The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees met Tuesday at Damonte Ranch High School to approve contracts and discuss reopening and its related plans. Trustees Scott Kelley and Jacqueline Calvert were absent from the meeting.
Trustees unanimously approved its consent items, including a $130,000 contract with therapist Norris DuPree, Jr., and the company for which he is the sole proprietor, Transformations Services. DuPree has been hosting a Facebook livestreaming series of interviews called “Courageous Conversations.”
The last one featured WCSD Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill and drew ire from teachers, who were upset to not be able to access the livestream—which was shared only with friends of DuPree.
Public comment reflects stress, deep concern
Before moving on to discuss the district’s strategies for technology implementation and previously discussed COVID-19 metrics that could trigger the reclosing of schools, trustees heard public comment from parents, teachers and other community members. Nearly all of them spoke out against the reopening of schools. Several also mentioned the mental health stressors educators are facing.
Beth Martin, a WCSD employee and parent of WCSD students, said that while she’d been “trying to organize words the night before the meeting to clearly express her disappointment in the reopening of schools, she received an email from the principal at the middle school where one of her children attends. She said his ‘words kind of echoed the way’ she was feeling and so decided to read the email to the trustees.
It explained how the school had unexpectedly been notified that two of its distance learning teachers were leaving the district. The email went on to explain that each “school was tasked by the district with creating a distance learning plan.” This school had identified teachers to execute it but, like many other schools, was under the assumption that it would be provided with additional distance learning teachers and/or teaching allocations.
The letter said plans were also complicated by the school’s lack of knowledge concerning how many distance learners would be enrolled in it “and the school district not allowing schools to identify distance learning teachers until three days before school started.”
According to the letter, this resulted in teachers being reassigned to different classes and students being shuffled from one teacher to another.
“Regrettably, distance learning created many unforeseen difficulties—which I believe led our teachers to pursue other options,” the email read. “Some of these difficulties were trying to teach multiple grade levels, large class sizes—which do not allow for addressing specific student needs—and using the district-adopted curriculum that was not designed for remote learning.”
The principal ended the email by noting that he was seeking new distance learning teachers and would continue to look for solutions to parents’ concerns.
Martin said the letter felt like “just another factor that shows that we are not ready to be back in in-person learning. Some students at this time have not even started their distance learning path, and we are weeks into school. I’m frustrated as a parent, because I don’t feel we’ve done everything possible to ensure the safety of our children.”
Readiness for reopening questioned
Lauren Proffitt has worked as a teacher for WCSD for two years. She said she’d come to the meeting to “talk about the ‘perception’ of school readiness and being back in buildings.”
“While my respect and gratitude for those who I work with has grown tremendously over the past five months, I know that this hamster wheel we’re on is not sustainable,” she said. “We are over extended. Our mental health is suffering. And burnout is real.”
Proffitt said she’s done everything possible as a teacher to prepare for the new school year, put her “reservations aside” and put her head down to get to work.
“I worked hard. My colleagues worked hard. We worked long past our contractual obligations into the weekend and were as ready as possible for August 17th,” she said. “Fast forward a few days, and my principal called. And he said that because the distance learning numbers were so high, I was being moved to a distance learning position. In a move very unlike me, instead of immediately saying yes, I said, ‘I really don’t want to do this, but I understand that it’s what’s necessary—and I’ll do my best.”
“After having been separated from them for five months, I was excited to come back because I was moving up with them,” she added “But knowing that I would have to come in Monday morning and tell them that they were being moved to another teacher broke my heart.”
Natha Anderson—president of the Washoe Education Association, the local teachers’ union—said she contemplated whether or not to even speak during the trustees’ meeting but was spurred on to by a communication she received from a fellow educator who usually has a much more positive attitude.
“We’ve actually not worked together in the classroom. We’ve worked together for almost 20 years on the board of directors for WEA…and this English teacher, he’s always positive,” she said. “I rarely see him negative. And he texted me because he just felt like he was in a circus. You know those spinning plates? That’s what he was feeling. And for him to voice that was a pretty big deal.”
Anderson said she asked him exactly what was happening and was told that he was struggling to balance “A and B days, the attendance for both…the planning and evaluating of assignments, distance learning,” and issues with Microsoft Teams, cleaning protocols, seating charts, special education plans and more.”
Anderson ran out of her allotted speaking time prior to finishing making her point. She ended by telling trustees, “Our mental health right now, I just don’t know how much we can handle,” and asked them to consider this in their discussion on potential reclosing metrics.
Trustees next heard from the Development Director for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, Bob Fulkerson. He was one of the few people who addressed issues outside of reopening, though he spoke to that as well.
“I want to try and offer these remarks with the grace and respect that Dr. McNeill speaks about and that my mom taught me about, but I’m pretty agitated—so here it goes,” Fulkerson said.
Fulkerson said, “The bottom line on reopening is the Washoe County Health Department said, ‘Don’t do it.’ The Washoe County epidemiologist said, ‘Don’t do it.’ The unions said, ‘Don’t do it.’ Teachers said, ‘Don’t do it.’ But you’d already made up your minds. You’d already decided, so you assembled endless pages of gobbledygook.”
He said the decision had cost the trustees and Superintendent McNeill the public’s trusts. Were the decision to reopen science-based, he said, the district would have followed the advice of the health district and remained closed to in-person learning for the time being.
Fulkerson’s other purpose for speaking was to address the district’s categorization of the Black Lives Matter movement as political.
“You’ve also lost a lot of public trust because of your lack of dealing with racial equity,” he said. “Why has the district muzzled teachers and staff from talking about Black Lives Matter while districts around the country are using this as a teachable moment?”
Technology, legislative priorities and possible re-closing metrics discussed
Trustees heard from Lindsay Anderson, government affairs director for the district, concerning a bill draft request (BDR) to be submitted ahead of the 2021 session of the Nevada Legislature. Anderson informed trustees that the deadline for BDRs is fast approaching and that they’d have to take action on the agenda item in order to submit one on time.
The BDR that will be submitted to be written up by the Legislative Counsel Bureau will seek a temporary suspension of statutory requirements for student learning goals. The board approved it unanimously.
A lengthy presentation and discussion of the district’s strategic technology plan came next—with 146 pages of information covered, including a 112-page draft Strategic Technology Plan for years 2020 to 2025. The plan is comprehensive and dense, covering everything from IT infrastructure and operations to safety and security, as well as things like distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trustee Andrew Caudill expressed his belief that the district needs to be ready at a moment’s notice to return to full distance learning and said he believes work should be done to arm teachers of different grade levels with curricula they can refer to with the same promptness.
Trustee Dr. Angie Taylor said she believes the district needs to bear in mind that, as with some students, some teachers may require district-subsidized access to technology, especially internet connected devices.
And Board President Malena Raymond asked that future conversations concerning technology during board meetings include how the plan will adapt to emerging technology—both hardware and software.
Prior to giving their board reports and attending to closing items, the trustees heard a presentation on metrics they’d preliminarily approved during their last meeting. The three metrics, if approved, could trigger a re-closing of district schools should two out of three of them are met over the course of two consecutive weeks.
Prior to discussing the district’s preliminary metrics, the presentation covered metrics employed by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Harvard Global Health Institute, the Truckee Meadows COVID Threat Meter, the Washoe County Health District and Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directives, as well as advice put forth by John Hopkins University and the University of California, Davis.
The district’s three proposed metrics were covered next:
- Metric 1—Test Positivity Rate is determined by the 14-day rate of Covid-19-positive molecular tests. It’s determined by the number of positive molecular tests divided by the total number of molecular tests administered using a seven-day lag designed to account for test turnaround times. If the positivity rate equals or exceeds 10% for two consecutive weeks, the criterion has been met.
- Metric 2— Case Rate Per 100,000 refers to the seven-day rate of positive cases per 100,000 county residents. It’s determined by dividing the cumulative number of confirmed cases by the county population, multiplied by 100,000. The metric is updated every Wednesday once the WCHD updates its numbers. If the seven-day rate is at or above 100 per 100,000 residents for two consecutive weeks, this criterion has been met.
- Metric 3—Increased Case Rate Per 100,000 gives a comparison of weekly seven-day rates of positive cases per 100,000 county residents. It’s arrived upon by using the cumulative number as calculated in Metric 2. This is compared to the previous week to calculate the rate of change as a percent of the previous week’s rate per 100,000. If the rate of change is at or above 10% for two consecutive weeks, the criterion has been met.
The presentation on the metrics was largely given by the district’s Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca, who said he’d also like to see hospital bed capacity considered among the criteria for re-closing schools. He then took questions from the trustees, saying he was sure they had many.
Trustee Katy Simon Holland said that important to her would be that, moving forward, “the underlying data and the methodology for how it’s calculated is easily available to the public. I think we have to make sure the methodologies are consistent with the…governor’s criteria and the Truckee Meadows Threat Meter criteria.”
She added that a 10% test positivity rate is too high, in her opinion, and said she hoped the school district would align more closely to the governor’s recommendations of 7%.
“I don’t think we’re ready to adopt tonight,” Simon Holland said. “We need to have the benefit of the task force’s excellent work. They’re close. It’s not like they’re a year away from having their metrics. They are getting close. And I think it would be unwise of us to move forward tonight, to adopt something—finally—in advance of those very erudite and intelligence experts giving us the benefit of their thoughts.”
Trustees Taylor and Caudill both said they agreed it would be a mistake for the district to pass metrics and then change course if medical professionals and other officials on the district’s reopening task force and the newly established Truckee Meadows Covid Threat Meter task force—a new group of leaders, including Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve—recommend something contrary to them.
“Passing metrics just to pass metrics only to change course in a month because this task force came forward would be a great mistake,” Caudill said. “And I do like the idea of it being regional, and it’s people that are a part of this community. As much as I value what the national groups are saying, the state, this is a regional approach—and we’re a part of this region. And getting out in front or doing our own thing is not the way to go.”
Trustee Ellen Minetto spoke late during the discussion on re-closing plans, saying, “I’ve been feeling so overwhelmed, on the verge of tears—ridiculously—because I didn’t know what I was doing. And it’s nice that we have this task force—that this is what they do. They’re the smart guys. And it’s going to be good that our staff is, hopefully, going to be able to focus more on the distance learning—and getting all of that in place that makes sense and training the teachers and having people more comfortable with the whole thing.”
The trustees agreed to revisit their prospective re-closing metrics at the next board meeting on Sept. 8. As of Wednesday, Aug. 26, WCSD had reported COVID-19 cases at 10 local schools.