Pittsburgh Public School students say large online class workload followed by hours of homework is ‘overwhelming’

Westinghouse student Devonnte Livingston, takes part in PPS’ virtual student listening session

By Mary Niederberger
Pittsburgh Current Education Writer
[email protected]

Eight hours a day attending class on a computer followed by hours of homework each evening. That’s how high school students in the Pittsburgh Public Schools described their days of online learning. 

And it’s become overwhelming. 

“Something that has popped up a lot with my peers is that they feel swamped with work and that right now they are getting a lot more work than if we were in the building,” said Tyrique Whitson, a student at Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 

Tyrique and Devonnte Livingston, a student at Pittsburgh Westinghouse 6-12, are members of Superintendent Anthony Hamlet’s student advisory council. In that capacity they were reading results of student surveys during Tuesday’s hour-long virtual student listening session on the topic of “Virtual Learning and Technology Support.”

Other students who joined the virtual session chimed in with their comments as well. 

Tyrique called for patience at all levels — between students and teachers and between teachers and the administration. 

“Right now we kind of don’t know what we are doing and what’s going on. We’ve been doing this for a whole semester and we still don’t know what’s going on,” Tyrique said. 

Tyrique Whitson takes part in PPS’ virtual student listening session on Jan. 11

“Teachers are starting to understand what we are going through and we are starting to understand what teachers are going through.” 

Students spoke of connectivity issues created when Microsoft Teams crashes or wifi issues cause lessons to lag. 

Some asked for classes to be recorded so they could later listen for what they might have missed. Recorded lessons, they said, would also be helpful for students who have to work during the pandemic or watch siblings to help their families and can’t always attend when classes are offered online. 

Tyrique said he’s heard that some teachers are already recording and posting their lessons for students to view outside of school hours. 

“That would address issues such as the lag in lessons with wifi and allow students to rewatch” parts of lessons they did not understand, Tyrique said. 

But the recurring issue with students was what they perceive to be an overwhelming workload. 

Some suggested longer grace periods for turning in assignments and more asynchronous time during the online school day to complete classwork so their classwork doesn’t get combined with their homework. 

“One thing I hear is that asynchronous time gets blended in with homework. It starts to be this jumbled up thing and can be really hard for kids to distinguish,” said Madeline Ficca, a student at Pittsburgh CAPA.

Her classmate Aiden Magley agreed: “We had a lot of students voicing concern about classes running too long and then asynchronous work and feeling overwhelmed.”

Tyrique suggested teachers focus more on quality of work than quantity. “As long as we have good quality of work that should matter more,” he said. 

Students raised the issue of being allowed “mental health days.” 

“I’ve talked to so many people who feel they are exhausted… I’m definitely in favor of these days,” Madeline said. 

“Even teachers may want a day,” Devonnte said. 

Students also are worried about how a hybrid system is going to work with teachers being forced to divide their time between some students in the classroom and some online. 

Students who chose hybrid learning were originally scheduled to start phasing into in-person learning on Jan. 27 but that date has been pushed back to Feb. 8 because of high COVID counts. Hamlet has said no student will be required to attend hybrid classes. 

“We don’t know what a hybrid model will look like and we haven’t been told how it will work.  We have a lot of students who are feeling iffy about it. Some say they want to do it. Some say they don’t want to try it,” Tyrique said. 

Student Abby Blank said she doesn’t understand how teachers will be able to pay attention to both groups of students. 

Tyrique said he worries about riding public transportation to school and possibly being exposed to members of the public who could be infected with COVID.  

He’s’ not the only one to worry. 

“Some students say they can’t wait to go back to school but worry if they will worry in class if they are going to be catching COVID. That is going to be in the back of our minds while we are trying to learn,” Madeline said. 

Students spoke of feeling uncomfortable speaking in front of the class online.

 “Talking over the computer makes you feel self-conscious,” Devonnte said. 

“I think a lot of kids don’t want to talk because they feel very alone in that online space instead of with a classroom of their peers,” said Madeline Ficca, a student at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12.

Student Abby Blank suggested having more classroom discussions about real world issues. “I’ve been more inclined to participate in those discussions even about the pandemic…When those conversations end, I definitely wanted to participate more in class particularly because I am more comfortable in that space,” Abby said. 

Students suggested class participation could be improved if teachers have students participate in more ice-breaking activities at the start of class to help relax students and make them feel more comfortable with each other. 

One student pointed out it was particularly difficult for ninth-grade students, many of whom were together for the first time in their academic years. 

Devonnte said students are circulating a petition that has already garnered several thousand votes that asks for final exams to be eliminated this year and for teachers to devise other methods to gauge student learning and retention of information. 

“We understand that we need some type of thing to test our knowledge but right now an exam isn’t the best way to go,” Tyrique said. 

The session was also attended by members of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers executive committee members, but they declined to offer any comments. 

Hamlet commended the students for participating and encouraged them to continue to do so in future sessions. 

“This is not one and done. We will continue to have sessions like this as we add in supports and changes. I would say thank you and hang in there,” Hamlet said. “You have shown yourselves to be highly resilient.”

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