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How Will Schools Reopen This Fall?

Max Klingensmith/Flickr

There will be school this fall, but it’s going to be a lot different than anyone is used to. 

The Clark County School District announced a reopening plan last week.

Under the plan, students go five days a week, but they will be separated into groups – cohorts -- so that no more than 18 students will be in a class at a time.  

One set of students will go to school Monday and Tuesday and another will go Thursday and Friday. The other three days for each group will be spent distance learning at home. 

There will also be an option for students not to go to school at all but learn entirely from home. 

The plan has received a lot of criticism, but as CCSD administration tries to curb the spread of COVID-19, are there really any other alternatives?

Superintendent Jesus Jara told KNPR's State of Nevada the plan followed guidelines from state leadership.

"There's not an opportunity for me to go in a different direction," he said, "I would love nothing more than to have school every day with 320,000 students, 42,000 employees but we just can't do that."

Jara said the plan is the best thinking to keep students and staff safe.

He also noted there are lots of logistical problems to be worked out everything from bus schedules to after-school sports. 

"All of these different things, the logistical puzzle that we're putting together is really to find ways that we can at least our students face to face with our eductors," Jara said.

The superintendent said schools won't be performing daily health checks for students but they will be requiring masks. The district will be spending some of the federal money it received from the CARES Act to purchase masks for students and staff. 

With the new hybrid model, the biggest question from a lot of parents is how to handle child care on the days their students are home and they're at work. 

Jara said that is a major issue that needs to be addressed by the entire community.

"There's potential... for some daycare providers to be able to really stand up and help us," he said, "That's part of a community issue that we all need to address together."

The superintendent said the district has talked with Clark County and other partners that run after-school programs about filling that need. School board members are also working with mayors and other elected officials on a solution to the child care problem.

Parents aren't the only part of the equation with a lot of questions, teachers are not entirely sure how everything is going to work when schools reopen.

John Vellardita is the executive director of the Clark County Education Association, which is the teacher's union. 

"There's just a lot of questions," Vellardita said, "Just from an instructional point of view, does this model work? Will it work. There's uneven development in a kid's education and it's going to be clearly on display with this kind of model."

Vellardita said there are also questions around safety. He said he doesn't see how 40,000 staff members can come back without being tested and continue to be tested throughout the year.

"The money is there," he said, "You can test for about $12 million all 40,000 employees of the Clark County School District not just once on entry but ongoing testing if people develop symptoms."

He said there is money to segment out vulnerable populations for extra attention and there is money for personal protective equipment for teachers and school staff.

Vellardita said the CCEA is working with the state to get the money pushed down to the local level so it can be used for expanded testing of teachers and staff.

The key part of the plan from the district is distance learning but for thousands of families that can be a struggle for a myriad of reasons. Many students don't have internet access and others have a limited number of devices to work from. 

Jara said the district is going to use money from the CARES Act to pay for Chromebooks to fill that gap but that doesn't solve the problem of connectivity.

"This is where I feel the entire community and the state needs to get involved," he said.

Vellardita said a third of the district's students have either no or limited connectivity. He said the annual cost is $27 million to make sure all those students are plugged in, which is money the district does not have.

"That's such an integral part of this new model that is being rolled out," he said, "Educators also have issues of having devices on hand, having connectivity as well. This isn't just limited to students."

He said the device and connectivity problems are a clear example of the class and race issues that the school district faces. He said a "significant" portion of the student population is going to be "undermined" by this new model simply because of their economic situation.

Besides that, Vellardita admitted there would a portion of students who are not going to want to be involved in distance learning.

"We talked about digitally do they have access to the connectivity, do they have devices, but there's another aspect that's going on and that's this social and emotional stress that a lot of these kids in these households are going through and to keep them engaged even after they've been in a classroom for two days for a following three days is a challenge," he said.

He said it is not for sure that there will be a standardized approach in every school in the district with this new model.

Jesus Jara, superintendent, Clark County School District;  John  Vellardita, executive director, Clark County Education Association

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.