Washoe County School District Board of Trustees debate school reopening plans and decide on one – for now

by Joe McCarthy

Photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

It has been more than 150 days since Nevada’s schools shut and children were forced into learning from home due to the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic. The Washoe County School Board of Trustees met Tuesday, July 7, 2020, to approve its COVID-19 schools reopening plans to get its students back in the classroom. 

The Trustees are closely watching state lawmakers during the special session to get a better picture of how much the state’s budget affects education funding. Plus, The HEROES Act, passed by the U.S. House of Representatives to help address states’ budget shortfalls during the pandemic has been held up in the U.S. Senate. The District’s budget remains in flux.

For 10 hours, beginning at 2 pm, the Trustees poured through planning documents and numerous reopening scenarios before approving the plans for the coming year. The Trustees also agreed to send these plans to the Nevada Department of Education for approval. 

Schools will open on August 7, with instruction beginning on August 14. Kindergarten assessments begin August 17, and its instruction starts August 24.

Prior to and during the meeting, hundreds of residents weighed in by email on the proposed plan. 

In her email to the Trustees, Josalyne Messina had suggestions that proved prescient.

“I am a student at Billinghurst Middle School and I have a recommendation for the 20-21 school year. I know it is not up for me to decide but on behalf of all students, we are ready to actually go back. Many of us have lost friendships and can’t talk to our friends because they don’t have phones and we don’t have their parents’ numbers. I really do recommend that we do a mixed plan so we go to school some days and work from home on other days because we still have social interaction with our friends and we can still be safe and prevent the spread of Covid-19. 

“Also not to mention a lot of parents can’t handle working from home and helping teach their kids. Especially the kids in the special ed classes they need to be in the classroom so they can better grasp the material…”

To begin the discussion, Ben Hayes, chief accountability officer reviewed the results of the reopening school survey conducted by the District between June 5 – June 26. The survey was split between paper surveys and online surveys, in English and Spanish. The District received 18,523 family responses, 4,800 staff responses, (2,800 of which were teachers), and 3,300 student responses

The survey’s main focus areas were questions about reopening scenarios, health concerns and transportation. The answers helped shape the evening’s proposed reopening strategies.

The proposed reopening plans include multiple variations of instructional models and flexible scheduling and frameworks that incorporate the input of community task forces, committees, families, and individual community members. Each decision included a caveat that everyone would continue to monitor changing conditions that could alter the plans.

In-Person Learning for Elementary Schools

The Trustees approved a traditional 5-day a week, in-person school day for elementary-aged children. In-person learning students receive instruction within the building, adhere to Phase 2 social distancing and the use of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The schools must exercise enhanced cleaning and hygiene protocols, and required screening protocols. 

Hybrid Learning Model for Middle Schools and High Schools 

The hybrid learning scenario is a mash-up of in-person instruction and online schooling. This learning model combines an A/B rotation type schedule. Students will receive in-person instruction for part of the school week and distance learning instruction for the other part.

To accommodate those students who don’t have the necessary digital tools or connectivity, teachers will provide what the Trustees termed “adequate instructional support” as a viable substitute. The district continues to solicit monies to acquire digital hardware for the needy and to help families ensure wireless connections for their children. 

Full Distance Learning

Some parents may opt for a fully remote learning model. Full distance learning opportunities include the school district’s own online school Northstar Academy, Edgenuity, or Online Curriculum Planning Guides. 

Qualified, certified teachers provide daily support for all distance learning instruction. Teachers receive ongoing professional learning support.

Discussions During the Meeting

The nation’s pediatricians have added their voices to the discussion by recommending children need to return to and be physically present in their classrooms this upcoming school year. This guidance recognizes that adolescent development outweighs health and safety concerns and learning loss attributed to remote learning. During the meeting, Board President Malena Raymond commented on the in-person learning model that is being applied to the elementary schools. 

“This model gives that autonomy to the (elementary school) sites to make some of those really critical decisions around how to structure things … actual physical school will be different for different sites but also the makeup of individual class sizes is so different from site to site … it does show the creativity and the ability to problem-solve, at that site level.

“I am as a parent most familiar with school design … my daughter’s school last year, the fourth grades, each had 36-37 students, using mobile units, students in a former utility closet and so it is hard … this is hard to envision how this works when we have overcrowded classrooms and overcrowded schools … we’re trusting that the task force and the principals (to) come up with the plans and know what they can accomplish. 

“I am happy to see that we have found a way to get these elementary students in the building five days a week.” 

Poverty a Barrier to Distance Learning

Teachers and administrators understand that students will start the new year well behind academically. Learning losses will have disproportionately affected disadvantaged students the most. Trustee Andrew Caudill raised the question.

“For me, the hybrid model … has a disproportionate impact on low income and working-class families and also a significant workload to teachers because they will be expected to essentially educate two cohorts of students every day.” 

Trustee Caudill’s concerns centered on the impossible expectation of parents expecting teachers to conduct in-person instruction while also monitoring and engaging the activities of online students.

“And it would almost be an expectation that teachers would work, way over contract time every day. It is real. It’s not right. So I guess the question is, why can’t the elementary school (scenario) work for middle school where we give families the option which they do have Engenuity and we push that to every family that wants to go online. See how the enrollment shakes out, and then grant Superintendent the authority to make the call at a different site.

“Between Northstar and Engenuity at middle school, we could see enrollments fall enough in the brick and mortar. Or it could work to bring students in the building every day, and then working-class and low-income families don’t want to figure out who’s going to watch their kid during the day while they’re working in their 12-hour shift, how are they going to pay for someone to watch your student, they don’t have devices, they leave their students at home by themselves all day.”

Complying with Phase 2

The daunting challenge for the district is how to open schools back up for in-person instruction and still comply with the Governor’s Phase 2 requirements of the social distancing.  

Lauren Ford, the district superintendent who presented the reopening scenario for middle schools, explained why the District is recommending the hybrid model for middle school instruction.

“Trustee Caudill’s concerns are very valid and I think that we recognize that in the pros and cons, saying that the in-person model would be the least disruptive for families. However, looking at our numbers … I can tell you that my numbers are similar to other middle schools. 

“Doing the A/B hybrid model would be the most effective at following the state guidelines and making sure that the students still receive instruction that we want. It’s not distance learning we’ve seen for the last quarter of this last school year. 

“At Dilworth, we have 740 students … we have 33 classrooms at any given time, but because of prep periods, we’d have 28 teachers on average … class sizes, on average, 26 per class … sometimes 32 students … by cutting that in half and having the students alternate day by day, we’d only be working with about 370 students, which would accommodate about 13 to 14 students in a classroom, which would be more doable to space the students six feet apart, and allow them to attend each of their classes.”

Many classroom teachers contributed to the survey and served on the various reopening committees. Teachers are the frontline workers who spend hours each day in a classroom packed with students. Health and safety concerns were on their minds. They are asking a myriad of questions, such as: For those children who come to school dosed up with medications to mask existing symptoms, how will they be screened? How will fire drills be handled? What about active-shooter alerts? How will resources be shared? How will social distances actually work in real-time?  Board President Malena Raymond commented on these and other issues that concern her.

“It was hard to hear from our teachers that are feeling that they’re being looked at as simply just as daycare and babysitters. For me, that was never the priority in getting students in the building five days a week. You can’t just leave a 7-year old at home to log on to the computer and do distance learning by him or herself … it is absolutely best for them to be in the classroom, five days a week as much as possible with adult supervision and assistance.

“We received a lot of email concerns about depression and kind of the concerns of our students being connected, when they’re in these off days and that every other day model really does to me seem like it’s going to help keep that connection so they aren’t going a stretch of even two days without having contact with not just their individual teachers but with their cohort of students. I do like that and appreciate the thought that went into that. I know there were many different iterations to get us there.”

Board President Raymond acknowledged how hard it has been for the District to make these decisions while factoring in the health and the safety of teachers, students, families and the community as a whole.

“The economic impacts of keeping students home, or sending them into the classroom … the emotional and the mental impacts that it has on our students to be separated … I hope that it’s clear how much we are thinking about all of that and looking at … as a board … also as a task force, these different components … we certainly have heard from our teachers … that they aren’t comfortable having a classroom full of 20 to 30 kids with or without masks. I think this is the right decision to make at this time.”

Transportation

The Trustees accepted a school bus capacity plan to limit transporting no more than 50 percent or fewer riders. They agreed to consider increasing that percentage in the future to 65 percent contingent on State approval. Everyone riding a school bus must wear a face covering.

Face-coverings

The face-covering requirement is for students 10 years old and older, with a strong recommendation that all students wear a mask. This subject sparked a lengthy discussion. 

A concerned parent, Brittini Nelson wrote in an email, “Many of us do not approve of our children wearing oxygen-restriction masks. There is no scientific evidence shown on the safety of short-term or long-term use of masks on children. There is indeed uncertainty and dissatisfaction for medical and religious rights/choices for our children. There is a large percentage of students who have breathing issues, as well as, sensory issues that prohibit these children from the ability to wear a mask. My child will not be able to attend school if masks are mandatory due to health issues and sensitivities. 

“I will not consent to this medical protocol and my children will not be attending school if masks are required by students. 

“I would also like to add that hand sanitizer is a chemical that has the ability to reach the bloodstream within seconds. Studies show that hand sanitizer strips our microbiome of good bacteria. What do we need in order to have a strong immune system and properly fight illness? Good bacteria. Continuous use of hand sanitizer has been proven to create antibiotic-resistant superbugs, strip the body of healthy good bacteria, and allow toxic chemicals to reach the bloodstream.”

Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill’s Final Thoughts

“This was a long day for you. I know it was a 9-hour meeting but what I want to say is that the 9-hour meeting I hope demonstrates how serious our Board of Trustees and our leadership team, our teachers, and our principals on the Reopening Task Force are taking (seriously) this situation that we are in. 

“I go back to March 5 when the very first case of COVID came up in the state of Nevada, and here we are on July, 7, making some extremely difficult decisions that are going to affect 8,000 employees and 64,000 students. 

“And, we’re not alone in this. We have 14,000 school districts across our country who are struggling with the exact same decision points that our board had to decide upon today … and our community committees, our departments, or employee associations. They are all putting the best foot forward, the best thinking for what we are in now as a global pandemic. 

“I know that our work is not finished. We have a lot of work to do …” 

The district will hold a virtual forum on Tuesday, July 14 at 5:30 pm to answer questions from students, families, and staff members. Access the forum here.

The next school board meeting is scheduled for July 28. July 21 has been held open as an additional date in case a rapid decision must be made.

The district posts all comments on the WCSD website.


Joe McCarthy is the general manager and development director of the Sierra Nevada Ally. He writes about education and the arts. Support his work here.