Washoe County mulls delaying classroom teaching

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RENO, Nev. (AP) — The Washoe County School Board began approving money on Tuesday it will need to reopen schools for students in the Reno-Sparks area and safely instruct them in the months ahead amid growing concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

The panel also signed off on the county’s application for $9.9 million in federal relief under the CARES Act to help train teacher in the use of technology and distance learning, and to meet the needs of disadvantaged students, among other things.

But after more than four hours of presentations and debate, the board hadn’t decided whether to postpone the scheduled reopening of school classrooms on Aug. 17 after hearing conflicting opinions from medical experts.

Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick recommended only distance-learning until the county’s current 14-day rolling average of daily new cases is cut in half.

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.

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.

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. School districts in Carson City, Storey, Lander and Elko counties are among those still considering whether to resume teaching in classes.

Under the current plan that the Washoe County School board approved July 7, elementary students would do all learning in-person while those older would be on an alternating hybrid schedule with half in class and half distance-learning every other day. Exceptions would be made to allow full-time classroom teaching for disabled, gifted and talented students and those learning to speak English.

Masks and social-distancing would be required at all times on school property.

“Whatever we end up doing, it’s so disruptive to families,” board vice president Angie Taylor said.

Health district officials said 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 county’s 14-daily 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.

“What I would recommend is that school reopening be considered when new cases occurring in Washoe County are reduced to 100 or less per 100,000 population over a 14-day period. And daily new cases are on a decreasing trend,” he said. “I think that is the direction we need in order for the transmission not to cause additional problems that I think would lead to the school closure once reopen.”

Larson said in a letter to the board that Washoe School Superintendent Kristen 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.”

Dick warned board members to be cautious about recent studies Larson cited suggesting less of a threat that young children will become seriously ill or spread COVID-19 compared to adults. He said most of those studies have “limitations” because they were done on populations of children who were under stay-at-home directives or school closures at the time.

“So those children were not out doing everyday school activities during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said.

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