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“Know that we love you”: WCSD holds forum to address parent, student concerns

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

The Washoe County School District held a virtual forum on July 14, answering questions from the community and addressing concerns submitted by families and students. The forum’s main focus was the reopening process for schools and previously discussed hybrid scenarios that would have children participating in both in-person and remote learning. Participants interacted via the district’s website and with previously submitted questions. 

Having received approval from the Nevada Department of Education to proceed with professional development training on Aug. 10, the district plans to begin in-class instruction Aug. 17 for all grade levels except Kindergarten, which will resume on Aug. 24.

The forum began with a pre-recorded video message for parents covering strategies for positive behavior reinforcements and distance learning approaches. 

A slide presented at WCSD's community forum providing tips for parents on distance learning.
A slide presented at WCSD’s community forum providing tips for parents on distance learning.

Starting the meeting afterward, WCSD president Malena Raymond read a letter of intent detailing links and information for parents.

Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill began her remarks with thanks to the district employees and community members. McNeill acknowledged the challenges she faces as superintendent and reiterated her appreciation for community support and involvement, stating the district could not “do this alone” and that the current situation “isn’t about politics.”

“This isn’t about anything other than educating our students and that our staff and our families are safe,” McNeill said, adding that during the forum they’d do their best to get out as much information as possible. 

Face coverings

The first question addressed to the forum concerned the policy on face coverings and how the district intends to enforce the use of face masks–as well as what actions would be taken if visitors, employees or students refused to adhere to the policy. 

Noting that “this was a hugely important topic” from the last WCSD meeting, Raymond said, “There was no hesitation in our decision. There was no doubt that what was right for our district was to actually go above and beyond the governor’s directives for face coverings and actually require everyone in our district to wear a face covering on school property.” She added, “And that includes our youngest students.” 

She cited staff and student protection and task force recommendations for the mandate. 

McNeill agreed and emphasized the importance of the policy on buses as well. She also said that the district would have “options available” through distance learning for families who choose not to comply. 

“But when you are going to be coming onto district property, the mandate is that you will be using a face covering,” McNeill said. 

She expressed specific concern for bus drivers, who will be supplied with face coverings for students without them saying, “We are doing everything that we can physically do” to provide PPE materials for students and staff, including face shields for people who can not use masks.

Chief Facilities Management Officer Adam Searcy described the PPE purchasing strategies for the district. Distribution of supplies through the schools will start next week. Searcy noted that hand washing would be the “superior line of defense.”

The district acknowledged there may be times, such as during recess, if children are socially distanced it may be appropriate to have their face coverings off. But for the most part, masks should be employed. 

Distancing procedures

Pine Middle School. Image: Carla O'Day.
Pine Middle School. Image: Carla O’Day.

Noting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adjusted social distancing recommendation to “three to six feet,” McNeill said for WCSD six feet would be the rule. She offered different scenarios for how classrooms might be laid out at different schools, such as the “Pinwheel” and “Sheep Shed” models. Since the schools “look different and have different configurations, it really is going to depend on what the site facility looks like,” she said. 

Area Superintendent Joe Ernst informed the board that schools have already begun to arrange classrooms and store lesser-used items in order to increase classroom space. 

For lunch configurations, he stated the school is working with Nutrition Services for solutions, including classroom delivery, grab-and-go and food station models. Ernst also said for recess, “very explicit rules, procedures and expectations” will be implemented in order for students to “understand the new way of schooling.” He also noted if parents come onto school grounds to pick up their kids they will need to wear a mask. 

Class sizes will be reduced to 50% capacity per the governor’s directives. High schools have a larger class size on average, but Ernst said that by working within the hybrid model it is “really going to work well.”

Budget concerns

In response to a concern that has been drawing attention on a national level–whether or not schools are reopening in order to receive federal funding–Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers stated clearly, “No.”

“Most of our funding is from the state or local sources,” Mathers said, adding that the federal funding was “critical” to cover the costs of PPE. 

“We are going to have millions of dollars of those kinds of costs, so it is really critical we have those funds to cover those costs,” he said.

Chief Human Resource Officer Emily Ellison also explained there are “a large number of people in the hiring pools” that are waiting on job positions. Ellison said she felt confident they could meet all the needs of the district, even in the face of the state’s $1.2 billion deficit. 

Further decisions made during Nevada’s 31st special legislative session could also have an impact on the WCSD budget. 

When asked if students will be given laptops or devices for learning, Chief Information Officer Chris Turner said the district plans to acquire 4,000 laptops to assist families “most in need.” Turner also hopes to acquire more funding for an additional 7,000 laptops for families in need who have more than one student. 

A student uses a computer for distance learning.
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The board is also considering working with the Boys & Girls Club to provide middle school students with computer labs where they can access their online hybrid learning on days they are not attending in person. McNeill said the district is also working with the Education Alliance, which has raised “thousands and thousands of dollars” to help procure devices for students. 

Supplemental WiFi will be provided via mobile hotspots on buses that will be scheduled to target “high need and dense population” areas. Turner said the district is acquiring 3,000 mobile hotspots but is still in the process of procuring laptops and devices, as the national need is extensive and there is about a six-week wait. High school and middle school students will be the primary recipients of devices and hotspot access.

What is school going to look like?

Many auxiliary programs, such as PE, music and culinary programs, are “going to look different next year,” according to Deputy Superintendent Debra Biersdorff. 

Biersdorff said, “It’s not going to be normal business as usual, at least not for the foreseeable future.” 

She expressed that some of the district’s “amazing” programs like the Magnet programs, Gifted and Talented and Career and Technical programs are all being impacted and that there are “no easy answers” as to how they would look. She offered an example of music rooms being used for regular instruction to maintain social distance requirements, requiring the music teacher to possibly travel to students. 

Sports and tech education programs will still be offered, but will also look different. Biersdorff said they are working very hard to maintain program expectations and goals. 

Area Superintendent Joe Ernst said the district is still waiting on survey responses from parents that will allow them to work with those who may have children in both middle and high school to allow for them to attend the same days to ensure strong programming and synchronized scheduling. 

McQueen High School. Image: Carla O’Day

The A and B schedule for middle and high school students is also a concern for parents and county officials, who wondered how the district would prevent students from sharing information amongst themselves on days off and from testing. Neither Ernst nor the board responded to concerns regarding the possible sharing of information among students. 

The A/B schedule will not affect smaller schools like Gerlach, whose normal population is relatively small. However, Incline Village is now going to incorporate the hybrid model due to increased enrollment.

Testing will be minimized for mandated tests to reduce student and teacher stress. The district is exploring a “balanced assessment system.” Dr. McNeill stressed she doesn’t want teachers to worry about assessments and that their main focus should be on academic achievement alongside a number one priority of focusing on the “social/emotional aspect of having our children back in school. To make sure our students are safe, that they know that they are loved and that our teachers are there to support them, which they are.” 

Buses will still run under 50% capacity with no more than 50 students, all masked, allowed at one time. Buses will be disinfected by drivers between runs, and load back to front while unloading front to back to try and maintain distancing procedures. Staggered times will possibly be determined for about 20% of schools depending on state guidelines and student numbers. 

Certain students with special needs will be asked to come back full time. The district is taking every measure possible to ensure a smooth transition for special needs students, including facial covering consideration for students that cannot wear masks due to health concerns.

Temperature taking will not be a district policy at schools. Mask wearing and hand washing will be the district’s focus, but “mass screenings” will not be a procedure the district implements. They hope instead that parents will assess if their children are well enough to attend school. COVID-19 testing also will not be done on school property. 

The schools have an “outbreak protocol” for any outbreaks, but will handle each situation on a case-by-case basis, using screening tools and coordination efforts with the health districts. School nurses and clinic aids will be handling the majority of any suspected infections. 

Substitute teachers who move from location to location will stay within their respective communities, for the most part. The district is still determining how many teachers will be instructing distance learning, depending on the amount of students that return to school or want to learn remotely. They will be surveying teachers this week to seek responses in their desires to return or instruct online.

Dr. Kristen McNeill, WCSD's superintendent of schools, was noticeably emotional at the close of the community forum.
Dr. Kristen McNeill, WCSD’s superintendent of schools, was noticeably emotional at the close of the community forum.

An emotional closing

In closing Dr. McNeill was noticeably emotional as she thanked her leadership team. “There is no weekend. There are very late nights and these people have been working literally 24/7 many, many months.” 

McNeill, holding back tears, then sent a special message to students: “Know that we love you. And we want you to come back. We don’t want our students to lose their hopes and their dreams and their aspirations. There is so much to look forward to in this world. It’s an emotional time in our country, but you know what? We are going to do this, and we are going to do this together. We are going to do it as a school district, and as a community.”

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