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School district concerned over upcoming holiday weekend

By Jeri Davis

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Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill told reporters Friday that the district is concerned that the behaviors of its students and their families as they celebrate over the course of the upcoming holiday weekend starting on Oct. 30 could lead to the further spread of COVID-19.

To that end, the school district is recommending safe ways to celebrate Nevada Day, Halloween and el Día De Los Muertos. These tips can be found on the district’s website. Washoe County Health District provided an additional set of guidelines for safe celebrations.

But the district has no intentions of abandoning its in-person and hybrid learning models in favor of a full-distance option following this or any other breaks for upcoming holidays. This despite the fact that Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick told reporters and Governor Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 task force earlier this week said the highest number of cases over the past week—a total of 70—came from K-12 students and staff at the Washoe County School District.

The Health District advised the school district in July to not move forward with its plans for a return to in-person learning. Many public commenters at meetings in the two months since schools were reopened have asked for them to be closed again.

Juggling multiple struggles

The school district is facing struggles in addition to the threat of the spread of COVID-19. It has students at every grade level who are falling behind on their schoolwork or reporting that their technical difficulties are such that they cannot access their work or their teachers.

One pressing problem facing the district is the impending furlough of 98 Nutrition Services employees in response to a steep drop in the Nutrition Services Fund through which their operations are funded. The decision to furlough these workers was made at the last board meeting but will be revisited at the school board’s next meeting.

In this USDA photo, nutrition services workers prepare grab-and-go meals for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In this USDA photo, nutrition services workers prepare grab-and-go meals for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. USDA photo by Tom Witham

For the rest of this year and into next summer, all children in Washoe County between the ages of 0 and 18—whether enrolled in school or not—are eligible for free breakfasts and lunches from the school district. That’s thanks to a waiver issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will reimburse schools across the country for meals they serve. In essence, the more meals the district serves, the more it can sustain its rapidly draining Nutrition Services Fund.

“It’s free meals for every child in Washoe County from 0-18,” McNeill reiterated. “Our families can go to our website to sign up to get free meals. Last Friday, they were able to serve 30,000 meals.”

That’s a much higher number than the average daily count has been of late, but it’s still a far cry from the 45,000 per day the district used to serve when all students were in person all of the time. It’s just one of the problems that’s resultant from kids being in and out of their classrooms. Other problems pertain directly to the kids and the struggles they’re facing.

Survey forthcoming

In an attempt to learn more about the most pressing problems to which students need remedies, the school district is planning to send out a survey for families and their kids to fill out. It’s something they’ve done regularly since March with both students and staff. McNeill said among the problems she’s heard of students having are things like getting behind on homework, being marked absent due to technical glitches, struggling to understand the Microsoft Teams software used by the district, simply lacking access to internet service or hardware to use and others.

Right now, she said, her message to students would be to “continue working with your teachers” and hold out a while longer as the district seeks more effective solutions. However, she doesn’t believe things will ever feel entirely like they did before COVID-19.

“I strongly do not believe that education will look the same as it did pre-pandemic,” McNeill said.

Read more news about COVID-19 in Reno

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