Updated February 26, 2021 - 7:21 pm
The Clark County School Board held its first in-person meeting in nearly a year on Thursday, listening to impassioned comments from residents pleading for schools to reopen to all students in August, as well as those opposed to a full-time return.
While Superintendent Jesus Jara announced Wednesday a staggered return for students beginning March 22 for certain grades, and April 6 for others, some speakers asked for an expedited timeline, a return to full-time instruction for all students this year and a firm plan for the next school year.
“We will not do this for another year. We will withdraw them. We will find another solution,” a speaker said. “It’s time to figure out how to send them back full time.”
A crowd of about 300 parents and students also held a rally before the meeting to call for an immediate return to in-person instruction and the resumption of sports and activities.
Those who wished to watch the meeting filled out COVID-19 screenings and had their temperatures taken before filing into socially distanced seats at Las Vegas Academy’s Lowden Theater, where there were just under 100 audience members as of 6 p.m. An overflow room had been set up but was not needed based on the size of the crowd, a district representative said.
‘The sad truth’
Speakers asked the board to make a determination soon on the format of the next school year, so that they could make decisions about enrolling in private schools or even moving out of state. Others also told the board about the toll that a year of virtual learning had taken.
Caden McKnight, student body president at Centennial High School, described learning about the death of a friend by suicide and not having counselors or a school environment to turn to in the aftermath.
“Instead I opened my laptop, I wake up in an empty room, and I’m all by myself, day after day like it’s been since last March,” McKnight said. “We are kids living through a global pandemic, trying to pass our AP exams and watching our friends die, and we are alone.”
Valley High School student Axcel Ramirez-Fausto said he didn’t understand why district students couldn’t go to school if 48 other states could, citing friends in Utah who had senior nights and sports seasons this year.
“I’m sitting at home. I’m failing all my classes. I haven’t learned anything. It’s the sad truth,” he said. “If we can’t play, can we please just go back to school full time?”
Another speaker, Bethany Hudson, connected students’ disengagement and slipping grades to a sense of hopelessness that the district wasn’t listening to their needs. She pointed out that some students are still more than a month away from being back in school.
“What have you been doing for the last 347 days?” Hudson said to the board. “Have you ever heard the saying ‘a day late and a dollar short?’”
Recorded public comments, as well as emailed ones, saw more opinions opposed to reopening, including from teachers frustrated with the rollout of the district’s plan on Wednesday. One teacher said she learned about the reopening announcement from her students, while she was teaching a lesson.
Liza Amore, an elementary art teacher, said she teaches 850 students and urged the district to take precautions for elementary schools and specialists.
“I’m concerned that we will be exposed to hundreds of students, and some specialists cannot take the vaccines due to health concerns,” she said. “I’m also concerned as to how we will keep schools sanitized if elementary will be in school five days a week.”
Parent Shannon Sutherland wrote that while her third grader had struggled with distance learning, she had finally found a groove. But her schedule would change as schools shift to hybrid learning and then again to full-time in-person learning, while the girl must stay at home due to because of asthma.
“I wish the district would help the kids who have been sheltering in place for a year and now who don’t get to go back,” she wrote. “This new plan is taking away the schedule she’s relied on since August.”
No reopening topics were on the agenda for the meeting, but the trustees heard updates on the district’s budget and its legislative priorities and approved two modifications to its agreements with teachers and support staff.
Jara said the district would look at end-of-year events, including socially distanced graduations and proms, under the new guidelines outlined by Gov. Steve Sisolak last week.
“Hopefully we can get to a spot that we can celebrate our hardworking Class of 2021. But it all depends on venues,” he said.
Jara also clarified that seniors would be included in the intramural sports announced by the district Wednesday.
Chief Financial Officer Jason Goudie gave another update on the district’s budget status, outlining uncertainties about what cuts the district will face at the state level during the legislative session.
Goudie said the district expects to receive around $300 million in additional federal emergency funds but is still figuring out how the money will be spent.
The district has officially been removed from the Department of Taxation’s fiscal watchlist after raising its ending fund balance, Jara said earlier this week.
Another speaker at public comment raised that the district had spent several million dollars on no-bid contracts during the pandemic. Trustees asked for future briefings on the district’s policies regarding no-bid contracts during their requests.
“It seems as though a lot of money has been spent to software companies to distance education and a lot of parents believe this is the reason we did not even attempt to the hybrid plan for return to schools in August,” the speaker said.
The board approved a Memorandum of Agreement with the union representing support staff that will allow those employees to temporarily work outside of their usual duties in order “to minimize or eliminate any need for a reduction in force.”