The Clark County School District can’t guarantee an education to all students during school closures despite a state mandate to do so, Superintendent Jesus Jara said at an emergency School Board meeting Monday.
The trustees met to authorize Jara to act on the district’s behalf without seeking approval from the board for the next 30 days, with specific powers related to obtaining goods and services that are time-sensitive or essential to district operations.
Not on the agenda but added during the meeting was an item related to distance learning, as Monday marked the date that all Nevada school districts were supposed to begin offering instruction via online classes or hard-copy learning packets delivered to students’ homes. Of the state’s 17 school districts, CCSD alone had not submitted a plan to offer such education or extend the school year to make up for closures stemming from COVID-19, according to a news release Monday from Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office.
Jara said he believed he could not sign off on such a plan in response to a request from the Nevada Department of Education on Friday without first bringing it to the Board of Trustees.
He told the board that he would like the language to reflect that CCSD will do its best to provide distance learning but that it faces challenges providing access to technology for low-income students and an appropriate education for special ed students. That makes it unlikely that the district can guarantee distance education for all of its 320,000 students, he said.
“Our digital divide in this community is going to be great because of the inequities we have,” Jara said. “Not every student has access to a computer.”
Trustees approved a motion to direct Jara to communicate these clarifications to the Nevada Department of Education.
Department of Education spokesman Gregory Bortolin said the language of the request was based on federal guidelines, adding that it was telling that 16 of Nevada’s 17 school districts presented plans and received approval over the weekend.
According to Jara, if online learning was rolled out, only about 63 percent of CCSD students would be able to access it, leaving out some 120,000 students. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicate that 1 in 15 households in Clark County doesn’t have a computer, smartphone or tablet, and about 1 in 7 households has no internet subscription. Those rates are higher in the Historic Westside and adjoining downtown neighborhoods.
Trustees and Jara also discussed alternatives to online learning, with Jara saying the district might need to mail packets home despite a significant cost.
But Trustee Danielle Ford said the district should not mail packets because of what she said was the potential transfer of the virus through the mail. She suggested instead packing buses with supplies and taking them to families along normal routes, or offering a printing hub for families.
Handing out packets
CCSD has been giving out voluntary learning packets, which are also available online, at food distribution sites since last week. Some individual schools and teachers have also held classes online. Jara also announced over the weekend a new curriculum platform called ActivelyLearn, though he said Monday that the district would not require teachers to use a particular platform.
“Can I tell you that 320,000 students are learning through distance education? Probably not,” Jara said of the Monday deadline. “But we’re doing the best that we can.”
Trustee Deanna Wright excoriated the Nevada Department of Education for asking Jara to sign a guarantee on distance learning over a weekend without first consulting the School Board and with only the consent of board President Lola Brooks.
The statement from Sisolak’s office said the governor had worked with the office of the attorney general to ensure that emergency plans could be approved by the board chair and superintendent but that CCSD elected to consult its board.
Sisolak’s March 20 emergency order states that each school district will submit a request for an emergency program of distance education to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert and be prepared to carry out those programs by March 23. The order also states that programs could take the form of “paper correspondence.”
Other districts across the state have announced plans to begin offering distance learning, though many are on spring break and don’t expect instruction to begin until students return. Washoe County, for example, expects to begin distance learning on March 30, when its two-week spring break ends.
The Carson City School District said in a Friday update that elementary students will receive weekly learning materials, while middle school and high school students will receive instruction via Google Classroom. Teachers will also make arrangements for copies to be printed and available for pickup in school offices for families that cannot remotely print them from home, according to the district.
Humboldt County schools also said in a Sunday update that the district would offer online distance education, hard-copy materials and a blend of the two.
Urban districts challenged
As the the fifth-largest school district in the U.S., CCSD faces challenges similar to those of urban school districts in New York and Los Angeles.
The nation’s largest public school district, in New York City, began distributing 25,000 tablets to students Monday, prioritizing students in temporary housing, and is seeking approximately 300,000 more of the devices, which come with a data plan. Mayor Bill de Blasio said there are hundreds of thousands of students the city can’t reach with distance learning at the moment, though the city is providing printed packets as an alternative.
The fourth-largest district, Miami-Dade Florida, has also passed out laptops to students and will begin online classes this week.
In Los Angeles, access to technology varies widely between individual school sites, according to an L.A. Times report Monday, and even when it’s available, students have struggled to log on from home.
The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance Monday that said federal law regarding students with disabilities should not prevent schools from offering educational programs through distance learning. The department also granted Nevada’s request to waive standardized testing this spring.