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Trustees pore over plans for coming school year ahead of State’s due date for review

By Eric Marks
Published: Last Updated on

Reopening schools dominated the conversation at the nearly 10-hour meeting of the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees on July 7.  Board members at the virtual meeting discussed hybrid scenarios for the reopening process, and reviewed community, staff and student input.

The meeting started with acknowledgement to the Dave and Cheryl Duffield Foundation, whose donations have contributed to the renovation projects at the Incline High School theater. The theater, which was built in the early 1970s, was in dire need of rehab, said Lead Area Superintendent Troy Parks. He called the renovations “amazing.” Specific areas of the capital project upgrade included audio-visual systems and possible dressing room additions. The board approved a motion to name the new facility the “Dave and Cheryl Duffield Foundation Theater.”

Survey Results

Chief Accountability Officer Ben Hayes presented the results from a community survey on school reopening. The survey was open for responses between June 5 – 26. It yielded 18,523 responses, a record according to Hayes. In addition to the community response, 4,833 staff members responded, along with 3,260 students. 

Survey results show that a majority of students and families want students to return to WCSD campuses for the coming school year. Though Hayes expressed some disappointment in a lower response rate from “underrepresented populations” than he wanted to see, the overall results were positive. 

A young girl holding hand sanitizer.
Respondents to WCSD’s survey on school reopening cited cleanliness and hand sanitizer as two of the top priorities for a return to school. Image: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The top three priorities survey respondents identified were school cleanliness, hand sanitizer and social distancing procedures. Sixty-five percent of families and 63 percent of students “strongly supported” returning to campus, while 55 percent of staff supported a blended daily learning session through which students would only be on campuses on select days. Only 49 percent of teachers supported a full-time return to the regular school day and schedule. 

Universal Distance Learning priorities were well received with emphasis on new learning subjects and live session meetings. Parents will have the option for their students to do all of their learning remotely, either through enrollment at North Star Online School, a public WCSD institution, or through their childrens’ current schools. Also favored were assignments that could be accessed and completed at a student’s own pace. 

Social distancing enforcement was a major consideration for the return to schools, with Hayes emphasizing the district’s need to be able to follow the guidelines with efficiency.  

In reading through “close to 40,000 open ended comments,” Hayes noted that 73 percent of families, including staff who have children in the WCSD, find it true that “carrying out distance learning procedures will place an extremely difficult burden” on them due to child care considerations.

Guiding Principles

As has become the norm, WCSD Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill discussed her guiding principles of reopening, in compliance with the governor’s Directive 022 regarding social distancing and 024 requiring the use of facial coverings. McNeill has continuously stressed meeting the emotional needs of staff and students.

Deputy Superintendent Debra Biersdorff reviewed the three options the board was preparing to present to the Nevada Board of Education. 

Platforms such as the North Star Online School  and Edgenuity meet the district’s requirements for the Full Distance Learning plans, which must include the option for families to “receive high quality standards-based instruction.”  Five key attributes of the proposals must be met, including internet access, teacher learning support and specialized learning, as well as food access for students in need. The district will be restarting its free and reduced lunch programs in August for students in need of those services. Presently, the district provides about 4,500 meals every day to WCSD students. Classroom dining will also be continued for breakfast for some schools–as well as lunch, for the first time.

The Hybrid Learning Model (combining elements of both in-person and distance learning) must be available to all students according to Biersdorff. It would be an option if “in-person” learning is not available due to space and staffing limitations. Special considerations would be made for students with language or special needs. Although teachers would remain at the schools, students would rotate between distance learning and in-classroom learning. The district would prefer to prioritize full-time, in-person learning for students with special needs like Individual Education Plans and those who are English Language Learners. 

Andrew Caudill Washoe County School Board Trustee
Andrew Caudill Washoe County School Board Trustee

Pending approval, the WCSD would have to figure out which plan families would choose, then possibly re-evaluate and re-distribute resources. Although the district is attempting to facilitate the ability for families to choose and move between models, they are seeking a formal method to extract that information from families. 

Trustee Andrew Caudill expressed concern about a report that the Federal Department of Education would reject all hybrid models for returning to school. McNeill was quick to explain Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s statement that she “expects schools to be fully operational come the fall, regardless of the coronavirus pandemic” in accordance with President Trump’s desires. McNeill said the WCSD would require “millions of dollars to provide additional staffing” in order to support a full in-person model, something McNeill noted the district was not able to do at this time. 

The district is currently hiring more substitute teachers in preparation for all contingencies and has received a larger than usual number of inquiries for the substitute positions. The district plans to call on administrative and departmental personnel in case of a staffing shortage for classroom instruction. 

Health Procedures

Director of Health Services Margaret Allen addressed questions about health and safety measures. Acknowledging there is “no single measure” they could take to protect against COVID-19, self screening and temperature taking were part of the district’s layered approach to the situation. Allen said it was “not practical” to check students at school and that schools will follow normal protocols for students who feel ill at school by sending them to the nurse. 

Enhanced cleaning and PPE protocols along with social distancing and restrictions to close-contact activities are also part of what district officials feel is the most effective approach to safety. Allen also noted that some of the equipment used to check on temperatures can be inaccurate and expressed concern over the time it would take for students to line up for on-campus screening, as well the possible negative reaction among students if one was singled out for showing elevated body temperature. 

Searcy discussed enhanced cleaning protocols and surface cleaning. Teachers and staff may be required to engage in duties not typically associated with their professional positions, including cleaning classrooms and “high-touch surface areas.” Searcy’s approach will be to distribute a product into classrooms that “kills COVID-19 and other diseases,” continuing the WCSD standard procedures. The unnamed product “must be wet on the surface” to ensure the “kill time” of the virus if present. Searcy said teachers and staff will be briefed on the use of the product. Frequent and scheduled hand washing will also be part of the district’s multi-layered approach.

For transportation, the district is considering assigned seating on the buses. Roof hatches and strategically selected windows will remain open for airflow. Face masks will be required, and the district’s fleet will be cleaned at the beginning and end of drivers’ routes. Hand sanitizer will be provided via dispenser as students get on and off the bus. The district may also employ other vehicles for students not wanting to ride the bus. Buses were recommended to only carry up to 50 percent of capacity, not to exceed the governor’s current maximum for gatherings of 50 individuals.

The first day of school for kindergarteners in 2018. Image: Carla O'Day
This year’s first day of school for kindergarteners will look a bit different than this one in 2018. Image: Carla O’Day

Decision Matrix

Action items for new instruction procedures were introduced by Dr. McNeill in previous meetings and will be implemented the week before the opening of school, which is scheduled for Aug. 17 for grades 1-12 and Aug. 24 for kindergarten students. As discussed, the board is considering the recommendation of using the week before classes begin to prepare teachers and staff to learn and understand new procedures for instruction during the pandemic. 

McNeill has also suggested she is open to using spring and fall breaks to make up any lost instruction time in the case of school closures due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The board, however, voted for only one week of break time to be used for make-up instruction. Expressing concern for lost school days due to COVID-19, McNeill said she felt the use of break time was the best option for make-up “in the best interest of the students.” The current proposed change will result in five fewer days of instruction for the students but will allow teachers to adapt to new software and preparation protocols. McNeill cited these days as “extremely important” for getting schools open on Aug. 17. 

The recommendation to have the state-authorized professional development sessions Aug. 10 – 14 and the start of instruction on Aug. 17 with break time make-up days was passed unanimously.

Face Coverings

Consistent with the governor’s Directive 024, the use of face coverings for staff members, visitors and students ages 10 and above will be mandatory on all WCSD property. If the directive is somehow lifted, the district would still recommend the use of masks when practical. The district will provide one reusable face covering for every student and staff member, and students will be allowed to bring their own as well. 

McNeill discussed pros and cons of face coverings, including facial cues for younger children and the frequent touching of one’s own face, but “strongly feels that the use of face coverings is a community responsibility.” Noting that, “There is science behind it,” and it should not be politicized, she also said she did not want to place teachers in the position of trying to manage children who show up without face coverings. 

Trustee Katy Simon Holland said she was “absolutely in support” of the measure but expressed enforcement concerns. McNeill’s primary solution was to have face coverings available for children who show up without masks. She was adamant about protecting teachers, bus drivers and principals from being in the position of having to deny children access to school due to lack of facial coverings. 

Board of Trustees Vice President Angela Taylor reinforced McNeill ’s position, stating, “Face coverings are not about protecting you; it’s about protecting the people around you. You have to have been living in a cave to not know that by now.”

Face shields are also going to be procured by the district using money from the general fund. Shields will be available for children who are not able to wear masks for medical reasons. Line items within the general fund budget would be supplemented by approximately $9 million in CARES Act funding. Chief Financial Officer Marks Mathers noted there were travel and utility savings due to the spring shutdown that would also be used. 

The motion to mandate masks was unanimously passed.

Learning Models

With the Elementary School Learning Model, students will attend school Monday through Friday, but temporary distance learning may be implemented if forced to close due to COVID-19 or students are excluded for some reason. Image: Photo by Andy Falconer on Unsplash

President  Malena Raymond began the discussion on learning models with the Elementary School Learning Model. The proposal which was approved by the board is based off an in-person learning model where students attend school Monday through Friday and receive all instruction within the school, and the temporary use of distance learning in the event that a student or group of students is excluded or if the schools are temporarily forced to close due to a COVID outbreak, in which case it would be considered a hybrid model. The In-Person model was considered the least disruptive for families, preserving their social and emotional learning environments.

The hybrid model was approved for middle school students, however, with the district stating in-Person learning for middle school students would result in millions of dollars in additional costs for additional staff. In this model, students will only attend school on “A or B rotations,” with students only attending three days a week then two the following week, with the students not in attendance at school incorporating distance learning procedures for their off days. This also results in greatly reduced class sizes. 

Exceptions will be made by the district for students with various special needs and circumstances, allowing them to attend full-time if necessary. Parents will be responsible for the transportation of students to athletic activities on their off days and non-certified staff such as custodians and administrative personnel could be utilized for supervision on approval from the Nevada Department of Education.

The Hybrid Learning Model is also being proposed for the high school level using the A/B model, where half of students attend school while the other half employ distance learning. Daily instruction will be supported by qualified, certified teachers. The in-person portion of the model is considered the least disruptive for the families, and the distance learning model faces challenges, such as ensuring students have device and internet access. The district is considering different options to accommodate this. 

The board approved the Hybrid Learning Model with the A/B rotation for WCSD high schools unanimously, noting that it had to propose its plans by law to the Nevada State Board of Education a minimum of 20 calendar days before the beginning of the school year.

A screenshot of Washoe County School District Board of Trustees members on a Zoom meeting.
WCSD Board of Trustees and Superintendent McNeill during the July 7 meeting.

School Board Meetings

WCSD recently released a statement concerning its meeting policies since the beginning of the pandemic. According to the statement, WCSD “has held Board Meetings in a virtual format” since March 31. This has been done in response to the governor’s Directive 006, which, in part, stated there will be no physical meetings. 

“We have received some feedback questioning this model,” the statement said. 

The statement said that conducting “business virtually via Zoom with each trustee and staff members attending the meetings remotely has been a productive and positive experience” and done in response to the district’s deep concern for the health and safety of staff and the public, noting that the administrative board room “is relatively small, and it would not have been possible to successfully conduct meetings there while adhering to social distancing protocols.”

The statement also notes that “engagement with public comments has also seen a huge increase” since the meetings went virtual “that trustees read each and every comment received.”

The statement concluded, “We intend to return to in-person Board Meetings in August when our staff and students return to school. This is dependent on the ability to meet the directives from the governor. We are also working to identify larger venues for future Board Meetings that will be held in person to allow our stakeholders to continue their participation and attend in person when it is safe to do so. As decisions made on new venues, we will most certainly share this information with the community.”

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