Pittsburgh Public Schools.

Building an online learning system from scratch for 23,000 students — many of whom don’t have access to laptops — would be difficult in the best circumstances. But to have to do it on the fly, as a global pandemic changes all life in the span of a few weeks?

“It’s difficult but doable,” says Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Anthony Hamlet, confidently. After the district’s scheduled spring break ends on April 13, students will begin to receive remote instruction on April 16.

“The classes will go on, teachers will be there, the content will be there,” says Hamlet.

Students will already have a lesson distributed to them, and they can ask their teacher questions. Teachers can start instruction of the lesson and field questions from students.

“There will be group chats, various things that teachers can do to really engage with kids, and there will be ways that teachers can actually separate kids out and get different instruction for those students as well, in real-time,” says Hamlet.

In the initial training on March 31, 1,750 teachers jumped online to learn. That represents maybe 95% of the teaching population or more, notes Hamlet, who says the platform they’re using is Microsoft Teams. “There will be ongoing training making sure to get our faculty and staff up to speed and they understand how to navigate this new environment when students log online April 16.”

Having families complete Home Technology Surveys laid the groundwork for the project.

“It was a tremendous help,” says Hamlet. “It gave us a real-time idea of the tech and internet needs, resources and needs for some of our most vulnerable populations.”

While 41 percent of families responded saying they didn’t have a technological device for each child in the home, another five percent reported that they didn’t have access to the internet.

The school district is set to purchase 5,000 new laptops from All Lines Technology, for $1.4 million, to add to the 2,500 currently available. Another 599, purchased at a heavy discount, are on the way from the University of Pittsburgh.

The school district will provide printed packets for those unable to complete packets online, distributed at “Grab and Go” locations throughout the city.

A Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Grab and Go food distribution spot.
A Pittsburgh Public Schools’ Grab and Go food distribution spot.

“We have Grab and Go sites for breakfast and lunch for our students,” says Hamlet. “We’re also looking at having our buses deliver them to certain bus stops in the community because we know that some families don’t have transportation as well.”

The Allegheny Conference and The Heinz Endowments have volunteered their support to the online learning initiative.

“We know there are many students who rely on school for their next meal, counseling, mental health services, access to technology, and of course learning,” says Grant Oliphant of The Heinz Endowments. “In the absence of traditional schooling, it is the responsibility of all of us in this community to work with the district to ensure that no student is overlooked and that all of our young people have the real opportunity to learn and grow remotely.”

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.