Reno High School - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Tuesday evening the Washoe County School District held a virtual forum to answer a multitude of questions from teachers, staff, and the community concerning the District’s current plans to reopen schools next month for its nearly 64,000 students and 8,000 employees. 

Questions revolved around the feasibility of a physical return to classrooms, distance learning options, compliance with local and national health and safety requirements, how to address social distancing challenges, recess and playground activities, mandatory face coverings, bus transportation, and the potential risks faced by students, teachers, and staff.  

The District’s current plan is not an all-or-nothing approach. It includes parental choice, in-person instruction, a hybrid approach, or full-time remote learning.

School Board President Malena Raymond is confident that the District has adequate flexibility regarding the implementation of current and future reopening plans.  

“The Nevada Department of Education requested (that we) use 3 models and those 3 models really give us a lot of flexibility to move within what we know is an ever-changing pandemic as we know from the spikes and numbers down to the plateaus. 

“We don’t know what to expect in the next year and so while we are, as a board, very happy that we have the opportunity to provide distance learning for any student that chooses to, and they can move in and out of it if they find that they’d rather be in the classroom.

“But we know that there may be a time where we have to go into a distance learning mode if we see a spike in cases and we go back to a shelter in place, and so by having all these plans in place, we can move with the positivity rates.”

Coronavirus cases in Washoe County have seen a spike in reported cases.  As of July 15, the positivity rate now shows an uptick to 6.4 percent

Nationwide, epidemiologists generally agree that to control community spread of the coronavirus, the average daily infection rate among those who are tested should not exceed 5 percent. This 5 percent positive test rate, over a 2-week period, was not developed specifically for schools, but it has emerged as a metric that many districts consider when making plans.

Washoe County School District buildings will reopen in the fall – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

The larger concern with reopening schools is the potential for children to become infected, many with no symptoms. These children will spread the virus to friends, family members, teachers. and school staff. 

The virus circulates widely in crowded, indoor spaces. Studies indicate that children are far less likely than adults to become seriously ill from the coronavirus. The more important question remains: how often children become infected, and what role do they play in transmitting the virus?

The C.D.C. has outlined steps schools can take to minimize the risks for students, including maintaining a distance of six feet, washing hands, and wearing masks.

“We’ve done a lot of research,” said Margaret Allen, Director of Student Health Services. 

“We’re in touch with experts in the field, physicians, pediatricians, and the consensus is that most children can and should wear a face mask … when it is appropriate to remove the face mask for a medical reason … out on the playground and they’re able to socially maintain … we want to use common sense, take into account that we have children with special needs.”

Trump Administration Pressure

There is enormous pressure to bring students back, especially from the Department of Education Secretary Betsy Devos and President Trump. Betsy DeVos continues to press the Trump administration’s case to quickly reopen public schools, not only for students’ educational development but for parents to fully return to work. 

“Schools should be opened,” Mr. Trump said. “You’re losing a lot of lives by keeping things closed.”  

The President’s and Ms. DeVos’s opinions conflict with many public health officials and teachers. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the School Superintendents Association, issued a statement saying that reopening recommendations should be “based on evidence, not politics … leave it to health experts to tell us when the time is best to open up school … and listen to educators and administrators to shape how we do it.” 

To find out more, this week the District is sending out Returning Options Surveys to all parents and guardians. The District will publish its school schedule once completed surveys are returned and tabulated. The completed surveys will help the District to better understand parental intentions, children’s needs, the students choosing to return in-person, and those who have opted for a distance learning model. 

Distance Learning Options 

The distance learning portion of the District’s reopening plan may require working parents to continue to provide some form of child care for younger students, a difficult trade-off for those parents. Troy Parks, with the Office of School Leadership, emphasized that the District is currently working with its principals to learn more about the distance learning platform, Edgenuity

“We’re really emphasizing … basic needs of our families and our staff…. we are a school district, so we are working very hard at making sure that if a student is participating in distance learning that it is the same content, same curriculum, same expectations as the in-person model. We’re working to make those two work compatible and very well together to meet the learning needs of all of our students.”

Chris Turner, Chief Information Officer, addressed the digital needs of those students who choose the distance learning option. 

“We rely on the survey data (to develop) a process … for distributing the technology we (now) have on order … we’ve got plans to order 4,000 laptops. When it arrives … we asset tag it and distribute the devices to the families most in need … once we identify additional resources, we can acquire 7,000 additional laptops … to help families that have more than one child enrolled in the school district.

“Our process for the mobile hotspots matches up with our process for distributing the laptops … we can supplement internet connections for our families … using wi-fi enabled buses that will be moving around the district on a schedule … where we can maximize the benefit. We are also in the process of acquiring 3,000 Mobile hotspots, half (of which) have already arrived … onboarding those … to match up with our distribution methods … to identity those families that are most in need.”

Deputy Superintendent, Debra Biersdorff talked about how Washoe County schools are going to look substantially different next year.

“At least for the foreseeable future … the magnet programs, our gifted and talented magnet programs that are some of our middle schools … our CTE signature programs, the world language programs, International Baccalaureate, music, fine Arts, theater, athletics … everything that we do as a public school system is being impacted by what’s happening right now … 

“there are no easy answers about what music may look like. at an elementary school, the music classroom may need to be utilized as a kind of a regular classroom space …  how does the student utilize or go into a welding lab … or robotics.” 

Superintendent, Dr. Kristen McNeill acknowledged that keeping schools closed for a prolonged stretch had worrisome implications for social and academic development. 

“We don’t want our students to lose their hope and their dreams and their aspirations. There’s so much to look forward to in this world. It’s an emotional time … ”

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.