It will be a ‘first day of school’ unlike any other

Pennsylvania

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PPS board votes for in-home learning for at least nine weeks beginning Aug. 31

by Rob Taylor Jr.
Courier Staff Writer
For Pittsburgh parents, grandparents and guardians, explaining to the kids why there won’t be the traditional “first day of school” in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district shouldn’t be too difficult—by now, everyone’s heard of COVID-19.

However, take a step back, think about it for a moment…

The month of August is usually filled with anticipation—heading to the stores to purchase school supplies, or heading to different community events in Lincoln-Lemington, the North Side, or the Hill District, to receive free bookbags and other items. This time of year is also about getting the kids’ uniforms for school, if needed. What’s the right size? How many different shirt colors are permitted?

And for the kids, the first day of school might be their first time riding the school bus, meeting their new homeroom teacher, or catching up with old friends.

Yes, it’s easy to explain that the coronavirus is halting all of this, but it’s still difficult for people to wrap their heads around the fact that, at least for the 23,000 students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools district, there will be no “first day of school” for the kids to get excited about, the way kids across the country have in the previous, oh, 100 years or so.

August 31 is now the first day of “virtual school” for the district, as the district’s board members on July 31 voted unanimously, 9-0, to make the first nine weeks of the school year online only. No students will be in any school buildings.

The board held a special session on July 31 to hold the vote on the resolution to have online-only learning for the first nine weeks, introduced on July 22 by board member Kevin Carter.

KEVIN CARTER, who introduced the resolution, asked fellow board members, “Are you willing to gamble the lives of students and staffs?”

Seeing as it was a decision that would affect thousands of students, parents and staff alike, the interest in the vote was high. More than 1,000 people were tuned into the district’s live-stream of the meeting online, which began around 3:15 p.m. The vote came at 4:30 p.m., after the board members voiced their final opinions on the matter at-hand.

Carter, among other statements, told the board that “we have a responsibility to ensure the safety of all of our students and staff.”

Another board member, Terry Kennedy, said that she couldn’t, in her heart, “force people into a building at this time.”

Carter and Kennedy voted “yes” to postpone the in-school learning, as did everyone else—Sala Udin, Pamela Harbin, William Gallagher, Devon Taliaferro, Cynthia Falls, Veronica Edwards, and Sylvia Wilson, the board president.

SALA UDIN, a board member, warned that if COVID-19 doesn’t let up, there may not be in-school instruction until 2021.

The district originally had a plan to reopen schools to students in two different cohorts, where some students would attend school on Mondays and Tuesdays and others on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would learn from home on the days they weren’t in school. The district did give parents an option to enroll their students in remote learning only. More than 4,100 students were enrolled in this option as of July 22.

But at the “end of the day,” the board ultimately decided that all students would be enrolled in remote learning to start the year.

Remote learning, or learning from home, presents its own set of challenges —namely, the question of if it’s the best way for students to learn. Board members like Carter and Udin continuously stressed that they believed in-school instruction, led by the teachers with the students, is the best way for students to learn. But when it comes to COVID-19, they felt it wasn’t worth the risk of putting the kids’ health in jeopardy.

Gallagher said that as a teacher in the school system for 27 years, there was no way there could be proper social distancing guidance followed. It wouldn’t be anyone’s fault—it’s just that with the confluence of teachers, staff, and an active student base, there’s no way to say that COVID-19 wouldn’t have been able to infect those at the schools. Rather than opening the schools and then closing them again, Gallagher said, it’s best to just keep them closed for now.

PPS BOARD MEMBER DEVON TALIAFERRO

Gallagher also said that while “I understand, as a parent, it puts people in difficulty” due to parents having to go to work and not having adequate home childcare, he still couldn’t vote for in-school instruction. “We have to look out for the benefit of the people. We have people’s health in our hands.”

Udin said that “we must hope for the best, but plan for the worst,” then said that students may not be back in school until 2021, if the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in Allegheny County. He continued to hammer to the administration that they must do all they can to keep students learning while away from the schools.

Harbin said that she didn’t believe the board would still be having online meetings in late July, four months after the coronavirus pandemic arrived. Thus, how could board members even think about putting students back into classrooms. She had hinted back on July 22 when Carter introduced the resolution that she would vote “yes,” to keep kids out of the schools, as did a few other board members.

PPS BOARD MEMBER VERONICA EDWARDS

Edwards and Falls did not commit to voting in favor of the resolution when it was introduced on July 22, but after careful consideration, on July 31, their vote became a “yes.”

So, come Aug. 31 and the weeks thereafter, there will be sights unseen—you won’t see the more-than 1,400 students filing out of Allderdice High School after a six-hour school day. You won’t see the school buses dropping off the little ones in Garfield, Beltzhoover or Manchester. You won’t see fans in the stands at high school football games, according to a release last week from the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Parents, grandparents and guardians, the first day of school is only a few weeks away. It just will be a first day of school unlike any other.

SYLVIA WILSON, the board president, said it was a tough decision for the board, but a decision that had to be made.

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