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Charter board may revisit distance learning mandate in November

A board that oversees Nevada’s public charter schools may consider revisiting its distance learning mandate in November.

The Nevada State Public Charter School Authority’s board met virtually Friday to hear an update on COVID-19 response, but took no action. The authority oversees few dozen charter schools — some of which have multiple campuses — that serve a total of about 50,000 students.

The board approved a mandate in mid-August saying schools in counties with a heightened level of virus transmission were required to start the school year with distance education for at least 75 percent of their students. It came after the board decided in June to allow each school to create its own reopening plan.

Board chairwoman Melissa Mackedon said Friday she thinks the board needs to have a conversation in November about its plan. The board’s next regular meeting is Nov. 6.

About six weeks into the school year, “we’re starting to see a groundswell of restlessness among families,” she said, adding the challenges of virtual education for families should not be underestimated.

Meanwhile, members of the Clark County School Board said earlier this week it’s possible it could vote on reopening schools during an Oct. 22 meeting, but it depends on public health conditions and COVID-19 case numbers in the county. The school district is operating under distance education.

As of Sept. 25, four Nevada counties — Clark, Churchill, Elko and Washoe — with charter authority-sponsored schools are under heightened mitigation, according to board meeting materials. “Recent data has shown a decline in test positivity and case counts in all of these counties. To return to baseline mitigation, counties will need to show sustained weeks in which less than two of the three elevated transmission criteria are met.”

White Pine County is under baseline mitigation and charter schools in that county can operate in-person or under a hybrid model that includes a mix of in-person and remote instruction.

Charter authority executive director Rebecca Feiden said the authority isn’t tying its decision-making to the state’s weekly data, since that can fluctuate and change quickly. Instead, it’s using mitigation levels determined by the state.

Feiden said the state is seeing COVID-19 data for Clark County improve significantly — particularly, over the last two weeks — but schools are still fairly restricted with how they can operate.

She said she hasn’t granted any exemptions to the distance learning mandate for Clark County charter schools, but many are beginning to move from full-time distance learning to having up to 25 percent of students on campus.

Of the 55 charter school campuses in Clark County, 19 are providing some in-person instruction, she said. Some schools are bringing in their special education students and English language learners for in-person instruction, while others are bringing in certain grade levels — most often, the youngest students.

Feiden said if the COVID-19 situation continues to improve, she may consider granting exemptions in Clark County. That may start with schools that have already had some students on campus and have had time to work out the challenges, she said.

Feiden said she has granted six exemptions to the distance learning mandate thus far — all for schools in Washoe and Churchill counties. It allows the schools to exceed the 25 percent threshold for the number of students on campus, but they can’t go higher than 40 percent, she said.

Schools with exemptions are all in counties where local school districts are offering in-person or hybrid instruction, she said, and schools wanted to provide comparable educational services. The exemptions are all contingent on local school districts continuing to operate under their current models.

The Washoe County School District, for example, is offering full-time classes for elementary schoolers, and a hybrid model for middle and high schoolers. About one-third of students are opting for fully distance education.

As of Thursday, the school district has seen 56 COVID-19 cases among students and employees impacting 33 schools, according to the district’s website. And 337 people are excluded from school by the county health district due to close contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Connectivity and COVID-19 cases

So far this school year, the charter authority has been notified of 36 students or employees who have tested positive for COVID-19, according to meeting materials. Feiden said Friday she thinks the number is now up to 38.

Fewer than 50 people have been excluded from a charter school campus because of contact with someone who tested positive.

As of Friday, 154 students don’t have internet connectivity and about 1,500 don’t have consistent access to a computing device, Feiden said. She said many of the needed devices are on back-order or are en route to schools.

In total, 99.9 percent of students have been reached this school year, 99.5 percent are connected to the internet and 97.1 percent have a computing device, according to meeting materials.

The charter authority signed a contract with Cox Communications to provide internet service to school families who don’t have it and will use some of its limited federal grant funds to pay for it, Feiden said.

That should “get us across the finish line” with connecting students, she said, noting a lot of mobile hotspots have already been distributed to students in need.

During its meeting, the board also:

— Heard a presentation on the new school application process.

Across the state, 15 proposed charter schools are included on a list of 2021 winter charter application cycle notices of intent. All of them are in Clark County, except Virtual Preparatory Academy at Nevada, which would operate statewide. They’re all seeking to open during the 2022-23 school year.

The charter authority has received notices of intent from The Village High School, Olam Academy, commUnity High School, Battle Born Academy, Nevada Teach Academy, North Las Vegas Community High School, Virtual Preparatory Academy at Nevada, Academy of Community Law Enforcement, The VIRGIL Laboratory School, Excellence Charter Academy, ANKOR Leadership Academy, Nevada Strong Academy, PTAA Nevada, Young Women’s College Preparatory Academy in Las Vegas and pilotED Schools: Las Vegas.

— heard from Beacon Academy of Nevada and Equipo Academy — both in Las Vegas — on how they’re addressing equity issues, “including any specific efforts to combat systemic racism and/or implementation of restorative justice practices,” according to the meeting agenda.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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