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Washoe school district sees rocky start to in-person learning

The Washoe County School District is experiencing a bumpy in-person start to the school year, with 44 COVID-19 cases reported in the first month among staff and students, and air quality concerns due to smoke from nearby wildfires frequently forcing a return to distance learning.

The Reno-area school district — which has about 62,000 students and 8,000 employees — began its new school year Aug. 18 with full-time on-campus instruction at elementary schools and a hybrid model for middle and high schools where cohorts of students alternate between attending classes in-person and via distance learning. About one-third of students opted to enroll in full distance learning.

This summer, the school board approved reopening with in-person instruction — a contradiction to a Washoe County Health District recommendation to pursue distance learning.

The much bigger Clark County School District — with about 307,210 students and 42,000 employees — elected to depend solely on distance learning when it reopened Aug. 24, with the exception of seven campuses in rural areas offering either full-time in-person classes or a hybrid format.

The debate over reopening schools

Arguments in favor of opening in person included it being the least disruptive option for working families, and for meeting academic and social-emotional student needs. Concerns included whether state funding, staffing levels and school building space would allow for implementing the plan, and whether there would still be active COVID-19 cases in Washoe County and no vaccine when school started.

Washoe County schools Superintendent Kristen McNeill said in a Friday conference call that there have been 44 cases — 27 among students and 17 among adults — affecting 28 schools so far this school year.

“Please remember that many of these cases have already been cleared and are no longer affecting the particular school,” McNeill said. The district’s website reports that 12 student cases and five adult cases are listed as “active.”

The school district has a new dashboard on its website with COVID-19 case data that will be updated three times a week, McNeill said.

Of the 28 schools impacted by COVID-19 cases, 13 are listed as “active schools,” meaning they remain under investigation by the Washoe County Health District in terms of contact tracing.

But the confirmed cases tell only part of the story. On any given day between 800 and 1,000 Washoe County students — or about 2 percent of the approximately 41,000 students doing in-person or hybrid learning — are marked as absent under an “excluded” attendance code, McNeill told reporters during a Sept. 11 call.

There are multiple reasons for exclusion, including potential exposure to the virus at school or kids who are being kept out of classes due to COVID-19-like symptoms. Excluded students are switched to distance learning until they’re cleared to return in-person.

As of Friday, 282 people have been excluded from school under direction from the Washoe County Health District — “individuals who have had close contact with another individual with a confirmed COVID diagnosis,” according to the school district’s website. “These exclusions are a critical cautionary measure to minimize the potential spread of the virus.”

McNeill acknowledged earlier this month the difficulty of having students in different learning environments, which she compared to having “three separate mini school districts.” She said teachers, students and administrators were working through issues with distance learning.

But despite the challenges, “I do believe that our reopening has been successful,” she told reporters.

Some teachers hold a different view.

Protests and public recriminations

Dozens protested last month outside Spanish Springs High School in Sparks over the reopening with in-person classes, which they said put their health at risk.

Teachers also have showed up at school board meetings to voice their frustration.

“We are skydiving while you are still deciding which parachute to pack for us,” teacher Roger Ports said at a Sept. 8 meeting, noting the district can’t come up with a plan for deciding when to close down schools due to outbreaks.

During that meeting, trustees approved using a COVID Threat Meter developed by a regional COVID-19 task force to guide future decisions on whether to keep schools open with in-person instruction.

If the meter reads “very high” for up to seven days, trustees may “consider action to change the learning model based on risk, case incidents in schools, adequacy of staffing levels and other applicable factors,” according to online meeting materials.

Washoe County Health District spokesman Scott Oxarart declined to comment on the COVID-19 cases among students and staff or the board’s decision to reopen for in-person teaching, referring inquiries to the school district.

As of Friday, Washoe County had reported 8,461 coronavirus cases and 153 deaths. Clark County, meanwhile, had recorded 63,603 COVID-19 cases and 1,325 deaths from the virus as of Friday.

CCSD has reported 191 adult cases of COVID-19 and 38 student cases since March. At least one CCSD employee, Desert Pines High School cafeteria manager Ronaldo Cesa, died this spring after contracting COVID-19.

Distance learning, smoke add to woes

The occurrence of COVID-19 cases isn’t the only headache Washoe administrators have been facing. Some parents also are angry about the travails of distance learning.

Reno parent Cassandra Miller told the Review-Journal that the beginning of the school year has been “ridiculous.” Among other things, she said, her 13-year-old son, an eighth grader, keeps getting marked absent during his distance learning days, even though he has been logged on.

He has also experienced issues where he turns in an assignment, but it gets listed as missing, she said.

In addition to the complexities of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Washoe School District has faced another challenge: smoke-filled air caused by fires burning across the West.

“It adds just an additional layer of complexity to what is already a very complex situation in our district,” McNeill said earlier this month.

The district canceled the first day of school Aug. 17 because of the smoke. The district also canceled school Aug. 20, but that day will be made up June 7 using a contingency day.

The district has held eight days of distance learning because of poor air quality, McNeill said Friday.

Teachers ‘discouraged and drowning’

A public comment period lasted about two hours during an in-person Washoe County school board meeting Sept. 8 at Sparks High School. Speakers raised concerns such as a lack of resources and increased demands for teachers, large class sizes for distance education, and a lack of planning and effective communication.

M.J. Ubando, a teacher at Sparks High School, said school board meetings have papered over the problems she and her colleagues are facing, including a lack of resources, increased demands, large class sizes for distance education, and a lack of planning and lack of effective communication from district leaders.

“Regardless of your propaganda, we are not OK and teachers are discouraged and drowning,” she said.

Ubando also alleged there were positive COVID-19 cases in several schools that hadn’t yet been announced to the public, as well as issues with air conditioning systems in schools that hadn’t been fixed, and large class sizes.

She said some teachers have experienced COVID-19 symptoms, but were told to go back to school because there weren’t enough substitute teachers to cover their classes.

In a Friday statement, the school district said: “From the beginning of our return to school, we have urged our employees to self-screen before coming to school or work, and to stay home if they are exhibiting any signs of illness.”

District officials say they’ve widely circulated information and posted it on the district’s website about what symptoms to watch for, established a partnership with Renown Regional Medical Center to provide testing for school district employees and hired an employee health nurse who is monitoring illnesses among staff.

“If an employee begins to experience symptoms, they should stay home from work and immediately call the employee health nurse,” according to the statement.

The district said it has about 1,500 substitute teachers and 400 regularly fill in for teachers at the district’s schools.

“Any teacher who feels they are being forced to come to work while ill should reach out to their area superintendent immediately,” according to the statement.

Kate Carter, who has been teaching for 23 years and is the parent of two children attending Galena High School in Reno through distance learning. She said five of six of her family members are immunocompromised and she’s one of the caregivers for her mother, who’s a cancer patient.

Carter said she loves teaching, “But I don’t love teaching like this,” noting she’s unable to sit next to students, give them a high-five and comfort them when they’re upset.

“What we are currently doing in our classrooms is not teaching,” she said. “What we are doing is the very best we can do with what we’ve been given and we are suffering.”

Ports, the teacher who used the skydiving metaphor, said the stress of trying to balance everything has affected his health. He said he came down with shingles and went to a hospital with heart problems as a 42-year-old who’s “reasonably fit.”

He said teachers are spent and can’t give anymore, and “you can’t function without us.”

In a Sept. 14 statement to the Review-Journal, the school district’s Chief Academic Officer Troy Parks wrote the district appreciates its employees, and values their recommendations and concerns.

“We have heard about distance teacher caseloads and have investigated the cases that have been brought forward,” he said. “In many of these cases the discrepancies were created by how students were rostered in Edgenuity,” an online learning platform.

“In some cases, additional personnel support has been provided to our schools. We believe we have cleared up the discrepancies and alleviated the concerns on a site-by-site basis, however if any teacher still believes they are not able to meet the learning needs of all the students, they should work with the administrators.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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