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Back to school: We are educators first and foremost (opinion)


Submitted by Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill, Washoe County School District

All of us at the Washoe County School District are dedicated to supporting our 64,000 students and their families to the best of our collective ability. During the years they spend in our schools, we encourage them when they struggle, rejoice with them as they learn new skills, and marvel at their just-discovered talents and abilities.

Now, our children and their families are emerging from months of solitary learning, uncertainty, and instability at home. Many parents are still trying to find work, keep food on the table, and provide the basic necessities for their children in a time of tremendous uncertainty. Few things about this year have been normal, and in some ways, the upcoming school year will be no exception.

We too are grappling with the fallout from COVID-19. But as career educators confronting the collateral damage this pandemic has brought, our way forward has never been clearer, and our commitment has never been stronger. We do understand there is anxiety, however we should not allow that to prevent us from carrying out our mission to support our students and their families. We choose to approach these uncertain times not as challenges, but as opportunities for growth and change. We are exploring and creating new ways of teaching, learning, and meeting the needs of students whose education has been entrusted to us, as well as our educators who will need to learn how to teach in different ways.

Kindergartners begin their first day of school for the 2018-2019 school year at Hidden Valley Elementary School.
Kindergartners begin their first day of school for the 2018-2019 school year at Hidden Valley Elementary School. Image: Carla O’Day

To retreat from our educational responsibility is to effectively abandon our children and families when they need us most. Let us not forget that for many children, school represents the chance to experience normalcy, stability, and positive interaction with their peers for the first time since schools were forced to close nearly five months ago.

We are educators first and foremost, and we are choosing to hold difficult conversations and take bold and decisive action to offer our students and families the option of returning to our classrooms—with strong protocols in place to protect their health and well-being—or to participate in Distance Learning. Our families know their needs and concerns best; as always, we are here to support them.

In making these decisions to move forward—with all of the complexities those decisions entail—we have continually placed a high value on the collaboration that is the cornerstone of our district’s successful partnerships.

Our Reopening Task Force invited some 70 members of the community representing employees, employee associations, families, parents, faith communities, and non-profit agencies to meet and discuss their concerns. I meet quarterly with employee association leadership, and monthly with each employee association individually. We conduct regular surveys to solicit input from our employees, students, and families, and send telephone and email alerts with updated information about services and resources available to all.

As I assumed leadership of the district in the role of interim superintendent last summer, I established my Pathway to Positive Progress, and a key part of that plan addressed the low morale among our employees that was so evident at that time. In the months since, I have continued to gather input, communicate with our district family, and address concerns whenever and wherever they are raised. I know so many of our employees in all operation and academic areas and our principals are working exhaustively and with dedication to be sure our schools are welcoming and safe environments.

The efforts to keep our district family engaged also extends to our Board of Trustees. Board meetings are highly publicized and of course are open to the public. Trustees are provided with public comments before and during meetings and are given the opportunity to review them. Staff presentations and discussions are conducted in public, live-streamed and later posted online so anyone may watch from anywhere at any time.

As we work to carve out a path to our district’s future, and by extension, the educational future of our students during these uncertain times, we are working in conjunction with our teachers, school staff, and employees representing a vast variety of disciplines. We have made every effort to convey accurate and timely information to our district family while asking for their input and feedback.

WCSD’s Human Resources Department is working with employees to determine how we can best support them as we move forward with reopening our schools, reviewing their concerns and seeking to provide them with the resources they need to feel comfortable with their decisions regarding the upcoming school year.

The past five months have been chaotic for our community, and WCSD has sought to provide a sense of order and calm for students, families, and staff. As we begin this new academic year, our schools will strive to connect with our students, to re-establish the bonds that have created a solid foundation for their learning experience, and to resume teaching and learning with a focus on social and emotional elements.  We will advocate for our students, their families, and our employees because that is our mission, too.

In these extraordinary days, we strive to do extraordinary work for our students. And while we may not always agree on what the best path forward is, I know our common goal will always be to support them in the best way we know how.

The time has come for courageous conviction: With the support of a majority of our families and employees, we will reopen our schools and do everything in our power to protect the health and well-being of our school communities as we welcome our students back for the 2020-2021 school year.

Dr. Kristen McNeill

Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill is a native Nevadan who moved to the Reno-Sparks area in 1996. She has worked for more than two decades in public education as a teacher, principal, Director of State and Federal programs/K-16 initiatives, Chief Strategies Officer, Chief of Staff, Deputy Superintendent and Interim Superintendent of Schools before being appointed to the position of Superintendent of WCSD in April 2020.

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