Lawmakers accept $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan funds; approve millions for homeowner assistance, education programs

State lawmakers have formally approved accepting Nevada’s $2.7 billion share of the American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, while also approving a slew of initial spending programs including more than $50 million to help low-income Nevadans pay for housing.

Members of the Interim Finance Committee met Tuesday to authorize the governor’s office to accept the full ARP allotment and designate allocations of more than $76 million in federal aid programs, including $39.5 million in rental assistance, $12.1 million in homeowner assistance and $13.9 million for the Department of Education to ensure federal relief funds are properly administered.

Tuesday’s meeting — the first interim meeting of legislators since the regular 120-day session ended last month — also served to outline how lawmakers and the governor’s office plan to spend the multibillion-dollar federal windfall. 

The vote taken by lawmakers (which also funds the $5 million in vaccine incentive prizes announced by the state last week) will place the federal dollars into an executive budget account, which lawmakers said they will use similarly to a reserve account and to fund proposed programs after gathering additional public input. The state set up an online portal to accept spending ideas from members of the public, members of executive branch agencies and state lawmakers, and IFC Chair Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas) said it has received about 1,000 submissions since it opened in April.

Lawmakers stressed that the votes on Tuesday were not intended to leapfrog other priorities for the federal funds — including legislation passed just weeks ago requiring the state to spend $335 million of the allotment to pay back money borrowed from the federal government to sustain unemployment benefits and $54 million to modernize the state’s unemployment insurance system.

“This is the agreement that we have, and we just want to make sure it's very clear to folks that we can walk and chew gum and fix two or three problems at the same time,” Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said during the meeting.

Brooks said that the $2.7 billion was only a portion of the estimated $7 billion total in federal monies coming to the state in the form of direct grants to school districts, counties and cities, and myriad other programs. With all the different pots of money, he said lawmakers “want to make sure that there's no waste, and that it's going to the best and highest use, and there's no duplication.”

Here’s a look at some of the major funding allocations made by the committee on Tuesday:

Homeowner assistance program

Programs to help tenants catch up on rent have been up and running for the last year, but a vote on Tuesday gets the ball rolling on an entirely new, $121 million program to support struggling homeowners.

The Homeowner Assistance Fund is targeted toward property owners who have faced hardship since late January 2020 or after on account of the pandemic. Because the state needs time to set up a portal and put the project out to bid, it will probably take at least 90 days before applications are accepted.

Instead of being disbursed through the state and local government agencies, the fund will be managed by the Nevada Affordable Housing Assistance Corporation, which previously had been administering money from the U.S. Treasury’s Hardest Hit Fund that supported 18 states affected most by the Great Recession.

The Hardest Hit Fund was a $200 million program that ultimately supported about 8,000 individual homeowners. The new Homeowner Assistance Fund is expected to help about 6,800 households.

Carlton said federal COVID-19 aid had previously been reserved to help renters pay their landlords, on the understanding that tenants were exposed to the more immediate effects of the pandemic and mortgage forbearance initiatives would relieve pressure on homeowners. But she said many homeowners have been asking for assistance.

“Seeing a program come forward for homeowners is very gratifying,” she said.

Lawmakers approved spending 10 percent of the allotment to get the program up and running, with plans to build out technology infrastructure and ramp up staffing at the corporation that officials say is operating with a skeleton crew. The first initiatives are expected to be the Unemployment Mortgage Assistance Program — which would bring homeowners who are receiving unemployment benefits current on payments and help support a monthly payment — as well as a Mortgage Reinstatement Assistance Program geared toward people who have returned to work and need to get current with payments to avoid a foreclosure.

The unemployment program is expected to be capped at $54,000 per recipient, with the reinstatement program capped at $35,000 per recipient. But officials are eyeing a complete program limit of $100,000 per recipient, with the understanding that the program might evolve over time and people also could need principal reduction. 

Officials plan to get the word out through partnerships with housing counseling agencies, legal aid organizations and more than 100 mortgage servicers. The outreach involves coordinated mail campaigns that put special emphasis on hard-hit areas.

The program is expected to last for about five years. Some lawmakers questioned whether the estimated $17 million in administrative costs for the program was too high; officials said the costs stem from the complexity of complying with U.S. Treasury guidelines and the fact that applicants may need widely varying amounts of money.

Preparing for education spending

The committee also approved a round of allocations of ARP funds for the Department of Education that included nearly $14 million to ensure that federal relief funds for K-12 schools are properly administered.

“This is a whole new world for us,” said Carlton, who also serves as vice chair of the committee. “So we just want to be able to build in some of that transparency and ongoing communication between the department and IFC on how these dollars are spent in the future.”

In order to ensure the department’s spending of ARP funds is in compliance with guidance from the U.S. Treasury, the agency plans to use $431,000 of federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to hire an “education programs supervisor,” who will help oversee the rollout of ARP funds over the coming years.

The additional funds for the department will go toward other temporary positions aimed at supporting the administration of ARP funds, as well as a few other small programs, including $400,000 to help the department in its transition to the new funding formula.

However, one project included within the department’s allocation of ARP funds was hotly contested during the meeting — a request for $10 million to contract with an external auditor who would help ensure the department remains compliant with ESSER and ARP requirements.

Some lawmakers questioned whether the audit would be needed and how long the contract would take, while others expressed concern over giving the agency the full $10 million for a multiyear contract when the department still needs to reach an agreement with a third party to complete the audit.

“We totally appreciate the audit function,” Carlton said. “Not with the Department of Education, but with other departments, we've had problems where we've given it all to them and found out at the end that none of it worked. And we ended up in a lawsuit, and we had to fund it all over again.”

The committee settled on allocating $5 million for the contract, with plans for the department to come back to the committee when it needs the rest of the funding for the audit contract.

The IFC additionally approved $1.8 million for the department with the goal of identifying and supporting the needs of homeless students.

However, IFC Chair Chris Brooks questioned the breakdown of that allocation across different county school districts. The breakdown was not available for public viewing.

“Why does Carson City — a population of 50,000 people — get $170,000 and Clark (County) — population of two-point-something million — get roughly twice that $342,000?” Brooks asked.

Seng-Dao Yang Keo, director of the Office of Student and School Supports for the department, explained that districts are awarded the grants competitively based on a variety of factors that include percentage of youth who are homeless and county capacity for serving those youth, which is why “one might see the disproportionality.”

Through ARP funding for homeless children and youth, the state will eventually be getting another round of funding of nearly $5.3 million to support that same population.

Other allocations

The committee approved a wide swath of work programs during the Tuesday meeting, including a few smaller allocations of ARP funding.

One allocation of federal funds will grant the Nevada Arts Council nearly $800,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts to help support non-profit arts organizations and individual artists as they recover from the pandemic.

The committee also approved $2.7 million to improve access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits by bolstering the infrastructure of the program, which includes expanding the program’s call center capacity and reducing call center wait times. The allocation is meant to ensure benefits can better reach underserved communities.

Another allocation of a little more than $100,000 in ARP funds, along with more than $200,000 in CARES Act funding, will go towards setting up the Office of Small Business Advocacy, which was established by AB184 during the 2021 legislative session. The office is meant to provide assistance directly to small businesses owners, including connecting those owners directly to economic relief programs.

After some discussion, committee members approved an allocation of around $2.5 million in federal funds aimed at addressing health disparities among at-risk and underserved populations. Sen. Julia Ratti (D-Sparks) commended the Department of Health and Human Services’ ability to coordinate and work with a variety of stakeholders during the pandemic, but noted that “we also want to do a better job specifically on health equity, specifically on disparate impact.” 

DHHS officials responded that the department is looking at continuing to fund its Office of Minority Health and Equity and support its Minority Health and Equity Coalition. Tina Dortch with the office of Minority Health and Equity said that the office has been cultivating relationships in minority communities and will keep working with those communities. Dortch added that the additional funding will allow staff to continue to develop those relationships and build out existing programming.

Legislators on the committee also approved allocating $283,000 to the Department of Motor Vehicles for computer programming costs associated with legislation approved in the 2021 session, including measures decriminalizing traffic tickets (AB116), changes to special license plates for the Las Vegas Golden Knights (AB123) and the “Divine Nine” Black sororities and fraternities (SB163) and prohibiting the suspension of driver license fees by a court over unpaid fees or fines (SB219).

Updated on June 24, 2021 at 8:25 a.m. to correct the amount of funding allocated to the DMV for implementation of bills passed by the 2021 Legislature.

Labor Secretary announces $4 million in federal grant money for Nevada apprenticeship programs

Flanked by Gov. Steve Sisolak and more than a dozen state and local officials, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced a near-$4 million federal grant for apprenticeships in Nevada. 

During a roundtable discussion at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, Walsh said the money came as part of a broader $130 million program across 15 states to spur job training as the country’s pandemic recovery accelerates. 

The announcement comes as the Biden Administration seeks to straddle a fine economic line in the post-pandemic period. Some key economic indicators, including inflation and supply chains, remain in flux. 

Touting the recovery efforts from the White House, including both the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, Walsh said the money would go toward developing, modernizing and diversifying apprenticeship programs nationwide. 

“I've traveled, now, quite a bit in the last month and a half here ... and it was just amazing what's happening,” Walsh said. “When you think about what the pandemic has done, I think that we're going to come back and say the pandemic eventually strengthened the American workforce.”

Allocated to the Governor’s Office of Workforce Innovation, with partners across higher education and local government, the grant money will support apprenticeships in health care, manufacturing and information technology. 

Sisolak has frequently homed in on the function of the state’s community colleges as necessary engines for workforce development. That includes an effort in which he led a legislative push to study the role of such workforce development programs at community colleges. 

As part of that effort, Sisolak also spearheaded a call to explore possible changes to community college funding and governance structures — even down to pursuing a separate governing board for Nevada’s four community colleges.

Taken together, community college students comprise roughly 44 percent of all Nevada college students, with more students at CSN alone — 31,500 as of fall 2020 — than any other higher education institution in the state. 

On Tuesday, Sisolak said that as the pandemic wanes, “we've got a lot of workers we need to retrain.”

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said. “And it gives people an opportunity, they have to retrain themselves to get back into the job market to learn a skill that they otherwise wouldn't have.” 

Tuesday’s announcement also comes in the context of yet another crisis for the state’s hospitality industry, cratering employment gains made after the years-long recovery from the Great Recession. 

Even as vaccinations have led to the widespread reversal of most COVID-19 restrictions, Nevada’s headline unemployment rate lags the national average by roughly 2 percentage points, with the unemployment rate in Clark County double that of Washoe, 9 percent compared to just 4.5 percent. 

The Indy Explains: What's happening to categorical funding under the new K-12 financing plan?

Long before the pandemic thrust online video platform Zoom into the national vernacular, the term held a very different meaning in Nevada.

In 2013, former Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a bipartisan bill that ushered $50 million toward students learning English as a second language. The schools that received money, all of which have large numbers of non-English-speaking students, came to be known as “Zoom schools.”

Two years later, so-called “Victory schools” debuted and money began flowing to schools serving a large population of students from low-income households.

These two programs are perhaps the most well-known examples of state categorical funding, which lived outside of Nevada’s old K-12 funding formula. Some operated as competitive grants, meaning school districts needed to apply and be selected to receive the money. Others were distributed via formulas. The arrangement provided school districts little flexibility, given the prescriptive nature of the grants. 

But a new funding formula has changed the money game. The Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — which was created during the 2019 Legislature and is being implemented for the upcoming biennium — essentially does away with categorical grants by consolidating them and sending the money to school districts through different methods.

Heidi Haartz, deputy superintendent for business and support services within the Nevada Department of Education, explained it this way: 

“If a school district received the categorical grant … they got to hire a specific number of lead literacy specialists. They got to hire a specific number of social workers, this specific number of school resource officers. There were limits on what they could do based on the categorical grant,” she said. “Now, school districts and charter schools receive those funds and they can decide — do I need more literacy specialists than one per elementary school? Do I need more social workers and maybe fewer school resource officers? Or is that different this year than it might be next year? It gives them incredible flexibility to meet the needs of their students, and in real time.”

So what exactly is happening to all the categorical grants? Here’s a breakdown:

A large chunk of categorical funds are being consolidated in the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan and re-allocated through the statewide base and adjusted base per-pupil funding amounts. 

Twenty-six state categorical grants are being “melted” into the State Education Fund, so they will no longer be standalone initiatives. Class Size Reduction, New Teacher Incentives, Nevada Ready 21 Technology, College and Career Ready Diploma Incentives, Read by Grade 3, School Social Workers and School Resource Officers are among the grant programs being consolidated.

Some of those programs weathered pandemic-related budget cuts, although, in the final days of the legislative session, state lawmakers added roughly $500 million to the education budget to restore some of the funding. 

The statewide base per-pupil funding for the 2021-2022 fiscal year is $6,980. The adjusted per-pupil funding amounts — which take into account variation in local costs — range from $7,222 in Washoe County to $33,746 in Eureka County for that same fiscal year.

Three types of categorical state grants will be consolidated in the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan and redistributed as weights.

Those include the Zoom, Victory and New Nevada Funding Plan (SB178) programs. All three will go toward providing extra money — or “weights” — for students learning English as a second language and those who come from low-income households. The weight for at-risk students will go to children who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. The SB178 funding, which previously served students performing in the lowest quartile academically, will be split between the two weights.

The weights, which are a multiplier of the statewide base per-pupil funding, have been set at 0.24 for English language learners and 0.03 for at-risk students. Given the statewide base per-pupil amount, that works out to roughly an extra $1,648 for English language learners and $209 for at-risk students.

Some have criticized the transition, saying the weights are too low and, thus, is watering down the successful Zoom and Victory programs, which provided support to students through tutoring, extended school periods, reading centers and more. But education officials say the long-awaited transition to weights ultimately will lead to more students receiving services — not just those who happen to attend a school that received Zoom or Victory funding.

The goal is to add to the weights over time, gradually increasing the amount of money sent to students. The Legislature recently passed a new mining tax bill that sends an additional $500 million toward education; meanwhile, the Commission on School Funding, which is the advisory body shepherding the new funding formula into existence, has recommended the state consider changes to property or sales taxes to further expand K-12 funding.

For now, the amount being sent to support English language learners and at-risk students is on par with the existing allotment.

In fiscal year 2020, the state allocated $144 million combined for Zoom, Victory and SB178 categorical funding programs. For the upcoming fiscal year, under the new funding plan, the state plans to allocate $145.3 million toward the English language learner and at-risk weights. About $85 million would go toward students learning English as a second language, while $60.3 million would be sent to at-risk students. 

While most of the categorical grants are moving to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, some will remain outside of it.

Those include federal grants requiring a maintenance of efforts, such as special education, as well as funding for pre-kindergarten, career and technical education, adult education and Teach Nevada Scholarships.

Operational funding for the Nevada Department of Education also lies outside the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. For instance, the department receives funding for the Office of the Superintendent, educator licensure, professional development programs and assessments, among other agency needs.

Regents approve UNR-Renown deal, faculty merit pay policy in marathon two-day meeting

The Board of Regents met for two days this week to hash out a host of higher education issues in the wake of a busy legislative session that saw operational budgets slashed even as personnel budgets were spared. 

The result was a whirlwind of new approved policies, including finalizing a major partnership deal for the UNR School of Medicine, the first dedicated merit-pay funding source for faculty since the Great Recession and the ushering in of new board leadership for the new fiscal year. 

Below are some of the major moves regents made this week. 

UNR Med-Renown Health partnership gets green light after hitting temporary snag on sale-clause

Roughly 10 months after initial negotiations began on a partnership deal between the UNR Medical School and Reno-area health care giant Renown Health, regents voted 12-1 to approve a landmark agreement that will tie the two parties together for the next 50 years. 

The final vote Friday came after a months-long process of votes across different bodies, with the deal clearing both Renown’s corporate board and the Legislature. 

Regents, administrators and Renown executives have hailed the agreement as “transformative,” and a major step in expanding the scope of UNR’s medical programs, teaching programs and clinical research. 

“We are one of the last medical schools to be community-based, as we are now,” UNR Med Dean Tom Schwenk said.

Schwenk said the lack of any public-private agreement limited the school’s ability to expand clinical research, expand class sizes and build new residency programs, all reasons why “every medical school in the country has pursued this type of health system partnership.” 

Still, some regents raised concerns over the half-century length of the deal — the first of its kind in Nevada — as well as over provisions that could trigger the sale of the medical school’s clinical research department under certain conditions. 

As written, the deal would allow Renown to terminate the agreement if the sum of state funding and student tuition money dropped by 20 percent or more in a single year. Under those conditions, the clause would give Renown a right of first offer to purchase UNR Medical School’s basic science and clinical research departments. 

Coupled with the lengthy timeline, Board Chair Mark Doubrava said that while he supported the effort from a “medical education standpoint,” the sale clause could prove to be an unintended landmine should economic downturns or unexpected inflation shifts trigger the fine print of the agreement. 

“This could potentially serve as a template for UNLV when they do their associations, so that means we have to get this one right,” Doubrava said. 

Doubrava — an ophthalmologist who earned his medical degree from UNR in 1989 — was ultimately the sole vote against approval, saying afterward that his objection was “just an issue of contracts.”

Still, all other board members expressed approval of the language as written, deferring in part to UNR President Brian Sandoval’s description of the clause as a “safety net” that would protect the school in a worst-case scenario, rather than a mechanism by which Renown would privatize the school. 

“The intent of it was that, in the very unlikely event there was a dramatic reduction in funding which would lend itself to a closure of the clinic facilities — this was an effort on behalf of Renown to try and keep the doors open,” Sandoval told regents. “And it would be subject to the review and approval of the regents, and so I think that was just a safety clause.” 

Regents OK faculty merit pay policy amid concerns over timing 

After four years of deliberations, studies and lobbying between faculty, regents and the state government, regents voted unanimously Friday to set aside a 1 percent pool of institutional funding for performance pay raises. 

It is the first such permanent funding pool since state-funded merit raises were defunded during the Great Recession. 

Faculty advocates — who have long raised concerns that the absence of merit raises was compressing salaries, worsening diversity issues and harming morale — hailed the vote as a success.

“It’s a great victory,” Doug Unger, president of the UNLV chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, said. “It’s been four years of work, faculty really want it … it’s been a long time coming.”  

In approving the measure, regents also bumped up the timing for the implementation of such raises to 2023. Amid a bevy of budgetary unknowns and in the wake of steep cuts to operational budgets after the legislative session, the original measure called for implementation no later than 2024. 

Chancellor Melody Rose characterized the timeline not as a “delay tactic,” but as a due-diligence measure that would allow the system and institutions to better grasp budget limits before committing millions to institutional pay-raise pools. 

But that timeline was criticized by faculty, including Unger, who said they “just couldn’t wait any longer” after just one performance pay increase in the last 12 years. 

Friday’s vote also comes in the wake of a controversial move by legislators to approve different cost-of-living raises for unionized and non-unionized public employees. Under the pay bill passed this year, employees without a collective bargaining agreement will receive a 1 percent raise, and those with a CBA in place will see a 3 percent increase. 

Many Nevada faculty — who are not allowed to collectively bargain under Nevada law and saw a bill meant to secure such rights, SB373, die in committee this legislative session — have decried the disparity. 

“I think, as we are looking at these as campuses are distributing merit, that the issue is that we need to maintain that merit is different than cost of living increases or other forms of in-rank salary advancement that we can have,” UNR Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason told the board. “Because compression is not going to be fixed just by performance pay alone.”

Board votes in Regents Cathy McAdoo, Patrick Carter as new chair, vice chair

Regent Cathy McAdoo will take the reins as board chair for the 2022 fiscal year, taking over for previous chair Mark Doubrava. McAdoo was the only regent nominated for the chair position, and the board elected her unanimously. 

Representing a district that includes most of rural eastern Nevada, including Elko, Nye and parts of Clark counties, McAdoo — who was elected in 2016 — is among the longest-serving regents remaining on the board.

Regent Patrick Carter, also elected in 2016, was narrowly elected to the vice chair position, beating Regent Amy Carvalho in a 7-5 vote. 

The two will take over board leadership after the fiscal year ends at the end of this month. 

Interim president for Nevada State College named for six-week summer gap

Regents appointed Nevada State College Provost Executive Vice President Vickie Shields as interim president Thursday, filling the roughly six-week gap between the retirement of outgoing President Bart Patterson at the end of June and the start-date for incoming permanent President DeRionne Pollard in mid-August. 

The appointment will pay Shields $10,426 in a prorated monthly stipend and mandate that she maintain an “in-person presence” on the NSC campus during the six-week period. The agreement also stipulates that Shields will return to her role as provost and executive vice president once Pollard takes the reins. 

Regents approve pay raise for CSN faculty after year-long pandemic delay

The Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve a 1.75 percent base-pay increase for College of Southern Nevada faculty Thursday — nearly one year to the day after the Board of Regents signed off on a collective bargaining agreement while deferring the raise in the midst of last year’s COVID-19 shutdowns. 

The increase will be paid out retroactively through July 1 of last year at a cost of roughly $1.1 million, including $1 million for salaries pulled from state-supported funds and $113,000 for the one-time bonuses funded by institutional money. 

The pay raise comes as a major victory for CSN faculty, who spent four years negotiating the collective bargaining agreement, in addition to the year-long wait for the increased salaries. 

Luis Ortega, president of the CSN chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance, pointed to the money as both a key equalizer for CSN salaries compared to similar institutions in the region — salaries at Reno-area college TMCC are roughly 5 percent more than CSN on average — as well as a much-needed morale boost as the system emerges from the worst economic effects of the pandemic.

“I think this is a great opportunity, not just for CSN faculty, but all faculty of NSHE — that salary increases can happen,” Ortega said. “It hasn't been easy. This is something that took a long time, almost four years, to negotiate. But we have proof, I think. That we can, if we stay together, negotiate.”

Faculty negotiators from CSN couched the vote not as a raise in absolute terms, but as an “adjustment,” noting that a fact-finding report from the collective bargaining process recommended a 2.5 percent increase. With new contract negotiations looming next year, they said today’s vote marks the first “piece of the puzzle” in creating pay equity. 

“I think that we will get there, and it's a must,” Glynda White, former co-chair of CSN’s negotiating team, said. “As you heard from the regents, talk about morale, and the work that we do. But in addition to that, to provide a good working environment with a sustainable living for faculty to be able to recruit qualified academicians to come into the college

Pay issues for faculty across the system have long been a sticking point for faculty advocates, who have complained about few opportunities for raises outside of rare promotions, which have in turn spurred wider issues such as salary compression system-wide. 

Merit pay increases were functionally eliminated a decade ago in the midst of recession-era budget cuts, and only this year did lawmakers formally move to allow regents to use institutional budgets to fund a 1 percent performance pay pool for faculty, or roughly half the 2 percent state-funded pool that existed pre-recession. 

Regents are expected to vote on finalizing that merit pay policy on Friday.

Clark County School District proposes dual language program, drawing skepticism about sustainability

In the not-too-distant future, Clark County students could be learning inside classrooms where more than one language is used during instruction.

The Clark County School District has unveiled a plan that would add optional dual language programs to its overall language development approach, though the idea still needs approval from the Clark County School Board of Trustees. The proposed program is rooted in the belief that language acquisition benefits all students, not just those learning English as a second language.

“Purely from a workforce perspective, there is a benefit to the student because they have an additional tool in their tool chest,” said Felicia Ortiz, president of the State Board of Education, who served on an informal advisory committee that has been encouraging the district to start a dual language program. “For families the benefit is that their students are now literate in two languages.”

The school district has suggested a research and development year, which would involve community members, before standing up a dual language pilot program at Ronnow Elementary School, Monaco Middle School and Desert Pines High School for the 2022-2023 academic year. Those schools feed into each other, which would allow participating students to continue the program throughout their K-12 experience. 

So how exactly would it work?

Spanish and English would be the initial languages used, and the program would start at the kindergarten, sixth and ninth grade levels. In the chosen kindergarten classrooms, 90 percent of instruction would be delivered in Spanish, with the remaining 10 percent in English. By fourth grade, students would transition to a 50-50 model, with equal amounts of English and Spanish instruction. In the upper grades, the program would exist in social studies classes before eventually expanded to other content areas.

Ignacio Ruiz, assistant superintendent for the district’s English Language Learner Division, said the approach meshes with studies that show younger children learn additional languages at a faster rate. As a former principal at a dual language school in another district, Ruiz said he watched kindergarten students enter speaking only English and finish the year with a robust understanding of Spanish, or vice versa.

“You really immerse them in the target language at early childhood,” he said.

The program would be optional, with parents needing to opt their children into it. Ideally, Ruiz said, the program would have a fairly even mix of native English and native Spanish speakers.

About 16 percent of the district’s students are classified as English language learners — or, to put it another way, are emerging bilingual students. While so much emphasis is often placed on learning English, the beauty of dual language programs is that they celebrate other languages in the process, said Silvina Jover, an educator at Desert Pines High School who already teaches some of her social studies classes bilingually.

“The culture is completely there and accepted and embraced and acknowledged,” she said.

Jover, who is the product of a bilingual education while growing up in Uruguay, said it was the greatest gift her parents gave her because it “opened the doors of this country and the world.”

Supporters of the dual language program said it could have the same effect on Clark County’s students who already live in an internationally known city, which needs more bilingual workers. If the program launches and grows over time, district officials said they would like to add other languages, such as Tagalog or Mandarin.

“Imagine if everyone coming here said, ‘Wow, I go out in the community and people can speak to me in my language,’” Ortiz said.

District leaders and advocates also hope the program leads to more students graduating with a seal of biliteracy from the Nevada Department of Education. The seal — which was awarded to 2,123 students statewide in the 2019-2020 school year — recognizes graduates who have proven a high level of proficiency in speaking, reading and writing a language other than English.

Not everyone is on board with the proposed plan, though. The school board presentation drew multiple speakers during the public comment period who expressed skepticism about the program’s long-term success and viability, especially given a similar effort decades ago that eventually withered and ceased to exist.

“We did not have enough trained teachers. We did not have leadership that could really support those programs in schools, and these dual language programs regretfully died,” said Sylvia Lazos, a longtime advocate for English language learners. “So if there’s not enough resources and not enough staff, this program will also regretfully die.”

She also questioned why the district’s master plan for English language learner students, adopted in 2016, was seemingly put on pause — a point district leaders refuted. 

Elena Fabunan, the principal of Global Community High School, which specifically serves students new to the country, asked why the district felt compelled to go in a different direction, and one that hadn’t proved successful in the past.

“Why not increase the newcomer program already in place and sustained for more than 15 years?” she said in a recorded public comment played during the board meeting.

District officials emphasized that Global Community High School is not going away, and that the dual language program is merely another pathway for students. 

Although no vote was taken Thursday night, all seven trustees signaled support for the program, even if they had lingering questions about issues such as progress monitoring, staffing and costs.

“I know that a lot of programs failed in the past because whether it be funding or people or man hours or anything like that, but I don’t think that’s a reason not to continue those programs or at least try them again, maybe in a different way,” Trustee Katie Williams said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s best for our kids, and that’s what matters.”

It’s unclear how soon the matter will come before the board for a vote.

Remote learning enrollment not as robust as expected in Clark, Washoe county school districts

Demand for distance learning programs in the Clark and Washoe county school districts has fallen short of projections, signaling families’ desire for more traditional classroom instruction.

In Clark County, 17,762 of 194,732 student registrations for the upcoming school year — roughly 9 percent — indicated a preference for full-time distance education, according to school district data. Those figures were as of May 21, the Clark County School District’s deadline for registering for online learning. 

The Washoe County School District, meanwhile, planned for 2,000 students enrolling in its North Star Online School, but only 750 students registered by the May 28 deadline, said Jeana Curtis, an area superintendent. 

“We’re definitely seeing the numbers a lot lower than we expected,” said Mike Barton, chief college, career, equity and school choice officer for the Clark County School District. 

The pandemic-forced conversion to distance learning last year unearthed a host of challenges — such as too few laptops and spotty internet access — but some students thrived. Those success stories paired with ongoing fears about the virus and limited vaccine eligibility for children have prompted some school districts, including in Las Vegas and Reno, to bolster remote learning opportunities moving forward. 

It’s not a universal trend, though. The New York City public school system and others across the country are axing remote learning when classes resume later this summer or fall.

But legislation recently passed in Carson City has provided more of a nudge in Nevada: SB215, sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) and signed by Gov. Steve Sisolak, requires school districts and charter schools to develop distance learning plans and determine technology needs.

“We want to always view our educational system from the parent perspective, and we can always look at how we can conduct business better,” Barton said. “So I think we always viewed distance education as an option.”

In April, Clark County School District officials announced that for the 2021-2022 academic year families could opt their children into full-time remote learning. Depending on enrollment numbers, distance education will be offered through students’ existing schools or Nevada Learning Academy, the district’s online school. In-person instruction will resume five days a week for all grade levels as well.

The distance learning option, however, comes with tightened requirements for participating students and families. For instance, elementary children must have an adult supporting them during the day at home, and students’ days of logging into class and then promptly turning off the computer camera are over. Students will be required to maintain a visual presence during live class sessions, though they will be allowed to blur their backgrounds.

Barton said principals are double-checking with families to ensure they fully understand the expectations. In some cases, he said, children registered themselves for distance education without their parents’ knowledge. 

“We’re also having that dialogue with families as well just to say, ‘Things are different now. There’s still the face-to-face option,’” he said.

Sarah Popek, principal of Myrtle Tate Elementary School in northeast Las Vegas, said families of a dozen students initially selected distance learning, but after consulting with them, only one truly wanted their child to work remotely next year. Without enough students to warrant staff devoted to distance learning at Myrtle Tate, the student was referred to Nevada Learning Academy. 

The pandemic inspired Nevada Learning Academy to add third through fifth grade last year, and it’s expanding down to kindergarten for the upcoming school year, Barton said. The district recently posted about 30 positions in its quest to beef up the online-only school’s staff.

As the new school year rapidly approaches — both districts start Aug. 9 — scheduling and staffing plans are well underway. But Barton acknowledged the distance learning numbers in Clark County could shift slightly given the thousands of families who have yet to register their students. Late registrations for distance learning in both districts will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Despite lower-than-projected registrations, enrollment in distance learning programs still remains higher than pre-pandemic times. North Star Online School in Washoe County, for example, typically served about 300 students each year, Curtis said. With 750 student registrations for the upcoming academic year, its enrollment stands to more than double.

Washoe County school officials, like their colleagues in Clark County, have been answering questions and explaining the nuances of what distance education will look like during the new school year. The district hosted a virtual forum in mid-May for prospective students and families.

“Sometimes there's a misinterpretation that (students) just go online and do it independently,” Curtis said. “The family needs to be involved.”

Unlike the Clark County School District, the Washoe County School District offered at least some form of in-person instruction to all students for almost the entire 2020-2021 school year. Curtis said many families appear eager to send their children back to in-person school full time, specifically for the social-emotional benefits. And high school students, in particular, seem less interested in distance education in Washoe County.

“You just miss that high school vibe,” Curtis said.

Barton said the Clark County School District will evaluate how school-based distance learning programs fare compared with Nevada Learning Academy this year before making any decisions about future arrangements.

School-based vaccination sites open as health workers focus on boosting COVID-19 shots to teens

There wasn’t much debate about whether to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in the Lenihan household.

Brian Lenihan, his wife and their 20-year-old son rolled up their sleeves for the shots earlier this year. So when it came time for the family’s 14-year-old twins to receive their doses, it didn’t take much, if any, cajoling. The teens grew up receiving inoculations, including the seasonal flu and HPV vaccines. This jab in the arm, however, came with the promise of more freedom: get-togethers with friends, a summer trip to national parks, in-person school and a long-awaited sushi meal.

“Takeout sushi just isn’t the same,” Lenihan explained.

His twins — a son and daughter who will be attending Desert Oasis High School later this year — are due for their second COVID-19 vaccine doses Tuesday. They’re among the thousands of adolescents statewide who have initiated the process after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention greenlighted the Pfizer vaccine for use in 12- to 15-year-olds in mid-May.

As of Wednesday, more than 18,000 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 in Nevada had been given at least one dose of the vaccine, representing about 10.7 percent of kids who fall into that age group, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Services. While that number is significantly less than the 48.9 percent of eligible Nevadans who have initiated vaccination, it is increasing rapidly, jumping up two percentage points in six days.

Karissa Loper, health chief in the state’s Bureau of Child, Family and Community Wellness, described those day-over-day gains as “promising,” particularly given the fact that 12- to 15-year-olds have only been eligible for the vaccine for about three weeks.

“We're seeing that number [of new vaccinations] be steady every day, meaning I think parents are feeling comfortable, are getting their questions answered, are listening to their trusted sources or getting to talk to their medical professional, and then with maybe with their teen making that choice to get that teen vaccinated,” Loper said.

That’s the case with Dawn Billings Blake and her 14-year-old son. As a teacher, Billings Blake got her vaccine fairly early in the rollout, but she worried that her son, who has Asperger’s, would balk at the idea. He previously hated shots, and she didn’t want to pressure him. She prefers arming him with information and letting him feel the self-sufficiency that comes with making his own decisions.

Her concerns ended up being for naught. He quickly agreed, which she thinks stemmed from watching his parents, grandparents and older brother receive the vaccine and experience little to no side effects. As a rising sophomore at East Career and Technical Academy, her son also yearned for a more normal school year.

“He took it like a champ,” she said.

Elisa Martinez, 15, also made the decision for herself. Her mother has received the vaccine, but her father is hesitant. They let her choose. Martinez said she put her trust in the scientists who developed the vaccine. Plus, it provided some mental relief after watching relatives, including her grandmother who was placed on a ventilator, battle COVID-19.

“You are protecting your elders. You are protecting your family. You are protecting yourself from COVID,” said Martinez, who will be a junior at Palo Verde High School in Las Vegas.

A billboard truck advertising COVID-19 vaccines for adolescents sits outside Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Jackie Valley/The Nevada Independent)

Despite some students’ enthusiasm for the vaccine, Clark County is hardly the frontrunner. With 9.4 percent of its adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 vaccinated with at least one shot, it ranks fourth among counties, according to state data. Washoe County, at the top, has vaccinated 16.3 percent of that age group, while Nye County, at the bottom, has only vaccinated 1.3 percent. Douglas and Carson City — which with Washoe County, are leading the pack in the overall immunization effort — come in at second and third, respectively.

Surprisingly, Elko County, which is ranked 15th out 17 counties for percentage of first doses administered to its residents at 24.8 percent vaccinated, is ranked fifth in vaccinating 12- to 15-year-olds, having already vaccinated just under 9 percent of them. Loper attributes the relatively high adolescent immunization rate to the work of Bobbi Shanks, the chief nurse for the Elko County School District.

“She does a really great job of making sure any vaccine is accessible to her Elko teens and that she's giving the information to the parents early. She answers all their questions. That staff is amazing,” Loper said. “I think that lends a lot of local trust and comfort in that person, that nurse who's recommending that vaccine to you.”

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services said that while the school nurse's office no longer stocks childhood vaccines — and never stocked the COVID-19 vaccine — "they do collaborate within the Elko community to refer individuals to their excellent community partners."

In Washoe County, the primary question is always, “How do we reach this age group?” said Lisa Lottritz, division director for Community and Clinical Health Services at the Washoe County Health District.

To that end, the health district dispatched staff to Bishop Manogue Catholic High School in May for an on-site vaccination event. Lottritz said about 140 students received an initial dose of the vaccine at the time. The health district returned on Friday for a followup event, providing second doses as well as first doses to anyone who attended and wanted to start the vaccination process.

Similarly, the health district intends to host pop-up vaccination events in Washoe County School District parking lots during summer school later this month, Lottritz said. Health officials are also eyeing opportunities to provide vaccinations at parks, food banks, churches and Boys & Girls Clubs — all in the name of reaching people at places where they normally go.

“Not missing opportunities is a big thing for us,” she said.

The Southern Nevada Health District kicked off school-based vaccination events last week, too. Shortly before the doors opened on Tuesday, a small line had formed outside the Desert Pines High School gymnasium. It largely consisted of parent-teen duos, like Mike Meyer and his son, Nichols. The almost-14-year-old — who will begin his freshman year at the school in a couple months — said he didn’t want to wait any longer. Older family members have already gotten theirs.

“What’s the big deal?” Mike Meyer said, describing the decision as a no-brainer. “Just do it.”

But that certainly isn’t the case for all families. Health officials acknowledge they’re still combatting vaccine hesitancy among families.

Heidi Parker, executive director of the nonprofit Immunize Nevada, said the focus has been not only on communicating to parents that their kids still face a risk if they contract COVID-19, particularly if it develops into a rare but serious condition known as multi-system inflammatory syndrome, but that the vaccine will make it safer for them to return to the activities they enjoy, whether that’s being able to hang out with friends, go to school dances or play sports.

“We've been talking about the things that we all miss as adults, but they're in a similar situation and have missed a lot of things themselves,” Parker said.

Immunization officials have also been pointing to the vaccine’s success — and safety — among 16- to 17-year-olds, who have been eligible for the vaccine for months, in encouraging parents to get their 12- to 15-year-olds the shot. But they also understand some parents may be waiting for the Pfizer vaccine to get full approval, a process that usually takes months but could happen as soon as early as the second half of the year.

Irene Cepeda, a Clark County School Board of Trustees member, shared that her 15-year-old son had received his first dose several weeks ago and was due for his second last Wednesday. She encouraged others to follow suit to protect themselves and others as well as help the community move forward after a trying year.

“I think everyone’s just kind of really looking forward to being normal — walking around without a mask, not having to be physically distant,” she said.

More school-based vaccination events are planned this week in Clark County. Second doses will be provided at the same schools at the end of the month and beginning of July.

“We've seen some great success in Nevada with school-based flu immunization sites. It’s open to that surrounding community. It's a familiar access point. Families can walk there based on if it's in their neighborhood,” Parker said. “I think it does reduce some of those barriers [to accessing the vaccine] that we hear about.”

Though the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t expected to be required for K-12 students, those involved with the immunization effort are gearing up for anticipated back-to-school demand for the vaccine. 

“We'll just continue to reiterate to parents the importance of trying to get in now and get those appointments taken care of sooner than later,” Parker said.

And, where vaccinators were concerned about a recommendation against administering the COVID-19 vaccine in close proximity with other shots, a policy change from the federal government allowing concurrent vaccination has now provided them with a golden opportunity. Incoming seventh-graders required to get the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which covers four types of meningococcal disease, as well as the Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or whooping cough, will now be able to get the COVID-19 shot at the same time.

Vaccination officials say it’s plausible they could see even higher rates of COVID-19 vaccination among seventh-graders than they do for other age groups, if they’re able to capture them when they’re receiving their other back-to-school shots. Loper echoed what other health officials have said about the importance of not squandering any opportunities.

“That was a huge win for vaccinators in general,” Loper said. “Any time I have you at a place where you can get vaccinated and I can't give you every vaccine that you could possibly get that day, for whatever reason, that's a missed opportunity for us. This allows us to miss no opportunities to vaccinate an eligible adolescent.”

As for whether schools will require the COVID-19 vaccine for older students, that seems unlikely but hasn’t been decided. Fermin Leguen, Clark County’s chief health officer, said he’s not aware of any discussions at this point about making the vaccine mandatory for children.

Loper said that interest in requiring the COVID-19 vaccine is “different at different levels,” noting that doing so would involve a multi-step process. Any decision to mandate kids to receive the shot before returning to school would have to be put forward as a regulation by the Division of Public and Behavioral Health and go through a public input process before it would be voted on by the state Board of Health. Even having that conversation, she said, doesn’t make sense unless a large number of parents and schools are on board with the idea.

“You want everybody to be in support of it before you really create a mandate, or it won't be effective. It will cause more animosity than anything else,” Loper said. “Starting at the stakeholder information process, that's really where we're at, and I'm sure all the school districts and things are thinking about that. I know we're here, ready to engage, but the State Immunization Program isn't necessarily leading that conversation right now.”

Health officials say priority at the moment is simply inoculating as many people as possible, children included, and the quicker, the better. 

While the Biden administration has set a target of getting 70 percent of adult Americans vaccinated by the Fourth of July, neither the federal nor state government has set a similar goal for vaccinating kids. It’s also unclear how soon more children will become eligible, though Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, has expressed optimism about the age range widening to those as young as 4 years old by the end of the year.

“There is a sense of urgency to it and we do want to make sure that as many kids are protected as possible, especially as they do return to activities like summer camp and all of those things,” Parker said. “It is just making it as accessible as possible, all of the places and all of the days and times and making it easy for parents to get their kids in somewhere.”

The big question over the coming weeks and months is whether those efforts will translate to a dramatic increase in the state’s vaccination rate.

Nationally, Nevada ranks toward the bottom of states in terms of percentage of adolescents vaccinated with at least one shot of the COVID-19 vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nevada has vaccinated nearly 18 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds as of Friday, ranking 37th in the nation. Vermont, by comparison, is in first place at 55 percent while Idaho is in last at 0.4 percent.

Nevada ranks 32nd nationally for percentage of residents 18 and older who have received at least one shot of the vaccine, at 57.7 percent.

Those adolescent and adult rankings, while seemingly less than impressive on their face, actually represent good news for Nevada, which ranked last in the country for percentage of residents vaccinated against the flu in the 2019 to 2020 season, at 44.4 percent, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Rhode Island was first at 60.9 percent.

“Our vaccination rate right now is significantly higher than we ever get during flu season. For Nevada, that’s a cause for celebration,” Parker said. “Hopefully that same trend applies for our younger Nevadans as we start getting them more into clinics and hopefully we see similar increases as well.”

Correction: This article was updated on June 7, 2021 at 4:08 p.m. to correct incorrect information provided by the state Department of Health and Human Services. The Elko County School District no longer stocks childhood vaccines on site and never stocked the COVID-19 vaccine, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Meet the National Teacher of the Year, and a legislative recap

This week on IndyMatters, Reporter Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez sits down with the 2021 National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey, who teaches special education in Clark County. After that, Reporter/Producer Jacob Solis talks with Legislative Reporter Riley Snyder and Assistant Editor Michelle Rindels about the end of the 2021 legislative session, mining taxes, changes to how elections will be run, possible special sessions and more. At the end of the show, Host Joey Lovato talks with Editor Jon Ralston about the biggest things to come out of the session and how this one was different from the many others Ralston has covered.

0:00 - Intro

1:00 - 2021 National Teacher of the Year

10:45 - Legislative recap with Riley and Michelle

21:50 - Legislative recap with Jon Ralston

34:30 - Outro/Credits

Hope, optimism and nervous energy: A look at plans to move colleges, universities back to full in-person operations

When it became clear last March that the coronavirus pandemic was the most dire public health threat in more than a century, it was a matter of days before colleges and universities across the Nevada System of Higher Education shut their doors and moved nearly all classwork online. 

Now, more than a year later, the prospect of re-entering the classroom en masse is fast-approaching reality for tens of thousands of Nevada students, including thousands who have never set foot on their own school campus. 

“We're not only getting one incoming class, we're getting two,” UNLV student Abraham Lugo said. “And a lot of these students have never even been on our campus and have been going to UNLV for quite some time now.”

As the worst health effects of the pandemic have diminished amid widespread vaccination efforts, NSHE has set a target date of July 1 for returning to full in-person operations across all eight institutions — roughly one month after most county-level social distancing measures will have been lifted. 

And though some classes, particularly STEM-based lab courses, continued in-person through the last 14 months of the pandemic, students and faculty told The Nevada Independent that it is difficult to quantify the degree to which the loss of the social core of college and university campuses hobbled the broader learning experience. 

“Half of university education actually happens outside of the classroom with students sharing with each other,” UNLV English professor Doug Unger said. “They get together, they talk about things, they laugh about the idiosyncrasies of their professors, they complain, or extol the virtues about whatever they're studying — and they bond that way … I think it's always been that way, and that's what we've lost.”

University administrators have been careful not to couch the July 1 date as a “re-opening” — a UNR spokesman told The Indy that a non-trivial number of employees have continued working on-campus throughout the past year, in addition to in-person lab courses across different institutions. 

Even so, the date marks a watershed moment in the progression of the pandemic for more than 100,000 Nevada college students and tens of thousands more employees, a tangible signpost that the fabled “return to a new normal” is now closer than ever. 

The push to mandate vaccinations

It was an otherwise nondescript Thursday evening in May when NSHE Chancellor Melody Rose made the surprise announcement that her office would begin drafting initial plans for a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for all Nevada college students. 

Citing a similar move by California’s higher education systems, the announcement from Rose stopped short of making formal changes or pushing for a definite mandate, and in practice simply asked students and parents to prepare for the possibility.

“Our students cannot afford further disruptions to their education if the virus is allowed to spread unabated,” her statement read.

According to the statement, the lack of immediate action came not necessarily because of pushback from students, parents or regents, but rather a series of legal roadblocks that still remain firmly in place. 

Chief among them is the so-called “emergency use authorization” (EUA) designation currently attached to all three COVID-19 vaccines in circulation in the U.S. The measure was originally designed for use in public health emergencies as a means to bypass the normally-lengthy FDA review process and speed access to potentially life saving medication. 

However, part of the legal framework for the EUA is a federal law that provides individuals the ability to accept or refuse treatment under an EUA-approved drug, in this case the COVID-19 vaccine. 

As a result, some legal experts say the issue lives in a legal gray area, and that it is unclear how the courts might treat any mandate that goes into effect while the EUA remains in place. 

Outside of a broad acknowledgement that the EUA is an obstacle, precisely how NSHE might pursue a mandate remains unknown outside of a stated intent to “work with state and local health authorities.” 

NSHE denied several requests for interviews with system lawyers involved in the mandate drafting process, though it did say through spokesman Francis McCabe that plans were “very early in the process.” 

However, NSHE’s public statement from early May hinted at one possible avenue: an existing law that allows the State Board of Health to mandate vaccinations as a prerequisite for enrollment in Nevada schools. 

Originally devised to require immunizations for the tetanus and diphtheria (Tdap) vaccine, the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and immunizations for polio and pertussis, the law also provides wide latitude for the the State Board of Health to add additional vaccination requirements.

Exactly when the state board might act on approving such a mandate is one of many questions with no clear answer, though many university administrators have pointed to vaccines as likely the single most consequential COVID mitigation measure affecting a full in-person return to campuses. 

Cheryl Hug-English, the medical director of UNR’s Student Health Center, said that young people have generally fared better than older populations after contracting COVID, but that many young people have also seen “really significant illness,” making vaccination efforts crucial for campus situations with “lots of close contact.” 

“We need to be careful to not assume that just because they are younger, they can't be affected significantly by this disease,” Hug-English said. “Having said that, I think the other part of that is that we know that individuals with mild illness or even a symptomatic illness, or asymptomatic infections, can continue to spread COVID-19 to others. And so, not only is it important for the individual, it's also important for the spread.”

To what extent students at any institution will be or become vaccinated remains unknown, as no mechanisms for tracking vaccination status yet exist within NSHE. To that end, Hug-English said that spread of the virus among unvaccinated students — and among unvaccinated people in the community more generally — could present complications for attempts to limit viral spread overall, especially as the weather cools and the academic year begins in full. 

“While we're all so ready for good news, and it is really good news that case numbers have dropped significantly and vaccination rates have gone up, we also need to keep in the back of our mind that we still have COVID-19 cases,” she said. “And in various parts of the world we're seeing, certainly, resurgence in some cases or significant outbreaks. And so the potential is certainly there for increased case numbers on our campuses as we reopen more fully in the fall.”

Masks, the honor system and getting back in the classroom

Tangential to efforts to plan a vaccine mandate has emerged a separate debate over the continued use of mask mandates. NSHE opted late last month to adopt the most recent CDC guidance essentially eliminating mask-wearing requirements for the fully vaccinated while leaving it in place for those who are not. 

In doing so, however, the system did not provide direction on if or how institutions should verify that those without masks on campus were indeed vaccinated. 

In a statement emailed to The Indy, McCabe said that “personal and community responsibility is a fundamental value expected throughout Nevada's public higher education system,” and that “All NSHE students and employees are obligated to follow their institution's code of conduct, NSHE policies, and the law.” 

The system’s institutions, similarly, have implied the use of an honor system even as masks remain required for the unvaccinated, with UNR’s President Brian Sandoval saying in a letter to students: “Personal integrity and honesty should guide one’s judgment” on mask-wearing.  

Student leaders — who are often in charge of the events or clubs that will be at the center of in-person gatherings on campus — said they remain optimistic that a successful return remains on the table. 

“I think that when it comes to the fall semester, obviously, we want students to be safe,” UNLV student president Caren Royce Yap said. “And I think the best-case scenario would be students taking safety precautions. So whether that means all students getting the vaccine or those who choose not to get the vaccine are wearing their masks on campus — I see a really successful fall semester.”

But for many faculty, the optimism is mixed with nervousness as the prospect of new infections among unvaccinated students remains. 

At UNR, the local chapter of the Nevada Faculty Alliance sent Sandoval a letter asking him to go well beyond NSHE requirements, including mandating the vaccine for students at UNR and maintaining mask mandates for high-risk group settings. 

“What I'm hearing from faculty who have been teaching face-to-face classes through all of this is that it's really hard to enforce mask mandates in class,” Unger said. “They feel at risk, even if they are vaccinated. They're nervous about facing crowded classrooms, and concerned about infection, they're concerned about the virus spreading among students.”

Additional restrictions are unlikely to be enacted in the coming weeks of the summer semester, though, and Hug-English said that UNR would continue to follow CDC guidance as it is issued. 

Still, Unger said that for many faculty the prospect of a return to the classroom — even if some hybrid instruction is still in place — remains a welcome sight all the same.

“There's so much in communication that relies on gesture, and presence,” he said. “And the Zoom teaching misses all of that. A lot can be said in just an expression.”

Correction, 6/5/21 at 11:35 a.m. - An original version of this story included a transcription error in a quote from Douglas Unger as "mass mandates," instead of the correct "mask mandates."