As the Clark County School Board nears a decision on reopening classrooms, many parents are agonizing over whether it’s worth sending their kids back to in-person instruction for just a few months while COVID-19 rates remain high.
“If the pandemic eases and restrictions lessen, maybe some social activities or in-person teacher assistance time can be implemented, but I think we just need to ride this out as a virtual year,” parent Dawn Allysa Hooker of Las Vegas told the Review-Journal.
The school board is scheduled to consider on Thursday a tentative reopening plan announced last month by the school district and the teachers union that would allow for a staggered return to in-person classes, starting with preschoolers through third-graders. The plan before the board, which has three new members, does not specify when that would begin.
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara said last month that if the plan is approved at the meeting, the earliest in-person classes could resume would be in February. That would leave a little over three months at best before the school year ends in late May.
Interviews with more than a half-dozen parents with children enrolled in the district yielded a variety of opinions, with many saying they want their kids to return to in-person classes.
But others said they would prefer finishing off the school year with distance learning, while still other families indicated they would consider a split decision: keeping home a student who is thriving under distance learning and sending a child who is falling behind back to school.
Many factors at play
The decision is driven not just by academic performance but by factors such as the health and socio-emotional standing of children and family members, parental work schedules and the degree of satisfaction with the distance learning regime the school district has had in place since March.
Hooker, who has twin 14-year-old freshmen at Southeast Career Technical Academy, said her children are new to the school district and previously attended a parochial school. The family has had a great distance learning experience, she said.
Hooker said her children have established a routine and structure over the last few months, leading her to conclude it would be best to continue with the status quo through the end of the school year.
“It would be distracting and cause more lost time,” she said. “With any luck, fall 2021 will bring the return of full-time, unrestricted, in-person education.”
But Logandale parent Tina Haland, whose family moved to Moapa Valley in May, said she wants to see a full-time return to in-person classes as soon as possible.
Three of her five children are students in the district in first, fourth and sixth grades. They have been attending school under a hybrid model, with two days a week of in-person classes and three days of distance learning. The schools are among seven rural CCSD campuses have been operating with in-person classes since the school year began in August.
She said her sixth-grader, who has Down syndrome, has struggled with sitting for long periods in front of a computer during distance learning. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, “She was doing really well with school,” she said.
‘We can’t let kids go to school?’
Haland, who was born and raised in Norway, also said she was puzzled by the decision to keep schools shut for the most part, noting that schools in her home country reopened in April after being closed for about a month. In the Las Vegas area, she noted, bars and casinos are open, “but we can’t let kids go to school?”
Las Vegas resident Frank Friends has a similar view, but from a different academic perspective.
He has a daughter in second grade who is academically advanced, including reading at a fifth-grade level, doing algebra and knowing the names of all of the bones in the body.
“Her grades aren’t reflecting that,” he said, noting the experience with distance education has been “kind of bad, honestly.”
He also said he also is concerned about the suicide rate among children during the pandemic and about children who are home with adults who abuse them.
Friends said he’s in favor of returning full time to in-person classes, noting there have been few cases of children becoming seriously ill or dying due to COVID-19.
“All the hybrid (model) is going to do is put more strain on the family,” he said.
Friends said his wife lost her job due to COVID-19 and is staying home, but he’s working. “We’re blessed to have at least one of us working.”
Las Vegas parent Michael Salzman, who has a preschooler at Culley Elementary School and an eighth-grader at Gibson Middle School, said parents play an important role in determining whether distance learning is successful.
“Parental engagement now, more than ever, is needed to help with the (distance) learning model,” Salzman said, adding that he’d prefer to complete the school year under distance education if it could save a single life.
Henderson resident Heather Dweck has five children, including triplets who are in fifth grade. One of her fifth-graders spends most of her school day in a special education setting.
“I can definitely say that she is going to be a little bit more behind this year,” Dweck said.
She said the other two also are struggling at times.
“This is a whole different way of learning,” she said, adding that both are normally “A” students but have been receiving lower grades while learning from afar. “They’ve had some moments of panic and breakdown.”
Still, Dweck said she doesn’t support reopening classrooms unless there are proper protections for teachers, such as COVID-19 vaccines and the option of staying home for those with other health issues.
“If they need a little extra help next year, that’s what will do,” she said of her kids, noting that everyone is in the same boat.
Cindy Reaves, whose 6-year-old granddaughter is in her first year in the district, said the first-grader struggled early on this school year with long school days and the frustration of not having friends.
“Her teacher was wonderful and tried her best to help her with her struggles,” Reaves wrote in a Dec. 29 email to the Review-Journal. “However, the long school days were very difficult for her.”
Wanting ‘real school’
Her granddaughter ended up in tears on many occasions, wanting to go back to “real school,” Reaves said by email. “I’m sure she is not up to grade level in her primary subjects.”
She said she hopes children will be able to return to classrooms soon, at least on a part-time basis.
“I don’t know what the best plan is for the return of children to the actual classroom, but I know the difficulty that my granddaughter has experienced the last eight months with distance learning,” Reaves wrote. “She would do so much better in a live classroom with teacher and other students.”
Melanie Jeffers, a recent transplant from Florida and parent of two, said her old state offered the family a choice between brick-and-mortar school, virtual learning or homeschooling. She opted for virtual classes for her 1st- and 4th-graders, and then watched as seven schools closed within two months due to outbreaks.
While virtual classes in Florida were a struggle, Jeffers said her kids have thrived since moving to Nevada, where teachers have been attentive and responsive to their needs as outlined by Individualized Education Plans, which specify what kind of extra supports a student might need. She said she’s adamant that the family will do distance learning through the end of the year, though she hopes in the future that case numbers will be low enough to reopen schools and allow for socialization.
“With both my kids having low immune systems, there’s no way I would have them go back to class,” she said. Her kids’ need for a consistent routine is another factor, she added.
Jeffers said she acknowledges that distance learning often means extra work for parents, but that she’s taken it in stride, seeing it as an opportunity to be hands-on about her kids’ education. One unexpected benefit has been the ability to schedule breaks for her kids, or spend their lunch break together at the park.
“I think it’ll really open (parents’) eyes to what their teachers are going through,” she added. “You’re complaining about one or two children, imagine having thirty or more.”
Carley Critchlow Murray said her two children have had vastly different experiences with distance learning. Her high school-aged daughter, who had a prior bad experience with virtual learning, pulled straight A’s in the fall, she said. Her son in middle school, however, is struggling at his magnet school, particularly with the differing expectations from class to class.
Murray said her feelings on whether she’d send her children back to schools have changed dramatically from the summer, when she resolved to keep both kids at home if in-person instruction resumed in the fall. Now, she said she’d likely prefer in-person instruction for both kids — her son for his academics, and her daughter for the socio-emotional aspects.
She said she hopes that any plan to reopen makes masks and thorough sanitation a priority, having seen the efficacy of both at her work at a day care. If the board does intend to reopen buildings, Murray said, she’d like to see the process start in the next month, adding that anything later would be disruptive.
But if the board chooses to keep distance learning, she said, she’d like to see better consistency in the delivery of virtual instruction.
“On one hand, with the numbers being so high, why would we have stayed out of school for so long just to go back when the numbers are highest?” she said. “But at the same time, we’ve learned so much about how to reopen safely.”
Hoping for hybrid
Kasia Caldwell, a social worker at CCSD and parent to five school-aged children, said the family initially favored distance learning because of the risks of exposure in the classroom. But in practice, they found five students and two adults working from home slowed their internet connection to a crawl.
When her children would turn their cameras off to pre-empt a connectivity crash, they would be docked points, she said.
“As high-performing students, that crushes them,” she said. Her kids, who achieved consistent A’s in advanced classes, began to see D’s last semester.
Now, Caldwell said she supports a hybrid model, both for the academic support and the social interaction. She hopes to mitigate some of the risks by getting the family COVID-19 vaccines when it’s available.
But she added her choice might be different if distance learning could be improved.
In the meantime, she fears the pandemic has rendered invisible the struggles of the students she works with, many of whom have IEPs or 504s. Referrals to her private practice from struggling teachers have also jumped, she added.
“It’s not good for them to be isolated,” she said. “The hybrid model would help academically and emotionally and make them visible again.”
A psychologist’s view
Chris Kearney, psychology professor and department chairman at UNLV, said he thinks it’s better to bring students back to classrooms in person — with health and safety protocols in place and vaccinations for employees — than to finish out the school year with distance education.
If students don’t return to classrooms this year, it could potentially mean they’d go 18 months without in-person instruction, said Kearney, who’s also director of UNLV’s Child School Refusal and Anxiety Disorders Clinic. Especially for the youngest children, it could mean the majority of their formal education has been conducted via distance learning, he added.
And children who have a disability or are from marginalized communities that rely on school-based academic and nonacademic resources are more disproportionately affected by distance learning, Kearney said.
There are also mental health and academic effects, he said. Plus, some children are dealing with broader issues as well, such as domestic violence, housing insecurity or the death of a loved one.
“A lot of these kids are also experiencing substantial rates of traumatic stress,” he said.
— Julie Wootton-Greener