#childsafety | As trustees vote to reopen schools, educators say plans aren’t realistic

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By Eric Marks and Jeri Davis

The Washoe County School School District this week held what was perhaps the most eagerly awaited Board of Trustees meeting so far this year. In another marathon session–almost 10 hours–district officials listened to recommendations from health department officials before voting to stick to the models it had previously discussed for reopening schools in August.

But some teachers say those models aren’t based in reality, citing concerns not just over whether students will follow the district’s rules, but whether the district itself will follow through on its promises to keep students and teachers safe. More on that later.

Health Officer: Keep schools closed to students

Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick and Heather Kerwin, Washoe County Epidemiology Program Manager, joined the meeting to share news about COVID-19 cases in Washoe County and answer trustees’ questions concerning reopening. 

Dick informed trustees that there were, at the time, an additional 35 cases of COVID-19 in Washoe County—for a total case count of 4,823. Total deaths at the time numbered 107. Dick said it was important to note an upward trend in COVID-19 cases, with new cases occurring daily. He said the county reached a record number of new cases, 159, on July 26.

Dick also noted that the county’s tracking of the seven-day moving average of COVID-19 cases had reached a new high of 97, making it clear that elevated levels of transmission are occurring in Washoe County. He did, however, take the time to acknowledge that nearly 3,500 people in Washoe County have “recovered” from the virus—though what that means is still in question, considering the scientific community’s limited knowledge of the long-term health effects of COVID-19.

Dick pointed out to trustees that he and Kerwin have been involved in responding to COVID-19 since it became a concern in Washoe County.  He said they have worked to help expand testing and have seen the district expend additional resources on combatting the spread of the virus. He said they’ve also worked to make this information publicly available and to efficiently execute contact tracing.

He did not mince words in telling the trustees that lifting stay-at-home orders and reopening businesses—including casinos–has led to a spike in new cases.

“We are seeing record numbers of people at the drive-through testing site, 709 on [July 24],” Dick said. He added that the state lab is becoming overwhelmed and that, as of July 28, they’d yet to receive test results from tests conducted on July 24. Even with federal funds, the health district—which Dick said has expanded its staff and operations to fill large portions of three buildings at the county complex and a sizable portion of Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center—can’t keep up on investigations and contact tracing.

Washoe County District Health Officer Kevin Dick speaks at a COVID-19 press conference in March 2020 at the onset of the pandemic. Image: Trevor Bexon

“We are falling behind and losing that opportunity to get people isolated and quarantined,” Dick said.

Dick said the results of the antibody testing study conducted in June to see what portion of population had been infected indicated that about five times as many people had the virus than had been identified through swab tests.

Dick commended the school board for its work on reopening plans before reiterating his opposition to the reopening of schools.

“It’s obviously an issue that is quite important for our community. And there are many people who disagree with it, and I believe there are many people who agree with it. But it is not to open schools at this time.”

He recommended that schools should only be considered for reopening in Washoe County when the reported numbers are “100 or less per 100,000 population over a 14-day period.” At the time of his report, he said the county was at about 240 cases per 100,000. 

He did, however, say that the WCSD staff would be OK to have teachers return to classrooms and use the schools’ resources to conduct distance learning. 

“Without the students at the school, there is quite a lot of space for the teachers to operate safely,” he said. 

Dick and Kerwin answered a series of questions from the trustees, including one from Taylor questioning if there are false positive tests for COVID-19 and if they pose a problem. 

According to Kerwin, false negatives actually present the greater threat as they cost health officials the opportunity to get infected patients isolated in a timely manner. 

Asked by Trustee Katy Simon Holland to speak to the common claim that the seasonal flu kills more children than COVID-19, Kerwin acknowledged that there had been “pediatric deaths” in Washoe County last year as a result of the seasonal flu but said it by no means should be construed to mean the seasonal flu is deadlier. During an average flu season, there are not large numbers of people quarantining themselves.

With WCSD planning to reopen schools despite his advice, Dick said he is working with district officials to create a contingency plan in case of an outbreak of COVID-19 in one or more schools. Asked by Taylor when information might become available about whether closures would include classrooms, entire schools or more, Dick said he hoped a final document would be available later in the week. Earlier in the meeting, he’d acknowledged the school district’s authority to reopen schools but also made it clear that, “if necessary,” he would use his legal authority to shut the district down. 

No changes to the plan

Trustees revisited the learning models with no changes made to the July 7 proposals,  and discussed the personal protective equipment (PPE) and supply chain concerns.  

The district has stated it has multiple options for families to receive high quality, standards-based instruction without coming into schools–noting that platforms such as North Star, Edgenuity and online curriculum planning guides ”meet all requirements.” 

Instruction will be supported daily by certified teachers who must receive ongoing professional learning support. Nutrition services will also be employed by the district with grab-and-go style meals available and convenient pick-up times available for families. 

Preparing for safe schools and weighing the harms

About half way through the meeting Board President Malena Raymond stopped the proceedings to review new directives from Gov. Steve Sisolak, including a reduction to the amount of required social distancing space for all students from kindergarten to middle school from six to only three feet.  

His decision was based on input from his Medical Advisory Team members,  including University of Nevada, Reno, Dean of Community Health Sciences Dr. Trudy Larson, with whom Kevin Dick disagrees. 

The new directive will also allow for a plan for deviation from certain protocols in areas where virus transmissions are low and it is decided a safety risk is not posed to students or staff members. 

WCSD Chief Facilities Management Officer Adam Searcy reviews the district’s health and safety plans during a July 29 meeting.

The board also took time to review its safety protocols from sanitizing to self-screening for illness, including the required wearing of face masks. The district has 50,000 masks on hand and is awaiting 50,000 more, according to Chief Facilities Management Officer Adam Searcy. The district will still encourage students to provide their own, however. 

Safety concerns were voiced by several board members, including Vice President Angie Taylor and trustee Ellen Minetto–though, the concerns were more about the safety some students would normally find in schools all of the time, not just during a global pandemic. 

“There is an element of numbing going on,” Minetto said. “We need to be living. I worry about equity and children with disabilities and minorities.” 

She cited a CDC study that discusses the harm that can be done to some students by missing out on in-person learning and also discussed her concerns for students who may live in abusive households. 

Taylor expressed similar views but also expressed “disappointment in the community” with regard to keeping COVID-19 numbers down. 

Trustee Simon Holland was the only member to oppose the plans in the 6-1 vote. 

“I truly, truly believe that the trustees are taking everything into consideration: all of the data, all of the comments. It’s a huge lift,” Superintendent Kristen McNeill said.

Teachers with whom This Is Reno spoke following the vote largely said they disagree with the district’s plan to return to in-class instruction. Many echoed Dick’s reasoning. 

Teachers speak on the decision

Teachers who spoke with This Is Reno agreed to do so upon the condition of anonymity. Each educator with whom we spoke teaches at a WCSD school. Some mentioned fear of retribution from the school district should their names be published.

“WCSD has a track record of lashing out at people who speak out against them in really nasty ways,” said one high school teacher. “I’ve heard horror stories since I’ve moved here of teachers who have lost their jobs because they spoke out against the board of trustees, they spoke at the board of trustees.” (This district is facing a number of lawsuits and has threatened to sue critics and This Is Reno in particular for “defamation.”)

This same teacher said he’d watched the entire July 28 board of trustees meeting and had been concerned by much of it, including trustee Minetto’s and Vice President Taylor’s comments regarding equity. He was also disturbed by a comment Minetto made that he felt insinuated that middle school students would struggle with remote learning and would likely lazily play video games on the days when they’re supposed to study from home.

“Education is just a piece of equity,” he said. “If a child is worried about getting grandma sick when they go home, if they’re worried about their health, they’re probably not worried about the Pythagorean Theorem. I’m just going out on a limb there…So, after Angie Taylor said she’s worried about equity, Ellen Minetto then adopted what Angie Taylor had said and then started banging this drum of equity. You don’t get to call our students lazy and then bang the drum of equity right after. You don’t get to do that.”

He said what he saw during the meeting was the region’s most vulnerable populations being “literally weaponized” to advance the cause of reopening schools, in spite of Health Officer Dick’s warnings.

“They took our most vulnerable populations and used them as leverage to reopen schools, and that I found particularly disgusting,” he said.

Mental health now?: ‘We’ve been talking about this for so long’

One middle school teacher said he was frustrated that the mental health of students was cited as a reason for reopening. 

“Teachers and counselors and everybody in education have been screaming for mental health for decades because we are so underserviced,” he said. “We don’t have the capacity to treat the mental health of kids. And only now, at the rest of society’s inconvenience, are people like, ‘Oh, mental health. This is the number one priority now for our kids.’ We’ve been talking about this for so long, and now you want to say that this is the excuse you’re going to give for sending teachers back to a very dangerous area?” 

He added that the mental health repercussions of worrying about the disease could be great for children. 

“Talk about mental health—they’re going to be the ones that bring it home and give it to their grandparents,” he said. “How is that going to make a kid feel, when they know that they gave their grandparents the disease that killed them?”

In person, but not normal

Other teachers with whom This Is Reno spoke were also concerned by Dick’s warnings about physical health risks and the school board’s decision not to heed them.

“Honestly, I worry,” said one middle school teacher. “When I listened to the Washoe County Health Department representative…he said that kids have [COVID-19] right now in Washoe County, can get it, will get it—and kids will die. And there are no kids I am OK with dying. That seems like playing with people’s lives to me.”

She said, “Of course…teachers want to go back. We want to see our students. But we want it the way it was. We want it to be normal, and it’s not normal. So, yeah, I’m scared. I don’t think they can put in place the things they think they can. I don’t think it can be as safe as they think it can.”

She said she ended “mostly being angry” about the board’s decision but respected Simon-Holland’s nay vote on reopening.

Another high school teacher said, “There was a lot of lip service given to, ‘We really care about our teachers,’ but you would be hard-pressed to find that in the actions that they took.”

Teachers’ concerns, he said, were not taken into account—and in talking with them, it’s clear that there are many—from enforcing social distancing to receiving necessary PPE and training.

Of returning to school for in-person learning, one middle school teacher told This Is Reno, “We want to see our students. But we want it the way it was. We want it to be normal, and it’s not normal.” Scenes like this one won’t be a part of the school year.

Enforcing the rules already a challenge

From boogers to bullying to belligerence, teachers expressed myriad concerns about enforcing social distancing when school resumes next month.

“I feel like we’re going to spend so much more time on classroom management, which is trying to manage distance and personal hygiene,” said the middle school teacher who likened reopening to playing with people’s lives. “Anyone who’s been…in a classroom knows how hard this is going to be.”

Another middle school teacher said he worries about his fellow educators enforcing rules.

“I think most teachers are really awesome people, but I don’t trust 100% of teachers to even enforce the mask rule,” he said. “There are some people in our profession that will say, ‘Well, it inconveniences me, so I’m going to take my mask off—and you guys can, too. I don’t think the virus is in here right now. You’re fine.’”

He said he also fears that parents will not take the proper precautions to ensure either students’ health or their educational attainment.

“I’m guessing that most of my parents are going to say, ‘The school has it covered. Go back to school,’ to their kids, and it’s pretty clear that we don’t have it covered,” he said. “We’re not ready for this at all. I feel like everybody’s waiting on a miracle so they don’t have to make a tough decision that people aren’t going to like. But if they don’t make that tough decision, teachers are going to die, support staff are going to die, bus drivers are going to die—or go to the hospital for two or three weeks on a respirator. Or kids are going to take this disease home to their parents and kill them, or their grandparents. I have so many kids that are being raised by their grandparents, so many.”

The middle school teachers also expressed a concern for bullying and how children might employ the virus in it.

An elementary school teacher who spoke with This Is Reno said she can appreciate safety planning but thinks its execution is an entirely different matter.

Teachers say enforcing the rules at school, such as no cell phones, is already a challenge, and expressed concerns over increasing defiance from students. (Traner Middle School students take photos of Temple Grandin in 2017, Photo: Ty O’Neil)

“We have all of these beautiful plans put into place, but sometimes I think that in our planning we often forget  the reality of children—and the fact that you may tell a child that they have to stay six or three feet away…but I invite you to come into my classroom and see what actually happens,” she said. “We were having trouble with keeping kids from chewing on their shirts before this, you know, keeping kids from flinging boogers, keeping kids from swapping lunches and sharing hats. Kids do these things.”

At the high school level, there are also concerns about enforcement.

“One of the trustees had said, ‘As students get older, they follow the rules better.’ Clearly, none of those Board of Trustees members have ever told a high schooler to put their phone away—clearly,” said one of the high school teachers. “The reality is as students get older, they become more defiant.”

He said while he’s cultivated an environment of mutual respect in his classroom, he knows that’s not the case in every classroom and worries students who become agitated or angry with their teachers will take their masks off as a way to act out.  

“I’ve heard stories of students with behavioral intervention plans who are outwardly defiant,” he added. “And these are students who already will cuss out a teacher in class just to get a reaction. Now all they have to do is cough in that direction. That will take the place of cussing. That will take the place of outbursts. That will take the place of so much.”

Lack of trust in district’s promises

In addition to their fears concerning the enforcement of things like social distancing and mask wearing, teachers also expressed worries about PPE, how it will be provided and if it will meet the needs of teachers and staff.

One elementary school music teacher, whose music room is being converted for use as a regular classroom, said she’s been purchasing her own PPE ahead of the semester—which will see her using a cart to travel classroom to classroom to deliver her lessons.

“I am also taking it upon myself to provide myself with the PPE at a level and expense that I personally feel comfortable with because the unknowns are exactly what’s going to be provided to teachers,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable waiting around to find out. Nor do I feel comfortable not knowing what it is they’ll be providing.”

She also expressed concern for how often she might be able to be tested for the virus and what the turnaround on those results might be. 

“Even if I get tested on a daily basis, if you’re not telling me until five or 10 days later…if they expect me to do the quality and level of education to which they hold me, I will be within close proximity with every single child by the end of the week,” she said. 

Other teachers echoed her PPE concerns, noting that the district has struggled to provide more basic materials in the past.

“I’ve got a school district that can’t provide me with enough pencils for my classroom, but I’m supposed to trust that you’ll provide me with enough face masks for my students?” said one of the high school teachers. “I don’t think that’s going to happen, to be honest. They’ve failed me time and time again.”

Teachers also expressed concern for their own lack of choices in the reopening of schools—including the decision to return in-person at all.

“The teachers’ union had told us that they were working on there being enough digital learning positions for anyone who wanted them, but then they went ahead and told the district, ‘We don’t feel that safe for anyone to go back in person,’” said one of the middle school teachers. “So, at this point, nothing has been negotiated for if anyone is able to have those positions where they’re not face-to-face.”

She said she was also concerned that she’s still unclear as to how sick days will be applied and if it will end up costing her out-of-pocket money should she become ill since teachers are required to pay for substitutes who fill in for them.

“We get 15…sick days a year, and we have to pay $90 every day—whether they can find a sub or not, and they probably cannot find a sub. But we still have to pay $90 a day out of our pay, to be gone…and then if you’re out of sick days…then you’re just losing money and paying out of pocket.”

‘The community bears some responsibility, too’

One of the high school teachers said he would have been more comfortable reopening schools had some benchmark for COVID-19 case reductions been set.

“I think if we want to open, the community bears some responsibility, too,” he said. “And I think it would have been good to set a benchmark, to say, ‘If the community wants us to open, here’s where we need to get to.”

A health district worker wears PPE at a county COVID-19 test site. Image: Eric Marks

He added that he’d gone through a McDonald’s drive-thru the night prior to get food for one of his two school-aged children and had found the workers there wearing their masks beneath their noses or chins when not at the drive-thru window.

“That’s not a community that’s taking it seriously,” he said.

One of the middle school teachers with whom This Is Reno spoke said he’s all too familiar with the idea of teachers as martyrs but never thought of it as literal until now.

“Teaching is a calling, and we’re here for the kids,” he said. “So, the system can treat us poorly, and we’re going to martyr ourselves and do the overtime we’re not getting paid for. The system can treat us poorly, and we’re going to martyr ourselves and go buy more materials. I mean, that was all figurative until today. And now they’re literally asking us to martyr ourselves for the situation. 

“This is the first time in my career—and I’ve been teaching for seven years—I don’t know if I want to be a teacher anymore, if society is literally going to ask us to go die, to put ourselves at risk. We didn’t sign up to soldiers or police officers. This isn’t a part of our job,” he said.

He said he feels like the current reopening plan was a “political decision that is absolutely going to get people killed,” but that a mortgage and young family will         drive him back into the classroom within a few weeks’ time.

“I’m going to go back to work when they mandate I should—but at this point, I feel horrible for even thinking this…I hope the grenade that launches the shutdown of schools—because I believe it’s going to happen when COVID starts erupting in schools left and right—that it just doesn’t happen to be at my school,” he said. “That’s the only thing that I hope, that it happens to somebody else now—because that’s the position I’m in now. We’re going back to school. I hope it’s a small case and that it just doesn’t happen to the people I know.”

How much is too much to ask?

But what can be done about any of it? It is technically against state law for public employees—teachers included—to go on strike. In fact, it could cost them their jobs individually and cost their unions money to the tune of $50,000 a day. 

“There’s the possibility of a strike,” said one of the high school teachers. “That comes with its own legal problems. There are also sick-outs teachers can do where they all refuse to go on the first day, the first week. Teachers could say, ‘I’m only going to work my contract. I will not work one minute more, and I will not do one extra thing.’ If teachers did that en masse, then the schools are going to have some problems.”

Some elementary school teachers, including the music teacher who spoke with This Is Reno, also mentioned the possibility of strikes. 

“If people strike, I feel that those who choose to strike, as well as the public, need to understand that they’re not striking for COVID,” she said. “They’re striking for a situation in which our state has been treating public education for decades, and this just happens to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. We need these words to wash over us. Our teachers are not lazy. Our teachers are not looking to skim a dime off of anybody. Our teachers have been working their asses off to provide for our students before the pandemic, during the pandemic and in continuation.”

She said the problem is that if teachers continue to see more students and more tasks added to their plates, there will come a time when they can do no more. 

One of the high school teachers added that he doesn’t think teachers’ strikes would be enough. 

“Education has been in this continual loop of: teachers speak out, we get capacitated for a very short time. We speak out, we get capacitated,” he said, going on to note that, in his opinion, it could make a big difference if parents followed suit and called their students out sick or students staged sick-outs of their own. 

Teachers’ union keeping tabs on situation

In the meantime, all of the teachers with whom This Is Reno spoke said they’re looking to their union, the Washoe County Education Association (WEA), to continue working on their behalf. 

And WEA—which opposes WCSD’s reopening plan—does appear to be keeping its ear to the ground. The union recently sent a warning to WCSD teachers not to sign a liability waiver that had been floated to at least some who coach sports teams.

In a letter sent to union members, the WEA wrote, “If the District presents you with this or any other waiver, please do not sign it and notify WEA immediately.”

The email included as an attachment one such letter.

“WEA has consulted with legal counsel, and we have been advised that presentation of such a waiver to a WEA member is unlawful,” the email read. “Your right to a safe workplace and right to file a worker’s compensation claim cannot be waived, and such waivers are unlawful under Nevada law.”

The email also noted that “safety of the employee” is a mandatory subject of the union’s bargaining under Nevada state law and that such waivers would have to go through the appropriate process, “and we can tell you right now that the answer is ‘NO!’  You have a right to a safe workplace, and WEA will continue to fight to ensure you get it.”

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