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School board mulls vaccines, textbooks and program cuts

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The Washoe County School District’s (WCSD) board of trustees gathered for their regular meeting ahead of a snowstorm that rolled through the region Tuesday night. Despite multiple mentions by concerned trustees and school staff that the storm was imminent, the meeting took a little more than seven hours before adjournment. Trustees considered priorities ranging from COVID-19 vaccination efforts to possible cuts to Gifted and Talented programming.

WCSD continues push to vaccinate employees 

Getting COVID-19 vaccines administered to all of its employees who want them remains a priority for the school district, which held the first of its planned point of distribution (POD) events last weekend at North Valleys High School.

With inadequate vaccine supplies in Nevada also creating concern, the district is asking its employees to be patient and follow the ground rules laid out for vaccinations.

According to Chief Human Resources Officer Emily Ellison, it is vital that the school district have very few no-shows among employees who’ve scheduled their COVID-19 vaccinations. This isin part because the availability of vaccines is often up in the air until just days before POD events, but also because, once prepared, the vaccine stays viable for only a limited time.

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Amy Camacho, a fifth grade teacher at Van Gorder Elementary School and recipient of two donated organs, gets her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Jan. 23, 2021. Image: Jeri Davis

Ellison explained that the school district is creating standby lists to get employees in to take the vaccine in the event of no-shows at its PODs. Those on the standby lists may have as little as 30 minutes of notice to come to a POD event. Ellison also asked those who will not make it to their appointments to give her department as much advanced warning as possible.

School district employees receive an email link to sign up for vaccination. Ellison said the district is asking employees to refrain from sharing the link. She also said those without appointments are asked not to show up at the PODs unless they’re on the waiting list and receive notice to do so. Employees who are currently excluded from school as a result of COVID-19 exposure should wait to sign up for their vaccinations—and anyone who’s received a Shingles booster shot in the last 14 days should wait too.

According to district spokesperson Megan Downs, “We are cutting back POD operations a bit as more spots have been opened up for our employees at the Health District site. We will be sending about 100 employees to a Reno Fire Department POD on Friday. On Saturday, we will have a POD open at Reed High School only that will serve 400 employees and then another 700 employees will be going through the [Reno Livestock Events Center]. Invitations have already been sent to employees.”

According to Ellison, there will be 6,700 invites for vaccination out to school district employees by Feb. 6.

Trustee Jeff Church expressed his understanding of people’s frustration with low vaccine supply but said he could see how nearby states like Arizona may deserve more doses per capita, at least initially, if they have a greater elderly population.

“I think it’s important for us as a state to be fair to those other states,” he said.

Capital improvement projects   

Adam Searcy, the district’s chief facilities management officer, came before the board to provide updates on capital improvement projects underway in the district and to seek approval for the hiring of a construction management consulting firm for the new O’Brien Middle School project.

The existing O’Brien Middle School in  Stead  does not have capacity to house all of the sixth, seventh and eighth grade students who should be going there. Additionally, areas in the north of Reno are expected to see the greatest population growth over the next 10 years.

The new school will be constructed adjacent to the existing one and the existing one then demolished.

One continuing priority for the district is its need for members of the Sky Vista Homeowners Association to send in ballots voting in favor or against allowing the district to purchase some two acres of land along Silver Lake Boulevard that’s part of the HOA. The district’s plans call for widening that road to make it the new school’s drop-off and pick-up location instead of Stead Boulevard.

A rendering of the new O’Brien Middle School. Image: WCSD

Parents have, for years, voiced concerns about busy Stead Boulevard—which is a four-lane road with sometimes heavy traffic, including semi-trucks.

The district still needs around 100 ballots in favor of the move to reach a total of 1,116 needed yes votes for it to move forward. According to Searcy, they expect to arrive at that number within two weeks.

Interestingly, trustees also learned that there has been some talk of using the construction site for the new school as an opportunity for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for O’Brien students.

Searcy said  the school’s principal, Melynda Baker, has been engaged with the design process for the school and has been working with district staff to consider how students might be brought to the construction site safely for learning opportunities.

While demolition of the old O’Brien school building and the installation of new sports fields in its place will not wrap up until early 2023, Searcy noted that three new schools—O’Brien Middle School, Swope Middle School and Hug High School—will open for the Fall 2022 school semester.

Science textbooks and materials approved 

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 on new textbooks. During the meeting, trustees learned what books and materials were being recommended by the committee that was formed to look at possible options.

The committee recommended purchasing textbooks and other materials from a company called Delta Education. The Full Option Science System (FOSS) is a science curriculum for students in kindergarten to eighth grade with content in physical science, earth science and life science. The school district will be purchasing curriculum for kindergarten through fifth grade students.

FOSS was developed at the Lawrence Hall of Science at the University of California, Berkeley.

The price tag for the purchase of the new materials, which trustees approved unanimously, is $5.6 million.

North Star Online School to become only distance learning option 

The board voted unanimously to expand North Star Online School as the district’s only Distance Learning school serving students in grades K-12 starting in the 2021-2022 school year. Students who want to continue with full distance learning will have to sign up at North Star and unenroll from their zoned schools.

District staff told trustees that, based on assumptions around vaccine distribution for adults, reduced social distancing requirements and the requirement to withdraw from zoned schools, it is expected around 2,000 students will enroll in full distance learning through North Star when it becomes the only distance option for WCSD students.

Gifted and Talented Education cuts delayed 

The board decided not to vote on changes to its Gifted and Talented (GATE) program after hearing hours of public comment from students in the program and their parents.

Chief Academic Officer Troy Parks and Victoria Westfall, director of the district’s GATE programs, presented to the trustees plans to reduce programming.

These proposals included the phasing out of GATE programming at the high school level beginning in the 2022-2023 school year. In 2022-2023, programming would be offered for sophomores, juniors and seniors. The following school year it would be only juniors and seniors—and only seniors in 2024-2025. It was noted that alternatives to GATE education will including the new Debbie Smith Career and Technical Academy opening in 2023, as well as career and technical education and dual credit programs at other schools.

GATE programming proposal for middle school Magnet programs includes cutting the locations at which these are offered from three to four by eliminating the Clayton Middle School Magnet program—leaving Swope, Pine and Sky Ranch as options.

At the elementary level GATE programming is run through a program referred to as “school within a school” or SWAS. The plan for elementary school programming would include a reduction to a single location for students based upon space considerations, transportation costs and the average bus ride time for students participating in it.

After hearing from many GATE students—sometimes including several from single families—the board decided to take no action on the proposal. The students and their families impressed upon trustees that they feel they fall within the parameters of special needs students and said cutting GATE programming would be detrimental to their needs.

The board voted to bring discussions of possible cuts to GATE programming back during a future meeting.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
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.

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