What Happened Here: How COVID threw learning in flux, reshaping education for the future

A city park in Reno had been a refuge for Mariluz Garcia and her two children.

It was their little slice of solitude in an increasingly chaotic world last March. When COVID-19 landed in Nevada and triggered school closures, Garcia joined thousands of parents and caregivers statewide — and millions more globally — who raced to turn their homes into learning centers. Garcia and her husband were sharing devices with their then-kindergarten-age son and first-grade daughter, whom they adopted through the foster care system five years ago. Both children have academic and mental health struggles. 

In the early days of the pandemic, Garcia’s husband created a makeshift office in a backyard greenhouse; she closed herself in a walk-in closet to take work Zoom calls. The Wi-Fi sputtered and the kids needed pencils, scissors, paper, computer help and emotional reassurance.

Her daughter chewed her fingernails down to raw nubs. She struggled to sleep at night and wailed when told she couldn’t go back to school. Her son bounced on the bed, couches and against walls, unable to concentrate on his virtual classes. The slightest frustration would set off aggressive episodes. He couldn’t verbalize his emotions.

These are children who thrive on consistency and routine. With all of that disrupted, Garcia tried to make their daily midday trip to the park a new bright spot. 

“I would go down to the city park and swing them and let them get their wiggles out,” said Garcia, who would use the time to scroll through emails and news alerts. “I remember reading the announcement that all city parks and public spaces were going to be shut down, and I literally broke down and cried in the middle of the park.”

The virus that had siloed them from family and the children’s in-school support network had made the playground off limits, too. A myriad of safety nets gone in the blink of an eye.

By some accounts, they were the lucky ones. Garcia didn’t lose her job. She could feed her children. The family had internet access, even if it was a sluggish connection. But the pandemic weakened their mental health and, she fears, set her children up for an even greater uphill climb academically. Her son, for instance, didn’t learn to read many words in kindergarten.

“This 2020 cohort is going to be remembered forever,” said Garcia, who is director of the Dean’s Future Scholars program at UNR. “The implications on their educational trajectory (are) going to be huge.”

The full extent of the pandemic’s toll on child learning and development won’t be known for years or decades. But, over the past 12 months, it had a polarizing effect on conversations about the actual school buildings. Some lobbied hard for brick-and-mortar schools to reopen, especially as evidence mounted showing COVID wasn’t spreading easily in classrooms where students and teachers wore face masks and practiced social distancing. Prolonged remote learning and isolation was harming students emotionally and academically, they argued. But other parents and educators warned the potential risks — to themselves, their children and older or immunocompromised family members — outweighed the reward of a highly modified, in-person classroom experience. 

While the virus muddied decisions about in-person learning, it crystallized existing problems dogging Nevada and the nation at large. The state-mandated school closures last spring exposed stark technological inequities, rendering remote learning nearly impossible for the thousands of students who didn’t have access to a device or internet. The situation was so severe that, in Clark County, Superintendent Jesus Jara declared the school district couldn’t promise students would actually learn anything new during the fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 academic year.

School parking lots, meanwhile, transformed into food distribution sites. The closure laid bare the crucial role those buildings play in American society. Schools, and the human beings within them, educate children, feed children and care for children, often while parents work.

“I think that was eye-opening to a lot of our community,” Washoe County Superintendent Kristen McNeill said. “We shouldn’t have this problem. Hunger should not be a problem in our country.”

The mad dash to export everything that happens daily inside a school bred innovations. That’s the upside of an otherwise lousy situation, according to educators and advocates across the state. Now, as vaccinations multiply among the adult population and more students enter physical classrooms, the looming battle isn’t just about erasing learning loss and repairing children’s damaged mental health. It’s also about steering clear of a return to the status quo.

In late February last year, before Nevada had even recorded its first coronavirus case, top officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned of community spread and what that could mean for education. Closing schools and moving to “internet-based teleschooling,” they said, might be needed.

That’s exactly what happened less than a month later. Gov. Steve Sisolak held an afternoon news conference on Sunday, March 15, and announced a three-week school closure. Hours earlier, Jara had received a text message from Richard Carranza, then-chancellor of New York City Schools, saying his district was shuttering, too. 

“It was the right thing to do,” said Jara, who stood alongside the governor at the news conference.

The temporary shutdown turned into a lasting distance-education experiment when Sisolak extended the closure order for schools, casinos and other nonessential businesses. Students statewide finished the academic year virtually, which largely meant practicing existing material but no new learning given uneven technology access.

The governor’s five-member Medical Advisory Team was tasked with providing guidance on how to reopen schools in the safest way possible. That required taking the kinds of recommendations the state had been making for adults and adapting them for children, who, by and large, do not fall as ill to COVID-19 and do not spread the virus as effectively as adults.

“We really sat down and looked at what can we do effectively and what is the truth about kids and their transmission risk,” said Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at UNR and one of the advisory team’s members. “We had the opportunity to go through all of those and say, ‘Based on the best science we have, what makes the most sense?’” 

The advisory team, for instance, recommended that elementary and middle school students should be required to wear masks and practice handwashing — the same as adults — but they could stay just three feet apart instead of the customary six feet. High schoolers, however, would be required to follow the rules in place for adults because they act more like adults when it comes to contracting and spreading the virus.

“The youngest kids are at least risk. They’re less likely to get sick and, if they do get sick, they’re unlikely to really even have disease, much less serious disease,” said Brian Labus, an assistant professor of public health at UNLV and another advisory team member.

Labus and his fellow advisory team members also recognized that there was a public health cost to keeping schools closed, from children who rely on school lunch programs going hungry to child abuse going unreported.

“You’re not going to see it on a webcam. You’re not going to see a kid covered in bruises necessarily. You’re not going to see how they act when you’re not seeing them every single day,” Labus said. “We knew those sorts of things could happen. The question is, how do you balance all of that out?”

The governor, on June 9, gave the green light for schools to reopen for summer learning if they met social-distancing protocols. But it wasn’t mandatory. The directive also required districts, charter schools and private schools to develop reopening plans for the upcoming year. 

The reopening decision coincided with a summer surge in COVID cases, intensifying school board discussions, especially in the populous Reno- and Las Vegas-area districts.

The Washoe County School District opted to reopen, offering some form of in-person learning for all students who wanted it. The Clark County School District did not.

The Washoe County School District’s decision sparked controversy among some teachers and parents and even went against the advice of the county’s health officer Kevin Dick, who at the time warned against the possibility of the virus spreading among students and faculty and, eventually, to other more at-risk members in the community.

Dick, looking back on that recommendation, described it as the right stance for him to take in the moment given the high levels of disease transmission that were happening in the community. When Washoe County schools reopened in mid-August, the county was seeing a case rate that was twice what it had seen in mid-June.

“All of the information that I had and all the recommendations that were coming out of the CDC, Harvard Global Health Institute, and others were that it was not a good idea to be opening schools at the level of disease transmission that we had at the time,” Dick said. “While there was a lot of CDC encouragement for reopening schools when I made my recommendation, they were all based on having low levels of transmission in the community, and we certainly were not at low levels when they made the decision to reopen.”

But McNeill called it an “exceptionally courageous” decision by her school board. It was a pioneering move, devoid of any playbook detailing what would work or not work. The district chose a hybrid schedule for its middle and high school students but worked out the logistics of social distancing to allow elementary students to return five days a week. 

The superintendent credits teamwork among staff and employee unions for making it happen. 

“We didn't always agree, but we knew in our minds — intellectually, emotionally — that this was the best thing to do for children,” McNeill said.

Dick did praise the district for making a distinction between younger and older students by having elementary students attend in person full time while having middle and high school students participate in a hybrid model.

But while there might not have been as much spread occurring in the schools, Dick suspects that children heading back to school increased the amount of interaction their parents and caregivers had in the community, which in turn may have contributed to the significant surge in cases the county saw in the fall. The day kids headed back to school in August, the county was seeing 71 new cases reported on average each day; at the peak around Thanksgiving, the county was seeing more than 500 new cases on average each day.

“Reopening the schools, I think, certainly increased the mobility of the adults in the community, and I think you can see impacts from that with the increasing number of cases,” Dick said. 

Larson, one of the members of the governor’s Medical Advisory Team who at the time supported the school district’s decision to reopen, still believes it was the right move.

“I thought our school board up here was very brave and the superintendent has been a champion for this,” Larson said. “In retrospect, I can say they did a good job.”

When Washoe County staff and students occupied school buildings again last fall, it took some adjusting, said Calen Evans, president of the advocacy organization Empower Nevada Teachers. Hallways and classrooms were suddenly quieter, as students navigated communicating while maintaining social distance, wearing face masks and, in some cases, talking through plexiglass barriers on their desks. But children largely complied with all the new rules, putting to rest some fears heading into the new school year.

For many educators, the biggest challenge was learning how to teach under the hybrid model, Evans said. They were constantly tending to the needs of both children in their classroom and those working remotely.

“That’s too much to ask,” he said.

Many rural school districts, where coronavirus cases were generally lower, offered some in-person learning as well. The Churchill County School District piloted six-week courses for its middle and high school students, allowing them to spend a half day in person five days a week. 

The Clark County School District, on the other hand, remained fully virtual until earlier this month when it began a staggered reopening, starting with the youngest students. Jara said the local coronavirus case numbers after the summer surge posed too much of a concern for the district to reopen in August. By October, concerns about students’ academic and mental health were growing, reigniting discussions with the Southern Nevada Health District about reopening.

Since the school closures began last March, 23 students in the Clark County School District have taken their lives, Jara said last week. Data from the Clark County coroner’s office, however, show those numbers are heartbreakingly in line with recent trends — 21 kids took their lives in 2018, 11 in 2019, 18 in 2020 and five so far in 2021 — and underscore the ongoing struggle Nevada faces in addressing children’s mental health.

The district recently hosted a virtual mental health forum to address the problem and has launched a program called Lifeline that mobilizes support when academic data, mental health screenings or parent and teacher referrals indicate a student may be in crisis.

Emergency room doctors across Nevada have reported seeing an uptick in kids coming in with serious mental health issues. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that mental health-related visits to the emergency room for kids 5 to 11 are up 24 percent and adolescents 12 to 17 are up 31 percent.

“It's just breaking our hearts to see so many kids struggling right now, because there's a lot of kids that do fine in isolation, fine with online learning. But there's a lot of kids that are not doing well at all, and those are the situations that keep me up at night,” said Dr. Bret Frey, an emergency medicine doctor in Reno and president of the Nevada chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

But the mental health consequences of the pandemic could just be beginning. A scientific review of previously published research released last summer showed that loneliness in children and adolescents could manifest as future mental health problems up to nine years later; depression was the most common outcome. One study found that children who have experienced isolation or quarantine were five times more likely to require mental health treatment and experience higher levels of post-traumatic stress.

“The worst thing that I don't think we're really going to understand for a significant period of time is the effect on the children, because we're gonna have a whole generation of kids that have been isolated,” said Dr. Dale Carrison, the former head of emergency at UMC and now an emergency room physician at Carson Tahoe Health. “Your socialization occurs when you're in school during your formative years, and if you don't have that socialization, what are we going to turn out as adults?”

Ideally, when would Jara have liked to bring back students? “The turn of the semester in January,” he said.

But in a district as large as Clark County — it has five times as many students as the Washoe County School District — the decision involved complicated logistics, agreements with employee bargaining groups and sign-off from a fractured school board. The March reopening was later than hoped, Jara said, but it allowed time for employee vaccinations and avoided any legal battles with the unions.

“I needed everybody to be aligned in the direction,” he said. “We got there.”

The pandemic-imposed upheaval in the K-12 education system led to enrollment drops in 15 of Nevada’s 17 school districts. Of those, seven districts saw enrollment shrink by more than 5 percent. The changes sprung from families faced with difficult decisions: In an academic year where learning would look and feel much different, not to mention the ongoing threat of the virus, what would be best for their children?

Mater Academy of Northern Nevada was among the schools that saw an initial enrollment dip. The charter school, which sits in a high-need part of Reno, opened under a hybrid model to accommodate spacing and staffing needs. Principal Gia Maraccini said about 100 students left the school, with many returning to the Washoe County School District, which was offering in-person learning five days a week for elementary students. (The school has since gained new students, boosting its enrollment to normal levels.)

Mater Academy’s solution to the hybrid challenge: It partnered with the attached Boys & Girls Club and provided a space for students to work remotely. Maraccini stationed a long-term substitute teacher in the club, and administrators bounced back and forth between the two buildings all day. 

“We tried to get every kid into the club that we knew was going to struggle at home,” she said.

The same fear — students floundering amid remote learning — inspired the city of North Las Vegas to embark on its own education initiative. In August, the city launched the Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy (SNUMA) as an option for families who wanted or needed in-person instruction. The microschool, serving first- through eighth-grade students, operates out of recreation centers turned into classrooms.

The program initially cost parents $2 a day per child, but CARES Act funding has since rendered it free for the roughly 100 students participating, city officials said. Parents who enrolled their children in SNUMA were required to declare them homeschooled, thus de-enrolling them from their prior schools.

“We could have just opened our rec centers and said, ‘You know what, come on and you can play all day or just do whatever,’” North Las Vegas City Councilwoman Pamela Goynes-Brown said. “But we thought, ‘Let’s seize this moment. We have the opportunity to offer educational services.’”

The city partnered with an organization called Nevada Action for School Options to run the microschool, which places a learning guide — most of whom have a teaching license — in each class of no more than 15 students. On a recent morning, eighth-grader Adelmo Calvo practiced reading comprehension skills using an online program inside a neighborhood recreation center. Three other students and their learning guide were in the room, too.

After an unsuccessful run with distance learning, this is where Calvo wanted to be. 

“I didn’t have the willpower,” he said. “Individually, I couldn’t, like, talk to the teacher and they couldn’t stop the lesson just to help me out.”

The one-on-one attention is a hallmark of the SNUMA program, said Don Soifer, president of Nevada Action for School Options. It was designed to address learning loss resulting from the pandemic shutdown or earlier. About three-fourths of students were reading below grade level. Now, 62 percent of students are reading on grade level or beyond. For math, the growth has been even sharper. Ninety-three percent of kids entered the microschool behind in math and, more than halfway through the year, all students are at least at grade level.

Soifer described the program’s success as an “active learner paradigm.”

“These kids come in knowing that every decision they make in the day matters,” he said. “They’re a partner in their own learning and their families understand that.”

Although born out of the pandemic, SNUMA won’t necessarily wind down when more schools resume in-person learning. Goynes-Brown said the city intends to keep it as an option for families as long as there is demand.

Over the last few months, Jo Beth Dittrich’s second-grade students have examined ancient rocks at Lake Mead National Recreation Area and toured historic aircraft at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio. And they never left their homes. 

Their teacher bought a GoPro camera with donated funds and started recording her adventures, talking to park rangers and museum guides along the way. It was her way of making remote learning a little more vibrant.

“You can do a YouTube video for the same thing,” she said. “But it’s not as engaging as your teaching talking to the person.”

For all the gripes about and pitfalls of virtual learning, a subset of students and teachers have excelled. Dittrich, a teacher at Tanaka Elementary School in Las Vegas, is among those who preach the benefits of the education delivery model. She marveled at her second-graders’ ability to craft Google Slides and navigate online learning platforms — 21st Century skills they rarely practiced in a traditional classroom because of inadequate technology.

Plus, Dittrich said she was able to more discreetly differentiate instruction without children feeling self-conscious in front of their peers. Her students responded so well to the new environment, she said, that many lingered on camera even after their live virtual sessions ended.

“They are hurting for some social interaction, but, hey, let’s be real: That’s just not going to happen like they remember it last year,” she said.

Tanya Fowler adapted to the online teaching environment long before the pandemic emerged. She has taught at Nevada Learning Academy, an online school within the Clark County School District, for eight years. But when COVID shut down brick-and-mortar schools, she received a firsthand glimpse at life on the other side of the screen. 

Suddenly, her twin daughters, now 9 years old, were working from home, too. She observed differences in what her daughters needed versus the high school students she teaches online. Sometimes her third-graders need help logging in or a nudge to pay attention.

“It really requires a very cohesive relationship between parents and teachers, especially dealing with younger kids,” Fowler said. “I’ve had to be much more in contact throughout the day with their teachers, and their teachers have been ready to respond.”

While not without its challenges, Fowler said online learning hasn’t been a negative experience for her daughters. But she acknowledges the equity issues that surround online learning. Unlike some families, Fowler and her husband were able to work from home and guide their daughters’ education over the past year. Not all parents have that luxury. 

Furthermore, some children simply don’t learn well through a computer screen. Others thrive.

Despite the option to enroll her daughters in in-person learning, Fowler said she and her husband are keeping them home the remainder of this year. From a parental standpoint, she said, there has been some relief knowing where their girls are at all times.

“We forget these young people were doing active-shooter drills,” she said. “COVID is not my only concern when I send my kids to school every day.”

At Valley High School — located in central Las Vegas near Eastern and Sahara avenues — administrators expect only a quarter of students to return for in-person learning this year. Four Valley students recently joined a Google Meet session, from their bedrooms or living rooms, to reflect on the past year. All plan to remain in distance-education mode.

That’s not to suggest online learning has been an entirely joyful experience. They lamented the lack of social connection and too many hours confined to their rooms staring at a computer screen.

“At home is where you relax, but now everything is just all at home,” said Christina Nguyen, a junior. “You’re supposed to be focused and relaxed all in the same home-slash-room that you’re in.”

Her opportunities to socialize with friends in person have been few and far between. Nguyen’s parents work at casinos and have been the target of hateful, anti-Asian comments lobbed by tourists, she said. They now fear for Nguyen’s safety outside the house. The nation has seen an uptick in racism and violence against Asian-Americans during the pandemic, including a string of shootings in Georgia last week that left eight people dead.

“It’s definitely been a strain on mental health,” she said.

Bobby Degeratu, a senior, said he had to look for ways to break up the monotony. He realized he was losing track of time and not making the most of a flexible schedule. Fast forward several months, he now has his driver’s license. It’s something the teen never felt he had the hours or confidence to pursue before the pandemic because of his course load and athletic obligations.

Degeratu also spent time researching careers and settling on a post-high school plan: He wants to major in biochemistry and become a psychiatrist.

“For such a long time, I was just kind of letting it go by without making anything positive out of it,” he said, referring to the pandemic and related shutdowns. “Once I made that change in mindset, I stopped panicking, I stopped feeling afraid and I kind of set myself up to do the most I could with the constraints that were happening.”

Still, Degeratu and his peers in the Class of 2021 have missed some milestone moments, such as their senior sunrise, a tradition when students gather in the football field before dawn to kick off their last year of high school. It’s unclear whether prom or in-person graduation ceremonies will happen. 

The Clark County School District is letting high school freshmen and seniors return to campuses on Monday. Sophomores and juniors can do the same April 6. Those who choose to do so will be entering physical classrooms for the first time in more than a year, but it won’t be five days a week. Under a hybrid model, students will rotate between in-person and remote learning.

The perks — seeing friends and learning face to face — weren’t enough to woo the majority of Valley High School students three-fourths of the way through the year amid an ongoing pandemic.

“I don’t even feel safe, like, going out to see my friends when it’s just us one on one,” said Julianna Melendez, a senior.

Devin Hicks, also a senior, agreed. Despite senioritis creeping in and not being a huge fan of online learning, his grades have improved this year. Hicks, who played three sports before the pandemic, suspects it boils down to extra hours.

“Now, I don’t do anything,” he said, “so I think I have more time.”

It’s bittersweet.

Hicks may be an outlier, though, when it comes to academics.

The Clark and Washoe county school districts both reported an increase in the number of failing grades issued during the first semester. It mirrors a worrisome national trend, underscoring the blow the pandemic has taken on student learning. 

Maraccini, principal of Mater Academy of Northern Nevada, has observed academic slides among her students as well. Many of them enter the school two to three years behind grade level, she said, making rapid upward movement a necessity. But by winter break, her staff estimated that only 20 percent of students were on track to reach their annual typical growth. Since then, they have seen more progress, indicating that figure could increase by the end of the academic year. 

The bottom line, though, is that Maraccini worries students may have lost between half a year to a full year worth of academic growth. The hybrid model couldn’t compete with traditional five-day-a-week classroom instruction.

“That hurts my heart because we work really hard to get kids back on to grade level,” she said. “... And we lost it this last year. Two days a week isn’t enough.”

The big question moving forward: How can students regain their academic footing?

Democratic state lawmakers have introduced SB173, dubbed the “Back on Track Act.” The proposed legislation seeks to reverse pandemic-created backward academic slides, particularly among at-risk children. Federal relief funding would be used to help school districts create learning loss prevention plans, set up summer programs for pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students, provide supplemental pay to staff and offer transportation and food for students in need.

"Learning loss because of the pandemic is a crisis that threatens to set many of our kids back with the potential of leaving behind a widened achievement gap," Sen. Marilyn Dondero Loop (D-Las Vegas), who worked as a teacher for 30 years in the Clark County School District, said during a virtual news conference earlier this month. "If we don't work now to correct it, it will have implications for their educational development for years to come."

The bill received its first hearing last week in Carson City.

District leaders across Nevada already have begun tackling that same question. McNeill said the Washoe County School District will be unveiling a “two-year response to recovery strategic plan,” detailing the path it envisions to bridging academic gaps. She emphasized that it’s a long-term roadmap.

After all, the pandemic has disrupted learning for more than a year. Undoing related damage will take time.

“It’s important to realize that we are not going to make this up in a summer,” she said.

Even so, educators are eyeing summer break as an opportunity to continue this work. McNeill said the district is crafting a summer program featuring a “camp-type atmosphere,” where students can come for acceleration, enrichment and credit recovery. 

Educators say schools will have to walk a fine line in the months to come: They’ll be trying to pull students up academically while not dampening their enthusiasm for school or ignoring their heightened social-emotional needs.

There are staff considerations as well. Maraccini couldn’t bear to log onto social media at certain points over the past year. She said it was too discouraging seeing rhetoric accusing teachers of lounging at home during distance learning. 

“This has been the hardest year ever for teachers, and my teachers have done — I’ll cry again — unbelievable things,” she said, fighting back tears. “They are a gift to children.”

But will they be a gift to children if they are burnt out? That’s what Maraccini is weighing as the charter school considers summer school programs and other options. 

“It’s not fair to ask them to do more at this point,” she said.

The pandemic didn’t only create learning loss, though. It upended the K-12 education system, forcing experimentation that could lead to lasting, and some may argue, long-needed reforms. Academic researchers say the past year has challenged assumptions about how learning can and should occur in a system historically resistant to change.

But the gravitational pull to return to pre-pandemic routines will be strong, said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. 

“It will take real intentionality, real insistence from people to carve out something new,” she said. “What I’m hearing from many, many families is they’re not willing to go back to normal because it wasn’t working for their kids.”

Microschools, flexible schedules and online learning have emerged as popular options among some families, Lake said. Communication has also improved between teachers and parents thanks to the “two-way mirror” live virtual instruction provided to both parties, she said.

The tricky part will be turning those realizations into permanent fixtures in the nation’s education landscape. But if there was ever a time for reinvention, now is it, Lake said. States could earmark portions of their federal relief funding for this purpose and start collecting feedback from families, students and educators.

Jara said he plans to embark on a listening tour starting this week in Southern Nevada. The community events will address forward-looking questions.

“How do we offer choice? What does school look like?” he said. “We know that we have to improve and provide distance education.”

But the onus shouldn’t entirely be on school districts, said Jana Wilcox Lavin, executive director of Opportunity 180. She pointed to Connecting Kids — the public-private partnership that mobilized to solve the digital divide statewide  — as an example of the community coming together for a common education purpose.

Wilcox Lavin said schools should leverage partnerships with community organizations to provide summer programs or after-school enrichment opportunities that would help mitigate pandemic-related learning struggles.

“Certainly we’ve learned, if nothing else, that all the learning doesn’t happen in the (school) building,” she said.

Aside from where and how students learn, other questions are surfacing about what students should be learning. Remote learning, in theory, put Chromebooks or laptops in the hands of every public student statewide, accelerating their 21st century skills in the process. Nevada Succeeds, a policy-minded education organization, established an educator fellowship last year that focused on researching high-performing education systems around the world.

Although a planned trip to Singapore got dashed by COVID, the group examined the island nation’s use of a future-ready graduate profile, said Jeanine Collins, the organization’s executive director. It grew out of some deep introspection.

“In Singapore, they collectively said, you know, we’re scoring really high on all these tests, but are we as entrepreneurial, creative?” Collins explained. “How are we preparing students to really be engaged in a global economy?”

The pandemic has presented Nevada an opportunity to do a similar self-examination, Collins said, because so much has already been disrupted. Seizing on the right moment to promulgate change is half the battle.

“There really is a desire to meet everybody’s needs in the best ways that we can and to be open to what that could mean,” she said. “It might look like things we haven’t done before, and that could be great.”

One change could be a shift to competency-based learning, which is rooted in the belief that children should move at their own pace and progress to higher levels of learning as soon as they master skills and concepts. The Churchill County School District is already involved in a pilot program for competency-based learning, but other education leaders, including Jara and state Superintendent Jhone Ebert, have signaled their support as well.

Ebert said the pandemic has made it an ideal time to transition away from standard, age-based learning models because children’s skill levels will cover a wide spectrum. Some will be breezing through English Language Arts and struggling in math or vice versa.

Churchill County Superintendent Summer Stephens knows dramatic shifts can be difficult. Her decision to launch six-week courses for older students this year as part of a hybrid model received a mixed bag of reaction. In general, high school students and staff haven’t been as enthusiastic as those in the middle school environment, she said. And it’s too early to draw any lasting conclusions from grade data because students haven’t completed their second semester courses.

Still, Stephens said the six-week courses have at least sparked conversations about traditional time constructs and other rigid practices in public education.

“We have had a one-size-fits-all model,” she said. “It takes a lot of effort and coordination and collaboration to get to a spot where we can get to a more personalized situation, and we just have to give it time.”

And, in the education world, there never seems to be enough of that. 

Mariluz Garcia and her two children can see the finish line of the school year approaching. Her son and daughter, now in first and second grade, made it through the starts and stops of the unconventional year. First, the virus shuttered schools last spring. Then, wildfires delayed their reopening in the fall. And by the time the holidays rolled around, COVID stymied in-person learning once again.

The virus left them unscathed physically, but emotionally? That’s a whole other matter.

“This was a rough year for everyone, not just our family but the whole world,” she said. “We all went through it together.”

Garcia isn’t dwelling on the learning loss. Children are “resilient creatures,” she said, but they’re listening. They can sense negativity. Instead, she is hyping the positives. Her children still love school. They love their teachers. They love seeing friends.

The calendar’s creep toward spring is already blooming with more optimism. Her children recently came home bursting with excitement because their school’s playground reopened.

And just days ago, Garcia’s 6-year-old son blurted out a phrase that almost made her drive off the road in shock.

“Life is too short to drink bad coffee.”

The words were on her coffee mug. He had read them.

Part IV coming Sunday, March 28.

Pandemic accelerates the emergence of small learning environments in the Las Vegas Valley

As school reopening decisions hang in the air, complicated by rising COVID-19 cases and budget uncertainty, some families aren’t waiting for a state or local answer.

They’re moving ahead with plans to enroll their children in a learning environment that hearkens back to the frontier days when one-room schoolhouses served students of varying ages. The concept is called microschooling, and it’s an education trend that was quietly gaining steam before the coronavirus pandemic made parents and educators uneasy about crowded classrooms and congested hallways.

“It’s kind of growing exponentially,” said Don Soifer, founder and president of Nevada Action for School Options, which launched a project called the Greater Las Vegas Microschooling Collaborative in the spring.

Since then, Soifer said many families as well as educational and community groups have reached out to Nevada Action for School Options for more information. He estimates at least 25 microschools will be operating across the Las Vegas Valley by the start of the upcoming academic year.

So what exactly is a microschool?

The concept has a relatively broad definition but generally refers to schools with fewer than 150 students who often work alongside older and younger peers in the same classroom, said Kim Loomis, the Clark County School District’s former online and blended learning director who now works as an independent digital learning consultant. If a microschool sounds eerily similar to a homeschool environment, that’s because the trend has its roots in families that wanted an education option that wasn’t quite a public school or charter school or a private school.

Some homeschool co-ops — an arrangement in which homeschooling families work together and share resources — could be considered microschools, too. Soifer said children participating in microschooling environments need a homeschool waiver approved by the Nevada Department of Education.

Loomis said families turning to microschooling often want more control over their children’s education and less rigidity to fixed curriculums and testing. While each microschool differs, some promote discovery-based learning, meaning students study topics that interest them in addition to core academic subjects.

The size factor, however, has proved attractive to families amid the pandemic.

Patricia Farley, a mother of four and former state senator, has chosen to go the microschooling route for the 2020-2021 school year. It’s a decision propelled by a family health scare: Her 17-year-old nephew in Phoenix recently wound up hospitalized and on a ventilator with what doctors suspect was Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome, which has been linked to COVID-19.

Up until then, he had been a healthy teen and football star, she said.

“We’re just not ready,” Farley said, referring to reopening schools. “We don’t understand what it’s going to do in children.”

Her children attended American Preparatory Academy, a charter school in the southwest valley, last year, but at least for the upcoming academic year, they will be learning from home in a microschool. Farley said she has banded together with five or six other families whose children will become classmates in a microschool based out of an extra room in her house. 

The families have agreed to share the cost of hiring a teacher, who would make $25 to $40 an hour for a 40-hour work week, said Farley, noting several educators already have expressed interest. If her children excel in the new environment, she would consider microschooling even after the COVID-19 threat has been minimized.

Farley said she didn’t make the decision lightly, though.

“My other biggest heartburn and concern is pulling money out of the public school system, which so desperately needs it,” she said. “But it’s a fine balance of risking my kids’ safety.”

Melissa Flaxman, founder of Future Makers, is launching a microschool for the upcoming academic year. She stands in her classroom space located at Fergusons Downtown on Friday, July 17, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Across town, Melissa Flaxman, founder of an education enrichment program called Future Makers, plans to launch a microschool next month, too. For the past two years, Future Makers has focused on creative workshops and hands-on learning, aiming as an online mission statement says, “to provide equal access to engaging supplemental education & advocacy to children and families.”

 “We have really always existed to try to fill in those gaps,” Flaxman said.

And the newest gap that has emerged, she said, is providing an alternative to traditional education systems. To that end, she expects about 10 families to enroll their children in a microschool at Future Makers, which has a space at Fergusons Downtown.

Flaxman — a former special education teacher within the Clark County School District who has also worked at a private school — said she’s still working out details, such as schedules and cost, but knows the microschool will combine direct instruction with hands-on and child-led learning. She’s also committed to offering scholarships as a means of broadening access to the new learning concept.

“It’s important that we continue offering access to our movement,” she said.

A criticism of the microschooling trend is that it’s a privilege only so many families can afford or handle logistically. While parents provide instruction at some microschools, sidestepping the costs of hiring a teacher or other so-called learning coach, the set-up would be still be difficult for single-parent families or those with two parents who work full time.

Michelle Booth, the communications director for the equity-focused organization Educate Nevada Now, said she doesn’t fault parents for wanting to do what’s best for their children, especially during a pandemic. But it’s another example of an educational inequity that could widen achievement gaps among groups of students.

“The reality is there’s going to be some kids whose parents don’t have the resources or the capabilities to do that for them, so there’s definitely going to be some kids left behind,” she said.

The full extent of the microschooling movement in Southern Nevada likely won’t be known until school resumes next month. But if the school reopening debate is any indication, there are plenty of parents and teachers uncomfortable with an in-person return to instruction. On the other hand, the Clark County School District’s proposed hybrid option — in which students would attend school in person two days a week and work from home the other three days — also has elicited strong criticism because of child-care issues.

The school district sent families a preference survey, which closed on Friday. The results have not yet been revealed, though.

In the meantime, microschooling proponents are forging ahead with plans, eyeing the unusual circumstances this year as the prime time to enact educational change.

Katy Toma is another local resident working on launching a microschool called SMARTe, which will be an outgrowth of her existing enrichment program, ZeduPlus, combining core academic subjects like reading and math with 21st century skills such as understanding how coding works. Toma said she had multiple families ask about expanding the enrichment program into an alternative school option.

Groups of 10 to 12 students will be paired with a “lead learner,” she said, and the groups may meet online or in person while guided by the SMARTe model. Toma said the SMARTe approach is designed to suit kinesthetic learners, who understand concepts by completing physical activities versus listening to a lecture. 

The bottom line, Toma said, is that families want options to best suit their children’s learning needs instead of feeling pigeon-holed by an existing system that hasn’t changed much over the years.

“It’s about doing it in a better way that matches kids today,” she said.

Online charter school set for closure after contract renewal denied

The State Public Charter School Authority Board voted 4-1 Friday evening to deny a charter contract renewal for Nevada Connections Academy, an online school that for years has been under scrutiny for lackluster student performance.

The move followed hours of testimony from Charter Authority staff —which recommended the denial —as well as school officials, parents, students and teachers who showed up en masse in a bid to save their school. The elementary, middle and high school portions of Nevada Connections Academy had been operating under a “notice of breach” because of poor academic performance.

The online charter school was seeking to renew its charter for the middle and high school only. Nevada Connection Academy’s elementary school is subject to mandatory closure, per Nevada law, because of its third consecutive one-star rating in the 2018-2019 academic year.

The middle school most recently earned a two-star rating, while the high school received one star. A third year with either a one- or two-star rating would make them eligible for either permissive or mandatory closure — the latter reserved for schools with three years of one-star ratings.

“This is not a decision that I have taken lightly, nor that staff has taken lightly, and appreciate the gravity and potential impact this has on children,” said Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the Charter Authority.

Feiden said the staff’s recommendation to deny renewal was based on a holistic evaluation of Nevada Connection Academy’s performance. Although the online charter school had brought its graduation rate up to 70 percent, she said the majority of other academic indicators were not positive. Students’ math proficiency, for example, is well below the state average.

Officials from Nevada Connections Academy, however, defended the school’s academic performance, pointing out it serves some of the most transient students and families in the state. Additionally, about 40 percent of students in the 2018 cohort were credit deficient when they enrolled, which school leaders described as a common situation. 

Scott Harrington, president of the school’s board of directors, said Nevada Connections Academy does not “cherry pick” its students.

“If our doors close, where will these students go?” he said. “Everyone wants to help the homeless, but they all say not on my street.”

Parents who spoke in support of the contract renewal shared stories about how their children — some of whom have medical conditions, had been bullied or otherwise struggled in traditional school settings — thrived after being enrolled in Nevada Connections Academy. A few parents who attempted homeschooling but then turned to the online charter school also praised the difference it made in their children’s lives.

Ultimately, the majority of Charter Authority board members sided with the staff recommendation, citing a lack of confidence in Nevada Connections Academy’s ability to improve student achievement. Board member Don Soifer cast the lone opposition vote. He had proposed a three-year renewal of the middle school and a gradual phase-out of the high school, which was similar to an offer the Charter Authority had given the charter last fall and did not accept.

Charter Authority Board Chair Melissa Mackedon said she had “absolutely zero pleasure” in denying charter renewal to Nevada Connections Academy but noted that delays would only make it more difficult for students and families to make alternative plans.

“The sooner we can start that, the better it will be for kids in the end,” she said.

The school serves 3,468 kindergarten through 12th-grade students across the state. Nevada Connections Academy’s existing charter expires on the last day of this school year.

Are microschools the future of schooling?

A pre-k student writing sample

By Don Soifer

Forward-thinking education leaders have for years been heralding disruptive innovations that hold promise to lead us beyond the same “factory school” classroom models that have been prevalent and largely unchanged across America for over a century.

Frustration with the slow rate of progress in improving student outcomes in America’s public education system is not new: The landmark “A Nation at Risk” report that documented large-scale gaps in student proficiency in core subjects was published more than 35 years ago. In Nevada, slow-crawling gains in student proficiency and various pressures from constant population growth cause many families to search for different answers.

Will a proliferation of new microschools offer a better solution for a new generation of students? A growing community within education believes they just might.

What is a microschool?  While strict definitions are not common, microschools are typically described with these characteristics:

·      A microschool generally serves fewer than 25 students and has only a minimal administrative staff, holding down costs.

·      A microschool can convene in a home or alternate setting and can be organized as a public charter school, a private school, or a homeschooling co-op. 

Microschool models vary, and their particular appeal depends on the diverse needs of different learners. Small, intimate learning environments are a strong attractor for some children who struggle in large schools and crowded classrooms. Some learners and their families prefer greater opportunities for outside-the-classroom learning experiences, combined with increased scheduling flexibility. Other families see benefits in a temporary alternative when learning circumstances elsewhere feel less-than-optimal, perhaps as the result of a bullying problem or a teacher who is sub-par or just not the best match.

Once they get used to a microschool setting, many students come to relish being able to learn at their own pace rather than sitting in a bigger classroom where teachers “teach to the middle” of a classroom of students with different learning trajectories. In what has become a golden age of education technology and software offerings, where vast choices of online instructional tools – programs that constantly adapt to students’ answers to meet students “where they are” in their learning – are available while affordable, new possibilities emerge constantly. Big, textbook-publishing monopolies have given way to seemingly infinite choices that can be aligned to state content standards.

Leveraging technology for classroom content is often a central component to microschools, but not always. It is understandable that reasonable parents sometimes raise questions about whether potential negatives of increased screen time will outweigh educational benefits for their children. Montessori and Waldorf education are two popular examples of ways microschooling can support teaching and learning in vibrant fashion without technology in the classroom.

“Blended learning” in classrooms that involve computers in providing instruction has been a popular trend in public and private education for many years now — the federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 even included definitions for blended learning in education law for the first time.

To realize the potential of blended classrooms, supporting our teachers with tools, strategies and timely, actionable information on student progress is crucial to success. 

Proponents and practitioners emphasize that positioning students to “own their learning” is the essential difference between the passive classroom learning of the last century and the active learning required of the next one. 

Will microschools be our next emerging school model?

To be certain, microschools are still in the “early adopters” phase. The most well-known examples, including Acton Academies and Wildflower Schools in several states along with promising schools in New York City, Washington, DC, Providence, St. Louis and elsewhere, still comprise the smallest of market shares.

In Arizona, more than 40 Prenda microschools serving some 550 students present a fast-growing model which may be well on its way to establishing itself as a national leader. Most of these microschools exist though partnership agreements with public charter schools and with the Mesa Public School district; families can opt for their children to participate in established public school models but also in small groups in supervised home settings. Prenda’s organization utilizes learning coaches who are trained and supported through their company network along with customized curricular and instructional approaches.

In Nevada, the Ruby Mountain Acton Academy in Elko, a private school which may be more accurately described as a cooperative homeschooling arrangement, is the first established microschool. Rural families in other states also have an interest in microschool models.

Microschools can be organized as public charter schools, private schools, or homeschooling arrangements. Whether they emerge as viable schooling solutions will likely have a lot to do with the constraints and challenges within each governance model. For charter schools, a combination of economics and regulatory requirements present substantial hurdles for microschools’ small size. Nevada’s stringent regulatory requirements for private schools also pose compliance challenges. Cooperative homeschool arrangements have fewer such obstacles.

As Nevada’s K-12 education sector works to overcome its present challenges, microschooling may be a solution that makes sense.

Don Soifer is president of Nevada Action for School Options, a nonprofit organization based in Las Vegas.

School choice group's poll shows most Nevadans like concept of ESAs, think public schools are underfunded

School Choice Rally

A poll commissioned by a group supportive of Education Savings Accounts found that nearly three-quarters of Nevadans favor the program, which would route some public education money toward private school tuition or other qualifying educational expenses, but has stalled amid Democratic concerns that it diverts scarce funding from public schools.

Results from the poll released Monday by Nevada Action for School Options also showed a plurality of respondents would put their child in a private school if they could, and the majority believe too little is being spent on public schools. The survey was funded by EdChoice, a foundation started by economist and free-market capitalism champion Milton Friedman that has advocated for school vouchers.

“We support programs that support the quality growth of educational options,” said Don Soifer, head of Nevada Action for School Options, who said his group planned to share the survey findings with lawmakers “honestly just to inform them about what we’re finding — that it’s a priority for Nevadans.”

The poll was conducted by Braun Research, which has a “B” rating on the blog 538’s pollster ratings. It involved more than 600 phone interviews and 600 online interviews in English and Spanish from Jan. 10 to Jan. 29.

A bill creating ESAs passed when Republicans controlled the Legislature in 2015, but faced lawsuits, and the program’s funding mechanism was deemed unconstitutional. Since then, lawmakers have not opted to fund ESAs and the program has never yet disbursed funds.

Now deeply in the minority, Republicans led by Assemblyman Gregory Hafen have reintroduced the concept in a bill seeking $60 million for ESAs. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson and Gov. Steve Sisolak have made statements casting doubt on the bill’s odds in the Legislature, saying increasing funding for public schools was a far higher priority than programs that also include private schools.

A 2018 Nevada Independent poll found a plurality of respondents — 49 percent — favored the ESA program.

Respondents to the new poll were given this description of the ESA program when asked to offer their opinion of it:

“Nevada passed such an ‘education savings account program’ in 2015. Although the legislature has yet to fund the program, the program would provide parents funds to pay for a variety of educational services for their children, including private school tuition, distance learning programs, tutoring, curriculum, therapies for students with special needs, post-secondary educational institutions in Nevada, and other defined educational services. Accounts for low-income students and those with special needs would be worth up to $5,967 and accounts for all other students would be worth up to $5,370. Funds remaining in an account at the end of a school year would be rolled over to the next school year. In general, do you favor or oppose this ESA program?”

Opportunity Scholarships

The poll also found that 68 percent of Nevadans support Opportunity Scholarships, which provide thousands of dollars each year — amounts depend on financial need — for K-12 students to pay for private school tuition. The program is funded when businesses donate money to a scholarship organization, then receive a credit on their modified business tax liability in return.  

Opportunity Scholarships have garnered more support from Democrats in the Legislature than ESAs. Several Democrats voted in favor of putting $20 million toward the program in 2017 as part of a legislative session-ending compromise.

Nevada Action for School Options has an affiliate entity that is one of the scholarship-granting organizations.

Other findings

The poll also found that:

  • 57 percent of respondents said they believe K-12 education in Nevada has gotten off track, while 35 percent said things are heading in the right direction.
  • Parents are making sacrifices to ensure their children are getting a quality education. 22 percent said they had changed a job, 26 percent had moved to be closer to a school, and 28 percent had taken a part-time job or more work to support their child’s K-12 education.
  • 65 percent of respondents said they believed public education funding is too low in Nevada, while 19 percent said it’s about right and 11 percent said it’s too high.
  • Respondents generally underestimated how much public funds are expended per pupil. When told that an average of $8,800 in public funds goes toward public education per pupil, 55 percent still said it’s too low.
  • Asked where they would place their child if they had their choice, 44 percent said a private school, 26 percent said a traditional public school, 18 percent said a charter school and 10 percent said they preferred to homeschool.

Soifer said his favorite finding was how much parents are investing in their child’s education. In addition to responses about moving or changing jobs to better their child’s schooling, 87 percent said they helped their child with homework at least once a week and 29 percent said they paid for tutoring.

“There’s this narrative that’s out there when you see any national studies … about how states compare, that Nevadans just don’t care as much about education,” he said. “And I think when you look at things like that, it tells a different story.”

School Choice Poll by Michelle Rindels on Scribd