New recommendations on reopening Clark County schools caught some community members by surprise this week as planning begins for an eventual return to in-person instruction at the district.
The Clark County School Board got word Thursday that public health officials would support a return to schools under a hybrid learning model that follows state guidelines on capacity and social distancing, even if COVID-19 transmission rates remain higher than recommended.
In previous presentations to the School Board, Southern Nevada Health District acting Chief Health Officer Fermin Leguen outlined the numbers that would present the lowest risk of transmission in schools, including five new cases out of 100,000 people and a 3 percent test positivity rate over 14 days.
On Thursday, Leguen said that the county was unlikely to reach those levels but that the health district would support the board if it voted to reopen schools regardless.
Health district reaction
“My recommendation is that if that’s the path the school district takes, we will support that,” Leguen said. “The reason I’m saying this is that I don’t see the numbers … will come any closer to the levels this (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) table recommends.”
District staff members will now spend the next three weeks discussing a plan to bring students back before giving their recommendations to the School Board on Nov. 12. No timeline is yet on the table.
The health district’s new position raised alarms for some trustees and community members, who characterized it as moving the goal posts for an acceptable reopening. A poll in the CCSD Parents Facebook group Friday drew largely mixed reactions to the possibility of a return to schools. The majority of respondents said that their decision would depend on the specific plan presented to the board or that they would stick to distance learning.
About 20 percent said they would choose a hybrid learning model if it became available.
In a statement reacting to Leguen’s presentation, Education Support Employees Association President Jan Giles said that the union had been under the impression that students and staffers would return to schools when COVID-19 positivity rates were 5 percent or lower and that it was vital that any transition plan stick to those public health guidelines.
“Arbitrary dates and timelines will not help keep us safe; adhering to recommended guidelines will,” Giles said. “We want to go back safely. We are essential workers, not expendable workers.”
Educator deaths should not be an acceptable loss, added Vicki Kreidel, president of the National Education Association of Southern Nevada.
Clark County Education Association Executive Director John Vellardita said the new line from the health district did not come as a surprise given the immense public pressure to reopen schools and the economy. But the union is adamant that a screening, testing and contact tracing program must be in place before educators return to school buildings, he said.
“The positivity rate could be below 5 percent and we’d still say no way if that wasn’t in place,” Vellardita said.
That program, the Task Force Initiative for Educators Safety and Screening, is still in development in Clark County, Vellardita said. On Thursday, the Carson City School District announced it would offer free drive-thru COVID-19 testing for its employees through the program, as well as on-site follow-up testing should they later display symptoms.
All in the planning
The health factors are one of two major topics the union wants to see addressed in any conversation about reopening, Vellardita said. The second concerns the model of instruction and what educators will be responsible for if schools reopen in the rotating hybrid model, which envisions students taking in-person classes two days a week and learning from home three days a week.
Will teachers need to supervise their online students as well as the ones in class? Will they have time to prepare on the Wednesdays reserved for deep-cleaning? Vellardita said the union is looking for answers to those questions through negotiations with the district, as the hybrid model would present a change in working conditions.
The upcoming planning stage will be critical, he added.
“This is not an issue of parents versus educators or educators versus parents,” Vellardita said. “We need to manage virus transmission while managing the education of 310,000 kids and the safety of 40,000 employees. There’s no road map or playbook here.”
Thursday’s board meeting included time for trustees to put in their own questions for district staffers to answer by Nov. 12. Trustees listed priorities such as details about how much personal protective equipment each employee would be given and what would be the effects of the health district’s new recommendations.
Community members largely echoed the concerns of their elected and union representatives, saying they wanted details on any reopening model presented to the board, including what the school day would look like for students and what safety protocols would be in place.
Some said they’d prefer an alternative to the district’s hybrid model, which they fear would put an undue burden on both staffers and families, while still others said any talk of reopening is premature given public health conditions.
A statement from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office said he will continue working closely with state and local officials on reopening schools.
“The Governor shares the goal of getting our students back into the classroom in a safe and responsible manner as soon as possible, and he is pleased to see that the local health authorities in Southern Nevada are working closely with district officials on this goal,” the statement says.
Moapa Valley plan
A clear and defined plan was one of the factors that Moapa Valley community members say prevented panic when a COVID-19 case was reported at Moapa Valley High School last week.
The school, which has been operating under a hybrid model since the beginning of the year, learned of a COVID-19 case on Oct. 15 after a student treating an unrelated condition tested positive for the virus, Assistant Principal Ronald Lustig said.
Lustig said that shortly afterward, a teleconference was called with district leadership and administrators of Moapa Valley High School, Lyon Middle School and Bowler Elementary School, schools attended by the siblings of the affected student, to send a uniform message to the community. Those in affected classes were contacted directly with instructions to quarantine, while all other families received general information from the schools about the cases.
Both the middle school and the high school remained open, while the elementary school temporarily switched to distance learning because of a lack of substitutes to take over for quarantined teachers. The health district had previously stated that one case would not necessarily be enough reason to shut down a school.
At the high school, 17 students and two teachers were quarantined until Nov. 2, Lustig said, and no cases have been reported so far out of that group. The cohort of students that attends class on Thursdays and Fridays was not affected at all, he added.
“The next day, you wouldn’t know anything happened,” Lustig said, praising region Superintendent Dustin Mancl, Moapa Valley High Principal Hal Mortensen and Duane McMin, the school’s assistant principal. “It was a very quick, comprehensive response, and it’s been business as usual at the school.”
“Calm is contagious,” he added.
Jeff Proffitt, a Moapa Valley resident, parent and School Board candidate for the area, said that a positive case was expected and that schools had done an admirable job executing their response plan.
The community also stepped up, he said, by finding child care accommodations for elementary students during their school closure.
“I admire everyone for not panicking, taking a deep breath and following the plan that was in place,” he said. “If you make a plan, it can work.”