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School board welcomes new members, plans for return of secondary students (updated)

By Jeri Davis
Published: Last Updated on
Washoe County School District administration building. Image: Carla O'Day.

Tuesday night’s Washoe County School Board meeting was the first for its three new members who won seats in November’s election: Kurt Thigpen for District D, Diane Nicolet for District G and Jeffrey Church for District A.

The agenda was packed with items, which has become increasingly routine as the district attempts to navigate challenges emerging as a result of the pandemic. After the new trustees were sworn in, the board jumped into what became a nearly eight-hour meeting.

Superintendent Kristen McNeill took time early in the meeting to give her superintendent’s report, something that’s normally saved for the end of board meetings.

“I wanted to clear up any misconceptions of my statement of Jan. 6 regarding the events that took place in our nation’s capital. I condemn violence of all kinds, including the violent riots throughout our country and over this last year,” McNeill said.

McNeill came under fire last week after the school district made a social media statement and sent out robocalls to parents of WCSD students condemning the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday and offering support resources for families to explain the violence to their kids. Angry commenters online called McNeill’s actions political.

Dr. Kristen McNeill
Dr. Kristen McNeill

“My statement was not political in nature. My statement represented my values as an American, which I bring to my office as the superintendent,” McNeill said. “In Board Policy 9050, the board adopted as a basic principle of its governing mission to develop personal and civic responsibility in our students. It does not matter to me if it’s the supporters of the far left, the far right or in the middle—violence is not the answer.”

She did say, however, that in hindsight she would have sent out a written communication instead of the robocall.

At this point, the meeting broke from routine when new Trustee Church piped up to say he had a question for legal counsel. Board President Angie Taylor asked him what it was in regard to, noting the superintendent’s report was not an item for discussion.

Church repeated himself, “I have a question for legal counsel.”

WCSD Chief General Counsel Neil Rombardo reiterated to Church what Taylor had just said—that comments on the superintendent’s report by trustees is not in keeping with board rules.

Though the nature of Church’s question is unknown, he issued a statement to media over the weekend saying he didn’t agree with the language or method of distribution of the superintendent’s message. Taylor, at the beginning of the meeting, apologized and acknowledged not everyone was on board with the Superintendent’s statement.

During public comment later in the meeting, McNeill received support for her statement from several teachers and criticism of it from several community members, including commenters who called for her resignation and one person who told the district also to “get off this gender identity nonsense, and look at academic progress.”

There was an item on Tuesday’s agenda specifically dedicated to looking at academic achievement metrics.

Consent agenda items are something that appear on each board of trustees meeting agenda. These are items that have been approved by the correct committees and opened to the public for comment periods. Because they’ve gone through the prescribed process, the board is able to vote on these items without a presentation or lengthy discussion of each. However, board members are allowed to pull consent agenda items for discussion.

Trustee Thigpen asked for one item to be pulled. Trustee Church asked for the same item to be pulled and an additional two.

Consent agenda item 3.13, pulled by both Thigpen and Church, dealt with revisions to Board Policy 9215, “Creating and Maintaining a Positive Culture and Climate.”  

Thigpen asked if the section concerning equal treatment regardless of race, religion, socioeconomic status or gender could be reworded slightly to include “gender identity and expression” and also “sexual orientation,” explaining it as more inclusive language that better falls in line with Nevada Revised Statutes.

Jeff Church

Trustee Church asked Rombardo if this change would affect administration of the policy. It would not.

The board approved the change and, at Rombardo’s recommendation, agreed to open the item back up for a 13-day public comment period before voting on it.

The majority of the consent items on the agenda pertained to revisions to WCSD board policies. These revisions have been in the making since June of last year, including both of the other items requested to be pulled for discussion by Church.

The first pertained to Board Policy 9081, pertaining to setting and monitoring goals for the superintendent. Church called the item not routine at all, saying he wanted to see it pulled from the agenda and sent to the public for review.

Taylor and Rombardo explained that it in fact had already gone through a public review. Church apologized for his misunderstanding.

Taylor assured him it was fine.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hydrant” when you’re a new trustee, she said.

Church’s objection to the final consent agenda item he pulled for discussion was revisions to Board Policy 9405, which covers to the school district’s Bond Oversight and Capital Funding Protection Committees—whose members are one and the same. The committees review how WCSD spends money resulting from sales taxes allocated to it, which were raised as a part of the WC-1 ballot measure of 2016. Church said he does not understand the purpose of having two committees comprised of the same members and thinks it’s unfair to the taxpayers.

After explaining the functions of the separate committees, Rombardo said that their members are tough on the school district and watchful of how it spends capital funds before recommending the board pass the agenda item.

“The thing I just heard from our respected counsel extended well beyond legal opinion. He opined—and I disagree—that the committees are tough on spending…Counsel went beyond legal opinion in expressing his opinion personally that he recommended approval …and there were a couple of comments in there that I think were not of a legal nature,” Church said.

Rombardo fired back against this allegation, explaining about what he is allowed to advise the board upon.

“I am well within my purview as the chief general counsel to advise on all of this. And I am entitled to express that opinion to the board. I am not going to have my ethics questioned,” he said.

The board approved changes to Board Policy 9405, with Church as the lone nay vote.

WCSD Chief Strategies Officer Paul LaMarca presented his standing agenda item on COVID-19 trends within the community and cases within the school district. He noted that the Truckee Meadows COVID Risk Meter has remained in the “very high” category.

The Truckee Meadows COVID Risk Meter on Jan. 12, 2021.

“This is everyone’s favorite item; that’s a joke,” he said prior to giving his update.

The number of people seeking tests has plateaued at about 300 per day, according to LaMarca. This is down from 600 a day in November. Test positivity is the percentage of people who test positive out of those who seek a test. It too has plateaued at about 18%. He said it needs to be at about 5% but is down from 23% or 24%, which it hovered at for some time.

LaMarca said that a larger hospital bed availability compared to weeks past is also good news, though a likely spike in cases related to the New Year holiday has yet to be seen.

The majority of high school and middle school students have been on full distance learning since early December. A part of the district’s reasoning for transitioning these students from a hybrid model to full distance were shortfalls in the availability of testing, contact tracing and substitute teachers.

According to WCSD Chief Human Resources Officer Emily Ellison, the number of new substitute teachers who’ve gone through the licensing process with the state and begun the process of gaining employment through the district — since Governor Steve Sisolak issued an emergency order allowing for more lax credentialing of substitutes — is 143. Of them, she said, 60 are ready to “rock and roll and pick up additional assignments, and that number is increasing every day.”

There are still delays in contact tracing, but the school district’s ability to make decisions on exclusions of elementary students—or even entire classes—has improved.

According to LaMarca, these decisions are usually able to be made within a few hours of learning about a positive COVID-19 case in a WCSD student. When secondary students return to in-person learning, contact tracing and exclusions may pose challenges, LaMarca said, but added that there are 48 people from the Washoe County Health District who will be helping with contact tracing for students in this age group.

Thigpen asked about the use of playground equipment at schools and whether or not it had been approved. He said, in addition to this being mentioned in public comment, he’d received emails from several constituents. Playground equipment use has not been approved.

“For the public’s knowledge, what’s the understanding?” he asked.“I drove by Mount Rose yesterday and saw kids on swing sets and things like that.”

McNeill responded that she did not believe they were meant to be open. Staff agreed.

President Taylor said she was sure there would be follow up on this. This Is Reno asked school district spokespeople if there had been follow up on the matter. School district spokespersons said all “playground structures at the school have caution tape and are off limit to students.”

The superintendent’s recommendation for a return to hybrid learning for middle and high school students on Jan. 19 is being upheld by the school board.

Teacher vaccination 

After discussion of disease transmission and the planned return to the hybrid model for secondary education students, Ellison was joined by Pete Etchart, WCSD chief operating officer, to give board members an update on the district’s vaccination of teachers. She reminded them that the vaccine is not approved for people 16 years of age and younger.

Vaccination is not a requirement for employment with the school district. She added that vaccination is not an employer program run by WCSD. She said, in less than a month, “we went from federal approval to tier-2 vaccination.” More than 2,350 employees have been offered the vaccine so far.

WCSD has put out two surveys to employees to learn more about their interest in getting vaccinated. Ellison said most have indicated they would like the vaccine.

Trustee Church raised questions concerning vaccination, including how many employees have turned down a COVID-19 test, whether or not it matters if someone has tested positive for the virus in the past, if the second round of the vaccine is identical to the first and why people can list their race as a possible reason to receive the vaccine in an expedited timeframe.

“One thing that’s going to be controversial, you caught my attention. You said something about ‘ethnic’—you know what I’m taking about. Who made that decision? Is that an internal WCSD decision? How do we define it? Is it based on what they declare? I could see some controversy in the community,” Church said.

Ellison reiterated that most employees have expressed an interest in the vaccine and that all employees will be invited at some point to accept it. She also explained that people who have had COVID-19, though not while their cases are active, are still recommended to get the vaccine. She said that the second vaccine is the same as the first, in that people must receive a second dose of the same vaccine—Pfizer or Moderna—as they did initially. The district is ordering vaccines with the intention of giving each individual two doses.

As to the ability to claim an ethnic minority status as a possible reason for expedited vaccination, Ellison explained, “All of that information was taken from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] CDC website. We used all of their language exactly and they identified belonging to a racial or ethnic minority as a potential, personal risk factor.”

Board President Taylor pointed out, “If you look at the numbers of those who have contracted and even have died from COVID-19 or complications thereof, it is disproportionately those that are racial and ethnic minorities. And that’s why they’re in a higher risk group from the CDC.”

This Is Reno reporting has confirmed this to be the case. 

Essential workers are exposed to COVID-19 more than most Nevadans, a report by the Kenny Guinn Center for Policy Priorities found. A majority of these workers are from Black, Asian and Latino communities, and they are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus disease in both death rates and rates of infection.

People of color also have a harder time getting medical attention, the report noted. Language barriers play a role. Many stay away from testing centers or hospitals for fear of being reported and fail to disclose if they have symptoms.WCHD has said repeatedly that it recognizes the fear among the undocumented communities and people without insurance. Its health officials suspect that there is a possibility that the virus may be spreading undetected within these already vulnerable communities.

Updated: We’ve adjusted the language surrounding the statement and robocalls to district families to make clear that the statement was by the school district and through WCSD channels at McNeill’s behest, rather than her personal actions. We’ve also corrected a statement from Trustee Thigpen, who asked that Board Policy 9215 also include sexual orientation.

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