By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The Pittsburgh Public Schools are still short about 7,400 computer devices needed to provide one for all students, but the district’s goal for the fall is to be a one-to-one technology district that can offer synchronous online learning to its students.
That was the message from Superintendent Anthony Hamlet during a media briefing this morning that provided updates on the district’s remote learning system which hit the one-week mark yesterday.
Hamlet said it’s too early to tell what format school will take in the fall. He cited the possibility of students attending on alternate days or attending with alternate shifts during a single school day in order to reduce class size and allow for social distancing — models he said educators around the country are discussing.
But he said the district is also preparing to offer online education to all students in the fall if necessary.
He said the district “had aspirations” to move to a one-to-one technology program but that Covid-19 pushed that effort to the forefront.
“Our long-term goal is to be a one-to-one district. We are certainly preparing ourselves to provide full-time synchronous learning online,” Hamlet said. “We want to be prepared for brick and mortar. We want to be prepared for online.”
The Heinz Endowments today announced a $360,000 grant to the district for technology purchases. Those funds will allow for the purchase of about 1,300 more laptops. He said that would be in addition to the 5,500 devices the district has “in the pipeline, said Theodore Dwyer, chief of data, research, evaluation and assessment.
Funds for the remaining 7,400 needed devices are being raised through the district’s remote learning fund.
Dwyer said devices are being distributed as they are received and distributions are being planned throughout May for various grade levels though elementary students may not get technology devices until late in May. The school year ends on June 12.
During the briefing, district officials acknowledged hearing complaints from parents about the online Microsoft platform currently being used for online learning and about blurry pages in the paper lesson packets being used by students who don’t have access to an online connection or choose not to learn via computer.
Chief Academic Officer Minika Jenkins said some of the connectivity and speed issues with the online platform are caused by devices that are outdated. The district provided students with a number of technology devices that it took from schools and those devices may not be able to handle the platform effectively.
As for the paper packets, Jenkins said the district has contacted the vendor providing them to make sure future packets are clearly printed.
Other complaints by parents included lesson plans that were overwhelming. Jenkins said that was the result of teachers loading entire lesson plans rather than two weeks’ worth of lessons. She said the district has worked with teachers to assist them in learning to load only current work packets.
For students who usually get academic support in the classroom, future packets will include more support materials from reading and math specialists.
Parents of English Language Learners and students with disabilities also expressed that adapted lessons were too difficult. In response, the district will adjust lessons in future packets, Jenkins said.
David May-Stein, chief of school performance, said 14,000 paper packets have been picked up by students and more than 3,000 computers have been distributed to high school students to date in addition to students who already had devices in their homes.
He could not provide a precise number of how many of the district’s 23,000 students are engaged in remote learning but said: “We are feeling that more students are engaging than not.” He said he hoped to have a more accurate picture next week.
Hamlet said all students will pass the fourth quarter regardless of their level of participation in remote learning because students should not be penalized for circumstances in their homes and families that could prevent them from completing assignments.
May-Stein said the district’s Summer Dreamers program for students in grades K-5 will be extended and that single course refresher courses for secondary students who will take the Keystone exams in English literature, algebra 1 and biology.
May-Stein also said district officials are still working on a virtual commencement program for seniors which will be held on the original graduation dates of June 13 and 14.
“It’s very unfortunate for this class that they didn’t get to experience a typical graduation ceremony,” Hamlet said.
Final plans have not been completed, but he said the ceremonies will feature the individual stories and photos of students and the platform used will allow an unlimited number of guests to view the ceremony.
The district will look into the possibility of having a second in-person commencement ceremony in August, along with a prom, if social distancing rules permit. The events would be held in district facilities.