CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Face masks, spaced out desks and half-empty buses: Things will look different when students from throughout Nevada return for the 2020-2021 school year.
As Nevada experiences an uptick in confirmed cases reported daily, both rural districts with less than 100 students and urban districts with hundreds of thousands are forming reopening committees responsible for envisioning what school will look like when students return for the fall semester.
In rural northern Nevada, Churchill County School District administrators have been reviewing online surveys about remote learning and discussing with local officials how to best reopen before unveiling a plan. Superintendent Summer Stephens said parents were worried about childcare and whether remote learning would allow students to grasp material to the same extent as classroom learning.
Las Vegas has faced a barrage of concern and questions from workers, business owners and public health officials about its plans to reopen its tourism industry, which attracts almost 50 million visitors annually. But to John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, the challenge of planning to bring almost 400,000 people through the region's schools each week without creating coronavirus hot spots is more daunting.
“The most unique challenge is the scale: it’s huge,” the union leader said.
The Las Vegas area’s Clark County School District is the nation's fifth largest, with more than 320,000 students and 40,000 employees. Thousands of the students lack household internet access, and before the pandemic, about 70% received breakfast and lunch through governmental free and reduced priced meal programs.
With the district's crowded classrooms, comparatively low per-pupil spending, and a student body that is more than three-fourths non-white, the reopening reflects another instance in which communities of color could be disproportionately affected by coronavirus.
Superintendent Jesus Jara presented a “blended learning” plan to the district’s board on June 25 that proposed having students receive in-person instruction two days a week and log in remotely the remaining three.
The plan divides traditional classes into two groups: One will attend class on Mondays and Tuesdays. Classrooms will undergo “enhanced cleaning” on Wednesdays. The second group will attend class on Thursdays and Fridays.
If parents do not want their children to return to classrooms, an entirely remote option will be available.
Elementary school students will receive instruction in core subjects during their classroom time and complete assignments in art, music and physical education on their remote-learning days. Middle and high school students will take only four classes a semester and have year-long core subject curriculum condensed to one semester. These core classes, including math, social studies and reading, will be taught in two to 2.5-hour blocs on days students are in the classroom, according to the proposal.
Students who eat breakfast and lunch at school will be served in their classrooms to avoid cafeteria intermingling. The maximum room capacity in gyms, science labs and classrooms will be reduced to ensure social distancing is possible.
Each time a student or teacher tests positive, the district will “initiate an electrostatic spray cleaning of a school,” according to the proposal.
A June 23 Washoe County School District proposal presents before-and-after images depicting classrooms crowded with students sitting at tables underneath work made in art class versus unadorned classrooms made up of individual desks placed far apart from each other.
The district said it plans to release more “granular” information at its July 7 meeting, but like Clark County, will allow parents to choose whether to send their children back to school or enroll them in a completely remote learning program.
The district is working to devise protocols to allow students who take its 84-seat buses to school to practice social distancing by assigning students to sit in every third seat or stagger them diagonally by row.
Because Gov. Steve Sisolak implemented a statewide face-covering mandate and announced Nevada had no plans to lift restrictions on businesses and public gatherings, Washoe County School District Superintendent Kristen McNeill says it’s too early to tell what the schools will look like.
“That’s the crystal ball. That’s the million-dollar question,” she said last week. “As we progress through the phases, a lot of these decisions are going to be based around the (governor’s) directives and that’s why it’s difficult.”
Associated Press writer Scott Sonner contributed reporting from Reno.
Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.