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Stokes: Committee working on recommendations for reopening Carson City schools

By Jessica Garcia jgarcia@nevadaappeal.com

Carson City School District Superintendent Richard Stokes says its Instructional Reopening Committee, tasked with determining how school will operate in the fall, continues to meet, but all present indications with COVID-19 demonstrate the struggle to offer complete social distancing capabilities for a safe return to physical classrooms.

While school is out of session now for the school district, families are awaiting word on what will happen in the fall. Stokes reported Tuesday night his administrators have received feedback that families would like for their children to return to school sites instead of continuing with distance learning, which was implemented after Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered the closure of schools as of March 16 this year.

The instructional committee is expected to make a recommendation this summer given Sisolak’s requirements for social distancing. Sisolak provided Executive Directive 022 mandating each district’s school board to submit an educational plan at least 20 days prior to the start of school. A draft of the plan is due to the Carson City School Board for presentation by its July 14 meeting, then to be formalized by July 28 unless a special meeting is called before then.

“We hope to be able to come up with a final decision with what our next school year will look like,” Stokes told the board Tuesday.

Stokes said the committee represents teacher and parent perspectives and already has had several discussions, with a subsequent meeting to include student input.

The Nevada Department of Education is encouraging districts and campuses to plan for a social distancing capacity of no more than 50 percent of students in buildings. Stokes said some Carson City principals provided information that have indicated that for average-sized 900-square-foot classrooms that theoretically can accommodate 30 students, this would challenge their schools to seat only half this number of students in a classroom at a time.

The same would present problems for busing students in transportation if adhering to the “6-feet-apart” rule.

“We will not be able to offer full-blown social distancing under these restrictions,” Stokes said. “Parents are going to be having to think about these conditions and think about having these children in these conditions. … So that will obviously change how we offer school in the fall.”

Concerns continue over the increase in COVID-19 cases themselves. The state reported a spike this past week in COVID-19 cases. As of Thursday, Carson City Health and Human Services reported eight new positive cases in the Quad-County region with a total number of 304 cases and seven deaths with 87 active cases. Stokes said the NDE for now continues to encourage districts to plan as though Nevada will remain in phase 2, which originally was set to expire June 30.

The NDE also announced direction Wednesday that helps summarizes minimum requirements for Nevadan students and distance education plans for the beginning of the 2020-21 school years while districts prepare for potential returns to remote learning. The announcement emphasized flexibility on high-quality learning opportunities and teacher support.

The department’s statement also allows districts and charter schools to schedule five additional professional development days in the next school year for staff members beyond the five they are currently allowed. The NDE has instructed these development days to be used in relation to COVID-19 education and response and to allow staff to provide social/emotional support for students and staff, according to the statement.

The Carson City School District, which has closely monitored updates from the NDE, also recently collected community feedback from parents. While Stokes said Tuesday results were still forthcoming, early responses from families indicate they would like to see the district return to school at the start of the fall.

“Our patrons would like to see school reopen without restrictions and carry on as before,” he said. “That can actually happen … and we’ll have to take the steps necessary with social distancing, which means a likelihood with on-campus and off-campus instructional processes. That will look a lot different than what parents and students experienced in the last quarter of this school year.”

In the transition from school closures to digital learning during the last quarter of the 2019-20 school year, parents and students used a combination of digital platforms and received paper packets at the different levels for learning. Students held meetings via Zoom or called teachers as needed, and many parents expressed dissatisfaction with this level of service from the district.

One parent comment received at Tuesday’s board meeting stated opposition to repeating remote learning in the fall.

“Everyone wants to talk about how successful it was,” Nicole Valdez submitted in her comment to the board members. “The school employees thought it was a major success, and they got paid to stay at home not to do their jobs. … My high school student was given one assignment per class per week.”

During discussion about the timeline for drafting its own 2020-21 school year plan and the Instructional Reopening Committee’s involvement, the board members were split on the approach. Board president Mike Walker said the committee needed time to complete its work, while Trustee Stacie Wilke-McCulloch said it was possible a special meeting would need to be called before the July 14 board meeting deadline for a draft plan or the July 28 meeting deadline for a final plan to make sure the community can provide input.

“All of us want to be able to open school as normal in the fall,” Walker said. “There’s no disagreement there. … It’s a mixed bag just like it’s a mixed bag for parents. We’re talking about frustrations with digital learning. I don’t think anybody has said it was a smashing success.”

Stokes said it was important to continue and not lose students during this process.

“This is going to challenge us like no other problem I’ve ever faced,” he said. “We’ll try to put our best foot forward and we’ll be anxious to modify our processes.”