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School board mulls policy and zoning changes, reopening during lengthy meeting

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

The Washoe County School District held its regular meeting of the Board of Trustees on June 9, again via Zoom video conference. The board met for almost seven hours to discuss board policy revisions, capital renewal programs, COVID-19 responses and other related matters.

Policies

The meeting began with a proposal to suspend board policy 9070, which governs how board policies are made, as the board considers policies governing the hiring of new Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill. Specifically, the board wanted to be able to consider and propose amendments to board policies concerning the hiring and evaluation of and authorities given to the superintendent without having to first gain approval from the board policy committee beforehand. The board said “given the state of emergency of the COVID-19 virus,” suspension of policy 9070 would “maintain the best interests of … students, families, communities and staff.” 

Dr. Kristen McNeill
Dr. Kristen McNeill

The meeting proceeded to a review of the language in McNeill’s employment agreement, one of the agenda items for which the board suspended policy 9070. The board then reviewed Policy 9085, which governs the authorities given to the superintendent. Changes resulting from a May 29 work session were discussed. Board Member Katy Simon Holland questioned whether the agreement should include performance objectives and Vice President Angela Taylor agreed that inclusion of objectives would aid in and provide fairness to future performance evaluations of the superintendent. 

The board then discussed placing a moratorium on board policy 9081: the formative monitoring of the Superintendent and strategic goals, in order to avoid the board and/or Superintendent inadvertently failing to meet the policy and its recording requirements while the board and staff develop an evaluation process and strategic plan. The item covers “clarity of the evaluation process” and was put on hold until that issue could be resolved within legal guidelines outlined by Chief General Council Neil Lombardo, given the length, recording requirements and wording of the policy.

Dr. McNeill proceeded to take over the meeting and present her new 2020 – 2021 organizational chart, which she described as “really demonstrating” her leadership style. The chart represented the collaboration of departmental staff and offices, including school police and emergency management departments. It also illustrated how Trustee members and various administrative personnel interact with each other, and the board, as well as their respective reporting avenues that lead directly to her.

Asset assessment was discussed by Chief Facilities Management Officer  Adam Searcy. Project budgets and capital renewal allowances were evaluated by the board, covering general maintenance and construction costs for the prioritized needs of all the district’s schools. Searcy focused on “safe, warm and dry” initiatives, placing priority on maintenance of classrooms and other inside spaces, as opposed to exteriors. Searcy was “excited” to move forward with construction upgrades. The board also discussed updated design costs to be associated with the Debbie Smith Career & Technical Academy. Total approved budget allocations for all Capital Improvement Projects are presently $908.25 million.

COVID-19

COVID-19 was also, once again, a focal point. Dr. McNeill described the presentation as “one of the most important” in regards to the reopening of the district’s schools. Noting directives from the Governor, she relayed information on facility, field and school reopening directives. 

Dr. McNeill was adamant the district was following all procedures of the directives in order to ensure the safety of students and staff. The district’s Recovery Task Force meets twice a week to discuss pandemic response, including distance learning and nutrition services. 

Their primary focus is reopening of schools while maintaining high academic expectations and maximum safety guidelines, based on a “Do Not Harm” foundation. Social distancing, classroom space, student and staff movement and teaching and learning considerations were all topics discussed by the board, which reviewed student and parent surveys. The surveys are open to the public until June 26 on the WCSD website and also by paper in both English and Spanish versions. 

The board faces many challenges and issues presented to them by the task force, which is working to find solutions for learning both within and without the “brick and mortar” setting. The district hopes to place as many students as safely possible back into schools, but will be continuing Distance Learning programs as well. One of the biggest challenges the district faces is daily health screenings for the 64,000 students and 8,000 employees in 100 different buildings while maintaining social distance procedures. 

For distance learning students, the board also faces challenges in regards to identifying student needs for information technology. Students with no device or limited access to the internet were a primary concern.

These questions also affect the bussing system for the district. Working in conjunction with the Council of Great City Schools Task Force and the Nevada State Department of Education, the board evaluated bus route scenarios for the social distancing models and discussed developing bus safety protocols for students and staff. 

school lunch
The Washoe County School District is debating whether students should eat in the cafeteria or classrooms when they return to school in the fall. USDA Photo by Bob Nichols.

The daily schedules of students are greatly impacted by new drop off zones, and the board was presented different ways to incorporate visual cues and “safe zones” for students. The district is considering mandatory face coverings, temperature screening, “body temperature scanning,” surface cleanings and other practices as part of new daily routines. 

Scheduled hand washing and hygiene breaks will be part of the new suggested procedures, and the district is facing issues with cafeteria vs. classroom eating protocols. The district has ordered multiple cloth face coverings for students and staff. PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) costs are initially projected at more than $700,000 initially, and expected to reach seven figures, according to Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers.

Teaching and Learning Committee

The Key Guiding Principles of the district’s Teaching Committees were also discussed. The committees, of which there are several, face varying issues and must make different considerations for different school levels. All are focused on “maintaining high, standards-based, grade-level expectations” for all students, regardless of whether they attend school in person or are involved in distance learning.

The committees are focused on scheduling and transitioning students from home to school-based learning environments, noting the differences between “brick and mortar” students who focus on “core” schedules, while distance learning students focus on electives. 

Board President Malena Raymond discussed with the committee members concerns over consistency within distance learning packets.

S.H.A.R.E. Committee

The approval of the Sexuality Health and Responsibility Education advisory committee related to the proposed 8th grade curriculum was also a key presentation. The committee has overhauled and upgraded the curriculum. Director of curriculum and instruction for the committee Kindra Fox and SHARE coordinator Rochelle Proctor addressed the committee’s policies for the board, focusing on key components of development and medical accuracy, cultural sensitivity and strategies for all students regardless of gender, race or orientation, among other considerations. 

The committee, which is focused on being compliant with state and federal laws, also places emphasis on providing a foundation of knowledge and skills “related to human development, relationships, decision making, consent, abstinence, contraceptives and disease prevention.” The committee proudly relies on “student voice” as one of their resources, featuring an 8th grade student as a committee member. The newly revamped curriculum has not received a complete rebuild since 2003 prior to last year. Some of the lesson plans include anatomy and functions of the male and female reproduction systems, abstinence and human reproduction. 

Eighty-seven percent of respondents to the new lessons agreed with the new proposed curriculums. Middle schools’ staff members, who will be responsible for teaching SHARE, will receive training in the fall. Trustee Andrew Caudill noted many parents’ opposition to the inclusion of Planned Parenthood in the curriculum.

Washoe County School Bus Stop
Photo: Washoe County School District

Zoning

The board continued zoning conversations and recommendations from the last meeting. Revisiting guiding principles, the zoning committee reviewed principles like student safety and minimizing the disruption to families over student rezoning. The committee would like to maintain zone changes for three to five years and ensure the diverse student population has equitable access to school and educational programming. 

The committee also revisited new zoning recommendations for Stead Elementary and O’Brien Middle School, effective 2021 – 2022. Some of the drawbacks for rezoning would include long rides for rural students and the addition of new busses to Stead Elementary and Cold Springs Elementary schools. Presently, even though Silver Lake Elementary School is greatly overcrowded, parents of the school’s students have voiced their insistence that their children remain at the school. 

Health & Wellness

Wrapping up the meeting, the board heard reviews on health and wellness. Key components of the steering committee to the board were the decreasing tardiness and absences of students, an increase in student graduations and a focusing on a reduction in teenage driving accidents. 

Also among discussion was the topic of future bell times for middle and high school students, and how that translates to better productivity. One of the points presented to the board was a Miami-Dade County Public School District finding that multiple “research studies have outlined the benefits of shifting start times to better align with the natural sleep cycle of teenagers.” 

Special Projects Administrator Rick Harris emphasized that student wellness is one of the most crucial components for productive learning and continued his support to not start middle schools before 8 a.m. and high schools before 8:30 a.m. One of the options he presented would have elementary schools starting at 10 a.m. and concluding at 4 p.m. The board was presented with six options, with start times ranging between 8 to 10 a.m. for different grade levels and school days concluding between 2 and 4 p.m. 

While the district faces many challenges, Superintendent McNeill said she remains optimistic about the schools reopening Aug. 10 with assistance from official agencies such as the Governor’s office, Nevada Department of Education, Washoe County Health Department, Food Bank of Northern Nevada and local organizations and individuals. 

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