23,000 students undergoing instruction online, as coronavirus pandemic forces all Pa. schools closed for remainder of school year
by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
It’s officially time to update the definition of “Homework.”
“Homework” is no longer a term used to describe a bevy of assignments given at school by a teacher to a student, to be finished at the student’s home, and turned in to the teacher the following day at school.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, “Homework” is now defined as assignments given by a teacher, who’s at home, to a student, who’s also at home. The student finishes the homework at home, and then the work is evaluated by their teacher—yep, all from home.
Welcome to the new normal. For how long, no one knows. What is for certain is that following Pa. Gov. Tom Wolf’s declaration two weeks ago that all of the state’s public and private K-12 schools would remain closed for the rest of the school year, there won’t be any students heading into classrooms anytime soon.
Imagine the undertaking performed by, say, the Pittsburgh Public Schools district, with its 23,000 students and roughly 50 physical school buildings, to move from the classroom to the “home” room in about 30 days?
Superintendent of Schools Anthony Hamlet, Ed.D., called it “no easy task.”
As you’re reading this article, “remote learning” has begun for the district’s students. Most, if not all, of the high school seniors are completing their assignments online with a district-issued laptop computer (if they didn’t have computer access at home already). Their remote instruction began on Thursday, April 16. The other grades began on Wednesday, April 22.
The district provided thousands of laptops to students in those grades who, like some seniors, also did not have home computer access. But not all of the 23,000 students will be getting their work done via the computer. Some students and parents have picked up paper-based instructional packets to perform the assignments.
During a virtual press conference held by the district on April 15, lead administrators outlined their comprehensive strategy for the remote learning endeavor.
English Language Arts and Math are among the courses that will be provided for students in each grade level. Science will be added for grades 3-5, Social Studies for grades 6-12. Arts, Physical Education and Health will be provided by grade band (K-5, 6-8, 9-12).
Minika Jenkins, PPS’ chief academic officer, said that with the exception of high school seniors and those usually in one-to-one settings, the vast majority of students will undergo “asynchronous” learning, or learning that does not occur with real-time interaction. While the district has provided suggested schedules for students and families to follow, most students will complete the work on their own schedule throughout the day and week, after their teachers have posted the lessons via the online portal. Jenkins said teachers will schedule and share their office hours “to provide support to students and families throughout the learning day.”
Tutors will also be available after hours.
“We have to be flexible to the needs of our families as well as our students, and understanding that some of our students may not be able to get online at the exact same time. We also have to think about our parents and their ability to support students when they’re working as well.”
Across the country, with the vast majority of schools closed, the idea of remote instruction has further brought to light the disparities between school districts when classified financially as “wealthier” or “poorer.” School districts draw primarily from local real estate taxes for funding, and historically, areas with higher average median incomes are also more equipped to have homes with certain technology such as computers (desktops or laptops), and high-speed internet access.
Wealthier school districts in Allegheny County include Upper St. Clair ($110,000 average median income), Pine-Richland ($104,000), North Allegheny ($94,000), and Mt. Lebanon ($86,000). By comparison, the Pittsburgh school district’s area median income is $42,000. Wilkinsburg ($34,000) Woodland Hills ($43,000), McKeesport ($35,000) are other lower-AMI districts in Allegheny County. All data is based on the year 2016, compiled by lehighvalleylive.com.
Education Week recently conducted a survey with more than 2,600 teachers and school administrators across the country and found that “in districts with the lowest percentages of students from low-income families, just one in five leaders reported…that a lack of basic technology is a ‘major’ problem, compared with nearly two-thirds of leaders in districts where the highest percentages of students are from low-income families.”
The survey also revealed, although not surprisingly, that while “teachers in wealthier districts were more likely to post messages and videos online…teachers in the lowest-income schools were more than twice as likely…to use text messages, phone calls, social media, and printed communications to reach students, and they were also far more likely to send material out via (regular) mail.”
In late March, PPS instituted a home technology survey for students and parents to assess what technologies, such as a computer and high-speed internet, were inside families’ homes. With that information from the survey, the district was able to better determine how many laptops they would need to provide to students. In addition to laptops on hand, PPS also received a number of laptops (or the financial contribution to purchase them) from various sources.
Still, not all students will have access to a computer. Thousands of students will use the paper instructional packets, and Jenkins told reporters during the press conference that the district is still refining the ways those packets can be turned back in to the district without students/parents leaving the home. She said one of the options being discussed is the ability for students to call teachers and give them their answers to an assignment.
Hamlet acknowledged that there would be a “drastic learning loss” in remote learning, as opposed to school-based instruction. “We’re just transparent here in PPS, yes, we’re going to have some drastic learning loss, but what are we doing to minimize or mitigate those as best we can…?”
The district also acknowledged that there could be problems contacting each and every student in the district, along with making sure students are regularly logging into the system and completing their assignments. David May-Stein, PPS’ chief of school performance, said counselors and social workers would begin “additional outreach” for students who could not be contacted by their homeroom teacher. Additional outreach includes additional phone calls and emails, and trying to connect with other service providers that may have contact with the student through a club or activity. “That’s where the idea of teaming comes in between the counselor, the social worker and the teacher so that we’re doing everything to reach every single student,” May-Stein said.
May-Stein also said there will still be “high expectations” for both students and teachers during remote instruction. Students will continue to get a specific grade (A, B, C, etc.) overall, rather than a pass/fail, the latter of which was discussed by the district as an option.
“One of the concerns we have with pass/fail is that it may lower a student’s level of participation and engagement if they feel they don’t have to put forth the same amount of effort to get an A,” May-Stein said. “We want our kids to know that we will expect them to engage and learn.”