Return to Headlines

Letter from interim Pittsburgh schools chief provides insight into COVID closure process

The interim superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools last week sent a letter to staff members to explain how district officials make decisions about school closings and other COVID-related issues.

At least a dozen city schools have been forced to move to an online model every day since winter break ended in early January because of staffing shortages and virus rates at various buildings.

Interim Superintendent Wayne Walters acknowledged that these transitions create challenges for district staff and families, but he said they are needed to ensure students get as much time in a classroom as possible. 

“We understand that there are many questions regarding our approach to school closures within the context of the pandemic,” Mr. Walters said. “While we understand sudden school closures place a burden on staff and families, our commitment to keeping students in school necessitates our approach.”

Mr. Walters said he meets in the mid-afternoon daily with the district’s assistant superintendent, chief operations officer and other staff to assess the COVID status of each school. At those meetings, officials talk to school leaders and review call-off data from the district’s staff absence tracker to determine which buildings may need to switch to remote learning.

The district uses guidance from the state departments of health and education that recommends schools close if 5% of the total students and staff have a confirmed COVID case within a 14-day period or if there are outbreaks in three simultaneous classrooms or core groups.

“Additional considerations include staffing shortages caused by positive cases, quarantines, and other staff absences, sharing of staff between facilities, or sharing of facilities between schools,” Mr. Walters said. 

After officials determine which schools will go remote the next day, the district then initiates its “stakeholder communications protocol.”

Officials first share closure information with school board members and school leaders who are directly impacted by the decisions. School leaders then subsequently share that information with their staff members and families. After that, updates are sent to the media and placed on the district website. 

Mr. Walters said the district tries provide this information to all stakeholders by 6:30 p.m. every day, but that is not always possible because of delays in the system. 

“While we aim to complete this process by 6:30 p.m. each day, we must meet the varying communications needs of each school to ensure our families directly impacted have the accurate information they need,” Mr. Walters said. “If school-based staff members are unable to communicate potential absences with school leaders or utilize [the absence management system] before mid-afternoon, we are at a disadvantage in providing support.”

The interim superintendent expressed his appreciation to principals and other school staff who he said work hard to keep schools open for in-person learning.  

Read more at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Letter from interim Pittsburgh schools chief provides insight into COVID closure process