By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
The board of the Pittsburgh Public Schools voted to abandon the hybrid education plan that had been proposed for Nov. 9 that was expected to bring a majority of students back to the classroom two days a week.
Instead, the board chose to continue online learning for most students until January and provide four-day-a-week classes for a number of its most vulnerable students, including those with special needs, those who are medically fragile, English language learners and other groups identified by school principals and staff.
During a nearly three-hour virtual meeting that at times was being viewed by as many as 1,400 individuals, board members went back and forth on whether it was better to bring more students into school sooner or focus on the vulnerable populations while keeping the remainder of students learning online.
The original resolution on the agenda called for two cohorts of typical students — labeled AA and BB — to attend school in-person two days a week and continue online for three days starting Nov. 9.
The resolution also include a “C cohort” of students who chose to remain online and a “D cohort” which included “students with special needs, medically fragile students and other student groups” who would attend four days a week.
But school director Kevin Carter proposed, and was supported by the board majority, that in-person learning for the AA/BB cohorts be delayed until January, with Superintendent Anthony Hamlet creating a plan to bring them back no sooner than Jan. 4 and no later than Jan. 25.
Carter initially proposed that only “D cohort” as originally defined be brought back to school on Nov. 9 and that they attend four days a week. Later in the meeting, school director Terry Kennedy amended Carter’s proposal to include English language learners.
Pittsburgh Current published an Oct. 23 story about the struggles that Pittsburgh’s English Language Learners and their parents are having with remote learning.
Board president Sylvia Wilson was adamantly opposed to the last-minute change in plans, stating that more than 15,000 of the district’s 23,000 students indicated they wanted to attend school via the hybrid system on Nov. 9. “That’s 70 percent. How can we disagree with them,” Wilson said.
But board member Sala Udin said while he is concerned with the learning loss experienced by students — particularly African American students — he was not comfortable sending more students into schools when COVID-19 case counts are once again at high points in Allegheny County.
“As for the increased learning. Given time we can fix and improve the learning. (But) if children or staff get infected we may not be able to fix that,” Udin said. He pointed out that when the board initially voted in July to hold online instruction for the first nine weeks — also at Carter’s suggestion — he predicted it would be necessary to continue into January.
School director Pam Harbin said the board had heard a report that seven buildings still had not figured out social distancing and eight had not been able to create arrival and dismissal procedures. She also pointed out that some would be asked to bring their personal computer devices to school because the district still does not have enough devices for 1:1 instruction
“It doesn’t feel right to do this yet in this way. There’s too many unanswered questions,” Harbin said.
She suggested allowing principals and building staff to decide what other vulnerable students should be included in the four-day-a week instruction in their buildings while still keeping the numbers at a level that allows for social distancing. Other board members agreed with that idea.
School director Veronica Edwards expressed anger that the district was not moving forward with its hybrid plan. She said too many black students are missing out on a proper education, referencing a report the board received on African American achievement in the district this week. She also it’s too difficult for parents to help their children with school and to work.
“Parents are struggling to keep a roof over their heads… To get their kids educated.. Parents who are single and have to go to work and leave their children at home,” Edwards said. “It’s not up to the board to hold them back.”
“It’s time to move forward,” Edwards said.
After the board majority backed Carter on his amendment to keep all but the “D cohort” students online until January, Edwards proposed adding African American children to the list of students in “D cohort.”
But solicitor Ira Weiss said student assignments could not be based on race and Hamlet pointed out that adding all of those students, who make up about 52 percent of enrollment, would not allow for social distancing if students were attending four days a week.
Edwards then suggested adding “low achieving students” to a“D Cohort” but administrators said, once again, there would be too many to allow for social distancing in the buildings.
Board member Devon Taliaferro said she understood what Edwards was trying to do.
“It’s disappointing…because there are students who don’t fit into special needs, or medically fragile or ELL but who need to be in school, including the children of essential workers,” Taliaferro said.
She said she hoped school principals and staff would be able to include some of those children in the “D cohort.”