Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill held the first of what are expected to be weekly media briefings on Friday morning.
Speaking briefly about the district reopening before taking questions from reporters, McNeill said she thought things were going well.
Members of the media used the majority of the 30-minute press conference to ask questions of McNeill concerning reopening, personal protective equipment (PPE) and cases of the novel coronavirus that have cropped up in schools across the county. As of Friday morning, media members had been made aware of a total of 31 cases of coronavirus among WCSD students and staff.
One of the first questions related to full distance learning days—during which no students are in classrooms—and how the decision to enact them is made, whether the result of smoke, snow or other causes.
McNeill said the decision is partially based upon complications arising from kids’ recesses and lunch times. She said these issues are compounded by current social distancing requirements within schools. She said, whenever possible, the district sends out an initial notification the night before expected school closures and confirms it the following morning, like was done “this Friday and last Friday” as a result of poor air quality resulting from drifting smoke from West Coast fires.
On Aug. 28, McNeill sent out an apology to students, parents and staff after providing short notice in the morning that school would be conducted via distance learning for the day due to heavy smoke in the valley.
McNeill was asked—with such plans in place, and more than 30 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff and students—if the school board was any closer to deciding on metrics or a threshold that might close schools district-wide.
During the last school board meeting, trustees decided not to settle upon previously proposed metrics, opting instead to make the current status of COVID-19 in the community a standing agenda item for each meeting.
“It will be on the September 22 agenda, and we’re going to be looking at the [Truckee Meadows COVID Risk Meter] that was presented at last week’s board session,” McNeill said. “But I think we really need to take into account that it’s 31 cases between 62,000 students and 8,000 employees—and in the broader community of over 400,000 people within the Truckee Meadows region.
“So, I think we kind of need to put this into perspective,” she added, citing schools’ enforcement of protocol like social distancing, mandatory face coverings, hand hygiene and PPE for staff and students.
McNeill said she believed these efforts have helped mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the school district, adding, “and we’re being extremely conservative in working with the Health District on exclusionary protocols and our self-screening protocols. And I say that all because I think we have had a very successful reopening—and I want to stress that.”
McNeill again referenced the notion that WCSD is operating essentially as three districts between its in-person, hybrid and distance learning models. She admitted to challenges with distance learning and said the district is working to secure more devices for students to use during distance learning days, or should in-person classes have to be canceled altogether.
As yet, more devices are needed. But, McNeill said the district is getting there.
“We’re getting there as quickly as we possibly can,” she said. “As you know, this is not a phenomenon unique to Washoe County. It is a national issue of trying to get devices, and some of our devices are on backorder.”
She said the district has received just over 1,000 devices this week and is getting them registered, tagged and sent out to students.
“The timeframe in which we’re getting the devices, we’re pushing hard with our vendors to try and get those,” McNeill said, “But when a student doesn’t have a laptop or a device, we’ve got several types of ways they can get assistance. They can call the school directly, and most of our schools will be able to loan them a device. And if they’re not able to get a loaner at their school, we work with our IT department [to secure one].”
She noted that recently Marce Herz Middle School—a “one-to-one school,” meaning one student to one device—was able to loan devices to Galena High School.
“We’re really working hard and making sure we’re using dollars as wisely as possible,” McNeill told reporters. “As you know, during the last board meeting, the board was able to approve almost $11 million worth of grants—and a lot of those dollars went to provide devices for our students.”
McNeill said the district was making concerted efforts to track down students who may have dropped off WCSD’s radar without enrolling in any of the district’s three available learning plans, a concern that’s been raised in Clark County.
“So, our schools spend a great amount of time going one by one and actually making phone calls to families,” McNeill said. “It could be that they’ve left the county…We know that there’s been a significant loss of jobs in our region, so that could be… We know that some of our families are homeschooling and that they are kind of wanting to wait and see how this goes. We know that some of our families have decided to go the charter school route. And we know that some of our families, you know, they just want to kind of wait and see.”
She said a large portion of the number of currently unenrolled students in Washoe County are kindergarten students. Kindergarten is not mandated in Nevada.
McNeill said she believes many families whose children are not currently enrolled will return to the district in the future.
“As you know, we’re probably one of the earlier start districts in the state of Nevada. We may see—typically we’ll see an uptick after Labor Day, so we will continue to call, but most of our families, the overwhelming majority of our families, we’ve been able to call” to find out if their students will be re-enrolling, she said.
McNeill said the school board is working to address concerns raised.
“I think it’s important to have the public comment and to listen to those concerns, and we are listening to those concerns, but I will also tell you we’re following up on those concerns,” she said, adding that the school district takes seriously concerns and accusations made either by public comment or through direct correspondence with board members.
Some of those concerns include allegations of insufficient PPE, as well as concerns surrounding teacher allocations—the process by which teachers are placed or moved from one school to another depending upon enrollment numbers prior to and a few weeks into the school year based upon state-level, per-pupil funding.
“We’ve been able to mitigate the loss of allocations, which—as you know—on a typical year, is a very complex process in our school district,” McNeill said. “And we’ve been able to work really hard in order to lower that number. When you take a look at the…decrease in student enrollment, that equates to about a $12.6 million decrease in our distributive school account. But, yet, we’ve been able to mitigate that to a loss of about 19 allocations. As I mentioned at the top of the press briefing, we will be bringing some options in order to mitigate that to the board on the 22nd.”
McNeill said the school district is also following up on all allegations of inadequate PPE in classrooms and has supplies on hand, “from hand sanitizer to the soap and water mix that we have. If they need to have plexiglass—our teachers and our principals know of the protocol in order to get that plexiglass.
“There should be no reason why a teacher wouldn’t have that,” McNeill said.
This Is Reno was contacted by middle school STEM teacher Tammie Nissen who said she has been given inadequate PPE despite being at higher risk for COVID-19 due to her immunocompromised status. Nissen sent photos of what appear to be clear shower curtains hung from the ceiling of her classroom in lieu of plexiglass.
Questioned about potentially inadequate PPE, McNeill told This Is Reno, “When we find out about these cases…[we] actually go down to the school and we check it out. Our operations department and our health services departments have been very, very proactive. But when we don’t know about the cases, it’s kind of hard to do something about it.”
She advised This Is Reno to inform the school district of such allegations and send along corroborating information like photos.
Nissen, who said she “used to be afraid to speak up” but is now more concerned with dying, told This Is Reno she was fine with photos of her in-classroom PPE being shared with McNeill and district public information officers.
According to WCSD Public Information Officer Victoria Campbell, another Reno reporter sent the same photos to the district.
The district confirmed that it will update media members concerning its conclusions regarding the PPE in Nissen’s classroom.
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.