By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
Update: Superintendent Anthony Hamlet announced on Jan. 11 that the start date for phasing students into hybrid in-person classes has been delayed until Feb. 8 because of concerns about anticipated Covid-19 rate spikes from the holidays. Teachers are expected to return Feb 1.
Pittsburgh Public Schools officials would like to start transitioning students back to class in a hybrid format on Jan. 27, but warn that spikes in covid rates could push that date back.
District physician Martin Gregorio said he would like to see the percent positivity rate — currently at 11.2 (down from 12.3) be reduced to 10 percent or lower and the incidence rate to be 100 per 100,000 or lower in order for students and teachers to return to the classroom.
Gregorio and Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, during a virtual morning press conference, said they will be closely monitoring the numbers each week to see if a holiday spike in cases pushes the numbers too high to make it safe for a return to classrooms.
Hamlet stressed that safety of staff and students is the number one priority though he would like to get students back into the classroom.
“As I said from the beginning, we will do this with safety in mind. We understand and we know the best place for students is in the classroom. Right now we are in this pandemic,” Hamlet said.
If COVID data allows for a return, teachers will be asked to come back to class on Jan. 18 and students will be brought back in phases starting Jan. 27. Students with special needs, English language learners and those who severely suffered academically being brought back first.
The district started in-person learning for that cohort of students (about 800) in November. But it lasted just one week before rising COVID rates required a return to remote instruction.
After the first cohort is brought back, other groups of students will be phased into the hybrid model over the coming weeks. That model calls for half of the students to attend Monday and Tuesday in person and remote for the rest of the week and the other half of the students to attend in person Thursday and Friday and remotely the other three days.
Schools will be sanitized on the days that no students are there.
There is a cohort of students who have chosen to remain online even if a hybrid option is offered
Hamlet said he is confident there will be enough teachers to fill the classrooms despite the fact that in November there were 189 COVID-related leaves by staff and the district had trouble finding enough substitutes to teach the group of 800 students brought back.
The district has an agreement with UPMC Children’s Hospital to vaccinate teachers and staff as soon as vaccines become available. Vaccinations are not mandatory.
Hamlet and Gregorio repeatedly warned that the return to classrooms and the dates on which it might happen depend solely on the virus transmission rates in the county. Though Hamlet left room for a return to the classroom for the cohort of students with special needs even if rates don’t fall to the levels they want to see for a full return.
They also warned that parents should be prepared for the possibility that students will remain remote for the rest of the year if virus transmission remains high in the county.
The good news is that the district now has enough computer devices for a one-to-one program and students who have been using their family’s device will be contacted by their schools to pick up a district-issued device.
Hamlet acknowledged there will likely be significant learning loss for students because of remote learning and he said the district’s data team is putting together reports on student grades for the first and second quarters now for principals and administrators to study. He said the district will put in place extra programming for students, possibly including summer school to help mitigate the learning loss.
It appears possible some students may have to repeat grades.
Asked about attendance, Hamlet said based on the Schoology platform used by the district for online learning, 98.5 percent of students have logged on at one point and that 90.7 percent attendance rate.
However, students are marked as attending if they attend one period per day. The superintendent could not say if students are remaining online for the full day but that the district would look at that issue.
Asked why suburban districts in the county have been able to offer hybrid classes in recent months when PPS was online only, Hamlet said the comparison was not fair. He said a large urban district such as Pittsburgh faced more obstacles such as secondary students who have to ride Port Authority buses to school, facing exposure to the virus.
“All of these factors guide our decision-making process,” Hamlet said.