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School trustees discuss reopening scenarios, school police

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees spent multiple hours reviewing school reopening options at their meeting on June 23, discussing a variety of COVID-19 concerns and whether or not to reopen all WCSD schools this fall.

The eight-hour meeting began with government affairs matters and the pending July special session for the Nevada Legislature, which the board is hoping will produce more information from the State. The board’s Legislative Committee on Education is focusing on staying current with COVID-19 updates and minimizing assessment times to place greater emphasis on instructional time. 

The committee also discussed the procedures for review and approval of digital learning tools and other logistical concerns related to distance learning. The main focus was on parent consent and privacy policies being facilitated for educators by the district while adhering to Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act law.

Budgetary concerns, which have been a focal point for all of the board’s meetings this year, were on the agenda as well. WCSD Budget Director Mike Schroeder gave a brief presentation on budget transfers and augmentation, placing concern on staying within Nevada Revised Statutes. The budget includes almost $1.7 million relating to COVID-19, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and students as well as technical upgrades like WiFi. The current General Fund Augmented Budget for Fiscal Year 2019-20 is $530,462,139. 

The board also briefly discussed insurance concerns for outlying facilities such as Swan Lake, which faces flood concerns; and possible damage to district facilities in Incline, which may face snow related damages.

Special Education

The board also touched on reorganization of Special Education programs  to better align resources and services with, the district’s “Systematic 3 Phase Approach.” Phase 1 began in January 2020 with data collection to understand challenges and successful outcomes for children with disabilities. Using that data, Phase 2 developed a “Systematic Support Plan” to set and determine approaches for children with disabilities. The plan will move into Phase 3 in August, facilitating the early childhood to post-secondary transition. 

The reforms are focused on the relationships between structure, operational processes and strategies. The board is currently preparing for the next steps under Phase 2, which include creating timelines, making administrative adjustments for the program and ensuring communication cohesion throughout the process and district. School Board President Malena Raymond was excited about the program’s development and future plans for the Special Education Department.

Re-Opening 2020 – 2021

The pending decision to reopen WCSD schools drew the bulk of the trustees’ focus. President Raymond began the discussion by unequivocally stating, “We want nothing more than to put our students and staff back into schools come August, to put them into something that feels normal.” 

The board, tasked by the state’s Department of Education to come up with various reopening scenarios, reviewed options for distance learning procedures, including hybrid scenarios where students could possibly attend schools on some days and distance learn on others. One scenario would also include a “relatively normal classroom situation at capacity.” Raymond’s concern was which model would be best for the district. 

WCSD is currently following state directives and mandates, andthe board acknowledged the reopening plan is a “very tough decision”; officials are attempting to be prepared for all contingencies. 

WCSD Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill spearheaded the district’s COVID-19 pandemic response options, describing the 70-plus member Recovery Task Force as “extremely comprehensive.” It meets twice a week and is composed of various concerned parties from parents and teachers to classified education support professionals and faith-based leaders. The task force itself is subdivided into groups, such as PPE and Distance Education. 

All decisions for reopening are based around McNeill’s guiding principle of “Do No Harm” and continued emphasis on ensuring the needs and safety of students, families and employees. Her academic expectations for students are also high, regardless of which scenario the district decides to pursue. 

Communication by the district has been consolidated into a main COVID-19 page on the WCSD website. There, the public can access COVID information concerning the reopening of schools and buildings, family wellness and distance learning. There is another page specific to reopening, which addresses all information related to the Recovery Task Force and its subcommittees. That page provides links to public resources from state and national sources, an FAQ sheet about reopening and the task force’s meeting agendas and minutes. 

By consolidating the COVID section of the website, Communications Director Irene Payne said she has seen an increase in site visits, exceeding over 20,000 visitors in the last few weeks. Points of interest from the public include the reopening of sports programs and district field facilities. 

Payne encourages the public to visit the continuously updated website for current information.

WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill discussed the district’s reopening and the many challenges COVID-19 poses.

Reopening decision matrix developed

Touching on the district’s “Decision Matrix,” McNeill said she has plans for moving in a “more granular direction” on July 7. The board has a standby meeting scheduled for July 21, if necessary, to allow them to “fine tune decisions and/or revisit decisions should federal, state or local guidelines change.” The district will provide 20 days notice to the public for any changes to the matrix.

The primary decision points are based off of a General Learning Model. The model includes the district’s intent to pursue blended learning that maximizes the number of students that can spend allotted times at school. Different learning models considered for elementary, middle and high schools. Parents will be given the choice to opt into full-time distance education programming through expansion of the Northstar Academy, as well as site-based programming like Edgenuity for grades 6-12. 

Social distancing practices are also being proposed, when practical, on school campuses. Within the school setting, this could result in a  reduction of students in a given space (on average 20 students per learning space with no more than 50 percent room occupancy) and a maximum room occupancy of 50. 

The district will also modify student traffic patterns and walking pathways and student interactions in order to reduce contact with each other. Heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems will be modified to allow more fresh air into the buildings and schools will also employ a “flushing” period after hours to air the schools out. The pre- versus post-COVID classroom environments are greatly altered, and students will be distanced and spread out. Some schools are more conducive for this model, but smaller schools will have to use space more efficiently.

Busses, PPE and “behavioral shifts”

Transportation to and from schools is also drastically affected by proposed reopening modifications. Busses will average only 30 students each, with no more than 50 students allowed per bus. This will result in proposed new routes and possible staggered pickup times. About one-third of WCSD students ride the bus to school. The usual standard for the 84-seat bus model (the most common in the WCSD fleet) is logistically problematic as the bus seats are on average five feet from each other with skipping one row. The busses are eight feet wide, on average. 

Face coverings may be mandated per current state and federal protocols, and staggered pickup times for elementary and middle schools could result in pickup times of three hours earlier than current ones. Also, high school general education transportation would be eliminated. Transportation Director Rick Martin voiced his frustrations with the near impossibility for the district to fully comply with social distancing guidelines.

A slide from the Board of Trustees meeting showing challenges to social distancing on school busses.

Calendar adjustments are also another option proposed by the district for the July 7 meeting. Different start and end times for the school year are one option. Dr. McNeill would like to push forward start dates for educators and support staff to August 10, so they can acclimate to new teaching procedures and tools and ensure building safety.

Health and safety measures are focusing around “behavioral shifts” for students. Visual cues within buildings emphasizing hygiene and safety measures will be commonplace. The district also proposes implementing various social distancing measures affecting bathroom use and building entrances and recommends limits to close contact activities such as recess, PE and school dances. Daily screening protocols whether “self or district performed” will also be employed. 

PPE equipment options are also being discussed, with the district considering both face shield and mask options. Use of off-site facilities for school district activities will also be unsupervised with the district posting “use at your own risk” signage. 

Dr. McNeill informed the board and public that by July 7 they need to be prepared to submit to the Nevada Department of Education a “final plan” from the three scenarios of full distance, a blended approach or in-person instruction.

The meeting continued for three hours, with the board discussing all possible options and scenarios for July 7 and updates on the district’s planning of the Debbie Smith Career Technical Academy, scheduled for opening in 2023. 

Planned programs for the academy and its CTE programs include Culinary Arts and Nutrition, Engineering & Robotics, Medical Career and Construction Trades as well as Natural Resource and Animal Science programs.

Safe and secure learning

The meeting concluded with discussion and review of school police department policies. Jason Trevino, Chief of Police for the WCSD, presented his mission statement for the department: to “provide a safe and secure learning environment, which promotes an atmosphere of trust between the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community and the police department.”

The mission statement continues to declare, “Working hand in hand with local, county, state and federal agencies, the WCSDPD is committed to minimizing its schools from violence, weapons, substance abuse, vandalism and other hazards.”

In obvious acknowledgment to current national events, Trevino addressed the district’s “Use of Force” policy, including use of “chokeholds” against students. Modifying the previous procedure guidelines (22.04.1), Trevino stated the district’s policy is “the use of a chokehold or lateral vascular neck restraint IS NOT authorized except when all other means have failed or as a last resort. The use of a chokehold will be considered an application of deadly force for 22.05.1.”

Trevino clarified that any procedures not provided during sanctioned training, in addition to the use of chokeholds (in and of itself) will now be considered deadly force by an officer except under life threatening circumstances, “equating it to a firearm in the deadly force issue.” Trevino also explained to the board that “de-escalation” is always the first option for situations prior to compliance techniques or force. Trevino also added to the policy that even if de-escalation is unreasonable “in no case may any compliance technique be used which exceeds the amount of force reasonably necessary…to cope with an individual to follow an officer’s legal directive.”

Warning shots and use of deadly force options were also discussed by Trevino. Though the policies are not WCSD board policies, they were embraced by members of the board. Trustee Katy Simon Holland described them as “great practices” and “excellent guard rails.” Vice President Angie Taylor called them “ahead of the game.”

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