WCSD halts in-person learning at middle and high schools, keeps elementary students in class

Nevada News

The Washoe County School Board voted Tuesday to keep in-person learning at elementary schools and move all its middle and high schools to a full distance learning plan beginning on Dec. 2 as the coronavirus continues to spread unchecked through the state.

The vote came during a meeting that stretched into the early morning hours, after the board heard from county and state officials that promised help is coming for testing, contact tracing and easing up requirements for substitutes amid widespread staff shortages.

“It is awful the decisions we are having to make,” a weary and tearful Board President Malena Raymond said as the meeting entered its ninth hour.

The board voted to tentatively have middle and high schoolers return to in-person instruction on Jan. 4, the traditional return date after the winter break. The board said it will discuss the return date at its Dec. 8 meeting. The decision will be based on improvements in contact tracing, testing availability and the shortage in substitute teachers. 

Students sit at picnic tables on the Hug High School campus on the first day of classes, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020.

Superintendent Kristen McNeill had recommended last week that the district move to full distance learning for all students amid a surge in COVID-19 cases and an overwhelmed health district that could not keep up with contact tracing of pediatric cases. She had recommended a shutdown of school buildings from Dec. 7 to Jan. 19.

But during the meeting state officials, including State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert said help was coming and credited the district for getting this far amid tough conditions.

“I truly feel the momentum is there,” McNeill said ahead of the vote about more help on the way for contact tracing and substitutes. 

Ebert said licensing waivers for substitutes was coming, which would allow the district to meet the demand of hundreds of teachers who are absent on any given day including those who are mandated to be excluded because of possible COVID-19 exposure. 

News:WCSD teachers oppose idea to cancel 2021 spring break, saying it would be ‘disrespectful’

One of the biggest issues the district has faced is a staff shortage. On Tuesday, the district said it was short 200 substitutes. 

Washoe County Commission Chairman Bob Lucey told the school board that the move to distance models for all students would hurt the health care system as those working on the front lines of this pandemic would need childcare.

“Your school district has done a phenomenal job and I would hate to see us go backwards when you have made so many strides forward,” he said. 

County Manager Eric Brown told the district if it shut down its middle and high schools, limited contact tracing of all children could be focused on elementary schools, where students would still be in classrooms. 

News:Will Washoe County schools close for six weeks? WCSD board votes Tuesday.

Siobhan McAndrew tells stories about the people of Northern Nevada and covers education in Washoe County. Read her journalism right here. Consider supporting her work by subscribing to the Reno Gazette Journal

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