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The Clark County School District administrative building as seen on Friday, July 27, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Under the Clark County School District’s proposed transition plan to in-person learning, educators would report back to schools in December, but students wouldn’t shift to the classroom until early January.

The large, urban school district unveiled its long-awaited plan Monday evening, days ahead of a vote by the Clark County School Board of Trustees, which meets Thursday evening.

The 205-page plan walks through everything from schedules and social distancing to contact tracing and transportation. Other sections address sanitation protocols, technology needs and capacity requirements per classroom type — illustrating the complex circumstances surrounding opening a school in the time of COVID-19.

“This plan follows the health and safety guidelines provided for schools but also gives our children the opportunity to address academic gaps and engage with their peers and adult educators,” Superintendent Jesus Jara said in a statement. “We must embrace this work with a relentless sense of urgency. Our children are depending on us.”

The plan proposes a hybrid operating model, meaning students would be assigned to cohorts that rotate between two days of in-person school and three days of remote instruction each week. Full-time distance learning, however, would remain an option for any student who wishes to do so. Rural schools that can meet social-distancing requirements could operate full-time in-person instruction, which four schools have already been doing.

If the school board approves the plan, the return of staff and students would occur in phases. Staff telecommuting would end Dec. 1 and, on that same day, schools may invite some students back to campus on a voluntary basis for reasons such as mental health support, academic screenings or interventions, and orientation programs.

The next step would occur Jan. 4 — the first day back after winter break — when students in select grades would begin the hybrid model. Those include students in pre-kindergarten through second grade as well as grades six, 11 and 12. Additionally, students with special education needs who are in self-contained programs would return at this time.

A week later, on Jan. 11, Clark County students in the remaining grade levels would shift to the hybrid model.

District officials noted in the report that they’re aiming to balance three competing crises — physical health, mental health and academics — which is why they are proposing the hybrid plan. In particular, they noted an increased student suicide rate, decreased referrals to Child Protective Services and falling enrollment and attendance numbers. 

On the flip side, COVID-19 cases have been rising statewide, with a cumulative test positivity rate of 13.05 percent Monday, and an increasing number of hospitalizations. Although one drug manufacturer, Pfizer, announced promising news regarding its late-stage vaccine trial on Monday — causing stocks to soar and instilling hope amid the lengthy pandemic — it’s unclear how long it will be before any widespread distribution of an approved COVID-19 vaccine.

“The health crisis brought on by COVID-19 has brought additional crises that must be considered when making decisions,” the school district’s transition report stated. “There is a health crisis that has kept children out of schools, but we must balance that with the mental health crisis and the academic crisis that is being observed.”

Reopening schools has ignited fierce debates across the country, as educators and health officials weigh competing risks and some of the unknowns posed by the coronavirus. Some schools that welcomed back students in other districts are now sending them home for remote learning amid coronavirus outbreaks. Educators in Clark County, meanwhile, have also witnessed drops in student engagement as distance learning drags on for months.

The district’s roughly 310,000 students have been operating under remote learning since mid-March, when the emergence of COVID-19 abruptly closed schools statewide. Clark County opted to continue distance education to start the 2020-2021 school year, with the caveat that the decision would be revisited by the school board in the fall.

The school board poised to vote on the matter includes three members — Trustees Deanna Wright, Linda Young, and Chris Garvey — who won’t be the elected officers come January. All three are termed out and will be replaced, respectively, by Lisa Guzman, Evelyn Garcia Morales and Katie Williams, who won their races in the general election last week.

Even if trustees do approve the reopening plan on Thursday, the school environment students experience in January would be quite a bit different. For starters, classes would be smaller given the cohort schedule. But playgrounds, water fountains and field trips would be off limits.

After-school activities would be allowed as long as they meet safety guidelines.

John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, said via text message that the teachers’ union is in negotiations with the district over “key issues.” The union has previously said it would not support any reopening plan that didn’t contain a “robust safety plan” and “choice for educators.”

As of now, Vellardita said the district’s proposed plan does not meet its criteria for the union’s support. But he signaled a possible resolution on the horizon.

“CCSD knows our position and is working to try to reach an agreement with us,” he wrote.

The Nevada Education Association of Southern Nevada — the smaller of the two teachers’ unions, which does not have bargaining power — released a statement of its own Monday night, saying it “stands in strong opposition to re-opening at this time.”

“Returning to buildings during a high positivity rate and without adequate safety protocols in place will result in unnecessary illness and death,” Carmen Andrews, NEA-SN’s vice president, said in a statement. “That will leave our district in an impossible situation because we cannot function effectively with a worsening shortage of educators. Not to mention the additional trauma and stress such deaths would cause our students and district employees.”

The lightning-rod issue will likely trigger a lengthy board discussion Thursday evening — reminiscent of similar conversations over the summer.

Trustee Linda Cavazos, who has been vocally wary about students and staff returning amid a surge in coronavirus cases, said on Twitter that trustees had received a one-hour briefing Monday but had not seen the entire plan until it posted online as a backup document for the board meeting.

“I have NOT had a chance to read the whole plan yet,” she wrote in a tweet. “I assure you that we will all read the entire document.”

Board President Lola Brooks, who won her re-election bid last week, thanked district staff for their “time and energy” put into crafting the proposed plan. 

“The well being of our students is one of our highest priorities,” Brooks said in a statement. “The Board of School Trustees will consider multiple factors as we review the transition plan being proposed by staff.”

The Clark County School Board of Trustees’ virtual meeting begins at 5 p.m. Thursday. It’s not the only school board considering instructional plans this week, though. The Washoe County School Board of Trustees meets Tuesday and will discuss whether the district’s in-person model is working, according to a report from the Reno Gazette-Journal. Unlike Clark County, the Reno-area district began the 2020-2021 school year with a hybrid model featuring in-person learning.

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