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School board debates learning models ahead of May 1 lifting of social distancing

By Jeri Chadwell

The Washoe County School Board of Trustees held its Tuesday meeting via Zoom and took public comment only in writing. The move to virtual meetings for the time being was announced last week by Board President Angie Taylor following months of increasingly disruptive behavior by public commenters when the board was meeting in various school gymnasiums and auditoriums to meet COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

During its Tuesday meeting, the board discussed state mandates surrounding COVID-19 restrictions. They did so only minutes after the governor’s announcement lifting social distancing requirements on May 1. 

The board also received updates on the district’s legislative priorities, with fewer than two months left in the 2021 session of the Nevada Legislature.

Lifting of social distancing mandate sparks conversation about district learning models

With the governor lifting social distancing mandates in just two weeks’ time, the school board will have to answer people who’ve been pressing for a return to in-person learning since the pandemic began.

WCSD Trustee Andrew Caudill
WCSD Trustee Andrew Caudill

Vice President Andrew Caudill made a motion during the board’s standing agenda item on COVID-19 trends to direct Superintendent Kristen McNeill to come up with a plan to fully reopen schools on May 3 and present it during the next board meeting on April 27.

The trustees debated on this for well over an hour. The logistics of reopening schools fully so close to the end of the school year would be complicated, McNeill said.

Some of the complications with bringing students back to their classrooms full time were discussed during a February board meeting. Lianka Soliz, director of nutrition services, told trustees during the February meeting that staff shortages in her department, mostly in part-time positions, would pose problems. 

There’s also the consideration of the more than 300 teachers on leave and the substitute teachers who’ve been brought in to fill their roles.

Were the school district to bring all students back to in-person learning, many of those children would have to switch to different teachers’ classes with only five weeks left in the school year. Some principals would have to remake their master schedules in a matter of weeks, a task that usually takes several months.

Caudill’s motion ultimately failed. Only he and Trustee Jeff Church voted in favor of it.

However, the board will hear more about ongoing planning for the return of students at its next meeting, as this remains a standing agenda item.

The board was also set to discuss Washoe County’s plan for assuming control over COVID-19 mitigation efforts. The governor’s announcement will undoubtedly affect these plans, however, and Washoe County Commissioners already postponed a meeting scheduled Wednesday to revise the plan. Trustees decided, considering the uncertainty, not to take up their review of the county’s plan.

School district’s bill survives April 9 legislative deadline

There are fewer than 50 days left in the 2021 session of the Nevada Legislature, and last Friday marked a deadline for bills to be passed out of the initial committees to which they were assigned. Those bills that did not pass out of committee are no longer under consideration.

Government Affairs Director Lindsay Anderson told board members that 78 bills that did not survive the deadline were ones the district had been tracking. Two bills that would have made some members of the school board appointed rather than elected both failed. Another bill that would have required school administrators to reapply for their jobs every five years also failed.

Educators rally for more funding from the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 15, 2021. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno.
Educators rally for more funding from the Nevada Legislature in Carson City on Feb. 15, 2021. Image: Bob Conrad / This Is Reno.

Anderson said some 30 surviving bills remain as high priorities for the school district. Among them are one that deals with plans for expanded summer school, something the district is also working on independently. 

Another concerns competency-based education, which is also a priority for the district as it works on a plan for academic recovery following the pandemic. Competency-based education is rooted in the belief that children should progress through school at their own pace as they master skills and concepts.

The school district’s own bill, Assembly Bill 57, also survived. AB 57 would temporarily waive the requirement for pupil growth learning measures to factor into teacher and administrator evaluations. The bill passed out of the Assembly on March 23 on a vote of 26-to-14. It’s now headed to the Senate, and Anderson said she expects there will be a Senate Education Committee hearing on it in the next two weeks.

Anderson also told the trustees that it appears likely the Legislature will move to fully implement the new pupil-centered funding plan for K-12 education against the wishes of Gov. Steve Sisolak, who called for a phased in approach to its implementation. The new plan replaces a more than half-century old one, but district officials are not pleased with its details and how they could affect funding in Washoe County.

Caudill said in light of this the board should seek to get an updated budget forecast from Chief Financial Officer Mark Mathers.

Much will remain in the air for the school district, complicating its planning process, until the legislature adjourns in June. Anderson said she knows this is frustrating but that it’s also inevitable. 

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