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COMMENTARY: How and when to open the schools

Updated August 25, 2020 - 9:44 pm

Reopening our schools under coronavirus is complex and controversial. There are passionate views about this expressed by parents, businesses, educators and the community at large. It is national dilemma with no successful road map to follow, especially given the size of Clark County School District.

Schools are an integral part of our economy, let alone our community. They provide learning, health care, after-school child care, physical and cultural nourishment and a support system with wraparound services for more than 150,000 students who would not have this in place if not for schools. A school is a center for the community. It is one of the most important delivery systems needed to reopen our society and economy. After all, the district is the largest public-sector employer in Nevada, with more than 40,000 employees and a $2 billion payroll.

Yes, schools need to reopen — but only when the conditions are right. So when are the conditions right?

A community-wide containment program for COVID must be in place under which a positivity incident rate becomes a proxy for the spread of the virus. Opening a school is not like opening a restaurant. A school is a microcosm in which people are coming from all over the community to a confined setting. Hence, the importance of using the community spread risk incident level as a critical standard to determine whether a school should reopen. What is being done currently has had mixed results. If the public is not complying with mask and social distancing safeguards, the schools will not be able to reopen.

Can we get the suppression of COVID to a near-zero incidence in the community? We can if we implement these key components: universal mask wearing, rigorous social distancing, the reduction or elimination of indoor congregant settings and testing, tracing and supported isolation.

Mandatory face masks and social distancing should be an enforceable decree. In addition, building the capacity to have effective testing in real time with community-wide access and a 24-hour turnaround for test results is an absolute required first step. And a system of quarantine and contact tracing must be in place to check the transmission of the virus.

Coupled with a community-wide program, schools need to have a comprehensive testing, tracing and supported isolation program in place that is unique to the school system before they can open. This must be coordinated with the community-based testing and contact tracing system in place in Southern Nevada. Such a program for all 17 Nevada’s school districts has been created and is waiting for Gov. Steve Sisolak to approve CARES dollars to implement it.

A school testing and screening program must be in place where the positivity rate for testing should be below 3 percent in the community before a school opens. Each school must have testing upon entry. When someone tests positive, a 14-day quarantine takes place with two negative tests results required before re-entry. A system of contact tracing and screening must be in place for each school to contain the transmission of the virus.

Staff deemed as high-risk should have remote assignments or reasonable accommodations.

Because of the congregate nature of a school, educators should be deemed essential workers and, as such, be provided with personal protective equipment, social distancing, personal hygiene infrastructure and access to routine testing and merit hazard pay. Facilities need an appropriate ventilation/filtration, cleansing and sanitizing program, inclusive of the transportation system.

The Clark County School District is currently on a distance learning model for all 320,000 students that is to be reviewed regularly with a 90-day timeline. To prepare for the day we reopen our schools, we need a 30-day transition plan that can be implemented efficiently.

Again, the starting point of reopening is for the community spread risk incidence level to be at recommended levels for reopening a school. Assessments of a school’s physical space need to be made in advance to meet the social distancing model along with the comprehensive testing, screening and contact tracing program in each school. The plan should have phases that incrementally reopen schools starting with grades K-5. As conditions improve, we can follow with a return to school of grades 6-8. And finally with grades 9-12 for the final phase.

At each phase of reopening, the containment of transmission must be maintained at acceptable levels to prevent the transmission of the coronavirus.

More than ever, educators want our schools to reopen and to ensure our 320,000 students receive an education. But we need to do it safely and when the conditions are right.

John Vellardita is executive director of the Clark County Education Association.

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