The path to remote education hasn’t been an easy problem for Pittsburgh Public Schools to solve

By Mary Niederberger
Special to the Pittsburgh Current

The switch from brick-and-mortar schools to remote education has not been a smooth pivot for the Pittsburgh Public Schools.

It took the administration more than five weeks to resume classes for students and even two weeks after classes started, the district did not have a tally of how many of the 23,000 public school students it is reaching.

In early March, local educators were in the midst of annual routines that included preparing students for upcoming state assessments and battling the predictable spring fever fidgeting among students.

Two weeks later all normalcy disappeared as the coronavirus descended on Pennsylvania, forcing the closure of schools and the overnight responsibility of educators to figure out how to move their district’s lessons into students’ homes.

In Allegheny County, a handful of districts, including Elizabeth Forward, Fox Chapel Area and Pine-Richland were almost immediately out of the chute with online remote education. The effort was easier for those districts because they already had one-to-one technology programs that provided a device for all students.

But at the end of the line was the Pittsburgh Public Schools, where students were without instruction from March 13, when Gov. Tom Wolf ordered schools closed, until April 22, the day remote learning was instituted for all students. Pittsburgh seniors started remote classes on April 16.

The five-and-a-half-weeks without formal instruction — including six days previously scheduled for spring break — has frustrated some parents and advocates. Those frustrations have spilled out through online forums and testimony at the April public hearing of the Pittsburgh school board.  

“I guess it’s just a sense of shared frustration about why it took so long,” said James Fogarty, executive director of the advocacy group A+ Schools.

“PPS students’ last day of school in a brick-and-mortar building was before spring break; the remote learning was a slow roll out with homework collection beginning April 22. A lot of education time has been, and continues to be, lost,” wrote Felicia Williams in her testimony at the April public hearing of the school board

Some parents cited the lack of time out of school for supporting lenient grading in the final quarter. Superintendent Anthony Hamlet said all students will pass the final quarter.

Lamont Jones, grandfather of students at Manchester K-8, asked in his written comments: “Why was the district, compared to other districts, so late to begin educating our children?”

District spokeswoman Ebony Pugh said there were a number of factors that made it more difficult for Pittsburgh schools to transition to remote learning. But the main obstacle is the fact that Pittsburgh’s education model was created for a brick-and-mortar setting, with few students set up to access a cyber school.

“Other districts already had a one-to-one environment and already had a platform. We had a few schools using Google Classroom or Schoology, but that was it,” Pugh said.

In recent remote public forums, Hamlet has said that moving 23,000 students to a remote setting has been a difficult task and took a lot of planning.  He has not been specific about what obstacles the district faced beyond a lack of computer devices and internet connections for all students.

Pugh said the district had conducted an internal technical device inventory by March 20 but that tedious process involved team members visiting all 54 schools to find devices. Before the computers could be transported to the district’s 10-member tech team, each device had to be cleaned and sanitized by district custodians.

After delivery to the tech team, the devices were tested to see if they worked and then had to be reimaged to support the Microsoft Teams platform. That process took about an hour per device, Pugh said.

On March 23, the district announced it was conducting a district-wide survey to find out what technology families had available for their students.

At the conclusion of the internal and community survey, it was determined 17,000 devices were needed. The district purchased 5,000 new laptops to be added to the 2,500 in its inventory. Another 559 were donated by the University of Pittsburgh.

But the total fell far short of the need and a remote learning fund was established to raise money for additional computers. Though more money has come into the fund — including a $360,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments — a backlog in the supply chain means that those computers won’t arrive until late this month.

Currently, all students in grades nine-12 have computers and the district is setting up distributions for students in grades six-eight. The district also plans to distribute iPads to students in grades K-two.

Another factor in the delay of the delivery of lessons in Pittsburgh and other districts was a directive from the U.S. Department of Education in mid-March which stated districts must provide equitable remote education to all students under the Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) provision of federal law.

That message meant: If you can’t provide the same quality of education for all students, you should not provide it to any students.

In a March 25 message to families, Hamlet said that provision prevented the district from providing formal, graded lessons because officials knew they could not reach all students given the lack of computer devices available for students and because special education and other services to vulnerable student populations could not be provided as effectively in a remote environment.

By the end of March, the U.S. Department of Education revised the original message to indicate that FAPE allowed for flexibility and that districts were free to educate students to the best of their ability in a remote setting.

Within days of that clarification many suburban districts were starting to offer remote lessons, often via a mixture of online and paper packets. The 42 Allegheny County districts outside of the city are considerably smaller than Pittsburgh and many have fewer economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities, and English language learners.

Other school districts in the county range from North Allegheny with about 8,500 students in grades K-12 to the Duquesne City School District with about 250 students in grades K-6.

In Pittsburgh, teacher training on the Microsoft Teams platform was held the weeks of March 30 and April 6.

“It was a whole new way of work for teachers,” Pugh said.

At the same time, the Pittsburgh curriculum team had to create lessons that were aligned with state standards for each grade and have 27,000 paper copies produced because officials did not know how many families would choose packets rather than online lessons. The lessons had to include adaptations for students with disabilities and English language learners.

The district then had to determine the best locations from which to distribute the packets because families were not consistently showing up at the Grab-and-Go sites where breakfasts and lunches were being distributed to families.

A map created by the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center now shows 47 sites — including some schools — around the city for packet pickups.

Pittsburgh launched its remote system April 22, earlier than the School District of Philadelphia, which didn’t start district wide remote learning until May 4.

However, other large urban districts, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., were providing remote lessons to students weeks before Pittsburgh. But Washington, D.C., is planning to end classes at the end of the month, three weeks early.

Some of the remote programs that started locally and nationally before Pittsburgh ran into rough spots.

There were complaints about slow-moving online platforms, parents’ frustrations about their inability to navigate the platforms and grumbling about student workloads that seemed excessive. Pittsburgh has faced the same complaints since launching its remote program.

Fogarty said he understands the difficulty in moving a large urban district to remote learning. But, he said, he wonders if earlier planning and device purchases could have gotten things moving sooner.

But Pugh said district officials were working on remote learning even before the governor closed schools. She said Hamlet was ready to announce a phased closing of Pittsburgh schools, which would have allowed teachers and students to gather materials, just before Wolf closed schools on March 13.

Another frustration for district families was that so few computer devices were available to distribute to students for online learning. A small number of Pittsburgh schools, including Pittsburgh CAPA six-12 and Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy six-12, had one-to-one technology for students.

As of publication deadline, district officials still did not know how many students are participating in remote learning. Pugh said teachers were given attendance protocols the week of May 4. The fact that paper packets have run out at some locations “is a good indication that families are participating,” Pugh said.

Hamlet has said in public forums he was focusing district funds on in-classroom technology before moving to providing personal technology devices that students could take home. He has acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the district to move to a one-to-one technology program by fall so all students have equitable access to online learning if remote education continues.      

During a May 7 Facebook Live session sponsored by the Pittsburgh Black Elected Officials Coalition, Hamlet did not address the delay in the district’s launch of remote learning. He acknowledged, however, that not all families are happy with the program.

His message to those families: “We are committing to continue in providing the quality education that students deserve.”

Currently Pittsburgh students are receiving asynchronous learning, which means for the most part teachers are posting lessons and videos, and students are learning independently.

He also reiterated a pledge he made last week to have computer devices for every student in the Pittsburgh schools by Fall and have the ability to provide daily synchronous learning, so that students will receive educational guidance from their teachers, instead of relying on their own understanding and their parents’ help to figure out what they need to know.

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.

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