Updated January 4, 2022 - 6:46 am
Parents of some Clark County School District students are upset about a vague message from district officials about the reopening of schools amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, saying it lacked “clarity and details.”
More than 300,000 students return to classrooms Wednesday after winter break, a day after teachers and some other employees report for a staff development day in the nation’s fifth-largest school district.
The school district on Monday didn’t respond to a Review-Journal request for an interview or further information about its plans for resuming in-person teaching in the midst of a sharp surge in the pandemic in the county.
But in a message to parents on Thursday, the district said it’s working with local and state health officials to “monitor ongoing COVID-19 developments” and is “aware of the recent surge in positivity rates in our community.”
“Mitigation strategies” are in place to protect the health of students and employees through “cleaning protocols,” the district said, noting that a state mask mandate remains in effect.
If a student isn’t feeling well, has COVID-19 symptoms or has been exposed to someone who has tested positive, “They must stay home from school until cleared to return,” the message said.
Those precautions all have been in place since the resumption of in-person classes in spring 2021, long before the more-contagious omicron variant arrived in the county and state, parents interviewed by the Review-Journal noted.
The lone piece of new information in the message was that the district intends to follow new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on isolations and quarantines. The message did not provide details on the new rules, though the CDC last week approved easing isolation restrictions for asymptomatic Americans infected by the coronavirus from 10 to five days and shortening the time that close contacts need to quarantine. The head of the school administrators union confirmed Monday that the district plans to follow those guidelines.
Lack of ‘clarity and details’
Rebecca Garcia, president of the Nevada PTA and an administrator for the “CCSD Parents” Facebook group, said Monday that she thinks parents are more anxious and have more questions about this reopening than even early last year, when students returned to in-person classes after a nearly yearlong shutdown of state schools because of the pandemic.
She said the Facebook group’s members are divided over the current situation, with some parents wanting schools to stay open for in-person instruction no matter what and some in favor of at least temporarily returning to remote learning.
But she said both sides agree that the communication coming from the school district “lacks clarity and details,” adding that its lack of transparency only “breeds more distrust.”
Some parents are worried whether schools will have the ability to stay open for in-person classes and about issues such as cleaning protocols and air filtration, she said.
Parent Gregory Brown, who has one child in elementary school and one in middle school, is among them.
He said the letter from the school district to parents last week referenced “cleaning protocols,” but contained no details about the process. Nearly two years into the pandemic, there’s strong scientific evidence the virus spreads through airborne transmission, he noted, “so I guess I wonder ‘What is the cleaning protocol?’ because it would seemingly have to have ventilation, air filtration and quality face masks.”
“Parents deserve and teachers deserve to know what is actually happening,” he said.
Garcia said school staffing also is a major concern for many parents, with the district already facing a major employee shortage even before the new surge forces more workers to isolate or quarantine. That has parents wondering if schools that stay open will have 80 students working on laptops in an auditorium, she said.
Other areas of concern
Another big concern among parents is the repeated message from the school district to “keep your children home with any kind of symptoms.” While that’s obviously a good health decision, Garcia said attendance rules are still being enforced at some schools and students are getting penalized for missing classes.
Many teachers and other district employees also were voicing concerns Monday about the return on social media, with many expressing the same concerns as parents about whether the district will be able to keep campuses open and complaining about the lack of information from CCSD.
Jeff Horn, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional Technical Employees union, said that the union believes the school district “has a responsibility to ensure that students and staff are working and learning in a safe environment.”
Given the critical labor shortage compounded by a higher rate of COVID infections, “District leadership will be hard-pressed to effectively address this ongoing challenge,” he said, adding that that the union will work with the district to create as safe an atmosphere as possible.
Other employee unions did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
A large majority of school districts around the nation are planning to resume in-person classes after winter break. But a handful — including several Atlanta-area districts, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark — plan to begin the new semester at least temporarily with distance learning.
And some of the nation’s largest school districts are planning measures such as ramping up COVID-19 testing to deal with the surge.
In the Las Vegas Valley, a lot of people have moved in during the pandemic and there’s awareness of what other school districts across the country are doing, Garcia said, noting that is spurring questions about Clark County school policies.
The Clark County School Board voted 5-1 in September to approve an employee COVID-19 vaccination mandate. It allows for medical and religious exemptions. But it’s still unclear when the mandate could take effect since there’s no timeline for when employees must provide proof of vaccination.
There’s no COVID-19 vaccination requirement for students.
The school district’s online COVID-19 case dashboard shows 7,026 cases have been reported since July 1 — 4,497 among students, 2,042 among school staff and 487 among central staff.
Clark County as a whole has seen 19,269 reported COVID-19 cases, 119 hospitalizations and two deaths among 5-to-11-year-olds during the pandemic, according to the Southern Nevada Health District. For 12-to-17-year-olds, 23,753 cases, 175 hospitalizations and three deaths have been reported.
A pediatrician weighs in
Dr. David Di John, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist for UNLV’s Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine, said Monday he has seen an increase in pediatric COVID-19 cases at hospitals where he attends — either children with symptoms or an incidental diagnosis when they come in for other reasons.
“This is about as busy as it’s been as far as pediatric cases,” he said.
Di John said he has also seen an increase in multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children cases, often seen in the weeks following a COVID-19 infection. The Southern Nevada has reported 101 of those cases during the pandemic.
As local schools prepare to reopen this week, mitigation measures already in place are important — particularly, since the omicron variant is more contagious, he said.
Di John said commercial masks designed for use in hospitals provide better protection. A KN95 mask, for instance, is generally superior to a cloth mask and N95 masks are even better, but they’re rather difficult to keep on for a long period of time, he added.
Di John said he’s not necessarily advocating for those types of masks in school, but noted a “high-quality mask” is needed while indoors.
He also recommended distancing within school spaces to the extent possible. And he said adequate building ventilation is important, noting “I can’t stress that enough.”
Di John said he’s all in favor of keeping schools open for in-person instruction. A common sense measure for students and employees is to stay home if you’re not feeling well, he said, and to use symptom checks combined with testing.
There can be a range of COVID-19 symptoms in children, Di John said, including loss of taste and smell, nasal congestion, cough and a fever, and gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
He also said school-aged children who are 5 and older should be immunized against COVID-19. While that doesn’t necessarily prevent being infected with the virus, “that will protect them against serious disease.”
Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at email@example.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
The district is asking parents to call a special hotline if their student tests positive for COVID-19, has a recent exposure to a positive individual or is exhibiting possible coronavirus symptoms.
The phone line will 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday at 702-799-4322. Both English- and Spanish-speaking staff will be available to take calls, it said.