By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Superintendent Anthony Hamlet knows that if his district had been set up as a 1:1 technology district like others in the area when COVID-19 hit in March, the transition to remote learning would have been remarkably smoother and more expeditious.
And though 1:1 technology was in the district’s longer-range plans, the reality was when schools were closed by Gov. Tom Wolf on March 13, Pittsburgh Public Schools had only about one-tenth of the number of computer devices it needed to distribute to its 23,000 students, and a portion of those devices needed to go to teachers.
Although administrators hustled to inventory and rehab devices, raise money and purchase more, ultimately many students ended up working from paper packets and even by the last week of school some students had no devices. In the meantime, weeks of learning were lost.
But Hamlet vows things will be different when classes resume in the fall.
He is ensuring that every student will have a district-issued device, either a computer or a tablet, and internet connection and that when students are not in class they will have access to synchronous (real time) instructions by their teachers, and that the online platform will be one that is user-friendly.
He’s had help in this effort by donations for computer devices from local foundations and $400,000 raised by Neighborhood Allies to provide Comcast internet to the 1,000 families who indicated through a district survey they did not have internet access.
“We’re definitely going to have an online synchronous learning platform,” Hamlet said.
No more paper packets. No more parents taking cellphone photos of their children’s assignments and texting them to teachers. No more students excluded from virtual learning experiences.
And a system that is equitable for all students as opposed to this spring when families who had access to technology had more access to instructors and services.
One of the committees launched last week as part of the district’s “All in to Reopen Our Schools” effort will research and recommend the best online platform for the district to use. It will review platforms and best practices used by other districts.
“That committee is dedicated to finding out the information that we need,” Hamlet said.
He said the solution could be changing to another platform or providing more training on Microsoft Teams for teachers and parents.
He said the Microsoft platform was chosen this spring because it allowed students who didn’t have access to a computer device to participate in virtual meetings by phone.
The committee will also look at how much professional training teachers will need for synchronous learning on the selected platform and how much time they will need to become comfortable using the new techniques and technology.
Parents also will be offered training.
“We don’t know if was it difficult for parents because it (Microsoft Teams) was not the right platform or because of their level of understanding the platform,” Hamlet said. “We want to get down to the granular level.”
Regardless of the platform selected, Hamlet and district administrators are certain there will be a need for an online system, given the Centers for Disease and Control and the state Department of Education’s requirements for social distancing between students and for learning in the event of future school closings due to possible future virus surges.
District consultants are measuring each school building to determine the safest number of students who can attend at one time and still maintain the social distance of 6 feet, recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state Department of Education.
Pittsburgh’s Chief of Operations Pam Capretta said some schools will have a harder time with social distancing than others because of their high enrollment.
So far a plan has been drafted for Dilworth because, with almost 500 children in grades K-5, “that was a very crowded school,” Capretta said. Other schools with large enrollments are next on the list.
Capretta said the calculations eventually will be done for every school in the district but that schools with high capacities “will be in the most need of modifications of desks, equipment and maybe schedules.”
The “All in” effort launched last week includes more than 300 volunteers who will sit on committees that will address such efforts as academic planning, personnel, family support, school operations, and safety and communications and outreach.
The committees will meet through July 3, then issue reports and recommendations to the district’s executive cabinet by July 8. A draft plan for school reopening is expected by July 15 with a public presentation planned for July 22.
This article is being co-published by Print and the Pittsburgh Current and has been funded by Print readers who donated to the Print Journalism Fund.