Washoe County School District Trustees confirm support for school reopening plan

Mt Rose Elementary in Reno, Nevada - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

After much deliberation, on Tuesday night, the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees endorsed its plan to reopen schools next month for its nearly 64,000 students and 8,000 employees. 

The plan calls for in-person instruction for elementary students, and a hybrid strategy that mixes in-person and distance learning for middle school and high school students. 

The plan allows any family to opt for full distance learning models for its children at any time.  

The Trustees heard a presentation by Kevin Dick, the county’s health officer, who recommended that the District not reopen schools until the spread of the Coronavirus disease was under control

“Our fear is the high potential of the virus spreading to students and faculty,” Kevin Dick told the Trustees via Zoom.” 

Dick explained that his office believes a solid measure to track is the daily case rate of 100 or fewer positive cases per hundred thousand in population, over a 14 day period. 

“And just over the weekend, we were at 240 cases per hundred thousand,” Dick said.  Washoe County has seen an uptick in its reported cases as of July 28.

Trustee Simon Holland asked Kevin Dick when he believed it was a safe time for the District to reopen based on a declining case rate over a 14 day period. 

“I think that captures my thinking,” said Dick. “Hitting that 100 new cases per 100,000 over 14 days, and then 14 days after that to reopen. That would give some time for hopefully some continued decline. 

“It would give you time to get ramped up … that’s a heavy lift … I wouldn’t be proposing a complete reopening. I think the hybrid model that you have makes a lot of sense and provides more protection for moving forward.”  

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?

During the meeting, Superintendent Kristen McNeill told the Trustees, “We have a letter from Dr. Trudy Larsen, who is a member of the Governor’s medical advisory team … she has written a letter to the board as well as to myself … I think it’s important within the context of what we’re talking about today.”

“I have revised my thinking and now recommend that K through five grades should reopen in person, while middle and high school remain distance learning,” McNeill read from Dr. Trudy Larson’s letter. 

“Unlike influenza, children are not the primary transmitters,” wrote Larson. “Adults are. Our current surge (in) numbers represent adult cases primarily, given the science of COVID in children, my opinion is that the risk to children is far lower. 

“So many benefits accrue to children participating in all of the experiences of school … it is my opinion that the benefit to children being in school is greater than the risk.” 

During the meeting, the Trustees were also made aware of a new emergency directive, 028, issued by Governor Sisiolak that reduced the social distancing requirements for pre-K through 8th grade from 6 feet to 3 feet. The directive also addressed mandatory face covering, with exceptions. 

Surveying Parents and Students

The District sent Returning Options Surveys to all parents and guardians. The completed surveys helped the District better understand parental intentions, children’s needs, the students choosing to return in-person, and those who have opted for a distance learning model. 

“We were able to get almost 38,000 responses … about 61 percent of our kids … the survey or the forum ran from July 14 through yesterday,” said Ben Hayes, Chief Accountability Officer. 

“The survey trends aren’t too different … a little over two-thirds in elementary school of the students, their families are planning on having them come back in person.

“Going over to middle school … in-person at 62 percent … go over to the high school, a little over three-quarters of our kids, 77 percent, (want in-person instruction).”

Distance Learning Challenges

 On July, 16, we ordered 2,390 Hp Chromebooks,” said Chris Turner, Chief Information Officer. “We were just informed last Friday … the shipping date is September 30, and the delivery date is October 9.” 

“We also had a subsequent order go out on July 24 for 1,710 of the same devices. As of this afternoon, we still do not have a shipping date for those devices. We’re waiting until the beginning of October for just a little over half of the devices that we’ve requested.

‘I’ve also been in contact with the Nevada Department of Education … regarding 7,000 additional Windows devices that we need for our students. 

“We’re looking to supplement our hotspot order with 3,000 additional hotspots.” A hotspot turns cellular data into a wifi connection.

 “The entire country is suffering,” said Turner. “Everybody’s been quoted several months out … Dell is quoting January and February of next year.

“In the interim, we are collaborating with school principals on the distribution of the existing inventory that each school (already) has.” 

Trustees Decide

The Trustees approved three motions. They unanimously passed the motion to send elementary students back to school full time. 

Six of seven trustees approved the next two motions agreeing to a hybrid instructional model.  Trustee Simon Holland dissented on the last two motions. 

“Because of the information we know from Mr. Dick and others, I believe that middle schools and high schools should open with full-time distance learning, based on the research that shows that students aged 10 to 19 become infected and transmitted at similar rates as adults.

“Currently, as we know, we’re far above the 100 cases per hundred thousand thresholds identified as desirable for controlling community transmissions.”

The Trustees meet again on August 11, at 4 p.m.  


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.