South Lake Tahoe casinos begin closing gaming operations as Caldor Fire intensifies

Operators of the four major casinos in South Lake Tahoe began closing portions of their gaming floors Monday after fire officials in California ordered evacuations of residents all the way up to the Nevada border in response to the fast-spreading Caldor Fire.

Gaming Control Board Audit Division Chief Kelly Colvin said in an email that many of the employees at four major properties along Highway 50 are California residents and had already left the properties “to take care of matters related to the evacuation of their homes.” 

He said some casino operators had notified the Control Board on Monday afternoon that they were shutting down certain gaming operations.

“I’d presume that this will escalate over the coming minutes (and) hours,” he said.

Two of the casinos, Harrah’s Lake Tahoe and Harveys, are operated by Caesars Entertainment. Hard Rock Lake Tahoe is operated by Las Vegas-based Paragon Gaming, and Montbleu Casino Resort is operated by Rhode Island-based Bally’s Corp.

“Montbleu Resort Casino has not been evacuated and is currently housing evacuees, team members, and firefighters,” property general manager Tim Tretton said in an email provided by Bally’s. “Our hotel, casino (slots only), and a to-go restaurant are open at this time. We continue to support the community and work closely with the fire chief.”

A source at Hard Rock said the property is housing some firefighters and displaced California residents.

In a statement provided by a spokeswoman, Hard Rock Lake Tahoe officials said, “We are thankful for the many firefighters and first responders who are working tirelessly to protect our team members, our homes, family, friends and the natural resources of the South Shore of Lake Tahoe. We continue to monitor the situation and are in close contact with the local, state and federal government.” 

The business disruption comes as the Lake Tahoe resorts were gearing up for the Labor Day weekend holiday. Several properties canceled entertainment last weekend as the fire grew in California.

According to the Control Board, gaming revenues in South Lake Tahoe have increased 27 percent through July compared to the first seven months of 2019.

Caesars is dealing with closures of several casinos in Louisiana and Mississippi due to Hurricane Ida, including Harrah’s New Orleans and Harrah’s Gulf Coast in Biloxi.

In a statement, Caesars Entertainment said, “While Harrah’s and Harveys Lake Tahoe are not currently under mandatory evacuation orders, we recognize that the situation is rapidly evolving, and we are in constant contact with local officials to ensure that we are prepared.”

The company said the properties were operating “and actively supporting local emergency services, fire crews and displaced team members. The safety of our team members, guests and community is our primary concern. We will continue to work closely with local officials and emergency responders, adhering to their guidance and assisting as needed.”

Shortly before 3 p.m. Monday, Gov. Steve Sisolak declared an emergency order in Nevada in response to the Caldor Fire. Sisolak said it’s anticipated the fire will cross from California into Nevada in the coming days. The state of emergency ensures resources from the local, state, and federal levels are available to assist as needed. 

“On behalf of the State of Nevada, I would like to thank all of our brave first responders, local government agencies, and nonprofit entities who continue to go above and beyond to assist our communities during the Caldor Fire,” Sisolak said in a statement. “We will continue to use all our available resources to fight this fire and assist those in need.”  

In the declaration, Sisolak said there would be "insufficient sheltering” caused by the evacuation of more than 20,000 residents and visitors to South Lake Tahoe and the surrounding communities. He said the evacuation has overwhelmed community services, would create unsafe road conditions and has caused fuel shortages.

According to the Associated Press, California’s Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention issued evacuation orders at 10 a.m. for areas adjacent to the Nevada border.

The recommended evacuation route was Highway 50 headed east toward Nevada. Evacuation shelters are in place at the Truckee Veterans Hall in Truckee, California, and the Douglas County Community Center in Gardnerville. The fire has burned more than 175,000 acres.

Colvin said he wasn’t aware of any evacuation order issued for a Nevada community.

“My understanding is that such an order would likely originate from the governor,” he said.

Updated on 8/30/2021, at 3:42 p.m. to include additional information from the governor's declaration.

Updated on 8/30/2021 at 4:26 p.m. to include comment from Hard Rock Lake Tahoe.

Updated on 8/30/2021 at 5:15 p.m. to add statement from Caesars Entertainment.

House approves budget blueprint kicking off sprint to draft Democrats’ $3.5 trillion social programs bill

East front of the U.S. Capitol.

House Democrats approved their budget plan Tuesday after negotiating a deal with 10 moderates who threatened to kill the measure by withholding support until the House passed the Senate’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package.

The budget vote, 220 to 212, triggers the reconciliation process, allowing committees of jurisdiction to begin drafting a $3.5 trillion package that can pass the Senate with a simple majority, rather than with the 60 votes typically needed to overcome a filibuster.

The reconciliation package will include an extension of the child tax credit, paid family leave, and other pieces of President Joe Biden's agenda that Republicans were unlikely to support, as opposed to the funds for roads, bridges, airports and broadband in the $1.2 trillion package. The Senate passed the measure and the budget resolution on Aug. 9.

Despite the legislative victory, tough negotiations lie ahead for Democrats. They control 50 votes in the Senate and will need all of them to pass their agenda. But Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Kyrsten ​​Sinema (D-AZ) said that $3.5 trillion is too much to spend for the reconciliation package. Their desire for fiscal discipline will clash with other Democrats' desires, in both chambers, to spend the full amount called for in the resolution.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-NV), who, as a member of the Ways and Means Committee and the House Budget Committee, will help write the reconciliation package, declined to say whether he thinks $3.5 trillion is the right amount.

"This is about providing child care to moms; it's about providing paid leave to working families; it's about providing more affordable housing which we desperately need in Nevada and other places in the country," Horsford said Tuesday in a brief interview when asked about the cost. 

Rep. Susie Lee (D-NV) said Congress would determine the right amount, which she added should be offset with spending cuts or tax increases on the wealthy, proposed in the resolution. 

“The right amount is what we can get passed, what's going to help the American public and what we can get paid for,” Lee said off the House floor Tuesday.

The House vote came a few hours after Gov. Steve Sisolak participated in a Democratic National Committee event Tuesday at a barbershop in East Las Vegas as part of the “Build Back Better” national bus tour touting the Democratic plan by the same name.

Las Vegas Councilwoman, Erica Mosca founder of Leaders in Training and Paul Madrid, owner of Eastside Cutters Barbershop behind Gov. Steve Sisolak speaking at the Democratic National Committee “Build Back Better” national bus tour event in Las Vegas on Aug. 24, 2021. (Jannelle Calderon/ The Nevada Independent)

Community leaders including Las Vegas Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, Mi Familia Vota State Director Cecia Alvarado and Erica Mosca, founder of Leaders in Training, joined the governor to rally support for Biden’s agenda, including passage of the reconciliation bill.

“President Biden and Vice President Harris have just been absolutely terrific in terms of giving us the tools and the flexibility that we need to move forward and to move on,” Sisolak said at the event. 

Sisolak said that the funding could greatly benefit the state’s education system by adding mental health resources and improving teachers’ pay and the counselor to student ratio.

“Our education system is woefully underfunded. We need to get more money into our schools and actually into the classrooms,” Sisolak said. “Teachers do an absolutely incredible job but they're overworked and underpaid for the work that they do. We need to do more.”

The Democratic-drafted budget resolution, typically used by the majority party to outline its priorities, received no Republican votes. 

Democratic members of Nevada's congressional delegation celebrated House passage of the plan, which they argued would help Nevada, including universal pre-K for three and four-year-olds. 

“I think the biggest bang for an education dollar is early childhood education,” Lee said.

“There're a lot of great things in this package that are going to help all of our middle-class families in Nevada who have been struggling,” Lee continued.

The vote came after hours of intense negotiations between Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and nine other centrist Democrats, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) ended the standoff that threatened to derail the Democrats’ agenda. 

The moderates agreed to support the budget resolution and the speaker agreed to hold a vote on the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill by Sept. 27. 

While not among the 10 House Democratic centrists who threatened to vote against the budget, Lee, who had also advocated for immediate House action on the bipartisan Senate bill, said she was pleased with the compromise. 

“I believe that this bipartisan package is something that was negotiated with the Senate, with the president, that we negotiated for months and months,” adding that Pelosi’s assurance of a vote at the end of September date-certain House action on the bipartisan bill. 

Lee is a member of the bipartisan group of moderates known as the Problem Solvers Caucus and the Senate bipartisan bill is similar to a proposal the Problem Solvers released in June.

Horsford said that the dispute was much ado about nothing since any funds from the bipartisan bill could not be spent until Oct. 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year. 

“Nothing can even be spent in the bipartisan bill until after October, so we're really really arguing over semantics at this point,” Horsford said before the deal was finalized. 

Correction posted at 9:08 a.m. on 8/25/2021: This story has been updated to reflect that Sen. Kyrsten ​​Sinema represents Arizona, not Nevada.

Nevada casinos’ take of $1.23 billion in May shatters nearly 14-year-old high

It seems there is something to the “pent-up demand” theory.

Nevada casinos collected a single-month record of $1.23 billion in gaming revenues during May, a stunning figure given that most casinos statewide were still operating under COVID-19 capacity restrictions that weren’t fully lifted until June 1.

The record figure, reported Wednesday by the Gaming Control Board, easily eclipsed the state’s previous single-month high of $1.165 billion recorded in October 2007.

Control Board Senior Research Analyst Michael Lawton said an all-time record on the Strip for slot machine revenues and a healthy month for the Strip’s high-end baccarat business fueled the results.

Lawton said all the sub-markets were up in May, “which can be attributed to strong demand, healthy consumers and leisure travel beginning to rebound.”

The $1.23 billion figure was up 25.3 percent over May 2019. The state is comparing monthly totals to 2019 because casinos statewide were closed in May 2020 during a 78-day shutdown of businesses during the pandemic.

On the Strip, gaming revenues of $655.5 million marked a 26.7 percent increase over May 2019. Strip resorts reported baccarat revenue of $105.9 million in May, an increase of 97 percent from 2019. Casinos played luckier during the month, holding more than 22 percent of all baccarat wagers, compared to a 7.7 percent hold in May 2019.

Record-busting slot machine revenues on the Strip came in at  $358.3, 24.5 percent over May 2019.

“Sequentially, gross gaming revenues (on the Strip) showed a nice acceleration,” J.P. Morgan gaming analyst Joe Greff said in a research note. Even without including the baccarat, Greff said the Strip’s monthly revenue totals would have been up 19 percent with wagering volumes increasing 17 percent.

May marked the third straight month that Nevada gaming revenues eclipsed the $1 billion mark. For the first five months of 2021, statewide gaming revenues are down 1.3 percent compared to 2019, when the Nevada casinos collected more than $12 billion from gamblers, which was the first year the state hit such a lofty total since 2007.

Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon said he wouldn’t be surprised if the results from the last three months in Las Vegas carry over into the summer.

“Looking ahead, although a traditionally weaker month of the year, June hosted two noticeable events, the World of Concrete, the (city’s) first major convention on June 8-10, and the Resorts World Las Vegas opening on June 24, the first major opening on the Strip in more than 10 years,” Beynon said in a research note.

On the Strip, despite May’s total number, gaming revenues are down more than 13.6 percent compared to the first five months of 2019.

International travel still down

Baccarat totals for the month aside, the Strip is still missing a key business segment – high-end international customers.

During May, McCarran International Airport reported its highest single-month passenger total since February 2020, the last full month of operations before the pandemic. Still, the more than 3.5 million passengers flying during the month of May still marked a 23.3 percent decline over May 2019.

International travel continues to be a challenge for Las Vegas, with just 50,258 passengers recorded in May, a decline of 85.1 percent —  all of the passenger traffic coming from Mexico. Las Vegas once had direct flights between 11 different countries.

In May, a Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion co-chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) discussed ways to bring back the international travel market.

At last week’s grand opening event for Resorts World Las Vegas, Gov. Steve Sisolak acknowledged the need for international travel to help fill Las Vegas Strip hotel rooms.

Resorts World is owned by Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, which operates several large gaming properties throughout Asia.

“We’ll get international travel back in time,” Sisolak told The Nevada Independent. “It’s a key market. International customers spend more and stay longer.”

Sisolak said he discussed international travel issues with Genting Chairman K.T. Lam, who said the company has international customers who live in California and New York who will come to Resorts World Las Vegas.

For the first five months of 2021, McCarran’s passenger volume is down 41.7 percent over the same time frame as 2019.

Las Vegas visitation nears 3 million

Las Vegas saw a nearly 12 percent jump in visitor volume during May compared to April, but the market was still roughly 22 percent below its pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority (LVCVA) said Southern Nevada drew just under 2.9 million visitors in May, compared with almost 3.7 million visitors in May 2019. Still, Las Vegas saw its highest visitor count since the pandemic turned off the nationwide travel industry.

Las Vegas, for the 13th straight month, recorded a zero in convention attendance. But that streak is expected to end when June’s numbers are counted because of the World of Concrete trade show and other planned events.

Hotel occupancy reached nearly 71 percent in May, up 5.3 percent over April. Weekend room occupancy was at 88 percent. The LVCVA said midweek hotel occupancy was 62.8 percent, up 4.9 percent from April, but down by more than 25 percent compared with May 2019.

Truist Securities gaming analyst Barry Jonas was skeptical of Las Vegas sustaining the growth from the past three months because midweek occupancy “remains a concern.”

Jonas said he was “looking for green shoots [signs of economic recovery] to get more constructive as the convention calendar picks up.”

Good news outside the Strip

Casinos in downtown Las Vegas recorded their combined second-highest all-time monthly revenue total during May – $75.2 million – an increase of 37.2 percent over May 2019. The figure fell just below April’s single-month record of $76.3 million in gaming revenue.

Analysts have credited the opening last year of Circa Casino Resort as helping to bring additional business downtown. For the year, downtown gaming revenues are up 21 percent over 2019.

In Washoe County, casinos recorded the region’s highest monthly gaming revenue total since August 2008, $91.9 million, an increase of 23.1 percent.

Statewide, Nevada sports betting business set a monthly record during May for both revenues and total wagers. Sportsbook operators took in $477.4 million in bets during the month, an increase of 50.4 percent over 2019, while holding revenues of $27.1 million — a jump of 140 percent.

Mobile sports wagering accounted for 62 percent of all sports wagers in May.

Update at 6:06 p.m. on 6/30/2021: Las Vegas visitation numbers for May added.

Update at 10:53 a.m. on 6/30/2021: This story has been corrected to reflect that statewide gaming revenues for the first five months of 2021 were down (not up) 1.3 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

Nevada casinos’ take of $1.23 billion in May shatters nearly 14-year-old high

It seems there is something to the “pent-up demand” theory.

Nevada casinos collected a single-month record of $1.23 billion in gaming revenues during May, a stunning figure given that most casinos statewide were still operating under COVID-19 capacity restrictions that weren’t fully lifted until June 1.

The record figure, reported Wednesday by the Gaming Control Board, easily eclipsed the state’s previous single-month high of $1.165 billion recorded in October 2007.

Control Board Senior Research Analyst Michael Lawton said an all-time record on the Strip for slot machine revenues and a healthy month for the Strip’s high-end baccarat business fueled the results.

Lawton said all the sub-markets were up in May, “which can be attributed to strong demand, healthy consumers and leisure travel beginning to rebound.”

The $1.23 billion figure was up 25.3 percent over May 2019. The state is comparing monthly totals to 2019 because casinos statewide were closed in May 2020 during a 78-day shutdown of businesses during the pandemic.

On the Strip, gaming revenues of $655.5 million marked a 26.7 percent increase over May 2019. Strip resorts reported baccarat revenue of $105.9 million in May, an increase of 97 percent from 2019. Casinos played luckier during the month, holding more than 22 percent of all baccarat wagers, compared to a 7.7 percent hold in May 2019.

Record-busting slot machine revenues on the Strip came in at  $358.3,24.5 percent over May 2019.

“Sequentially, gross gaming revenues (on the Strip) showed a nice acceleration,” J.P. Morgan gaming analyst Joe Greff said in a research note. Even without including the baccarat, Greff said the Strip’s monthly revenue totals would have been up 19 percent with wagering volumes increasing 17 percent.

May marked the third straight month that Nevada gaming revenues eclipsed the $1 billion mark. For the first five months of 2021, statewide gaming revenues are up 1.3 percent compared to 2019, when the Nevada casinos collected more than $12 billion from gamblers, which was the first year the state hit such a lofty total since 2007.

Macquarie Securities gaming analyst Chad Beynon said he wouldn’t be surprised if the results from the last three months in Las Vegas carry over into the summer.

“Looking ahead, although a traditionally weaker month of the year, June hosted two noticeable events, the World of Concrete, the (city’s) first major convention on June 8-10, and the Resorts World Las Vegas opening on June 24, the first major opening on the Strip in more than 10 years,” Beynon said in a research note.

On the Strip, despite May’s total number, gaming revenues are down more than 13.6 percent compared to the first five months of 2019.

International travel still down

Baccarat totals for the month aside, the Strip is still missing a key business segment – high-end international customers.

During May, McCarran International Airport reported its highest single-month passenger total since February 2020, the last full month of operations before the pandemic. Still, the more than 3.5 million passengers flying during the month of May still marked a 23.3 percent decline over May 2019.

International travel continues to be a challenge for Las Vegas, with just 50,258 passengers recorded in May, a decline of 85.1 percent —  all of the passenger traffic coming from Mexico. Las Vegas once had direct flights between 11 different countries.

In May, a Senate Subcommittee on Tourism, Trade, and Export Promotion co-chaired by Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) discussed ways to bring back the international travel market.

At last week’s grand opening event for Resorts World Las Vegas, Gov. Steve Sisolak acknowledged the need for international travel to help fill Las Vegas Strip hotel rooms.

Resorts World is owned by Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, which operates several large gaming properties throughout Asia.

“We’ll get international travel back in time,” Sisolak told The Nevada Independent. “It’s a key market. International customers spend more and stay longer.”

Sisolak said he discussed international travel issues with Genting Chairman K.T. Lam, who said the company has international customers who live in California and New York who will come to Resorts World Las Vegas.

For the first five months of 2021, McCarran’s passenger volume is down 41.7 percent over the same time frame as 2019.

Good news outside the Strip

Casinos in downtown Las Vegas recorded their combined second-highest all-time monthly revenue total during May – $75.2 million – an increase of 37.2 percent over May 2019. The figure fell just below April’s single-month record of $76.3 million in gaming revenue.

Analysts have credited the opening last year of Circa Casino Resort as helping to bring additional business downtown. For the year, downtown gaming revenues are up 21 percent over 2019.

In Washoe County, casinos recorded the region’s highest monthly gaming revenue total since August 2008, $91.9 million, an increase of 23.1 percent.

Statewide, Nevada sports betting business set a monthly record during May for both revenues and total wagers. Sportsbook operators took in $477.4 million in bets during the month, an increase of 50.4 percent over 2019, while holding revenues of $27.1 million — a jump of 140 percent.

Mobile sports wagering accounted for 62 percent of all sports wagers in May.

This story will be updated later today with Las Vegas visitation numbers for May.

Sisolak celebrates bills that expand voting access during ceremonial signing

Gov. Steve Sisolak on Friday held a ceremonial signing of a handful of bills designed to make casting ballots easier in Nevada, marking a deviation from other states where lawmakers have passed more restrictive voting laws.

The bill-signing ceremony at the East Las Vegas Community Center kicked off the last day for the governor to pen his name on bills passed during the 81st Legislature. The five bills, a couple of which he had already signed, are all election-related:

  • AB121 allows people with disabilities to vote using an electronic system created for uniformed military members and other voters living overseas.
  • AB321 permanently expands mail-in voting while letting voters opt out of receiving a mail ballot, and it also gives Indian reservations or colonies more time to request the establishment of a polling place within its boundaries.
  • AB422 implements a top-down voter registration system, moving away from the existing setup that involves 17 county clerks maintaining their own systems and transmitting voter registration information to the secretary of state’s office.
  • AB432 expands automatic voter registration to other state or tribal agencies, such as those designated by the Department of Health and Human Services that receive Medicaid applications and the Silver State Health Insurance Exchange. 
  • AB126 moves the state to a presidential primary system, ending the use of the caucus.

Sisolak noted that lawmakers in other states have introduced 389 bills that would restrict voting rights, and 20 have been signed into law. He called it an “assault on one of the key tenets of our democracy — the right to vote.”

“But today, in the great state of Nevada, we are so proud that we are sending a strong message that the Silver State is not only bucking the national trend of infringing on voter rights — rather, we’re doing everything we can to expand access to the poll while ensuring our elections are secure and fair,” Sisolak added.

The bill-signings come roughly seven months after a contentious election season, during which Nevada’s Republican secretary of state, Barbara Cegavske, received an avalanche of threats and harassment after unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud following former President Donald Trump’s loss. Because of the pandemic, Nevada lawmakers expanded mail-in voting for the 2020 presidential election.

Gov. Steve Sisolak and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson celebrate the signing of election-related bills at the East Las Vegas Community Center on Friday, June 11, 2021. (Mikayla Whitmore/The Nevada Independent)

Sisolak lauded AB321 for permanently enshrining mail-in voting in the Silver State, which he said gives voters more options. He also commended Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) for being a “tenacious fighter” when it comes to preserving and expanding voting rights.

Frierson emphasized that AB321 doesn’t eliminate any voting options — people can vote by mail, deposit their ballots in drop-off boxes or vote in person.

“These are all options and individual liberties that Nevadans have come to enjoy,” he said.

The governor and state lawmakers also celebrated the state’s conversion to a presidential primary, which could place Nevada ahead of New Hampshire and Iowa to become the first nominating state in the nation. But that’s subject to approval from the Democratic National Committee. AB126, which moves Nevada away from a caucus, establishes that presidential primary elections would occur on the first Tuesday in February of presidential election years.

Sisolak touted Nevada’s diverse population as a reason for why it should lead the primary process, saying it “undoubtedly” represents the composition of the country.

The governor has spent the week in Las Vegas, attending a variety of bill-signing ceremonies to usher new measures into law. The legislative session ended at midnight on Memorial Day.

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.

Judge orders full DACA restoration after the program hung in the balance for three years

Nevada DREAMers celebrated a federal judge’s decision Friday afternoon that requires the federal government to fully restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to function as it did prior to September 2017, when President Donald Trump terminated it. 

U.S. District Court Judge Nicholas Garaufis of the Eastern District of New York ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to begin accepting and processing new applications from eligible immigrants not previously enrolled in the program, which has been closed to new applicants for the last three years. The ruling is effective immediately. 

Garaufis declared the restriction to bar DACA protections from new applicants, among other restrictions to the program ordered by DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf over the summer, unlawful because of the nature of Wolf’s interim position in the federal agency. 

“Accordingly, because Mr. Wolf was without lawful authority to serve as Acting Secretary of DHS, the Wolf Memorandum is VACATED. In light of the vacatur, all parties agree that the DACA program is currently governed by its terms as they existed prior to the attempted rescission of September 2017,” Garaufis wrote in the ruling

Garaufis’ ruling requires the DHS to restore advanced parole opportunities and the previous two-year limit for work permits afforded to DACA recipients, which Wolf had restricted. 

The DHS must post public notice of the changes to restore the program as it was “prominently” on the agency’s website by Monday and must provide individual notice to current DACA recipients by mail by Dec. 31. 

Garaufis also ordered a status report from the agency by Jan. 4, which must include the number of first-time DACA applications, renewal requests and advanced parole requests processed from Nov. 14 through Dec. 31, among other requirements. 

“The court believes that these additional remedies are reasonable. Indeed, the Government has assured the court that a public notice along the lines described is forthcoming,” the ruling says. 

DACA protects nearly 700,000 people in the U.S., including more than 12,000 recipients in Nevada. CBS News reported there are an estimated one million currently undocumented immigrant teens and young adults who qualify for the program. 

Optimism and caution among Nevada state and community leaders 

Gov. Steve Sisolak expressed support for Nevada DREAMers on Twitter Friday afternoon in light of the court decision.

“I am overjoyed for our #DACA recipients on the full restoration of the program! Many had their life on hold and will now be able to apply for this program for the first time since 2017. #HomeisHere and #HomeMeansNevada!” Sisolak said. 

Astrid Silva, executive director for Dream Big Nevada, an immigrant support organization, connected with the organization's followers via Facebook to answer questions from first-time applicants or current DACA recipients and congratulated the community. 

“This is awesome, this is great, happiness, excitement, because we keep getting beat down by this administration and we keep coming back and we keep coming back stronger, and we keep winning cases, because we all know that this was always good,” Silva said, referring to DACA.

Other state leaders were more cautious in their response to the news. 

“We stand with DACA families, but we must remind all that they are deserving of a real permanent solution,” Democratic Assemblyman Edgar Flores said in a tweet

“This band-aid has been peeled off and placed back on so many times that our DACA families can’t trust it will even hold anymore.  We need a permanent solution. This cannot be how we expect our students to live,” he added. 

As DACA hung in the balance for the last three years, it proved to be a delicate protection for hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in the country, specifically because there is no direct pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients

It is possible DACA’s restoration will be appealed, which could send the protections into a continued and tumultuous state of uncertainty. 

“They said they reserve the right to appeal, and this is lawyer talk for ‘We might appeal,’” attorney Karen Tumlin, founder of the Justice Action Center Team, said during Dream Big Nevada’s Facebook Live. 

“How many times do DACA young people have to win for this administration, who only has 40 days left in their tenure, to stop the attacks on immigrant communities?” she said. “I hope that what they do in their last month and a half in office is not continuing to attack DACA, but to finally stop and stand down after they've lost so many times in the court.” 

As a litigator who challenged the Trump administration’s efforts to terminate DACA, Tumlin is aware of the possibilities for rebuttal. But for tonight, she said she’s celebrating.

“It makes me fill with the happy tears to know that there's more hope tonight because of all of our joint work together because of this case, and that I know for sure that 65,800 people with DACA who had one year grants have two year grants, that they have more safety and security in their life, which is absolutely what they deserve,” she said. “And that is why I love the work that I get to do and why I am going to raise my glass tonight and celebrate this win and every one that we can get.” 

Governor, other elected officials slam Trump's tweet about Reno hospital, election results

A tweet from President Donald Trump angered Nevada officials Tuesday after the commander-in-chief shared a bogus charge about a Reno hospital and falsely tweeted that Nevada’s election laws were “fake.”

Trump retweeted a post insinuating that an alternative hospital site inside a Renown Regional Medical Center parking garage is fake. The president included a message of his own at the top, saying “Fake election results in Nevada, also!”

The president’s post proved inflammatory, as Gov. Steve Sisolak, Attorney General Aaron Ford and Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve, among others, condemned his attack.

Sisolak issued a 289-word statement and called the president’s tweet “dangerous and reckless,” especially when the pandemic is raging in many parts of the country.

“It is unconscionable for him to continue to spread lies and sow distrust at a time when all Americans should be united during this historic public health crisis,” the governor wrote. “Enough is enough.”

Last month, Renown Health officials stood up the alternative care site inside the parking garage as COVID-19 cases surged in Reno. A Renown spokesperson said, as of Tuesday, 42 patients with mild to moderate cases of COVID-19 were being cared for in the alternative care site. 

Schieve likened the president’s tweet to an “attack on the community.”

“It is abhorrent to me that anyone, let alone a president, spout lies that mock and demean patients fighting for their lives,” she wrote in a statement. “The exceptional leaders at Renown have been forced into this unbelievable situation and I commend them for this heroic work.”

Ford echoed that sentiment in his response to Trump’s tweet.

“Nevadans from Douglas County to Downtown Las Vegas, from Pleasant Valley to Primm, and from Washoe to Winchester are suffering from COVID spikes,” Ford wrote in a Twitter post. “Stop downplaying it. Help our healthcare workers instead! For once.”

There were 2,160 new COVID-19 cases across Nevada reported Tuesday as well as a record 1,589 hospitalizations.

Facing higher death tolls, Latinos dedicate this Día de los Muertos to the COVID-19 pandemic

Rossy Mueller Rosales, a longtime Reno resident originally from Nicaragua, said she fondly remembers the last time she saw her older brother — the smell of carne asada and the sound of music filled her Reno backyard as they barbecued and he played the guitar on a warm and sunny May day in 2019.  

At that point, she hadn’t seen Otto Mueller for five years and there was no reason to believe that it was the last time she would see him. Or that the following year, the world would be gripped by a deadly pandemic that would claim his life. But just a year later, Mueller Rosales is placing her brother’s photograph on her family’s altar for Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a Latino cultural celebration to honor and remember loved ones who have passed away.  

Photo courtesy of Rossy Muller Rosales.

Mueller had promised to visit her again but his June 2020 trip to Reno from Miami was canceled because of the pandemic. He got sick shortly after. 

“He had been [in the U.S.] barely a year and a half and he had dreams … he told me about his plans, he wanted to work hard, he wanted to open a business,” Mueller Rosales shared in a Spanish interview with The Nevada Independent. “I talked to him every day and he told me about everything he wanted to do and because of the pandemic and COVID, all of his dreams have been cut off.” 

Latinos are overrepresented in infection and mortality rates across the country, an outgrowth of historical health disparities, more limited access to health care and an overrepresentation in frontline and essential jobs. In Nevada alone, Latinos represent 29 percent of the state population yet account for 44 percent of COVID-19 cases, more than any other racial or ethnic group, and 304 deaths. Nationally, Latinos are 18 percent of the population, but represent 21 percent of COVID-related deaths. 

Latino communities are shaken by the loss. And the community’s battles don’t end at the daunting mortality rate. In addition to a plethora of disparities, many Latinos face immigration status protection rollbacks and a heavy economic blow sans federal or state aid. 

But the spotlight narrows to the sobering death toll this weekend as Latinos across the country and the Americas celebrate Día de los Muertos. 

Dia de Los Muertos altars on display at the Boulevard Mall on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Many of the traditions associated with the celebration originated from pre-Hispanic cultures such as the Aztec and Toltec of Mexico, who believed that the spirits of the dead visited the physical world on Nov. 1. Food and drink was provided for their journeys and cempasuchitl, or marigolds, were laid out to guide the spirits back to them. 

Today, Latinos continue to take the opportunity to be closer to their deceased loved ones by assembling an altar dedicated to los muertos and visiting cemeteries to clean their tombstones and leave fresh flowers. Cemeteries in Latin American countries burst with music, flowers, food and people who celebrate the entire night, into the sunrise that ushers in All Saints Day the following day. 

Dia de Los Muertos altars on display at the Boulevard Mall on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

While altars are traditionally assembled with photos of the deceased, candles, flowers and occasionally the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, some younger Latinos in the U.S. have taken a different approach and design altars to highlight social or political issues. 

Altar submitted to the Latino Research Center's Dia de los Muertos altar competition by the Latino Student Advisory Board. Photo courtesy of the Latino Research Center.

Immigrant advocates dedicated altars to DACA as it hung in the balance after President Donald Trump rescinded the protection for immigrants who were brought to the country as children and before it passed the Supreme Court this summer. 

This year, some Latinos are dedicating altars to those who have lost their lives to complications with COVID-19 in the face of the pandemic. The Latino Student Advisory Board at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) adorned an altar dedicated to COVID-19 victims with gloves, face masks, wipes and hand sanitizer and submitted photos for the altar competition organized by the UNR Latino Research Center. 

Celebrating, mourning

The altar Mueller Rosales’ family assembled for her brother is simple. A photo of Mueller sits on top of a glass table in between two burning candles with a photo of Jesus Christ printed on them. There’s also a statue of the Virgin Mary and a bouquet of orange, yellow and red flowers. 

The altar for Otto Mueller, assembled by Rossy Mueller Rosales and her family. Photo courtesy of Rossy Mueller Rosales.

Mueller Rosales’ brother began exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 in July, which saw the greatest surge in infections across the country with a record of more than 77,000 cases in a single day. Miami-Dade County, where Mueller lived at the time, was a hotspot in the U.S., reaching over 100,000 total cases by late July and where more than 3,000 cases were reported in one day.

Despite his symptoms, Mueller refused his family’s pleas to get tested for the virus. He insisted he didn’t have it, that he’d recover. His son, who lived with him, tested positive for the virus first but had recovered.

By the end of July, Mueller had developed pneumonia and was rushed to the hospital where he was hooked up to a ventilator. He spent the next month and a half alone as visitors were barred from his room. 

Mueller Rosales was still able to see him via a camera in his hospital room. Every day for half an hour, she and three other family members connected to his camera to encourage him from afar. 

“I would say, ‘brother, get out of that bed, love, remember when you would play the guitar and we would sing together,’ and I would even start singing, but my throat would close up and my tears would fall,” she said, her voice softening at the memory. 

From the camera view, she could see his nose had turned purple from the pneumonia. Despite his family’s rallying, they never heard him respond. He was always sleeping, sedated. 

At the end of every call, her sister said a prayer in the hope that their brother would get out of that hospital bed one day, but after two surgeries to his lungs, doctors informed his family there was nothing more they could do to help him. 

More than 1,200 people died on Sept. 11 in the U.S. because of complications with COVID-19, including Mueller. He was 68 years old. 

Mueller Rosales said she felt like a piece of her was ripped away. 

“I was inconsolable the first days,” she said. “Three days I didn’t go to work, I was grieving and crying. I still can’t believe it, I still feel as if I’m going to see him again. It’s very painful. My heart is shattered.” 

A pandemic-altered Día de los Muertos 

Día de los Muertos typically helps soothe the heartache of missing loved ones by fostering a sense of community. But this year, Mueller Rosales and other Latinos will forego the usual gatherings as Nevada faces a steady and concerning rise in COVID-19 cases, especially in Washoe County. 

Community groups and organizations adapted their events to mitigate the spread of the virus to an already vulnerable population. 

Altar Fe y Esperanza sponsored by Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas on display in in Las Vegas on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

“There's also been this isolation of all of us not being able to attend the usual festivities, especially for the Latino community,” said J. Diego Zarazúa, coordinator in education and research and outreach for the Latino Research Center. “We're very community oriented where we love to gather because we feed off that — we're always about the other and how we can help others.” 

After 2,000 people attended the Latino Research Center Día de los Muertos event last year to see the array of altars made by students and other community members, the center decided to hold its event virtually this year. 

“There was no option to one, limit that to a smaller number this year and really keep everybody socially distant. So of course our community's health came first in line. That was our priority,” Zarazúa said. 

In addition to dedicating the 2020 Día de los Muertos program to COVID-19 victims, the research center has also partnered with the Nevada Public Health Training Center in an effort to provide more information and outreach about COVID-19 for Latinos.

While Latinos have plenty of options to celebrate virtually, at least one event will remain in-person. Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas, an immigrant community group, holds an open invitation to view 14 altars assembled on a large plot of land next to a residential area. 

Altar Fe y Esperanza sponsored by Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas on display in in Las Vegas on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

In addition to the altar dedicated to those who lost their lives to COVID-19 complications, Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas also assembled altars dedicated to the late Mexican singer and actor Antonio Aguilar and U.S. Army soldier Vanessa Guillen who was killed at a Texas military base by another soldier earlier this year. 

“This is really tied to our culture,” Zaida Martinez, event organizer, said in Spanish during an interview with The Nevada Independent. “Día de los Muertos is one of the most important days because it’s when we make contact with people who have passed. For us, it’s a way to tell them, ‘We’re here, and you will always be present to us.’”

The group designed the event to function as a walking “drive-thru” method in order to avoid a large stagnant gathering of people. Attendees can observe the altars as they walk past, but will be encouraged to keep the line moving by event volunteers. Although organizers have asked attendees to bring their face masks, they will also be available at the entrance of the event along with hand sanitizer. 

Altar Fe y Esperanza sponsored by Comunidad Migrante Las Vegas on display in in Las Vegas on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office also published a set of guidelines and recommendations for Día de los Muertos celebrations that encourage people to limit gatherings and preferably hold events outdoors rather than indoors, wear face masks, maintain social distance in groups and to stay home if feeling sick.  

Mueller Rosales struggles with this point — the observance of COVID-19 guidelines. She said her brother hadn’t grasped the gravity of the pandemic and felt incredulous toward what he heard on the news. 

Still, her brother had assured her that he wore masks in public and washed his hands frequently. But she wonders whether everything could’ve been different, if he might have been able to recover with an earlier diagnosis and care.

“The only thing I can keep repeating and insisting on is that we shouldn’t wait for bad things to happen, we shouldn’t wait for someone close to us to pass to become aware of the situation that we’re living through and how it’s affected every single one of us, the whole world,” she said. “It is serious and it’s worth taking precautions, taking care of ourselves and everyone else.” 

Rossy Mueller Rosales holds a photo in memory of her brother Otto Mueller on Oct. 30, 2020. (Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez/The Nevada Independent).

Mueller Rosales can’t vote in the general election on account of her status as a permanent resident, but she hopes Democratic candidate Joe Biden will move into the office of the president and handle the pandemic distinctly from Trump, who’s been criticized for his early dismissal of the virus and failure to set policies that could have significantly reduced the number of cases in the U.S.

“He was too casual about it,” she said. “He didn’t take precautions when he should have. It was like he didn’t care.” 

Remembering

Mueller Rosales said she wants to focus this weekend on remembering her brother as he was before his illness. 

“I wanted to remember him the way he was when he came here — it was almost as if he came to say goodbye, without knowing it,” she said, referring to his previous trip to Reno. “He was healthy.” 

Her memories of her brother offer a light amid difficult times. 

“He was a joyful man. He really enjoyed playing the guitar, singing and going to the beach. He was active. When I talked to him over the phone, it was like he was standing right in front of me, because he laughed at everything and I would remind him, ‘Remember when we were young and you wanted to show me how to ride a motorcycle and we fell going around the corner?’” Mueller Rosales said, laughing. “We were always talking about memories.” 

She’s invited her three daughters over for dinner Monday, to share her brother’s favorite dish, a traditional Nicaraguan meal called baho. It’s made of beef, plantains and yucca wrapped in banana leaves and steamed for a few hours before serving. 

They’ll light candles for their muertos — their dead — and say prayers for them. 

“It’ll be different because it’s recent in our hearts,” she said.  

Special board meeting ends without discussion about Jara's employment

A special school board meeting Wednesday ended abruptly and in fireworks before consideration of an agenda item involving the possible firing of Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara.

The move followed nearly three hours of discussion about Jara’s alleged dishonesty involving Assembly Bill 2, which would have redistributed so-called carryover funds from individual schools, and confusion surrounding the reopening planning process. The special meeting — called by Trustees Danielle Ford, Linda Cavazos and Linda Young — did not yield many new answers and, instead, appeared to further fray relationships among board members.

Before board members could discuss the third agenda item — the possible termination of Jara’s contract — Trustee Deanna Wright made a motion to adjourn the meeting. In doing so, Wright said, “It is clear that Superintendent Jara is not a politician, that he’s an educator, and I think we should have more open conversations regarding our legislative platforms and where we want to go in the future.”

Trustee Chris Garvey seconded the motion, leading to a 4-3 vote ending the meeting. The hasty conclusion occurred despite vocal protests from Ford, Cavazos and Young, who opposed the motion. 

"I am disheartened and shocked that this was an unbelievably calculated move to limit discussion and to not allow the last agenda item to be even discussed,” Cavazos said immediately after the vote.

Young chimed in, saying she agreed with Cavazos. And Ford, addressing her four colleagues who voted to adjourn the meeting, said, “Thank you for proving our point.”

Frustrated chatter continued in the background as the meeting livestream ended.

But the fault lines were clear well before the adjournment. A testy exchange between Ford and Wright kicked off the discussion about the AB2 situation. Wright questioned whether Ford and Cavazos should have been advocating for the superintendent to testify about the bill. Ford said that matter wasn’t relevant. The conversation between the pair continued in that manner for several minutes.

Even when Ford tried to press Jara on whether Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson or state Superintendent Jhone Ebert originally asked for AB2, she didn’t get her desired yes-or-no answer.

“I think it’s been clear on the timeline that was sent to the board and that goes back to May 2019,” Jara said.

Cavazos then sought more clarity about the timeline — in particular a note that, on July 9, Brad Keating, the district’s director of governmental relations, received a call from the governor’s office asking about using carry-over funds as a source of unemployment benefits for support staff. Jara confirmed that version of events and said the district’s response was “absolutely not” because the district is self-insured.

“I would say that’s a pretty direct – I don’t want to say accusation — but that kind of would lead us in a different direction there, so it’s a pretty serious statement,” Cavazos said.

The governor’s office strongly denied Jara’s characterization. “No one in the Governor’s Office has ever had a conversation with anyone from CCSD or elsewhere about using funding from local schools for support staff unemployment,” Meghin Delaney, a spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Sisolak, said in a statement Wednesday evening.

Ultimately, AB2 did not pass the Legislature, but even if it had, the bill language restricted its use to instructional services and programs at schools. 

Garvey said she doesn’t think the recent events have forever damaged the district’s relationship with state elected officials and that it’s time to move forward.

“The people out there in Nevada aren’t stupid,” she said. “They know that there’s a lot of horse-trading that goes on in Carson City so let’s just all put that a little bit to the side right now and focus back on what’s most important, and that’s our kids.”

Earlier in the discussion, however, Ford had expressed the opposite sentiment: “I’m not willing to go into one of the most crucial legislative sessions on record with a superintendent who’s not welcome in Carson City,” she said.

Young, meanwhile, focused on the apparent miscommunication problems clouding both the AB2 controversy and school reopening planning process. “I’m concerned that if this is a pattern of denial, how can we move forward?” she asked.

As for the reopening planning process, Cavazos wanted answers about why the board was misled to believe the Nevada Department of Education needed to approve the three plans as opposed to just the calendar and professional development portions, which turned out to be the case. 

Jara said the information presented to the school board was the best available at the time.

“I think we are just going to have to agree to disagree on that issue,” Cavazos replied.

Minutes after the meeting adjourned, the Clark County Education Association — which has defended Jara throughout the ordeal —  released a statement applauding the motion. 

“CCEA believes that the majority of the CCSD Trustees made the right decision today,” the union said. “The reckless and irresponsible act to send our school district into chaos was avoided.”

It’s unclear when or if the discussion will continue in some fashion at a later date. Jara released a statement Wednesday evening focused on the future.

“I am committed to leading our 320,000 students and 42,000 employees in partnership with the Board of School Trustees,” he wrote. “I am mindful that I have work to do in strengthening and developing relationships across all areas in which I work, and I am committed to doing so.”

Clark County School District students are scheduled to resume instruction Aug. 24 via distance learning.