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School board to decide on distance learning recommendation on Tuesday

By Jeri Davis
Kristen McNeill

Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill during a virtual media briefing on Friday morning said she will be recommending to the board of trustees that schools in the district close for in-person learning during December and January. The recommendation was first reported by the Reno Gazette-Journal.

The board of trustees will discuss and act on the recommendation during its regular meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 23.

If McNeill’s recommendation is approved, students would return to schools for in-person and hybrid learning between Nov. 30 and Dec. 4 following the fall break. Thereafter, all 62,000 of them would be expected to engage in distance learning until Jan. 19.

“Everyone who knows me as the superintendent and as a longstanding employee of the Washoe County School District knows that this is a gut-wrenching recommendation and decision for our board,” McNeill said. “I know our students are better off in-person in our schools… The facts are, our schools are safe places for our students and our staff.”

One teacher reported yesterday online that she contracted COVID-19 while teaching at a school. Health officials warned against reopening schools in the fall because of the likelihood of increased cases of the coronavirus disease.

Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick speaks at a COVID-19 press conference in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. Image: Trevor Bexon
Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick at a COVID-19 press conference in March 2020.
Image: Trevor Bexon

“I can’t recommend reopening schools physically in Washoe County due to the high potential for increased spread of disease that exists,” Health District Officer Kevin Dick said in July. “Due to the risk of infection, the upward trend in new cases since July 12 and criteria set at the state and federal level, distance learning is the safest path forward at this time. Due to the elevated level of disease transmission currently occurring in Washoe County, our fear is the high potential of the virus spreading to students and faculty, and eventually to our vulnerable populations, where the fatality rate is much higher.”

McNeill today said the virus has placed a heavy burden on the school district.

“However, as you all know and as you all have been reporting, we are experiencing wide community spread of this virus … and that has placed an extremely heavy burden on our local governments, on our health care systems and on our school district,” she said.

McNeill was joined for her media briefing by School Board President Malena Raymond and Vice President Angela Taylor, both of whom echoed her statements concerning the closing of schools.

“It’s, personally, I think, just very disappointing that we’ve seen how hard our teachers and our principals and every staff member in our district have worked to try to make it work for our students and our families—to make in-person learning work,” Raymond said. “We just find ourselves in this position that the burden on the system at this point is just more than it can take.”

Raymond reiterated a sentiment that she and other trustees have previously expressed: the idea that it is not the schools themselves that are unsafe, but rather the community at large. She said she feels “very safe and secure in the spaces” within schools but believes the strain on nurses, student health services staff and other staff in the district is currently too great.

Taylor said, “It’s a very difficult situation that none of us wanted to find ourselves in. I think everybody has just done an amazing job in the schools—and we’re not in any outbreak situations or anything like that. The majority of the time when we have schools move to distance learning is because we can’t do the contact tracing.”

She said she realized that Washoe County contact tracers have been and continue working hard.

“So, this certainly is not an indictment on those who are doing the contact tracing,” Taylor said. “They’re just stretched very thin, and we appreciate all of the work that they’ve done and the priority treatment that we’ve received.”

McNeill pointed to the “enormous lengths” the district and its employees have gone to in order to keep schools open.

Student athletes and their parents protested in September to allow sports to resume. Image: Eric Marks
Student athletes and their parents protested in September to allow sports to resume. Image: Eric Marks

“The surge of the virus in our community has taxed our resources,” she said. “Our student health services are overwhelmed. Our principals are having to make extremely difficult decisions around exclusions. This has led to schools having to move to distance learning because of staffing concerns and awaiting of test results and contact tracing investigations to conclude.”

She said the district’s most pressing challenge continues to be a lack of resources, including contact tracers at the county level and staff like substitute teachers to keep schools operational.

“For months, we have worked in partnership with the Washoe County Health District, Washoe County and our state to get resources and support for our families,” McNeill said. “We very much value these partnerships, and we will continue to work with our partners in looking forward and trying to make the best decisions possible for all the right reasons for our students.”

If the school board approves McNeill’s recommendation for temporary full-distance learning, providing devices for students who need them will be another challenge. According to McNeill, thousands of devices are on order, but these will not arrive until December. She said the plan to bring students back for the week following fall break will allow time for the district to identify students who need devices and help them obtain them. On the agenda for Tuesday’s board meeting is the possibility of changes being made to the district’s calendar year that could affect spring break. McNeill explained that this may not happen but was added to the agenda in order to comply with open meeting laws.

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