Reno-Sparks schools to reopen Aug. 17; health boss fearful

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick said Wednesday he’s concerned and disappointed that the county school board has decided to stick with plans to reopen school classrooms for in-person learning Aug. 17 in the face of new record levels of coronavirus cases in Reno and Sparks.

The board voted late Tuesday to reopen schools that have been closed since mid-March for all kindergarten and elementary classrooms. It also approved a hybrid plan for middle- and high-school students to be taught in person two days a week with distance learning the other three.

The Carson City School Board voted Tuesday to adopt a similar hybrid schedule combining classroom and distance-learning for all grade levels.

Gov. Steve Sisolak also announced baseline guidelines Tuesday for schools deciding how to reopen for instruction. Students and staff are mandated to wear face-coverings, middle and elementary school students are required to stay 3 feet (0.9 meter) apart, while high school students and staff will be required to remain separated by 6 feet (1.8 meters).

Regardless of whether schools initially reopen for strictly remote learning — as is planned in Las Vegas — districts will be required to retain all staff and pay full salaries, the governor said.

The Washoe County panel approved its plans after hearing conflicting opinions from medical experts about the potential danger of students interacting together and accelerating the spread of the pandemic.

“It is our highest priority to protect the health and welfare of our students and staff while also providing resources and support for their educational, social and emotional needs,” School Superintendent Kristen McNeill said in a statement after the vote.

Dick said Wednesday he anticipates school re-openings will result in a “much worse situation” and could ultimately force him to order closures of individual classrooms, schools or even the whole school district.

“I'm concerned and fearful we may have dark days ahead of us," he told reporters.

Health district officials told the school board Tuesday one-third of the 4,823 total COVID-19 cases confirmed in Washoe County since the first case March 5 have occurred in the past three weeks.

The Clark County School District, with more than 300,000 students in Las Vegas, decided last week it won’t resume classroom instruction when the new semester starts next month.

Unions representing Washoe County teachers, principals and support staff sent a letter to district leadership last week demanding distance-only education for the first nine weeks of the school year due to safety concerns.

Dick had recommended that only distance-learning be implemented until the county’s current two-week rolling average of daily new cases is cut in half for a period of 14 days.

The county’s 14-day average for new cases climbed to 239 per 100,000 people over the weekend, more than double the average of 100 cited by the CDC.

Washoe recorded a record 159 new cases on Saturday and saw its 7-day rolling average climb to a new high of 97 on Sunday, Dick said.

Dr. Trudy Larson, a member of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 medical advisory team and the dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno , recommended kindergartners through fifth-graders return to classrooms that have been closed since mid-March. She recommended that most middle school and high school students take classes remotely.

Larson said in a letter to the board that McNeill read at Tuesday’s meeting that the risk of harm to children failing to return to the classroom is “far lower than the risk of delaying school,” citing the benefits students accrue from “participating in all of the experiences of school.”

Washoe County parents can opt out of classroom instruction or switch to distance learning at any time if their children begin the semester in school.

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