Home > Featured > School district working on plan for reporting student exclusions during COVID-19 pandemic (updated)

School district working on plan for reporting student exclusions during COVID-19 pandemic (updated)

By Jeri Davis

News of new confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and students in the Washoe County School District has been a regular occurrence since schools reopened on Aug. 17. The first confirmed case was announced among staff even before schools reopened.

According to WCSD Public Information Officer Megan Downs, as of Wednesday morning, there were 17 confirmed positive individuals at 14 schools, and the Washoe County Health District confirmed this number to This Is Reno on Wednesday afternoon. But late Wednesday evening three more cases were reported. This Is Reno’s review of the case announcements brings the total to 21 confirmed positive cases at 18 individual schools.

“These are the cases in which an employee or student was physically on a school campus and later tested positive,” Downs said in an email to This Is Reno.

Last week, WCSD Superintendent Kristen McNeill told the Nevada State Board of Education that there were 600 students being excluded from attending school in person due to potential exposure to or symptoms of COVID-19. That number was based on running a query on attendance codes tied to exclusions. 

Reed High School
Reed High School is one of 18 schools where a case of COVID-19 has been identified as of September 2.

This Is Reno followed up with the school district to learn what that number is currently. According to Downs, the number is not currently available.

“Regarding the current number of exclusions, we are currently working on finalizing this data query for tracking and don’t believe it to be fully ready to report exact numbers at the moment as this is a very dynamic situation,” Downs said. “We are working on developing a way to consistently report this data and should have something more to share late next week.”

She also clarified that the 600-student figure did not mean that number of students had been excluded due to potential contact or exposure to COVID-19 at school.

“In fact, the large majority of exclusions are from students and families screening and staying away from school due to symptoms such as shortness of breath, fever, sore throat, abdominal pain, chills/aches,” etcetera Downs said.

“Based on our attendance data, we believe these types of cases make up 60% to 70% of the total exclusions,” she added. “The other 30% to 40% occur when we receive a letter from the Washoe County Health Department asking us to exclude a student or students for a certain amount of days. These exclusions vary in reason as well. For example, many students have been excluded because of close contact with a relative or acquaintance outside of school, some are excluded because they traveled back to Washoe County from a hot spot area, and some are excluded due to contact tracing after a positive test at a school. This cautious approach might lead to over-exclusion in the beginning, and we will continue to adapt based on health officials’ guidance.”

Tracking the cases

Teachers have been sharing reports of new cases and questioning why the news media does not report on all of them. This Is Reno reports on cases provided by the district.

Keeping track of new cases and confirming reports of them has become somewhat of a more streamlined process in the weeks since schools reopened as WCSD has begun sending out regular press releases each time a case is confirmed.

The WCSD Board of Trustees will hold its next meeting on Sept. 8 at 4 p.m. in the gymnasium of Sparks High School. It’s expected the board will continue discussing proposed metrics that would trigger a district-wide closure of schools. 

The board has discussed these metrics at its last two meetings but has remained undecided on implementing them. The board will also discuss the possible approval of four grant applications, including three for CARES Act funding totaling more than $10 million.

Educators still concerned

In the Empower Nevada Teachers Facebook group, teachers are calling upon one another to show up to the meeting en masse to voice their concerns to the trustees. This Is Reno asked teachers to relay their concerns to us. 

“I live with my mother-in-law, who is pushing 80 with diabetes. I am afraid I will pass COVID on to her,” one teacher, who did not want to be identified, said. “I am afraid that kids will do the same to vulnerable people in their households and will struggle with the idea that they killed someone they loved. It’s not something anyone should need to deal with.”

Another teacher said his biggest concern is access to technology for his elementary school students–noting that many of his students would need to share devices with siblings and maybe a parent, and those might be tablets or phones, not laptops.

Teachers held protest signs outside the Aug. 25 WCSD Board of Trustees meeting, held just over a week into the school year.

A different teacher said he had three primary concerns. A big one is in regards to his wife who’s also a teacher and whose classroom has run out of hand sanitizer. He said she asked a custodian and was told the entire school was out of it. The teacher said his wife will be purchasing her own today in response. This Is Reno reached out to the district to verify this but was unable to prior to publication. We will update this story when that information is available.

During the Aug. 11 school board meeting, it was noted that the district had purchased 4,200 half-liter-sized containers of hand sanitizer for classrooms and school buses, 2,000 gallons of refill hand sanitizer and 600 bulk hand sanitizers for high traffic areas. This Is Reno asked the school district if it was aware of hand sanitizer shortages at any area schools but did not hear back in time for publication.

Thursday morning, Downs said the school’s principal confirmed that each teacher has hand sanitizer in their classrooms, and several dispensers are placed in other areas of the school. “The custodians replenish these supplies every night, so perhaps the teacher had run out at the end of the day and was waiting to receive the new supply,” Downs said the principal had suggested.

“She’s had in her class five kids go home, five kids be excluded for 10 days or more because they’ve gone home from school with symptoms,” he said. “Almost a third of her kids have been sent home.”

His other concerns include the shortage of substitute teachers, a concern several teachers echoed.

Still, he’s unsure if he’ll speak at the next school board meeting. 

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I’ve got to look at my schedule. There’s a certain degree of cynicism that speaking to the trustees, that if that did anything, something would have been done. You kind of wonder ‘How many times do you actually have to say something?’ You’ve had the teachers’ union, principals’ union, health department show up before, and they still just kind of ignore everything.” 

Teacher Roger Ports said he, too, is concerned by the shortage of substitutes, but his biggest concern is that there are no firm plans for what would cause schools to close district wide. He’ll be speaking to trustees on Sept. 8.

“They’re cherry picking their data,” he said. “They’re moving the goalposts. They are obviously doing everything they can to avoid shutting down. It feels to me almost like they’re lying to the public…For us to rush into the school year with nothing in place, and for them to now be passing the buck to the new task force…it’s extremely irresponsible. And teachers feel afraid. We feel like there is no plan. And they’re not going to shut down. They’re going to wait until the health department forces them to.” 

“Im worried WCSD just put out another, less stringent ‘self screener.’ This is #3 or 4,” another teacher said during a text conversation in regard to the guidelines individuals are supposed to use when determining if they can come to school. “I don’t know any colleagues who know what the criteria are.

“My principal gets demanding changes like this all day, every day,” she said. “I worry about their health. I worry none of our caring, talented principals will be with us in five years.”

She also noted the large number of unfilled substitute positions. 

“Staff are already run ragged filling the gaps,” she wrote. “The goal is NOT that we’ll all survive this pandemic together.”

One kindergarten teacher with a complicated pregnancy was told she would be able to teach virtually only, but said days before school started she was told she would have to teach some in-person students as well.  

“I now have 20 students in my classroom and nine students in my virtual cohort,” she said.

She said she was told it would likely not be until after the October break for another teacher to be brought in to take over her in-person students “and would be required to take in any new incoming students, which happens a lot in the beginning of the year for kindergarten,” she said. “It has been the toughest year I have ever taught, and I feel so unsupported by my district, and I am constantly worried about my health and my baby’s.”

Updated: This story has been updated to correct the number of schools with confirmed COVID-19 cases and to include a response from the WCSD on availability to hand sanitizer in classrooms.

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Elaine Hoem September 3, 2020 - 10:05 am

I can understand the discouragement that teachers feel when they and their unions keep putting their concerns before the Board of Trustees and feel that they are not being heard; however, I would encourage as many of them as possible to keep speaking out until their concerns are heard. They are vital emissaries for the children, all school district staff and for the well being of our community. I also understand the difficulties the district is having trying to navigate education in the midst of a pandemic, but, if we don’t put public health and safety first, what are we as a society doing to one another?

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