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Keeping teachers, bus drivers and students in school a focus for trustees

By Carly Sauvageau

The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday discussed the importance of retaining teachers and faculty at schools. The discussion came as district leadership presented an update on activities in the Bridge Year Strategic Plan – a set of goals and objectives for the 2020-2021 school year.

Results from staff surveys were part of the presentation and showed teachers have increased feelings of anxiety and stress. 

Joe Ernst, the district’s chief accountability officer, said the pandemic amplified the problems already affecting public education. The increased workload, coupled with the stress rippling from the pandemic, has resulted in teachers facing massive burnout.

Teacher burnout, stress and anxiety peaked during the pandemic and the fall return to school and has remained above pre-pandemic levels. Image: WCSD presentation

While trustee Diane Nicolet praised the district’s effort on giving staff time to take care of themselves, she also noted how much educators have on their plates. 

“I believe the district stepped up above and beyond to help our staff, our teachers… One of the aspects that I would like us to continue to peel back … is continuing to concentrate on what is best for our students and at the same time recognizing that we must take some things off of our staffs’ plates,” Nicolet said.

Trustees Jeff Church and Beth Smith also mentioned overcrowded classrooms. While the district has made efforts to provide teachers with counseling to help with the stress, it may not be enough, trustees said.

Understaffing in education is a national issue and Washoe Superintendent Kristen McNeill said Nevada has some of the most overcrowded schools in the country. 

“We’ve got to face classroom size at the state level,” she said. “We’ve said it over and over again, Washoe County School District and Nevada have some of the largest class sizes, so we’ve got to tackle that issue…

WCSD Trustee Ellen Mineto during the Jan. 25, 2022 Board of Trustees meeting. Image: Ty O’Neil / This Is Reno

“When we talk about showing the support, I believe our community and our state and our country needs to show the love to our educators and what they’ve been able to do, ” she added.

Trustee Ellen Minetto looked back on her 30 years as an educator when there was overcrowding. She said teaching 15 students allows educators to teach, whereas 30 or more is just “crowd control.”

“I can’t imagine what the teachers are going through. I get why they don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want them to feel that way, but I get it,” she said. 

Absenteeism, transportation ongoing challenges

Chronic absenteeism was also noted as a major issue during the pandemic. The district did not meet any of its attendance goals, though school officials said they weren’t anticipating the pandemic when the goal was set. 

WCSD defines chronic absenteeism as a student missing 10% or more of enrolled days of instruction. Prior to the pandemic, chronic absenteeism in the district was declining. The district’s target for the 2020-2021 school year was 14%. Nearly 40% of students were chronically absent during the pandemic.

The district’s Paul LaMarca said there are some signs chronic absenteeism will decline for the current school year, but it’s too soon to share any details. 

Washoe County School Bus Driver Giana Curreri starts a bus up at the Ghetto Bus Yard in Sparks, Nevada on Sept. 17, 2021. WCSD’s bus driver shortage has grown from about 50 in September 2021 to 87 as of April 12, 2022. Image: Richard Bednarski / This Is Reno

However, the district is still having trouble getting kids to school. Along with other support staff positions, bus drivers are in incredibly short supply. There are 87 driver vacancies in the district, according to Pete Etchart, the district’s chief operating officer. 

District human resources officer Emily Ellison said getting bus drivers is a persistent issue and outreach is ongoing. 

A number of options to provide transportation to students despite a driver shortage were presented. 

Upon the superintendent’s recommendations the board accepted the plan to continue using the “hub system” for the next school year. The hub system is where middle and high school students walk to the nearest elementary school and are picked up from that location, rather than at their normal bus stop.

The board directed the superintendent to work with the transportation department to review other possible options such as reducing the number of bus stops for elementary schools, having bus drivers do “double runs” – completing a route then returning to another route after dropping kids off at school – and using “combo positions” where a staff member will also be  a bus driver.

Planning for local development

The board also looked ahead to the next five years of the district’s capital improvement projects. Trustees discussed allocating funds to modernize the 20 elementary schools in the district that are more than 50 years old.

They also discussed the possibility of opening a new elementary school in north Spanish Springs in the 2024-25 school year, as well as the opening of the new Debbie Smith Career and Technical Education High School in the fall of 2024. 

Area growth shows an anticipated need to open a new high school in Cold Springs within the next five years. District officials said they would like to begin planning soon. However, these are just tentative plans. 

For now, the district is trying to slow spending in the next fiscal year. District staff said they are anticipating a possible recession as citizens begin to run out of stimulus funds that were given out during the pandemic.

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