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Clark County School District school buses line up to pick up special needs students at Variety School, 2800 E. Stewart Ave. on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2017. Photo by Jeff Scheid.

Kathi McDonald has been sick with worry most nights recently as the terrifying bills-to-income ratio runs through her head. As a bus driver on a nine-month contract with the Clark County School District, her last paycheck came at the end of May.

And she’s not sure when she will see another one.

The school district’s plan to resume online-only learning in August has left support professionals like McDonald in limbo, wondering where they fit into this education delivery model. About 30 percent of district employees — more than 12,000 people — are classified as support professionals, a broad category that includes everyone from bus drivers and custodians to teacher aides and food service workers. In other words, they’re the backbone of the large district who keep the wheels turning, lights on, children fed and schools clean.

But without students physically in school, the future for the staff professionals is murky.

“I’m praying to God that they won’t can all of us,” McDonald said.

By Nevada law, support professionals with nine- and 10-month contracts aren’t eligible to receive unemployment benefits during the summer months because of “reasonable assurance” their jobs will be available when the next academic year begins. The situation means many support staff members try to find summer jobs to fill the pay gap, said Lisa Guzman, executive director of the Education Support Employees Association, which, with Teamsters Local 14, jointly represents support professionals. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic — and related business closures — made that more difficult this year. More than 12,000 people signed an online petition urging Gov. Steve Sisolak to expand unemployment insurance eligibility for education support professionals. So far, the governor has not heeded that request.

Now, the seismic shift to distance learning for an unknown period of time has plunged support professionals into even more financial uncertainty. School district officials have not announced any specific plans for support professionals during distance education.

Nadine Jones, the district’s chief human resources officer, briefly addressed the conundrum during a school board meeting Tuesday night. She said the district would look at repurposing support professionals to meet the needs of distance learning but acknowledged layoffs could be a possibility.

Guzman expressed more optimism after meeting Friday afternoon with district officials. She said the union was told that most support professionals would retain a job, albeit perhaps a different one to fit the situation. Some layoffs, however, have not been ruled out.

“We’re working through it,” she said. “We don’t have anything in writing yet, but that’s where we are.”

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert pledged her support for repurposing staff roles to save jobs and help with distance education — a feat that requires greater communication with families as students learn remotely.

"We have employees. We have a need of supporting children," she said. "So let's think differently about how we use our employees. We want to make sure they have jobs. There's work to be had."

A letter sent to transportation personnel on Thursday alludes to that, too, noting that employees will be required to participate in professional development from Aug. 5-21. 

“We are actively working to determine duties our team can assist with during distance learning since there will be limited need to transport students,” Shannon Evans, executive director of the Transportation Department, wrote in the memo. “Further communication will be provided once more information is available.”

If the district can avoid layoffs by repurposing jobs, it will be music to the ears of McDonald, the bus driver, and scores of her colleagues in similar positions. The 52-year-old has relied on financial help from her boyfriend to make ends meet the last few months. A former postal carrier, McDonald receives $1,076 every month in disability retirement pay, but most of that goes toward her apartment rent. McDonald’s job as a bus driver brought in more income but kept her off her two bad feet.

She wonders what kind of work she could find if her school district job vanishes. Maybe a food delivery driver, she says, lamenting the toll that would take on her car. But McDonald would prefer to remain working for the school district, even if it means a different job during the distance learning period.

“I’m game for whatever it is,” she said. “At this point, I just need an income soon.”

Monique Newkirk, a campus security monitor at Spring Valley High School, agrees. She has been scraping by on food stamps while nervously eyeing the fast-approaching expiration of the eviction moratorium Sept. 1. If the school district can’t find a job for her, she’s not sure what to do.

“Who’s going to hire someone 60 years old?” she said.

While Newkirk considers her age a hurdle during a job hunt, she considers herself an asset to the district. She also has served as a bus aide, a classroom teacher aide and a first aid safety assistant during the course of her support professional career — an indication that she could pivot to whatever else is needed.

“I’m old school,” she said. “I get up. I go every day no matter what. I’m not a person who gets sick very often. I know my job inside and out.”

As they wait for final answers, though, they’re not alone. The fate of substitute teachers remains unclear, too. 

Fernando Valenzuela, a substitute teacher who has been advocating for better pay and benefits, said he has not received any information about plans for people in his position.

“It’s tough. I hope that at least vacancy substitutes will still have the means to find a job,” he said. “I think the availability will still be there. I worry more so for the day-to-day jobs. I don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

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