The Washoe County School Board began its virtual board of trustees meeting at 2 p.m. yesterday, Tuesday, June 23. The entire meeting ran for more than 8 hours, with intermittent breaks, and wrapped up after 10 p.m.
The meeting’s 2 most pressing agenda items took precedent: how to go about reopening schools in August and what is the current state of the district’s school policing program.
School reopening begins August 7, with classes beginning on August 14.
Every aspect of a normal Washoe County school day is about to change this coming school year. The coronavirus pandemic forced an involuntary homeschooling experiment over the last several months. At the meeting, Trustees, department staff, students, teachers, and parents all sounded more than anxious to get back to normal, or at least some semblance of normal. Nobody knows what school will look like, but it won’t be business as usual.
Superintendent Kristen McNeill said the plan is for a 170 day school year, starting August 10. The first 5 days will be dedicated to helping teachers and staff get ready for the year. Classes will begin on August 17.
During the meeting, board member Dr. Angie D. Taylor’s comments encapsulated popular sentiment.
“The best possible option for all students, for all our educators, and for the communities, for us to go back to … a normal school, going to school every day, and letting educators do what they do … freeing up parents to work.”
The district deployed a Teaching and Learning Taskforce and several small committees to advise the board on school reopening issues. More than 100 local citizens, business owners/operators, educators, and board members participated in these committee meetings.
Superintendent McNeill explained that the district has three reopening options for this coming school year: back to school as normal, a blended approach, and a distance learning model. She went on to explain that many options are available within each choice as laid out in the reopening decision options.
The blended learning model drew the most attention. This option provides for a balance of classroom instruction and remote learning. The trustees also talked at length about the disadvantages of the various online learning models.
Trustee Simon Holland expressed concern for the many district teachers who also have children in school. She asked if distance-learning was chosen as the primary learning model how would these teachers manage the needs of their children’s educations while also fulfilling their teaching responsibilities?
It was noted that 4,000 students do not have any device available for distance learning, no computer, no tablet. Plus, another 7,000 students have to compete with family members for the use of one device.
The estimated cost for an appropriate student device is approximately $330. Internet wireless service cost is approximately $20 a month. Many families do not have the resources to sign up for Internet service. The school district staff is pursuing various grants in hopes of remedying this shortcoming.
Fears of a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic hovered over the meeting, with recurring calls by several Trustees that the district must remain flexible and nimble in light of how fast the situation is changing.
The Trustees will be watching how the interim Legislative Committee on Education, chaired by Senator Mo Denis, and state lawmakers in the upcoming special session plan to plug the state’s growing budget holes. In addition, the Department of Education (DOE) will be approving the reopening plans of every school district statewide based on DOE’s Framework for a Safe, Efficient, and Equitable Return to School Buildings.
Using a detailed PowerPoint presentation, the lead administrators of the district’s departments and deputy superintendents worked slide by slide to engage an open-ended discussion with the trustees. The presentation and discussion ran for close to four hours.
Numerous citizens emailed in their comments as well with multiple alternative suggestions.
The discussions centered around staggered start times, classroom desks spacing, disinfection protocols, school buses running at reduced capacity, face coverings or self-screening, health and safety training, a combination of in-person and online learning, and more.
Questions raised by trustees also ranged from temperature checks, the efficacy of children wearing masks, how classroom seating will be configured, and how many children might safely ride on an 80 seat bus.
Trustee Katy Simon Holland asked if the district is asking the impossible of its bus drivers.
“I want to give a shoutout to the bus drivers because one of the complications (if we require) face coverings (on the bus),” said Holland Simon. “Our poor bus drivers have so much to deal with already (having to) maintain order on the bus on the way to school … to make sure that every single one of 55 or so kids on the bus are keeping their masks on.”
Board President Malena Raymond reminded the Trustees that with each of the several school calendar options they should remember the values inherent in teacher-student relationships.
“Encourage teachers and students to take time to establish relationships and make some connections, no matter what scenarios we end up choosing,” said Raymond. “These relationships enhance learning. We are in a fluid situation and need to stay flexible, all year long.”
Later in the meeting, concerns arose around grading procedures, the strains on families, teacher morale, staff needs, and overall diminished enthusiasm.
Health and safety staff members assured the Trustees that the proposed strategies and changes of behaviors for the reopening were consistent with CDC guidelines and local health officials protocols intent on reducing the risks of the virus spreading.
The plans all include social distancing requirements, limiting group sizes, keeping students apart, restricting non-essential visitors, and closing common spaces.
Chief General Counsel Neil Rombardo said that in his view “the district will not be subject to liability if the district makes every reasonable effort to follow CDC and health department guidelines.”
Once the discussion ended, the trustees unanimously passed a motion giving district staff direction to move forward and implement the proposed strategies regarding the reopening of the Washoe County Schools.
A sampling of public comment emails
Monica Gonzalez-Hernandez, “Hello I am a mom of 4 kids and I hope schools open the normal schedule, one of my kids is going to high school, (the) other one (is going) to middle school, (the) other one (is going) to elementary school and preschool, and it will be so difficult for me and for many parents that we need to work and we don’t have childcare if one of the kids stay(s) home alone.”
Gonzalez-Hernandez also said, “Therefore I will like the schools (to) open with the same schedule, but with all the precautions necessary for the safety of the students, staff, and Families.”
Angie D’Antoni – “My children did okay with the distance learning for the short term, but I am concerned with the lasting social implication if this continues.”
D’Antoni went on to say, “ The longer this continues, the more we are negatively impacting our children. It is heartbreaking to see how nervous they are already about being social again. Schools not open will just prolong this negative social and emotional impact. Parents are not meant to be teachers. Distance learning may work well for some children but for most of them it is not a successful way to learn and it is not only detrimental to the kids but also to the parent/child relationship because of the extra stress it adds to each of them. It is not productive for a large majority. I understand there is a lot to consider, but please consider reopening on a normal basis for our children.”
Stephanie Falke – “The costs of not opening, outweigh the potential risks. The statistics related to spread and rate of severe infection among children are incredibly low … wash hands, sanitize, take temperatures, and send sick kids and staff home when they show fevers … We have a child that experiences reactive airway/asthma and has been hospitalized several times when she becomes sick, due to difficulty breathing. We plan to be incredibly careful with decisions around her school attendance if she’s showing any signs of a cold, but even so, believe the potential risk of corona is incredibly low and outweighed by the potential for staying home and not having in-person instruction, staying home alone and lack of social connection.”
Maja Davis – “It is my opinion that the schools need to reopen and follow the CDC recommendations. If you continue with the digital learning platform, then you will be doing a great disservice to our kids. My second grader is very anxious. She desperately wants to see her friends. She wants to go back to school.”
The district will soon post all the comments on its website.
While some communities and school districts nationwide report positive relationships between students and police, current studies show that children of color are more likely to be arrested at school. Relatively minor incidents that were once handled by the school’s staff now result in criminal records.
Numerous school districts have implemented policies meant to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. Some critics say a police presence undermines such efforts and that counselors and other support staff should take their place.
The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers recently joined a call for police reform legislation, including the creation of national guidelines concerning the use of force, the elimination of racial profiling, and the prohibition of extreme police tactics. Neither of the national teachers’ unions has come down in favor of entirely removing police from school campuses.
The Washoe County School Police is a hybrid entity, recognized by statute as a conventional policing entity, but more like a community partner. It has the unique role of providing community policing which is “a specialized police agency that provides unique police services for students, staff, and visitors. School police officers work with students and staff to ensure a safe environment and support student success.”
In his presentation, Jason Trevino, Washoe County School’s Chief of Police, listed his department’s policies for the Trustees. He explained that the Police Force has updated its use of force policies. He wanted the Trustees to understand the difference between how his specialized police department operates in comparison to a more traditional, standard law enforcement agency.
Trevino emphasized that the police receive hundreds of hours of training, but policing students requires a more thoughtful approach. “We don’t deal with students, we work with them … we are trained in equity and diversity … our standard operating procedures state that we will be an unbiased police department.”
Trustee Taylor asked Trevino several questions about the use of force, taser use, and chokeholds. Trevino was adamant that he opposes the notion of tasering school kids.
“The use of a chokehold in and of itself will be considered by this agency as an application of deadly force,” Trevino said. “If an officer is going to utilize a chokehold or a neck restraint of any sort … we are equating it as the same as a firearm on the deadly force issue.”
Joe McCarthy is general manager and development director of the Sierra Nevada Ally. He writes about education and the arts. Support his work here.