Reopening schools is important enough to do right

By Brian Rippet

I love children. I love my job. This is my chosen career. I can’t imagine doing anything else, but I also want to live. I’m not ready to die.” - Vicki Kreidel, President of the NEA of Southern Nevada 

On the first day of the special session in Carson City, hundreds of educators with red face coverings and homemade signs lined the street calling on the Legislature to fund healthy schools. While the public was not allowed inside, the issues being discussed were too important for educators to just stay home. Nevada schools have been chronically underfunded for decades, with the most crowded classrooms in the country. Now amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and economic slide, the Legislature is considering $156 million in cuts to public education. 

I applaud the extraordinary care being taken to keep everyone safe inside the Legislative Building. It has been equipped with acrylic glass-shields, hand sanitizer, masks, hands-free faucets, foot pulls on doors, top of the line HVAC systems, electrostatic sprayers, antimicrobial coating on surfaces that lasts 90 days, and plenty of room to keep 63 legislators as well as staff safely distanced from one another. Our children and the adults that serve them deserve similar precautions. Every school building needs to receive this type of care before reopening.

Over the last week there has been a concerted push for schools to fully re-open in the fall. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos are demanding we ignore the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic and thoughtful recommendations from health experts and just reopen schools. In a CNN interview yesterday, Secretary DeVos stated, “The rule should be that kids should go back to schools this fall.” She declined to reference an actual plan or what the Department of Education’s response would be to a coronavirus outbreak in our schools. With no plan and no proposed funding, these comments are reckless. They ignore the fact that 1.5 million teachers (one in four) are at high risk of serious illness if infected with coronavirus. For many, reopening is more than an educational issue; it’s a life and death issue.

Blind calls to reopen in the fall are dangerous for students, parents, educators, and our community. Such calls are contrary to the science of COVID-19 and ignore numerous Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines. Secretary DeVos does not have a plan, so it is up to Nevadans to be even more responsible in our reopening.

Let me be clear: When it comes to when we reopen schools, we must follow the guidance of health experts. When it comes to how we reopen, we must be listening to educators.

Before reopening schools there needs to be a sufficient containment of the virus and available health infrastructure to address future outbreaks. There also needs to be a plan to continue containment of the virus that includes robust testing, contact tracing, and case isolation within the school community and in coordination with the broader community and state. At this moment, Nevada is not even close to meeting this threshold. Instead, the number of newly diagnosed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and the percentage of positive tests have all been increasing in recent weeks.

After the state meets the basic health threshold of containing the virus, school districts need to protect students and staff who are at higher risk for severe illness by providing options such as telework and distance learning, making sure students and staff stay home if they are sick and putting basic protections in place to prevent spread of COVID-19 in schools. These basic protections include physical distance (which may necessitate hybrid schedules); deterrence through the provision of masks; healthy hygiene practices, and ventilation; proper cleaning and disinfecting of schools and buses; and COVID-19 detection through screenings, isolating sick students and staff and closing as needed to contain any outbreak. In other words, the facilities and the people using them need the same safety precautions afforded the Legislature during this special session.

Nevada educators want to get back to classrooms and school sites more than anyone else, but the phrase “back to school” now means something entirely new. It means returning to schools that are better and safer for educators and students. Educators understand there is no replacement for face-to-face one-on-one instruction and interaction; however, we need the time and resources to reopen safely so we can get back to that. 

We are in this together, and it will take all of us to open our schools as soon as we safely can. This includes making sure resources are available from the federal and state government to safely reopen. We know that cutting the budgets while safely re-opening just is not possible. We need to fund what is necessary to ensure the safety of students, educators, our families and community. As more support from the federal government is stalled in the Senate, we have the opportunity right now to call on the Legislature to do better. Be brave and be bold. Find the additional revenue to safely reopen our schools and reverse all the proposed cuts to education.

Brian Rippet is a high school science teacher in Douglas County and president of the Nevada State Education Association.