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Board of trustees: Schools to remain open despite increasing COVID-19 cases

By Jeri Chadwell

During its Tuesday meeting at Galena High School, the Washoe County School board of trustees took up a lengthy agenda, including district finances, the authorization of spending on school busses and textbooks and the spread of COVID-19 within schools and the broader community..

During the more than eight-hour meeting, the school board heard public comment from people concerned with these agenda items—but the bulk of public comment during the evening surrounded another agenda item: possible changes to school board policy 1310, which regulates political activities in schools.

The board has been under fire throughout this school year because of its stance classifying the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement as political activity and barring teachers under policy 1310 from showing support for the movement via things like in-class posters or pro-BLM attire. This Is Reno will publish a separate story on this matter.

Contact tracing not keeping up with new cases among youth

Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca provided the board with what has become its regular update on COVID-19 trends in the county and within the district. LaMarca was joined by Washoe County Health District Senior Epidemiologist Heather Kerwin, Director of the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency Jeremy Smith and pediatrician Dr. Ron Aryel.

Smith explained to the trustees that the Truckee Meadows COVID Risk Meter has registered in the red, or “very high risk” zone, for well over a week. The current risk rating has been figured at 13, which is only a half a point from pushing the Truckee Meadows in the purple risk rating, which is intended to express that the risk has become “severe.”

The state’s risk evaluation shows an even more dire situation, placing Washoe County in the red zone for the past eight weeks. The governor earlier in the evening had held a press conference and asked Nevadans to stay home for two weeks to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

According to Smith, a part of the reason the risk meter currently sits at a 13 is that “we’ve seen, in the last two weeks, a double of the number of people that are in the hospital due to COVID.”

COVID-19 cases in Washoe County schools. Data: WCSD, November 10, 2020.
COVID-19 cases in Washoe County schools. Data: WCSD, November 10, 2020.

According to LaMarca, “We have seen an increase in our schools and among the school-aged community, which is consistent with the community as a whole.”

Since April, 40 school-aged children in Washoe County have been hospitalized as a result of COVID-19. Two were in the hospital as of Tuesday.

LaMarca provided trustees with a seven-day average of cases among school-aged children within the community as a whole compared with cases among children who’ve been infectious while in schools. The data LaMarca presented echoed what regional officials said earlier this week: it’s not schools, but rather family and social gatherings that are enabling the spread of coronavirus.

Kerwin added that, as of Tuesday, there were 227 pediatric cases among kids between the ages 5 and 18 that remained to be investigated to determine if they were on school grounds while contagious.

“There’s a large gap in those numbers at this time,” she said.

“We have had cases linked to children or staff who have attended school while infectious. I can’t put a number around it at this point because we’re still investigating some of those. Unfortunately, with the widespread community transmission that’s occurring right now, we’re actually finding that many cases have come into contact with more than one positive. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to actually nail down the exact source of infection when people are engaging in social gatherings and other types of contact with persons who may have been infectious.”

“My concern is also for the kids themselves in the long haul.”

Dr. Aryel reiterated that COVID-19 can be transmitted by droplets but also can hang in the air as a persistent aerosol.

“Even with appropriate social distancing and masks, you can’t always stop someone from picking up a COVID infection in school, no matter how hard you try,” Aryel said. “Proper precautions will reduce the risk, but they won’t bring it down to zero. … My concern is also for the kids themselves in the long haul. We know that COVID infections can result in long-term consequences.”

Those consequences can include problems with the heart, lungs, brain and gastrointestinal tract.

Trustee Simon Holland—who was, prior to the start of the school year on Aug. 17, opposed to reopening middle and high schools—said the data presented appeared to indicate that children not attending in-person or on a hybrid schedule appeared to be at greater risk of contracting the virus.

“That’s one of the things I’m seeing when looking at that data,” she said.

Washoe County Health District spokesperson Scott Oxarart, in an email after the meeting, said that there wasn’t a significant difference between risk of COVID-19 and method of school attendance.

“Of the 732 cases aged 5-18 years old reported to us [from] Oct. 1-Nov. 10, we’ve only investigated 498. We have 234 not yet investigated,” Oxarart said, after consulting with Kerwin. “Among the 498, 90 students attended [school] while infectious, 161 attend school in person, but did not attend while infectious, leaving 247 cases who were on distance learning. It is pretty much 50/50.”

Board President Malena Raymond pointed to some countries in Europe that are choosing to keep schools open even while re-closing businesses. This is true of some countries in Europe but not others.

Raymond said she wished the district could do more to support contact tracing.

“We appreciate that. You know my team and I feel like we’re failing our community, but we just can’t keep up,” Kerwin replied, becoming emotional.

Washoe County reported challenges keeping up with contact tracing and disease investigation in late September, even before cases began to spike.

Nutrition services fund

The board revisited its tentative approval, made in October, to furlough 98 employees in its nutrition services department as a result of diminishing funds in the nutrition services account, which is expected to be self-sustaining. That’s because the nutrition services fund is an enterprise fund as defined by Nevada Revised Statute 354.517. Basically, the statute defines how these funds operate—which is much like a private business enterprise, wherein the expenses of business operations are recovered primarily through charges to users.

The problem was that despite a waiver issued by the United States Department of Agriculture guaranteeing free breakfasts and lunches to school aged children across the country throughout the rest of the year and into summer, students in Washoe County were not taking advantage of the meals.

If no action had been taken to curtail expenses, district officials said, the fund would be projected to lose $7.7 million for fiscal year 2021. The fund’s cash position was projected to fall below zero before the end of the calendar year—meaning it could have reached an approximated deficit of $4 million by the end of the fiscal year.

According to the district, “For September 2020, the average daily meal count was 18,787 compared to” a usual daily average of 45,088. That represented a 58% decrease in meals served.

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

However, those numbers rose in October and November. In October, the daily number of meals served averaged 32,500. District staff presented a revised proposal to the board under which the number of employees to be furloughed was reduced by 28 to a total of 70.

Under the district’s original proposal to furlough 98 employees, it was projecting an annual loss from the nutrition services fund of $5.5 million. Under the new plan—which trustees approved unanimously—that loss is cut to $2.2 million.

The furloughs begin on Dec. 1 and extend through Feb. 28. Nutrition services employees are being urged to seek other jobs within the district. Some already have. Under an agreement with the employees’ unions, should there be a need to rehire employees between these dates, the process will begin with those who’ve been furloughed and not yet found jobs elsewhere in the district. After Feb. 28, employees who remain on furlough will be let go on a more permanent basis.

Comprehensive Annual Financial Report

Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers, Controller Rob Luna and representatives from Crowe LLP, the district’s external auditor, gave trustees an overview of the district’s annual financial report.

This year was the second in a row the district had a structurally balanced budget. It also received “unmodified” audit results, meaning there were no significant errors in its financial reporting.

Mathers noted that the school district’s bond credit rating had been upgraded by both Moody’s and Fitch to an AA from A, meaning the district will save on interest costs. He also noted that both sales taxes allocated through 2016’s WC-1 and property taxes have “hung in there” throughout the pandemic, allowing the district to continue capital improvement projects.

Mathers told the board members he thought they’d made a “very brave decision” to proceed with in-person learning during this school year. This came after public comment condemning the decision, something that’s been heard at nearly every school board meeting since before schools reopened in August.

Trustee Katy Simon Holland—who is leaving the board when her term expires in January—lauded the upgraded bond rating and said she wanted to acknowledge staff and students for the sacrifices they have made to help the district achieve it.

“I just want to thank everyone. We do a balanced budget because it’s best, but it is painful,” she said, adding thanks to teachers for suffering things like increased class sizes to achieve it.

Money for busses and textbooks

Science textbooks in Washoe County for children in kindergarten through fifth grade are older than the students who use them, by a lot. New science textbooks for kids in these grades have not been purchased since 2002. To remedy this, the board of trustees OK’d taking out medium term debt—for a term of four years—to spend $6.2 million on new textbooks.

This amount is in addition to more than $1.5 million that was approved for vehicles in the district’s fleet.

Simon Holland said, “I just want to give a big ‘woo hoo’ for science textbooks because it’s been… 20 years since we’ve been able to fund the updating of our science textbooks. …There have many very good reasons for us to put other things ahead of this, but a lot happens in science in 20 years.”

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