Rachel Masilamani and her son Malcolm in her neighborhood near Wilkinsburg. Photo by Jay Manning/PublicSource.

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School days — in any other year — often include rambunctious chatter on school buses, leaning on lockers to catch up with friends and gossiping in a noisy cafeteria over lunch trays. But for many students across Allegheny County and beyond, this March morning began much more isolated, maybe alone or maybe with a parent beckoning them toward their laptop and headphones, likely in their home, at a learning pod, or masked and social-distanced in a school building.

It’s been a tricky, demanding year for everyone in the education community since schools first closed in March 2020. Parents are committing the ultimate juggling act in many cases, balancing facilitating learning with parenting and jobs. Students are navigating newly created virtual learning environments and striving to succeed. Educators have stretched themselves to teach beyond a physical classroom and are filling in gaps to help students at every turn — in some cases even delivering technology and meals to students.

A year later, many are still brimming with worry and anxiety about what’s next for local education. But they’re also clinging to hope. They’ve survived and persevered this long, after all.

One year after teachers and students across Allegheny County left their brick-and-mortar school buildings, PublicSource spoke with more than a dozen students, parents and teachers. Here are some of their stories.

Briayelle Gaines. Photo courtesy of PublicSource.

Briayelle Gaines, 11th-grade student in West Mifflin Area School District

While it may raise an eyebrow for some that 11th-grader Briayelle Gaines sought out employment smack in the middle of virtual learning amid COVID, Gaines has bigger concerns.

She’s worried about her mom. How will she continue to manage raising three kids by herself in an ongoing pandemic?

To help out, Gaines — who isn’t comfortable yet going back to brick-and-mortar school buildings — got a full-time job at Chik-fil-A to juggle school with supporting her single stay-at-home mom.

She sees all that’s going on in the world and wants to help, the 16-year-old explained.

“Everything that’s affecting our parents, it bounces off back on the children because if our parents are not getting no income or if our parents can’t feed us, it bounces back on us,” she said. “They have this weight on them that they can’t do nothing about.”

“But it’s like we can’t help them because no one’s helping them help us.”|

Her sister, 17, also works a full-time job while their mom cares for their 1-year-old brother.

Briayelle left her previous job at McDonald’s at the start of the school year because she didn’t want to risk her family’s health, especiall her brother. Once cases started to drop and the Chik-Fil-A in Homestead was hiring, she jumped at the opportunity.

Full-time online learning is a chance to practice making her own schedule and balancing responsibilities — skills she said she will need to achieve her plans of becoming an entrepreneur when she graduates from West Mifflin Area High School.

When school resumed in September, she didn’t like virtual learning at all. The semester started off slow, but before she knew it: “They just piled all this stuff on us and expected us to get it done because it needed to be on their time.”

“I didn’t like it because it just, it felt like they were rushing things, like they were doing it to benefit them and not us,” she said. “They just wanted to get something out there just to get it out there.”

As an honors student, she said she expected the school work when classes resumed in the fall to be harder but in many ways, to her it was too easy. At the same time, she wishes the curriculum was more in touch with life outside of school and built in teaching more about Black culture as well as life skills, like how to pay bills or file taxes.

“I’m a person who likes the challenge and who actually does like to learn stuff and educate myself,” she said.

Changes need to be made, she said.

She hopes that the people in charge will start listening to Black community members.

“Because what’s a school without diversity?” she said.

Written by TyLisa C. Johnson

Amy Galloway-Barr, 39, English teacher with Pittsburgh Public Schools

Last July, 10th-grade English teacher Amy Galloway-Barr was shaken by the impending return to school. In the rawest way she could, she plainly told PublicSource:

“I don’t want to die.”

At the time, nine months ago, COVID-19 cases were on the rise and her concerns about the forthcoming school year — her 17th year in the classroom — were growing by the minute.

When Galloway-Barr spoke to PublicSource most recently, in February, it was just two days after her first COVID vaccine. She said that while remote, virtual teaching is completely different, it wasn’t as bad as she thought it would be.

“I was really worried that it was going to lose all of the personal interactions that you have with kids that make it really fun,” said Galloway-Barr, who teaches at Taylor Allderdice High School. “And I found out that that was not true. I still feel really connected to my students.”

Amy Galloway-Barr’s work-from-home setup. Courtesy photo.
Amy Galloway-Barr’s work-from-home setup. Courtesy photo.

Much of her pre-pandemic teaching was offline: hard-copy books, face-to-face discussion and paper assignments written in pen and pencil. One of the biggest shifts for her this school year was having to do more prep work.

“To convert everything into online material means that you have to change the entirety of the way that you would normally teach it,” she said.

Even more challenging has been adjusting to the district’s continued decision to keep students in remote learning.

“It’s been so difficult because our district keeps saying that we’re going back, and then we don’t go back…” she said. “So we keep thinking and planning for something that hasn’t happened yet.”

Students convene from all 90 Pittsburgh neighborhoods to learn at Allderdice. Since the Pittsburgh Public Schools district shuttered in March 2020, she has done little outside beyond grocery shopping.

“I still feel really connected to my students.”

Her Pfizer vaccine appointment was long-awaited. After multiple tries, she scored an appointment. “It was like a part-time job to try to secure one,” she said. And on the day of her appointment, she drove to a local Rite Aid, double-masked and, before she knew it, she was back in her car. Partially vaccinated.

Her appointment was quick and “anticlimactic,” but when she left she was overcome by emotion in a way she didn’t expect.

“There was nothing about it that should have made me overly emotional, but I got into my car and I just started to cry because I just felt so relieved,” she said. “Like the end is sort of in sight.”

Written by TyLisa C. Johnson

Alex Kiger, 16, 10th-grade student in Pittsburgh Public Schools

It was a normal Sunday morning in December for sophomore Alex Kiger when a text from a friend left him horrified.

The text had a screenshot of a group chat that showed his Microsoft Teams school account, with a new account photo featuring a racial slur and posting “very vulgar” comments and slurs to most of his contacts, Kiger said.

He was hacked.

Kiger raced down the steps of his home where he saw his mom, who had received an email from Kiger’s algebra teacher about his account. His teacher eventually got in contact with somebody who could take control and it was shut down a few hours later.

As he recounted the story in late February, his face warmed and his voice quaked.

“The things that were said, I’m not even going to repeat because I would never say it,” he said.

PublicSource reported in November on increased cyber threats and attacks toward students in the new virtual learning environment.

“The things that were said, I’m not even going to repeat because I would never say it.”

Kiger is one of many students nationwide who have experienced hacks or privacy breaches this school year.

Kiger said it took a couple of weeks to have an account that worked again, though he still can’t see some documents.

The district gave him a new email address and Microsoft Teams account, he said, but had log-in issues. He was granted a guest account, but that account sometimes made it difficult to join classes as teachers often avoid letting in unnamed participants and “guest” accounts to avoid unwanted participants.

When the district reached out to Kiger again, it was to let him know his original account was fixed and had a new password. He logged into the formerly hacked account. Immediately, he saw the same hacked icon photo with a racial slur still there. “My heart literally dropped.”

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to touch this. I don’t want to use this account, anything ever again,’” he said.

He said he thinks the hacking of his account should have been easier to fix. He also still doesn’t know if the district investigated.

“If they ever did some sort of investigation, I obviously wasn’t involved. I don’t know if they ever found out who it was or how they did it,” Kiger said, adding he doesn’t know of anything done to prevent it from happening again.

Alex Kiger, 16, is a sophomore at Taylor Allderdice High School. He is photographed here outside his home in Oakland. Photo by Ryan Loew/PublicSource.

Pittsburgh Public Schools did not follow up on a PublicSource request for more information.

With the mass shift to online learning, the need for the district to protect student data has greatly increased.

The need for the district to communicate directly with families is also growing.

“I don’t think the district has done a lot to actively communicate to parents and students and families about the plans on how to move forward and what’s going to happen in this time and what’s going to happen down the road,” Kiger said.

Still, he finds silver linings in a school year unlike any other. He appreciates that the district didn’t rush people back to school buildings and that teachers have been especially understanding.

He lives with his mother and grandmother and is constantly assessing what situations may be too high risk for his grandmother.

“Online school is really, really difficult. And it’s not the same, obviously,” Kiger said. “And frankly, I feel like I’m learning a lot less. But at the same time … I do not think I’d be willing to go back in the building if, you know, proper safety measures weren’t met all the way, like all throughout the building.”

Written by TyLisa C. Johnson

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