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A student at the Nevada Blind Children Foundation's preschool plays with a sensory toy. The foundation opened its preschool in mid-February, about a month before the coronavirus closed schools across the state. (Courtesy of the Nevada Blind Children's Foundation)

An advocacy group gave Nevada a “D” overall grade based on the safety, education, health and economic well-being of its children and is proposing broader Medicaid coverage and more investment in students during the 2021 legislative session. 

The Nevada Children’s Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to children’s issues for more than 20 years, revealed this week that the state earned a C+ in safety, an F in education, a D in health and a D+ in economic well-being. The group said Nevada is “more surviving than thriving in these areas.”

Nevada invests $9,417 per pupil a year compared to the national average of $12,612, making it 45th in the nation for per-pupil expenditures. The group cites that multiple studies show Nevada would need to invest at least $2,000 more per pupil to adequately educate students. 

The group advocates for investing in high-quality learning, which the group says should include early childhood education — 70 percent of individuals living in poverty do not utilize childcare services because of affordability and access, among other factors. 

Nevada ranks 47th in the nation for preschool enrollment, with 37.5 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds enrolled. Although a 2012 study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the initial gains from Head Start, a national early education program, did not go beyond third grade. 

“The majority of brain development occurs in the first five years of life,” Annette Dawson Owens, the organization’s school readiness policy director, said at the virtual summit on Monday, adding that the investment in students and the return is “cheaper” than the alternative of remediation after years of underperforming. “All students should emerge prepared for whatever opportunities in life they desire, with a skill set that allows them to succeed, support themselves and be productive citizens.” 

The pandemic has exacerbated disparities in Nevada’s communities, including families not having enough to eat, the inability to pay rent or mortgage, lack of access to health care and feelings of depression and hopelessness, the group said. 

Nevadans are suffering more across all the pain points than the national average, according to findings from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a partner organization of the Children’s Advocacy Alliance. The group’s report, “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond," analyzed data from weekly surveys conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau between September and October to see how families all over the country with at least one child under the age of 18 were managing during the pandemic. 

The Children’s Advocacy Alliance’s priorities for the 2021 legislative session are centered on the health and access to health care for children of all ages, including those not yet born. The bills the group is requesting include extending foster care to people up to 21 years of age, expanding Medicaid presumptive eligibility for children and pregnant women and expanding coverage for postpartum care. 

Democratic state Sen. Melanie Scheible has been working on a bill concerning Medicaid income eligibility requirements. 

“We are hoping to allow Nevada children who are 18 and under to have 12 months of consistent Medicaid coverage from the date that they're initially deemed eligible, even if their household income slightly shifts over the income eligibility guidelines in place,” said Scheible’s aide, Talia Pellegrino, regarding their work. “This bill stemmed from the realization that children in Nevada are potentially not receiving the health care that they're entitled to.” 

Before the pandemic, 8 percent of Nevada children were uninsured. That figure has risen to 13 percent, and the national average doubled from 6 percent to 12 percent, according to the report. 

The group also found that Latino children are more likely to be uninsured than any other racial or ethnic group in the state, with an 11 percent uninsured rate. White and Black children, by contrast, both have an uninsured rate of around 6 percent.

“In the first five months of the pandemic, nearly 8 million Americans lost a job that provided employer-sponsored health insurance,” said Dr. Kelly Bumgarner, director of health policy for CAA. “In Nevada, where our unemployment rate is the second-highest in the nation, we've certainly seen large losses in coverage.”

The organization’s highest priority is to “ensure that Nevada does not make any significant cuts to programs that are supporting children and families during this economically stressful time.” This comes after Gov. Steve Sisolak asked state agencies to propose 12 percent cuts in their budgets for the next two years. The state budget will be released Jan. 18.

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