Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in a virtual public forum sponsored by The Forbes Fund unequivocally that school would be ready to start on Aug. 31. Then, two days later, the PPS Board of Directors voted 7-2 to award Hamlet a new four-year contract that will run until June 30, 2025. Hamlet’s current contract wasn’t set to expire until June 2021.
Three days after that, as parents showed up and waited in long lines to pick up devices for their children’s education, the district announced it had run out. Later on Aug. 29, school was officially delayed.
“Due to supply chain issues and high demand, we have exhausted our current supply of computer devices early and all sites are now CLOSED. Additional distribution dates will be announced next week when we expect a large delivery of devices. More information will be provided this evening,” the district posted on its Facebook page early Saturday.
In a Saturday evening press release, the district cited “unexpected delays caused by continued technology supply chain shortages around the country” for the shortage of devices for students.
District spokesperson Ebony Pugh said Hamlet gave the Aug. 24 assurance because he expected shipments totaling 7,000 devices would arrive by the end of that week. Those devices did not arrive but are expected by the end of this week.
In addition, Pugh said the need for computers was greater than anticipated and more families were showing up to pick up devices than expected. She said families who initially indicated they had computers for their children to work on started to question whether they would be able to handle the Schoology and Microsoft Teams platforms the district will use for online learning.
Those two factors led to the distributions being shut down early on Saturday.
“The need was larger. We have more needs than anticipated. There was a misunderstanding with families that their devices wouldn’t work,” Pugh said. “The numbers of people coming were higher than expected. It was really hard to judge where we were.”
In addition to new devices, there are about 1,800 computers that were given to students in the spring that must be brought back to the district to be reimaged to accommodate the platforms being used. The district is still waiting for families to return most of those computers because they will not work without the reimaging, Pugh said. She said the shipments are expected to come in smaller batches of 200-700 at various times this week. If the district receives all 7,000 by the end of the week, every student who needs a computer will get one.
If not, the school will still start on Sept. 8 with some students working from paper materials that will be prepared by their teachers at their schools — not general packets prepared centrally by the district as in the spring, Pugh said.
Pugh said the district will decide on a distribution plan later in the week for whatever number of computers arrive this week. She said district officials have a more targeted list of families that need computers and may distribute them from sites other than the centralized locations last week.
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said in the Saturday release that Pittsburgh’s delayed start date was similar to others in the region.
“At this time the distribution of devices is only for those families of students who do not have access to a device. By delaying the start of school we can ensure that no student is inequitably disadvantaged because they do not have access to the tools they need to start the school year successfully,” Hamlet said in the release.
As of Aug. 27, the district exchanged or distributed 6,440 of the devices ordered in the spring to students. On Friday and Saturday, another 1,200 devices were distributed to students in grades 2-5.
School staff will use this week to refine lesson plans and Individualized Education Plans for students with special needs, contact hard-to-reach families, and participate in professional development.
The district will also survey staff and families to “identify which adjustments will be made to the district’s calendar” and will work ensuring materials are in place for students in the event that delays in devices continue beyond the start of school.