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Las Vegas-area private school students return to in-person teaching

Updated August 10, 2020 - 9:00 pm

Hundreds of private school students across the Las Vegas Valley returned to school Monday for in-person classes — the kind that were once taken for granted.

But even in-person teaching isn’t always what you expect in the age of COVID-19.

In Sandra McCluney’s English literature class at New Horizons Academy, students took their seats behind plexiglass barriers on Monday and waited for the teacher to appear on a screen at the front of the room.

After a few minutes of adjustments — the audio was muted, and then McCluney was not sure she could see everybody — she welcomed the class and explained that she’ll be teaching virtually this year to protect her immunocompromised family members.

“Please excuse the little things that we’re still working on,” she said. “I hope we can be together at some point this year.”

Most of the 62 students who attend New Horizons returned for in-person learning for the 2020-21 school year. But a handful of students — as well as McCluney — chose distance education out of safety concerns and will call in to their classrooms every day.

Like a supervillain

McCluney will be assisted by aide Leslie Garcia, who will be in the classroom to monitor students, wipe down surfaces and connect the class to the teacher — an experience not unlike being at a movie when the supervillain appears on a big screen, according to seventh-grader Kellen Cook.

Many local private schools, which don’t receive state funding and generally have smaller class sizes than their public counterparts, are opening this month with five days a week of face-to-face instruction. In contrast, the Clark County School District will begin classes Aug. 24 with distance learning for its 325,000 students.

New Horizons Principal Barbara Biddell said many parents expressed concerns about the long-term effects of full-time distance learning, especially for students with autism or other special needs.

“They were concerned with losing a lot of academic skills,” Biddell said. “They really wanted to come on campus, the majority of them.”

Biddell played multiple roles on Monday, including enforcing social distancing in the hallways, conducting temperature checks during the three staggered lunches and reminding students and teachers alike to keep their masks on and over their noses. Students have the option of masks or face shields, which can be taken off inside the classroom.

In Marci Altman’s geometry class, five students sat in spaced-out beanbags, saucer chairs and desks and two more were supposed to log in from home — though 10 minutes into class they had yet to do so.

Altman’s first-day lecture laid down the rules for the hybrid classroom, some of which would be expected in any classroom, like following the dress code. But there are a few rules unique to the virtual environment: be courteous in the chat box, and use your full real name when logging in.

“No CEO of Kmart,” Altman said. “We are taking this seriously.”

Reading, writing and temperature checks

Another school reopening Monday was GV Christian School in Henderson, which has about 340 elementary students and 160 middle- and high-schoolers.

The school staggered starting and ending times, and used multiple entrances to each building to reduce crowding. At each, students used hand sanitizer and had their temperature checked before going inside. No parents or visitors are allowed.

Administrators plan to conduct temperature checks twice a day, and all students and employees are required to wear face masks. At the elementary school, students will eat lunch in their classrooms and will play outside at recess only with their grade level, with each class assigned its own zone on the playground.

Parents Edyta Kotopka and David Lawless were chatting in the middle school/high school parking lot after dropping off their children at school. They each have a child in seventh grade — both of whom have attended GV Christian since preschool.

“It’s a little more on the nervous side,” Lawless said of his mindset going into a new school year amid the pandemic. But he added that he feels it’s pretty safe and the school is taking a lot of precautions.

Kotopka said the school is great about keeping parents informed and they’ve been well-prepared.

“That definitely helps with the stress level,” she said.

On the other side of the church campus, long lines of students and parents wearing face masks and practicing formed outside the elementary school building waiting to check in. Students were dressed in school uniforms.

Parent Nate Cressman, who has two children in second and third grade in their first year at GV Christian, said the in-person classes were central to their decision to enroll the kids at GV Christian rather than the nearby public school they used to attend.

“We’re excited to go full time,” he said.

Shenker Academy in Las Vegas also opened for the first time since Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered all public, private and charter schools in Nevada to close on March 15, welcoming preschool and kindergarten students. Its first grade program is still operating as a summer camp until Aug. 24.

Julia Fosburg, whose preschool-age daughter, Olivia, has been attending Shenker since she was 1, said she wants the children to feel as though there’s not a pandemic going on.

“There’s so much happening in the world and I don’t know how this is going to affect them later on as they get older,” she said. “And I just want them to still just be kids, have fun, still have a learning environment and just try to create some sort of normalcy. And I think that’s what Shenker is doing here, like they’re doing a really good job of that.”

60 percent enrollment

Her husband, Nathaniel, said the school also is doing a great job with sanitation, disinfecting all door handles, playgrounds and toys every two hours.

Shenker Academy is operating at 60 percent capacity and limiting enrollment to 250 to avoid having overcrowded classrooms. Parents and staff are given a waiver to sign saying they understand the risks of entering the facility and agree to notify the academy if a family member is exposed to or diagnosed with COVID-19.

Children and employees have their temperatures taken at the door, and children get another temperature check after naptime. If a child has a fever during the day, he or she is taken to the front office, where there is an isolation room, and parents are called for pickup.

The campus was closed for three weeks this spring, then reopened in April for children of first responders and essential employees. It opened its summer program May 26 for its entire school population.

Mountain View Lutheran School in northwest Las Vegas also reopened Monday with in-person instruction “with adjusted class sizes and additional safeguards against the coronavirus,” the school said in a news release.

The elementary school is limiting most of its class sizes to 17 students. The school requires temperature and health checks for every student and employee when they arrive. Face masks are also required.

Contact Aleksandra Appleton at aappleton@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0218. Follow @aleksappleton on Twitter. Contact Jannelle Calderon at jcalderon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @NewsyJan on Twitter. Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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