Nevada’s students are returning to school over the course of the next several weeks. It’s an exciting time, and we are all eager to see our students return to full-time, in-person learning. As the superintendent of Humboldt County School District, I have seen first-hand how hard the pandemic has been on our 3,300 students. However, despite the challenges we have faced and those ahead, I am optimistic that this will be a successful year, because we finally have what we need to support our students.
We all have witnessed how devastating the coronavirus was for our state’s economy, and that downturn hit schools hard. Districts, including Humboldt, struggled to adapt to remote learning with concerns we had over decreased funding. Fortunately, Congress delivered what we needed. A few weeks ago, while we were preparing for the school year to begin, several other Nevada superintendents and I met with our senator, Catherine Cortez Masto, to discuss the road ahead. Every one of the 17 school districts in Nevada has expressed the reality that we couldn’t have survived without the relief dollars Congress approved to help schools. This money not only allowed us to address our budget shortfalls, but to go beyond that and put smart programs in place to support the students most affected by the pandemic.
When COVID-19 first hit, districts scrambled to provide distance education opportunities for all of Nevada’s students. In Humboldt, that meant securing Chromebooks so students could connect to learning opportunities—a difficult task when schools all over the country were looking for that same equipment. Then we had to solve broadband connectivity problems for a district that spans 9600 square miles including rural areas, getting mobile hotspots and other creative solutions to reach students in the most remote locations. This would simply not have been possible without the money Senator Cortez Masto and her colleagues on both sides of the aisle brought to Humboldt County.
Once we’d solved the immediate problems of moving to distance learning, we began to worry about our ability to keep staff and teachers on payroll. As superintendent, I’ve always shared with our staff that their job is to support our students, while my role is to worry about the funding mechanisms. Our first charge is to educate the students of Humboldt County, and we can’t do that if we don’t have the personnel in place. I remain grateful for those federal dollars for making sure we could keep all of our staff.
During a crisis like the pandemic, many of our concerns extend outside the classroom. How could we be sure students were being fed when so many counted on our school lunch program? With this in mind, Senator Cortez Masto worked to make sure that we could provide breakfast and lunch to all of our students at no cost, whether they were learning in-person or at home. Thanks to legislation she secured last year, we were able to feed kids in our community even when school was operating remotely. In areas of Humboldt County where people are food insecure, our ability to provide meals for students made a big difference. In fact, the programs have been so successful that Nevada’s superintendents are advocating to make them permanent.
As schools now reopen, we face new challenges, including student mental health and learning loss. Federal COVID relief funds will allow us to expand our staff of trained counselors and social workers to provide one-on-one support for students who have struggled with the trauma and changes the COVID pandemic brought.
Addressing academic losses is our greatest challenge, and it’s going to be a task for the long term. Our goal is not only to help those students who were most affected make up lost ground, but also to prepare our staff members to work with all students to move them forward over the coming five, 10, or 15 years. American Rescue Plan funds are allowing us to hire coaches at all of our elementary schools to work with staff and students on foundational skills in English and math.
We’re also working to hire teachers and coaches for English Language (EL) learners, recognizing that group of students is experiencing some of the biggest COVID-19 impacts, and we’re glad that Sen. Cortez Masto and Congressman Amodei are pushing for new bipartisan legislation to address the nationwide shortage of English language teachers.
As we begin the 2021-2022 school year, our students and teachers have a lot of work ahead of them. Luckily, we have the resources we need to do it. I can’t wait to get started and to see the impact these funds will have on Humboldt County and Nevada as a whole.
Dr. David Jensen is the superintendent of Humboldt County School District.