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Home > Featured > Pandemic impacts loom over legislative committee hearings on education

Pandemic impacts loom over legislative committee hearings on education

By Jeri Davis

Nevada has frequently ranked dead last in the nation for public education, so it’s no wonder that public schools, educational programs to meet student needs and the funding to support them are important topics during every session of the Nevada Legislature. This session, however, these issues are coming before legislators with perhaps greater immediacy than ever before—Nevada’s 17 school districts and various charter schools continue to struggle to meet their mandate to educate the state’s children amid the nearly year-long COVID-19 crisis.

Senate Education Committee focuses on testing, health planning  

Students and teachers could soon get a break from some standardized tests and assessments if a bill that the Senate Education Committee approved by a unanimous, bipartisan vote keeps up momentum now that it’s been sent to the Assembly floor.

Senate Bill 83 was one of two bills heard in the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. The bill would allow Nevada schools to take advantage of federal waivers on standardized testing and assessments. It would also allow the state to request other waivers as well as issue waivers of its own for assessments and tests over which it has authority.

State Senator Roberta Lange, a member of the Senate Education Commitee, on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
(David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

The second bill, Senate Bill 36—which was heard but not passed back to the Assembly—would more closely tie school districts and health districts across the state by requiring that a health district board member or appointee be on each school districts’ emergency planning team. It would also require that school districts’ emergency plans include preparations for epidemics.

Existing law already requires that the board of trustees for each of Nevada’s 17 school districts as well as the governing body for each Nevada charter school have a committee to develop a plan to be used to respond to crises, emergencies or suicides. SB36 would amend current statutes to require that one member of each committee be affiliated with the district or county board of health. Senators on the Education Committee agreed to an amendment to clarify that these health district committee members need not be members of the board of health but can be appointed by the board of health.

Both bills received testimony in support from a broad array of groups, including from the Nevada Association of School Superintendents (NASS) and the Clark County Education Association. SB36 also received testimony in support from the Washoe County Health District and the Southern Nevada Health District and the Professional Firefighters of Nevada.

Brian Rippet, a science teacher of 21 years in Douglas County and President of the Nevada State Education Association, called in to give testimony in support of SB83. He told senators on the committee that spring has become known among teachers as “testing season” and pointed to the stress it normally causes to teachers and students even without the presence of a pandemic.

“The professional teachers in the classroom need trust, support and time to evaluate and plan for the success of their students,” he said. “Testing season consumes weeks of class time. The tests are scanned by machines out of state. They report vague results. And it’s often many months after the fact. This is hardly what our kids need at this time.”

No one called to provide testimony that was neutral or in opposition of either bill, and SB83 will be among the first bills to move from one chamber of the Legislature to the other. It could be read on the Assembly floor as early as Monday. The bill is one of more than a dozen education-related measures likely to be discussed during the session.

Assembly Education Committee hears from school district leaders  

On Thursday, the Assembly Committee on Education heard from school district superintendents representing NASS, as well as individual reports from the superintendents of Clark, Washoe, and Pershing counties and the Nevada State Public School Charter.

Three school superintendents—Summer Stephens of Churchill County, Dave Jensen of Humboldt County and Wayne Workman of Lyon County—gave a presentation to committee members concerning the biennial iNVest document. Since 2003, NASS has produced an iNVest document laying out school district priorities and presented it at each session of the legislature. The goal of the document is to inform legislators of “what is needed to improve student achievement” in the state.

“Today, we share with you our iNVest priorities as a common, single voice from NASS,” said Stephens. “At times we know we have divergent needs and visions, so, at those times we do not speak as whole. But, today, we come to you with our common voice and our common need related to these iNVest priorities.”

The priorities laid out by NASS to meet current student needs included streamlining things like testing and assessments, ensuring funding remains stable for school districts whose student enrollment numbers have dropped as a result of the pandemic and the elimination and future prohibition against the need for school districts to comply with state educational mandates that are unfunded.

Assemblywoman Bea Duran, a member of the Assembly Education Committee, on the fourth day of the 81st session of the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021.
(David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

NASS members also said they believe the State of Nevada needs to consider things like providing for connectivity and digital devices as a basic educational need, rather than letting that fall to individual districts.

Additionally, the NASS representatives asked legislators to consider restoring funding for education over the 2022-2023 biennium from $3.3 billion to $3.6 billion (the amount proposed for the 2020-2021 biennium) and said they would like to work with legislators over the next several sessions to eventually increase education funding in Nevada by a total of $1 billion annually.

Assembly members asked NASS representatives about the implementation of requirements made by bills passed during the 2019 legislative session, including Assembly Bill 219 and Assembly Bill 168. AB219 requires school districts where English Language Learners show poor learning outcomes to produce corrective plans to address issues. AB168 requires school districts to provide a restorative justice action plan for students 10 years or older upon their first offense of battery on an employee or distribution of controlled substances at school—two offenses that had long required suspension or expulsion under state law.

NASS representatives told legislators that the requirements established under both bills have been implemented and agreed to send further details to the Assembly Education Committee, in part because it is expected that AB168 may be revisited by legislators this session in order to clarify its language.

Superintendents from each of the state’s three largest school districts also provided presentations to the committee. Washoe County School District (WCSD) Superintendent Kristen McNeill spoke of the district’s 104 schools, noting that each currently has the option for students to continue with full distance learning. WCSD does, however, have plans to remove the full-distance option for its schools and funnel any remaining distance learners through its North Star Online School beginning later this year.

McNeill also provided an overview for the committee of its priorities surrounding safety, nutrition, vaccine rollout out for employees, efforts to close the digital divide between students and the development of a two-year “response and recovery plan” aimed at helping students make up for lost learning during the pandemic.

Many of the questions posed by legislators to school district officials during the meeting were the same ones school boards of trustees have been discussing for months—things like contingency plans in the event of a second pandemic outbreak, efforts to boost college readiness for current high school seniors and what might happen if more students than teachers want to return to in-person learning full time in the fall.

Enforcement of mask wearing—a concern expressed  by many prior to the return of students to schools in August 2020—also came up. For Washoe County, McNeill said, this has not been the problem some feared it would be.

“Our students have really stepped up, and they understand the seriousness of this. They understand the seriousness of this not only for themselves, but for their families,” McNeill said. “I know there was a lot of fear when we opened up schools as we were coming into July and August—but I can remember driving back from Hug High School the very first day of school, and our students were wearing their face coverings even off campus. They’re taking it very, very seriously.”

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