Parents, students and teachers voiced their concerns recently during a virtual chat about the Washoe County School District’s proposal to reopen schools this fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The proposal has now been sent to the Nevada Department of Education for final approval.
Community members sent questions via email which district leaders answered during the virtual forum. Residents elevated concerns regarding facial coverings, social distancing and access to Wi-Fi for those participating in distancing learning among other worries. Officials made it clear that schooling simply just won’t look the same.
Area Superintendent Joe Ernst said superintendents across the county are continuously meeting with principals to find the best way to restructure classrooms and distribute supplies.
“In the 21st-century learning environment that we live in, we want collaboration,” Ernst said. “We want shared space and we’re working together. We’re now taking a step back from that and really redesigning to stay within our safety parameters and schools have talked about individualizing supplies.”
District leaders also expressed the fact that every school is structurally different and will require unique changes to allow for 6 feet of social distancing in each classroom. Some buildings might need to repurpose their cafeteria into learning rooms along with special areas like art classrooms and music rooms.
“We’ve done our best to try to find a way to make it feel as normal as possible for our kids so that they can still have an experience where they’re in front of a teacher and in a classroom. With that comes some sacrifices of physical distancing and face coverings,” Malena Raymond said.
Washoe County Board of Trustees President, Malena Raymond says the district is going further than the state and requiring every student and visitor to wear a mask on campuses. Raymond says masks will be provided to those who show up to school without one and face shields will be distributed to students with higher health concerns.
As far as coronavirus health checks, the district will not be screening for temperatures onsite. Officials say they don’t want to pile kids at the front of the door and want to avoid any potential bullying from having to segregate a student who has a high temperature because the student may have been running or was in a hot car.
Instead, Margaret Allen, the director of student health services, says they believe health starts at home and they are creating a self-health check tool for families to reference before sending their child to school. While the tool is recommended it won’t be mandatory.
“If we were going to take temperatures we would have to do it at the bus station. By the time the student gets on the bus and to school with a temperature, they have already exposed a lot of people,” Allen said. “We feel strongly that this questionnaire is going to help us all assess, ‘Am I well enough to be at school?’”.
On top of at-home self-health assessments, the teachers will be required to also evaluate the students in class though details about how this would get done were not provided. The district will also ask teachers to schedule supervised handwashing times throughout the day.
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“If a child comes to school and is sick, they will be sent to the clinic where they will be screened a little bit more in-depth,” Allen said. “We will have different clinical protocols where sick students are separated from students who come in for a blood sugar check.”
When it comes to access to technology the district is working to order 4,000 laptops but currently, they only have resources to allocate one device per household for those in need, even if the family has more than one child enrolled in the district. There is also a four- to six-week delay in ordering the laptops because of the increased need across the county. Chris Turner, chief information officer, says the district is also looking to provide Wi-Fi access.
“We can supplement internet connections for our families,” Turner said.”We have Wi-Fi enabled busses that we will be moving around the district on a schedule in populations with high need in dense populations, where we can maximize that benefit. We are in the process of acquiring 3,000 mobile hotspots. Half have already arrived and we are in the process of onboarding those devices.”
At this point, the district is still finalizing the communication protocols in case a coronavirus outbreak were to happen along with some transportation details for certain schools.
This article is part of our collaboration with local public radio station, KUNR. The original version was published on July 18.