The debate over whether schools should be open for in-person instruction continues to be heated in Washoe County. This comes as the University of Nevada is suspending in-person instruction and Clark County schools are closed to in-person instruction.
Washoe County School District steadfastly remains committed to staying open while COVID-19 cases continue to spike — the district, instead, is closing schools piecemeal as cases are documented.
Public commenters at school board meetings have expressed their opposing views on the matter. Online, these conversations have increasingly taken on an uglier tone.
Teachers who’ve expressed concerns about in-person instruction have been called “lazy” and told to “do your jobs.”
On the other side of this argument, parents lauding the reopening of schools have been accused of placing a greater importance upon “free childcare” than the safety of teachers and the broader community.
A parent expressed her gratitude for schools being open in a comment on a Nov. 10 Washoe County School District Facebook post that asked people to remember to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms prior to sending them to school. She was met with the following response:
“Do you care at all about the health of the teachers at your school? Of course you don’t! May your kids bring you home the gift of the covid and you can enjoy the holidays in the Renown parking garage.”
(Renown Regional Medical Center earlier this year put $10 million into repurposing one of its parking structures for a potential surge of patients needing care for COVID-19 for whom it may not be able to provide care within its existing facilities The parking garage saw its first patients this week.)
In comments made on the same WCSD post—of which there were more than 100—children were referred to by some as “spawn,” “germ monsters” and “snowflakes.”
One commenter who spoke to the issue of children’s mental health asked if it no longer mattered, recalling how the community rallied around Damonte Ranch High School students earlier this year after several students died of fentanyl overdoses and another two students, siblings, died as a result of a murder-suicide involving their parents.
“Now we need to put mental health on the back burner?” the poster asked.
Another person responded: “There are many mental health resources provided by the school district or provided by your health coverage. Kids can still interact virtually. It doesn’t have to necessarily have to be in person. We are social creatures that need socialization but we can adapt (even momentarily) to do it safely too.”
It was announced Monday that students who attend school in Clark County will remain on full-distance learning through the end of this semester.
On the Empower Nevada Teachers Facebook group, a Clark County teacher said of the decision, “I just wanted to let our Washoe friends know… Clark can do their first happy dance. And I can only pray your district will do the same. Stay safe my friends.”
Teachers working to balance health and education
One WCSD science teacher told This Is Reno he’d like to see schools closed district-wide. He teaches at one of the 14 schools temporarily on full-distance learning.
“I think it’s probably a good idea from a health perspective,” said the teacher, who asked This Is Reno not to use his name. “I see the numbers going up, and I’m a little nervous about that. It’s not my call, and I get where the parents are coming from because they want their kids to learn.”
He said he feels like his students on hybrid learning plans treat their days at home like “days off.”
“The kids that want to get good grades and want to go on to do something are going to be OK with either side of things,” he said, adding that he thinks this is true of both children with and without many resources at home. “We as a school and teachers are willing to find ways to work with kids who don’t have the technology access.”
To deal with lack of access, he said he’s often provided them with more time and always with paper copies of the work they need to complete for his class—though he does recognize that the learning they do from home may not be as robust as it would be in his classroom.
“It’s harder to reach kids and get them the help that they need,” he said. “It’s easier to teach them. It’s easier for them to learn when they’re in class. … But there’s got to be some level of motivation and desire from a student to learn.”
He said he thinks the mental and emotional health arguments for keeping kids in schools are weak.
“The kids are still going out and hanging out with each other and having fun, which is a lot of the reason we’re still on full distance learning,” he said. “I don’t know that the kids get all that much mental health benefit from going to school.”
School re-openings by the numbers
Schools in Washoe County went back into session on Aug. 17 against the recommendation of Washoe County Health District officials and against the wishes of teachers’ groups whose members in public comment and online have described themselves and their colleagues as “martyrs.”
On Aug. 6, around 200 teachers and education professionals gathered to protest the district’s reopening plan and what they called unsafe working conditions. At the time, the Washoe Education Association teachers’ union had filed a complaint with the Nevada OSHA office, saying reopening plans violated safety protocols.
While teachers were only given the options of returning to class or taking a year of unpaid furlough, guardians were given the choice to enroll their children in full-distance learning instead of returning them to classrooms—were they able to accommodate it. The district’s 62,000 students are spread out between in-person, at-home and hybrid learning models—the latter of which is a mix that involves time both at home and in the classroom.
In the three months since reopening, the school district’s board of trustees have frequently reaffirmed their decision to keep schools open. In September, trustees decided they would not adopt a protocol whereby metrics relating to the spread of the virus could result in the district-wide closure of schools for in-person learning.
During the September school board meeting during which trustees discussed their decision not to adopt closing metrics, they watched a presentation from school students and administrators focused on the positive aspects of school reopenings.
Return to school debate is a global challenge
Local activist and development director and co-founder of Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Bob Fulkerson called this presentation a Potemkin Village on Twitter—that is, a fabricated facade designed to distract from the serious nature of COVID-19’s spread.
The presentation focused heavily upon an argument that’s remained at the center of the reopening debate: children’s social and emotional wellbeing when weighed against the risks of returning them to the classroom.
School board members, including WCSD Board of Trustees President Malena Raymond, have pointed to European countries that have returned to COVID-19 lockdowns in recent weeks while simultaneously keeping schools open. This is true in some European countries but not in others.
The same is the case across the U.S. According to Time Magazine from mid-October, “A recent analysis of 106 school district plans by the Center on Reinventing Public Education found that just 10% were in-person at the beginning of September, but 55% of those districts are planning to be in-person by November. A recent Washington Post survey of the country’s 50 largest school districts found that 24 have resumed in-person learning for large groups of students, and 11 others plan to in the coming weeks.”
Another point in the debate has been the potential for children to spread the COVID-19 virus. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children under the age of 18 represent nearly 11% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. However, kids—especially the youngest of them—seem to be less likely than adults to get seriously sick or die as a result of the virus.
The frequency with which children spread the virus has also been questioned, though studies have confirmed that they can and do. The idea that young children are less susceptible to and possibly less likely to spread the virus has led to many school districts prioritizing a return to school for grade-school students, and experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that teenagers are more likely than young children to be infected with and spread the disease.
The WCSD board of trustees prioritized the return of elementary school students, who may be in class five days a week. Middle and high school students are only able to be in schools on a hybrid schedule.
Health experts have repeatedly noted that safety precautions can reduce the risk of the virus spreading through schools but cannot completely eliminate it. And COVID-19 has affected school children and teachers alike. A major concern for the school district has been holidays, to which spikes in community transmission have been related–including following Labor Day weekend and Halloween. A large Halloween party attended by Reed High School students has been linked to new cases of the coronavirus, and children who attended said party have shown up in class while infectious with the virus.
Lag in reporting
The school district recently began selectively closing schools for in-person learning.
There are currently 14 WCSD schools that have been temporarily closed for in-person learning. According to the district, these closures are the result of too many exclusions of teachers who may have been exposed to the virus or the need to allow time for contact tracing. Some of them are expected to be closed for a number of weeks—including several that will be on full-distance learning until after the Thanksgiving holiday.
The school district provides a list of schools that are currently on full-distance learning plans, as well as a list of all of its schools that details the number of active COVID-19 cases and exclusions at each. This list, however, often lags because, even when a guardian notifies the district of a confirmed positive case, these numbers are not updated until confirmation is received from the WCHD.
As of Nov. 17, the district was reporting a total of 152 cases of students and 104 cases of staff who’d been in school while infectious with COVID-19 since reopening.
“Washoe County’s COVID positivity rate is now above 16%,” Fulkerson tweeted more recently. “Over the past week, daily cases have increased 88 % and deaths 94% from the average two weeks earlier. Where else except here does in-person instruction continue with rates this high?”
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.