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The exterior of a Washoe County School District administrative building as seen on March 14, 2019. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)
Last updated: July 29th, 2020 - 3:20pm

After weeks of debate across the country on the dangers of reopening schools during a pandemic versus the perils of leaving students to indefinitely learn from home, Washoe County trustees voted Tuesday to allow in-person elementary schools and hybrid models for middle and high schools.

The vote came at a meeting that lasted nearly 10 hours and ended just before midnight after Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick advised trustees against any in-person reopening of schools.

"[My recommendation] is coming from a public health perspective and the responsibilities that I have and that are mandated for public health on preventing and controlling communicable disease transmission," he said. "I recognize that this is a decision that the school board needs to make and there are many factors that are involved in that decision in addition to public health: education, social issues, safety, nutrition. I think it just kind of reveals the incredible demands that we place upon our education system and the services that are provided through the schools."

Superintendent Kristen McNeill had argued that schools provide various vital services — from education to social connections to mental health programs — and said she worried how prolonged separation from those services with an unknown end to the pandemic would affect students.

"We know that school is a sanctuary for many, many of our students," she said. "I cannot, as the superintendent of the Washoe County School District, at this point in time recommend a full distance learning model." 

The board unanimously approved elementary students attending school in person full-time and voted 6-1 on both the middle school and high school plans where students will alternate in-person and distance learning. Some vulnerable populations will attend school in person full-time.

The three plans were previously approved earlier in the month.

Trustee Katy Simon Holland opposed both motions for the older students, citing the high level of community transmission of COVID-19 in the region and the age group's similar risk to adults in infecting and transmitting the virus. She had argued that younger students are far less likely to become infected and transmit the virus, and that their need for in-person instruction outweighed the risks.

Despite concerns with current COVID-19 numbers, trustees said issues with equity, accessibility and other challenges with distance learning that the district saw in the spring drove them to send students to schools. Trustees also spoke about the importance of schools in students' emotional, social and overall well being.

"We've heard it before from other people that social and emotional skills are perishable, and they degrade over time," Trustee Scott Kelley said. "I really worry about the effect that being away from school is having on our students. Six months is a long time, and I just can't imagine having to add another two or three or four months to that."

The reopening plans give families the option to do full distance learning, which has a mix of live teaching sessions and independent work, at any grade level and at any point in the school year. 

In a survey sent in mid July, 28 percent of families with elementary students, 27 percent with middle school students and 22 percent with high school students said they would want to do full distance learning. The results include updated responses from about 1,000 families who have retaken the survey since it was originally sent out and more information, including the recommendation of the health district, has come out.

About 59 percent of staff said they plan to return to work, whether in person or remotely, in the fall and about 40 percent chose one of three options showing a preference or a need for a distance learning position or a type of accommodation. Less than 1 percent of staff said they do not plan to return to work in the fall. 

The decision comes a week after the Clark County School Board approved full distance learning to start the school year and on the same day Gov. Steve Sisolak released a new directive pertaining to reopening schools. The order shortens the social-distancing requirements — from six feet to three feet — for pre-kindergarten, elementary and middle school students. Six feet, however, remains the requirement for high school students and staff members.

The directive also requires face masks be worn by all students in kindergarten through 12th grade as well as staff, unless there is a medical exemption. Additionally, the directive moves away from a one-size-fits-all approach and will allow communities with low COVID-19 transmission rates to apply for variances that would ease certain health and safety protocols. The variance requests would need review by the Nevada Department of Education and approval from the state’s chief medical officer.

The district's requirement on facial coverings is stricter than what the governor ordered: everyone over the age of 2 that comes to school campuses must wear a mask and people exempt from the order because of medical issues should wear face shields when they can.

“Throughout our response to COVID-19, the health and safety of our students, staff, and families is always the priority,” Sisolak said in a statement. “I know that the Nevada Department of Education and the local districts have worked diligently to evaluate the available guidance and recommendations to create appropriate education plans to our students through whatever means are most appropriate in their local district. The State will continue to monitor the impact of COVID-19 in Nevada and stands ready to provide support or intervention when necessary.”

Back on campus

Many details about returning to campus remain unclear as district staff work to address the particulars of reopening schools safely during the pandemic. 

Social distancing, for example, may look different in theory than in practice. While a room's square footage may allow for a certain number of people, that number may be less in reality because of furniture and other logistics that may affect distancing. The district will have to figure out set-ups room by room.

"That is, honestly, a puzzle that all the principals and facility staff and administrators are working together to try and solve to create the safest environment we can in the classrooms and still accommodate the students that we need to accommodate in person," said Chief Facilities Management Officer Adam Searcy.

The district laid out detailed criteria on when students and staff would be unable to come to campus when they show COVID-19 symptoms, but exclusion policies for other circumstances, such as travel to COVID-19 hotspots, are still in development. Protocols if students or staff members test positive for the virus during the school year are close to finished, according to Dick.

Searcy said there's inventory of pandemic-related resources and a "healthy supply chain" for those resources in case use is higher than the district's prediction of consumption. Custodians will be ordering and distributing pandemic resources, such as hand sanitizer, similar to how they manage regular consumables.

Addressing issues of students forgetting and losing their masks, the district said it has 50,000 face coverings in inventory and is expecting to receive another 50,000 next week. 

District officials said they will be creating education initiatives, such as signs across campuses, around pandemic guidelines as students and staff return to school. The district will also do outreach with families to teach them practices they should be doing at home, including performing daily self-screenings before coming to school and teaching their students about the importance of following the guidelines.

With an uncertain future on the projection of COVID-19 cases in the region, trustees debated creating a criteria for what circumstances would prompt the district to move each of the three student categories to full distance learning, but left that decision for a future meeting.

Classes will resume on August 17 for most students in the district.

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

This story was updated at 3:20 p.m. on 7/29/20 to add details from trustees' meeting.

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