Pittsburgh public schools press forward with remote learning plans as finances deteriorate

By: - May 15, 2020 8:45 am

By Mary Niederberger

PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh school board approved the purchase of more than 7,000 Chromebooks for students this week, and district officials are continuing efforts to distribute technology devices to students who need them. But by the time devices get into the hands of pupils in grades K-7, there will be just weeks left in the school year.

That was the good news/bad news part of the online briefing PPS officials held this morning on the progress of their remote learning transition.

But when it came to district finances, there was only bad news. Chief Financial Officer Ron Joseph said the district has already incurred $2.6 million in COVID-19 costs, including the purchase of laptops and WiFi hotspots and personal protective gear and the expense of creating paper instructional packets.

Those expenses add to the district’s already anticipated $25 million deficit. Joseph said in a worst-case scenario that the deficit could grow to more than $82 million and wipe out the district’s fund balance by the end of the year, depending on the loss of local, state and federal revenue.

Joseph said the district has already seen a $10 million decline in real estate tax revenue and a $5 million decline in earned income tax payments.

Some financial relief is expected to come from federal funds allocated to the state via the CARES Act.  Joseph said of the $400 million designated for school districts and charter schools, Pittsburgh is expected to receive $11.1 million, but the actual amount could be lower.

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Despite the looming financial problems, district officials are moving forward with technology distribution and plans for expanded summer learning programs to combat academic losses and preparations for a multiple models of school reopening in the fall.

Currently, laptops have been distributed to all students in grades 9-12 who needed them. Today, the district will complete its laptop distribution to students in eighth grade.

For students in grades below 8, the priority for device distribution is students with disabilities who need technology for the programs and therapies provided in their Individualized Education Plans.

Once those students receive devices, others in grades 6-7 who need laptops will receive them, starting on May 26. The last day of school is June 12.

The 7,000 Chromebooks will be designated for students in grades 2-5 and are expected to be delivered to the district the week of May 18.  The district is also preparing iPads for delivery to students in pre-K-1.

In addition to students with devices, a number of students are currently completing lessons via paper packets. District officials said they still do not have attendance figures for how many students are participating in remote learning — a task that will become easier once all students are online.

Theodore Dwyer, chief of data, research, evaluation, and assessment, said the technology device distribution to date has been targeted to students whose families do not have devices or internet connections available in their homes. Once all of those students receive devices, the district will then work toward providing all PPS students with a district-issued device.

To do so will require the total purchase of 26,000 devices, which includes 3,000 additional devices for “breakage and replacement,” Dwyer said.

To meet that goal, the district needs about 6,000 more devices at a cost of about $7 million. He was uncertain when that goal would be met though Superintendent Anthony Hamlet has pledged the district will be fully integrated to one-to-one technology by the time school resumes in the fall.

Students who currently have devices will be able to use them for the district’s expanded summer programs, all of which will be offered remotely, said David May-Stein, chief of school performance. Capacity in those programs has been doubled from 1,200 to 2,400.

Those programs include:

*A Summer Dreamers Academy for grades K-5, which can accommodate 1,800 students and will concentrate on English language arts, math and some enrichment opportunities.

*A Learn & Earn Summer Youth Employment Program for students in eighth and ninth grades through which students will receive online training and guidance participate in a remote work experience. Students 14 and over can receive stipends.

*Brain Booster Online Classes for grades 10 and 11 to “give them the opportunity to capture what might have been lost,” May-Stein said.

There will also be an extended school year for students with disabilities who do not participate in the other programs. Students in that program will receive synchronous instruction for three weeks starting July 12.

The district will also offer extended credit recovery programs for high school students who need to make up credits.

Whether school will return in its brick and mortar structure, remain remote or move to a hybrid plan, the district is preparing its buildings for use. Officials said they are waiting on guidelines from the state Department of Education.

Chief Operations Officer Pam Capretta said district workers have been monitoring and testing the water systems in buildings and reviewing ventilation systems to make sure they can support the number of people who may return to buildings. The district is still working on how to social distance children on school buses.

Hamlet said the biggest challenge regarding planning for the fall “is not knowing what the guidelines will be as far as social distancing.”

He said the district is waiting for directives from the state and federal government.

Mary Niederberger is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared.

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