Pittsburgh Schools will spend first nine weeks of school fully online

By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer

The first nine weeks of school will be online for the 23,000 students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

That decision was made by the Pittsburgh school board today when its members approved a resolution introduced last week by school director Kevin Carter for the district to delay its hybrid in-person reopening and start with online education.

Most board members said their vote was based on the safety concerns for students, staff and the community as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to spike in Allegheny County.

Several board members said they understood the child care hardships their decision would create for some families but said that safety had to be the top priority in their vote.

“At the end of the day we need to realize unless we can guarantee the health and safety of everyone, not just in the buildings, but their families, we cannot be requiring in-person instruction. It just is not fair,” said school director Terry Kennedy.

Board member Sala Udin warned that the online lessons could last longer than nine weeks, depending on the virus status in the community.

“It may well extend to 2021 before we can reasonably expect for a vaccine to be available. We must hope for the best but plan for the worst,” Udin said.

Udin, along with other board members, expressed concern about minority students, special education students and other vulnerable populations in the district and said they will hold the administration responsible for making plans to meet their needs. That was also included in Carter’s resolution.

Board member Devon Taliaferro said she wants assurance that every student will have a computer device and internet service at the start of school on Aug. 31.

It’s unclear if that will happen. The district released a report about technology devices Friday that shows 18,719 of the 25,891 devices ordered are on backorder because of a nationwide backlog, with some not expected to arrive until October 20.

Last week district spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said that it was expected that all students should have access to a computer device for the start of school if those who have family computers available continue to use them.

School director Pam Harbin said every family in the district should be contacted multiple times to determine their needs. Harbin also stressed that students with disabilities must have their needs met during the online curriculum.

The board vote followed a public hearing Wednesday that lasted more than four hours during which dozens of teachers provided testimony saying they were afraid to return to their classrooms given the high covid-19 case numbers in recent weeks in Allegheny County.

They also questioned whether mitigation measures that were outlined in the district’s safety plan were feasible — in particular requiring students to wear masks and remain at the desks for the full school day.

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis also provided testimony urging the board to choose the online-only option for school opening.

The Pittsburgh board’s decision comes during a week when other districts also decided to open with full-time online classes. On Monday, the Riverview school board voted to open school with virtual classes for the first nine weeks. On Tuesday, the Wilkinsburg school board approved online classes for the foreseeable future. Also Tuesday, the School District of Philadelphia announced it would use remote learning through mid-November.

The Pittsburgh board also approved its COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan for when students return to school.  All districts must submit such a plan to the state Department of Education before reopening school buildings.

The plan was created with the help of some 300 community volunteers and experts who spent time in July discussing and studying best practices for mitigating the spread of the virus in schools.  At the start of that effort, virus case counts in the county were much lower.

Board President Sylvia Wilson said the plan will still be used when students return to school buildings.

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