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Pittsburgh Schools begin second week of classes facing device shortage and Internet connectivity issues

By September 14, 2020 No Comments

A student taking classes at one of Out of School Remote Learning Hubs held by Pittsburgh Public Schools’ out-of-school community partners. This is the Neighborhood School at the Bible Center in Homewood. (PPS Facebook Photo)

By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
mary@pittsburghcurrent.com

Today marks the second week of online learning for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, but it’s still unclear how many of the district’s 23,000 students are without computer devices or internet service.

Despite multiple requests from Pittsburgh Current, district officials have not provided any data on how many students have access to devices or any confirmation that shipments of computers expected last week arrived.

On Sept. 11, district Chief of Staff Errika Fearbry Jones said via email that the district has a plan for reaching out to families “who we believe still need a device.”

But at the time, she could not offer numbers and said she would reach out to the district’s IT department for that information. The numbers were not available at publication time. This story will be updated as they become available.

Fearbry Jones indicated in her email that internet access was an ongoing problem for some students.

“Internet access is still something we are wrapping our heads around; families are needing more support to navigate the Comcast’s Internet Essentials System than anticipated,” Fearbry Jones wrote.

It’s unclear how many families are affected by difficulties with internet access.

The start of school in the Pittsburgh district was delayed from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8 because of a shortage of computer devices. The district said its shortfall was the result of the national supply chain backlog for laptops, Chromebooks and tablets.

The first week of online learning in the Pittsburgh district had its ups and downs.

On the first day, connectivity issues prevented a number of students from logging into the e-learning system and prompted hundreds of parents to take their frustrations to social media.

A statement from the district said it “experienced internet connectivity issues when one of the District’s Internet Service Provider’s bandwidth maxed out, causing the District to manually switch with bandwidth to our secondary internet service provider.”

As a result, a number of students were unable to access the Schoology and Microsoft Teams platforms, which are the applications the district is using for e-learning.

The district statement said the problems were fixed within two hours, but families were still airing complaints on social media into the afternoon.

On the second day of online classes, an inappropriate video was embedded in the link of an educational video on Safe YouTube. What was supposed to be a nursery rhyme included what the district called “inappropriate content.”  The district blocked the site indefinitely.

Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said the district will make cybersecurity a priority and asked parents and staff to report any incidents. “If you see something, say something,” Hamlet said in a press release.

Pittsburgh wasn’t the only local district to have its online resources corrupted. The Trinity Area School District had inappropriate content appear in elementary and high school virtual classrooms.

And, other cyberattacks have occurred in virtual classrooms across the country including in New Jersey and California.

The Pittsburgh district held computer device distributions on the first day of school at Carrick, Westinghouse, and Oliver Citywide Academy. But it’s not known how many devices were distributed.

It’s also unclear whether the district received shipments of devices that were expected last week.

During a Sept 1 school board committee meeting, district officials showed an informational slide that indicated 2,497 students said they still needed a device.

Another slide showed that 800 devices were due to be delivered on Sept. 3, 1,100 on Sept. 4, and 1,000 on Sept. 7.

The district had prepared paper packets for any students who would not have a computer device for the start of school. But it’s uncertain how many, if any, students used paper packets as the district has remained mum on those details.

James Fogarty, executive director of A+Schools advocacy group, said he did not know if all Pittsburgh students had received computer devices by the end of the first week of online classes, but he said he was not hearing complaints from parents.

Another 6,000 devices are expected by the end of October, at which time all students are supposed to have a district-issued device.

A note of good news during the first week of school is that community learning hubs, written about in an Aug. 25 Pittsburgh Current story, established by the district’s out-of-school community partners were operating for students whose parents have to work during the school day.

The list of community learning hub sites is available here.

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