By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
The majority of testimony during a more than four-hour virtual public hearing before the Pittsburgh school board came from teachers who said they are afraid to return to the classroom in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and support school director Kevin Carter’s proposal to start the school year online.
“Going back into the building is just too risky right now. We have not flattened the curve,” wrote Gina Andreassi, an ESL teacher at Brashear High School. Her testimony and that of all of the more than 130 participants was submitted in advance and read publicly by district administrators during the district’s livestream of the public hearing.
Multiple teachers noted that the school board continues to meet in a virtual setting and yet it was considering sending students and teachers back to school in person. Several also noted there are now far more virus cases in the community than when schools were closed in March
Andreassi’s comments about her fears of returning to the classroom while the virus surges locally were echoed dozens of times by teachers who submitted testimony in support of a resolution introduced last week by school director Kevin Carter for the district to hold classes solely online for the first nine weeks.
Prior to Carter’s resolution, the district had been preparing to allow parents to choose either a hybrid option — where students would be divided into two groups, with one group attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays and the other group attending Thursdays and Fridays — or enrolling in an online program.
But Carter, citing the surge in COVID-19 cases in Allegheny County in recent weeks, said he no longer felt it was safe to put students and teachers in school buildings. The school board is set to vote on its reopening plan at 3 p.m. Friday.
In their testimony, teachers questioned how effectively they would be able to teach while enforcing social distancing and requiring students to wear masks in schools on hot days with no air conditioning. Some said they taught in classrooms with no windows. They also pointed out that Allegheny County limits inside gatherings to 25 people.
The teachers spoke of their fear of contracting COVID-19 and bringing the virus home to their families and some listed health conditions, such as an organ transplant, that would make it impossible for them to return to the classroom.
They also predicted that if schools did open for in-person instruction, the virus would spread in the district and schools would be closed again.
PFT President Nina Esposito Visgitis made it clear the union supports starting the school year fully online calling it “the only sane, sensible course for our schools.”
“Let’s make the hard decision to make a remote learning plan. It is a direction we must choose while facing a health crisis that has escalated rather than abated, Esposito-Visgitis said.
Teachers also pointed out in their testimony that the proposed in-person school days would not be normal for students as they would not be permitted to leave their seats or socialize with their peers and would have to wear masks all day.
Many of those who testified in favor of online learning mentioned the need for equity in the system. The issues included students with disabilities and those living with housing and food insecurity. There also remain questions about whether all students will have computers and internet access when classes start Aug. 31.
Donna Ruff, the parent of a son who will start 6th grade at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, said it was a “sad reality” that students cannot return to the classroom because of the coronavirus. But she said all students must have access to technology and that teachers should be permitted to design their own lessons for students.
Ruff also said the district needs to have a plan in place for children who can’t have an adult at home and for children with special needs.
There were a handful of individuals who asked for the hybrid plan to be kept alive.
Peter Bird, who has a daughter starting kindergarten at Minadeo, wrote that he did not think his daughter would learn the necessary foundations of reading and math online without a tutor or Bird or his wife taking time off from their full-time jobs to work with her.
Deborah Garris, the parent of a son with severe learning disabilities, said he is unable to learn on a virtual platform. “He requires an adult to sit with him the entire time, while trying to keep him engaged, Garris wrote.
She asked the board to keep the hybrid attendance option open so that her son can be with his teachers at least two days a week.
“If you vote to take away the hybrid learning option, this will negatively affect my son’s education,” Garris wrote.
Maria Paul, a teacher at Pittsburgh Pioneer, a special education center, asked that the school be handled separately from the rest of the district and opened for in-person lessons.
Paul said Pioneer students require “daily hands-on” experiences and that the lack of face-to-face interaction since March had resulted in lost learning and skills. Classrooms at Pioneer have eight students at most and Paul said she believed with the “right safety protocols in place” a safe learning environment can exist there.
Child care was also raised as an issue for families where parents must work outside of the home. Michael Czypinski, the parent of a student at Greenfield Elementary, said while his family can afford a nanny share to help cover its child care needs, many others cannot.
“The board must come up with solutions for parents that need child care assistance,” Czypinski said.
The board also heard from bus contractors.
Shawn Albright, regional vice president of First Student bus company asked the district to continue to pay the firm’s expenses if it goes to online learning. He said drivers are worried about losing their jobs and that there is a shortage of drivers with commercial driver’s licenses and they will likely take jobs outside of the district if they lose their paychecks. That will impair the firm’s ability to provide adequate service when classes resume.
Ty Anthony of ABC Transit echoed that message. “This setback has the potential to have a significant impact to all school bus contractor operations in the city,” Anthony wrote