By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
The last day of school is traditionally met with sighs of relief from students liberated from lessons and parents freed from nagging.
Last week’s sighs were no doubt far deeper than past years’ as students and parents in the Pittsburgh Public Schools ended a nearly eight-week session of remote learning that brought frustration, isolation and even some anger to the final quarter of the school year.
Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said he hopes the district can use lessons learned from its mistakes to create a better system for the 2020-2021 school year, which is certain to include at least partial remote learning, because it’s likely that none of the school buildings are large enough to accommodate all of the students at any one time with social distancing.
“I understand the frustration. But no one in the United States would have thought that the U.S. would have shut down because of a pandemic,” Hamlet said in a recent interview.
Frustration built in the district as nearly four weeks passed without any instruction following Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 13 closing of schools due to the coronavirus. District officials following directives from the federal and state departments of education believed they could not offer mandatory school work to any students if they could not provide a free and appropriate education to all students including those with disabilities. Those directives were clarified later in March and allowed schools to start offering remote lessons.
But even as remote learning got underway in Pittsburgh, frustration grew deeper when it became apparent the district did not have nearly enough technology to distribute to its 23,000 students for online learning, leaving many to work from paper packets that had no system for returning completed assignments.
Remote learning started for high school seniors on April 16 and by April 22 students in all grades were receiving lessons.
During the ensuing weeks, students and parents grappled with a remote system that provided only those students with technology and internet access and some complained it was too difficult to master. Others completed their work via paper packets they had to pick up from designated distribution spots.
“I know that nobody was ready for this and nobody expected it, but at the same time there should always be a contingency plan for something like this. Just to know that there are children who still have no type of technology today and this is the last week of school, this is disheartening,” parent Jenise Shealey said in an interview last week.
Shealey is one of more than 50 black women, members of Black Women for a Better Education, who signed a letter recommending to the school board that Hamlet’s contract not be renewed. One of the reasons was the perception by the group that Hamlet’s COVID-19 response was a failure. It cited the district’s lack of a 1:1 technology program, the lost weeks of instruction and lack of remote individualized education plans for students with disabilities.
Hamlet defended his performance citing the fact that Pittsburgh schools had remote learning operating before the Philadelphia, Reading and Allentown districts “and still that’s not good enough?
“No, we are not at 100 percent yet. But we are pushing for it. We have a lot of work to do,” he said.
He also cited the numerous communications the district had with the community during the pandemic, including robocalls, letters, website postings and calls from teachers and counselors.
A districtwide assessment of the system at this point is difficult, but administrators reported to the board’s education committee on June 9 that they are trying to reach out to all constituencies in the district for feedback about what worked and what didn’t during the weeks of remote learning.
In total, 127 students did not participate in remote learning and their families could not be reached from March 13 to June 12, said district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh. Hamlet said the names of those students have been turned over to building principals who are expected to work with community partner agencies to locate the students and their families.
Theodore Dwyer, chief of data, research, assessment and accountability, reported to the board education committee that 57.8 percent of students logged into one of the platforms the district used for remote learning. “So, that’s 12,000 of our students,” Dwyer said. Of high school students, 71 percent logged in, Dwyer said, though he did not indicate how often or for how long.
School director Devon Taliaferro pressed the administration to find ways to reach hard-to-reach students.
“We need to look at how we address not being able to reach all of our students. Can we find better ways? Instead of 12,000 students it should be 23,000 students,” Taliaferro said.
One attempt to assess the remote program and to find ways to improve it for fall was a recent online survey that drew results from 5,194 families. It’s been pointed out by school officials and parents that since the survey was taken online only those with technology could participate. But Hamlet said the number of responses accounts for 89 percent of district families
Of that group, 56 percent found the district’s remote learning tools helpful while 44 percent did not. But parents interviewed for this story said they appreciated the efforts made by their children’s teachers.
During the weeks of remote learning, students who did not have access to technology could not connect virtually with teachers who held online office hours and those who posted videos of lessons online or offered real-time virtual lessons.
Even some students with access to technology chose paper packets because of the difficulty level of using the online platforms chosen by the district. Initially there were complaints the printing in the paper packets wasn’t clear but that was later corrected.
The biggest issue with the remote learning plan was that, unlike other districts in the county, Pittsburgh did not have a 1:1 technology program which provided each student with a device nor was it building one when the coronavirus struck.
The exceptions were at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, where a booster group provided the devices, and at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy, where they were part of the curriculum.
That equity issue has loomed large over the program as Pittsburgh officials scrambled to raise money and get devices and internet access to students, an effort that received a major boost from a $360,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments. It got another boost recently when Neighborhood Allies raised $400,000 to provide Comcast internet service to the 1,000 families who reported in an earlier district technology survey they lacked it.
Still the school year ended without all students having devices though Hamlet has vowed all students will have technology for the start of the 2020-2021 school year.
The remote learning survey showed there was some level of satisfaction among those who responded. It’s unclear how many students did not participate in remote learning as the district has not released that statistic. Board member Terry Kennedy requested it at the June 9 meeting.
Of the 5,194 families that responded to the survey, 1,239 of them said their child had a positive experience with the instructional paper packets, while 1,814 said they did not. Among those who had positive experiences were 437 black families and 499 white families. But far more white families — 1,085 — said they did not have a positive experience, than black families at 414.
The survey results showed the highest response rate — 54 percent — came from white families, while 27 percent came from black families. Across the district, 52 percent of students are black.
The majority of those who responded — 3,289 families — said their child was using family-owned technology. Of that total,1,966 families were white and 712 were black.
District-issued technology was used by 977 students, with 469 of the group white and 312 black.
Paper packets were used by 2,352 students in the families who responded, with 1,178 of the families white and 704 of the families black.
There were no breakdowns between technology and paper packet use for students with disabilities or English language learners.
Kennedy expressed concern about how well those groups were served during the remote period and if they had access to technology.
Of the amount of time students spent on remote learning daily, 55 percent said they spent one to three hours, 24 percent spent three to five hours, 5 percent more than five hours per day and 16 percent said less than an hour a day.
To improve remote instruction, 65 percent of the responding families said the district needed teacher-led instruction and 43 percent said additional resources for parents to assist children were needed. Respondents also cited the need for additional guidance on student learning experiences and technology assistance with remote learning.
The administration showed board members a slide show of student activities during the remote learning period.
After watching the slide show, school director Kennedy asked: “How do we know how much they really learned?”
David May-Stein, chief of school performance, said the next step is to assess at the beginning of next school year what the learning loss was during the remote learning period. He said there will likely be after-school academies and other interventions to address the losses.
Some of the parents interviewed for this story said teachers were sometimes helpful in guiding them through technology issues.
When broken down by school, the smallest number of survey responses — 24 or less — from traditional district schools came from those with predominantly black enrollment, including Faison K-5, Arsenal K-5, Manchester PreK-8, Weil PreK-5, King PreK-8 and Milliones 6-12.
In interviews, some parents complained that it was burdensome for families without cars to pick up the paper instructional packets. Hamlet said the district informed families that if they could not pick up packets or food, the district would deliver and some deliveries were made to homes.
Voices of parents
Parents also said there was no way to return completed work from the paper packets without some type of technology. Teachers recommended taking a cellphone photo and texting it or downloading software that could reproduce the work and send it to the teacher.
But some parents either didn’t have cellphones or didn’t want to use limited data plans.
Former school director Moira Kaleida, whose husband, Ray, is a teacher at Clayton Academy, had a student who picked up a lesson packet and did the work but had no way to return it because his mother could not afford to use her limited cellphone data to take photos and text. “It’s a poverty issue,” Moira Kaleida said.
Hamlet said he hopes that won’t be an issue in the fall when all students should have district-issued technology.
The Kaleidas have two daughters who are students at Pittsburgh Montessori K-5. Moira Kaleida said she had difficulty with the district’s technology platform so she printed her daughters’ work and they completed assignments on paper.
“I am no tech whiz but I can get by and trying to figure out Microsoft Teams and how to have kids do math on a computer, it just didn’t make sense to them or me. Once the paper packets came out it was much easier.”
She was able to use technology to video chat with her daughters’ teachers every day.
Hamlet said a district committee is currently researching platforms for use in the fall and may recommend another platform or recommend training for families on how to better navigate the system.
“I think the district did the best job it could. But there are so many obstacles to overcome with vulnerable populations,” Moira Kaleida said. She said she doesn’t believe the district has heard the true needs of those populations.
“With the transient population and housing instability, I know there are students in families that just can’t be reached,” she said. “I think the problem is from the hierarchies of needs of their lives, getting to work and getting food on the table rather than complaining about remote learning are more important.”
Maria Guyette, who has children who were in second and fourth grades this year at Pittsburgh Liberty K-5, said she was frustrated the district did not have individual technology for students the way surrounding districts did and upset that there were four weeks without instruction.
Her family had access to technology but had difficulty with the platforms. It was exacerbated by the fact that she and her husband, also an emergency room physician, sent their children to live with relatives in New Jersey during the quarantine period.
She commended the district for providing food for students as soon as schools closed and praised the Liberty staff.
“They had a daily check-in and a special every day. They did have some kind of face-to-face learning. The morning meeting goes on for a half-hour or 45 minutes. The teachers talk to the kids about the school work and check in on their mental health,” Guyette said in an interview last week.
Her son received virtual speech therapy through Microsoft Teams.
She said her biggest concern was for the 25 percent of Liberty students she was told did not have access to technology. She worried that they did not get feedback on their work because there was no mechanism — other than to use technology — and that they missed chances to interact virtually with their teachers.
Keisha Hatten has a son in seventh grade at Environmental Charter School and a daughter in fourth grade at Pittsburgh Dilworth K-5.
She said her son, Kejuan, “didn’t miss a beat” in his education. She said he came home on March 13 with his chromebook and the charter school started lessons within a few days.
“They did live lessons and they made videos of them going over lessons as well. They stay connected in a lot of ways. If you needed one of them they would video chat with you and go over the work,” Hatten said.
Like all Pittsburgh students, her daughter Juanae at Dilworth went without instruction for four weeks.
Hatten said, when instruction resumed on April 22, Dilworth teachers went out of their way to stay connected to students. They had daily meetings and “still did their hat day on Friday. They still did their Dilworth spirit shirts. They still did shout outs for the kids for their birthdays.”
But, she said, “My son definitely had more real work.”
Dilworth students did not have computers although her daughter had one as part of the Strong Women Strong Girls group at the school.
Shealy has a son in sixth grade at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy. He had a computer device a week after quarantine — delivered by the district — but his lessons didn’t start until April 16.
Shealey said she has nieces and nephews in the system who did not receive devices because they attended other district schools. But even with her son’s laptop there were technical difficulties. She said the Microsoft Teams platform was difficult to use.
Shealey said her son did not enjoy his remote learning experience because he missed being in the classroom with his teachers. “He’s one of those students who needs teacher interaction,” she said.
She said if all students had laptops and internet access, she believes, remote learning “could have been a “joyful experience.”
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.