By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
When kindergarten students enter the classroom of teacher Amy Belitz at Pittsburgh Lincoln K-5 on April 6, it will mark the first time they’ve ever been in their school.
“It’s a little tough for kindergarten because they’ve never been in the building, and for some, they’ve never been away from their parents or grandparents,” Belitz said.
Unlike other first days of kindergarten, Belitz’ students won’t be getting the normal welcoming hugs since the COVID-19 pandemic requires social distancing of at least six feet in school spaces.
While Belitz is excited to meet her students in person — they’ve been together online since September — “the hardest part is not being able to hug,” she said.
Beltiz spoke Friday with reporters who toured her school in between teaching her online lessons. The tours were arranged by district officials for the media to see what the inside of classrooms and hallways will look like when students return to classes for the first time in more than a year.
While most suburban districts in Allegheny County have offered students some form of in-person classes, most with a hybrid schedule, Pittsburgh Public Schools have remained online since September.
About 4,800 Pittsburgh students are expected to return on April 6. They are a group that includes PreK and kindergarten students and others who have been determined to not be making progress in eLearning, who have disabilities, are English language learners or in other vulnerable groups.
On April 26 another cohort of about 5,200 students — those who were making “some” progress — will be brought back to the classrooms.
On May 3 the remainder of students, a group of about 10,000, will return.
The majority of students will attend via a hybrid model, with some in class on Mondays and Tuesdays and others attending Thursdays and Fridays. Schools will be cleaned on Wednesdays, when all students learn online.
Students with special needs who attend Pittsburgh Pioneer and Pittsburgh Conroy will attend in-person learning four days a week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.
At Lincoln, signs reminding students to wear their masks and to stand six feet apart from one another adorn the hallways. Stairways at Lincoln are one way and water fountains can be used only to fill water bottles, which are supplied in the classrooms.
Hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are available throughout the school.
Reading rugs and toys and other soft materials have been packed away until after the pandemic to prevent the spread of coronavirus germs, said Stephen Connell, director of facilities.
Teachers will sit at their desks behind clear, three-sided plexiglass panels. Additional panels will be available in classrooms for situations where students can’t maintain a distance of six feet such as when they sit at a bank of computers.
Belitz and the district’s other teachers will shift from teaching solely online to splitting their attention to those in her classroom and those who remain online. She said she has it “planned out in my mind” the way her school days should go serving both groups of students. She’s hoping the reality operates as smoothly as her plan.
“It’s going to be a challenge, but we are prepared,” Belitz said.
District officials shared similar sentiments in a media briefing after the tours saying they are ready for students to return and to follow the safety guidelines set forth by the district.
Those guidelines start even before students set foot on school property. Parents and guardians are being asked to screen students at home for fevers or other symptoms that could indicate COVID-19. Sick students are to stay at home.
At school, masks must be worn all day except for lunch and a six-foot social distance is to be kept except for the instances where students are surrounded by plexiglass barriers.
District officials said about 80 percent of the PPS staff of 4,600 have received a COVID-19 vaccine through clinics sponsored by the district and Giant Eagle and the Pittsburgh Intermediate Unit. Information is still being collected as to how many of the remaining 20 percent received the vaccine on their own.
The district tried to open school two previous times this school year but a rise in COVID-19 cases halted the effort. In November, a group of about 800 students which included those with special needs and English language learners attended school for about a week before high virus counts forced them back online.
In addition, the district had trouble finding teachers, as about 300 sought leaves.
In early January, Superintendent Anthony Hamlet announced plans to bring students back to the classroom by Jan. 27. He later pushed that back to Feb. 8, but the school board adopted a resolution to delay the reopening to April 6 because of the high number of COVID-19 cases and because teachers wanted to be vaccinated before returning to the classroom.
Hamlet noted on Friday that COVID-19 counts are again on the rise but that the district is still planning to bring students back.
He acknowledged that students will be in the classroom for a small portion of their school year. Those who return on May 3 will have just 10 days in the classroom before the school year ends on June 11.
The superintendent said he cannot extend the school year because of the collective bargaining agreement with the Pittsburgh Federal of Teachers.
But he said the district hopes to expand its Summer Dreamers Academy from about 1,500 students to 5,000 students using federal pandemic funds allocated to school districts. He also said additional after school support programs for students are planned for fall.