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

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

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

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

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

So how exactly would it work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In split vote, Clark County School Board extends Jara's employment contract

Jesus Jara wearing a dark jacket and purple tie

The Clark County School Board took ambiguity out of Superintendent Jesus Jara’s contract situation by extending his stay for another 20 months.

His new contract, approved by the trustees in 4-3 vote Thursday night, runs through Jan. 15, 2023. The decision further exposed the rift on the board, with Trustees Linda Cavazos, Lisa Guzman and Danielle Ford voting in opposition to the extension. The trustees who supported the contract extension were Lola Brooks, Irene Cepeda, Katie Williams and Evelyn Garcia Morales.

The amended contract saw the removal of language indicating it would automatically renew if no written notice was received and, instead, added the specific end date. The original contract language had sparked confusion as the three-year mark of Jara’s employment approached, and the situation ultimately involved lawyers and allegations of an Open Meeting Law violation.

Ford issued a strong rebuke of Jara, saying the “potential contract extension came to be because of intimidation and gaslighting tactics used against the Board of Trustees.”

Meanwhile, fellow board member Lisa Guzman raised concerns about a poll taken during a closed session that involved trustees’ opinions about the contract terms.

“I struggle with this because polling to me is akin to voting,” she said, “and I feel we broke the Open Meeting Law.”

She’s not alone. Sylvia Lazos, an attorney and education chair of the Nevada Immigrant Coalition, said she filed a complaint Wednesday with the attorney general’s office regarding the alleged Open Meeting Law violation. In her written complaint, Lazos wrote “It appears that Dr. Jara is announcing Trustee decision results on his contract extension in order to influence the final result by chilling public comment.”

“We have an Open Meeting Law for transparency, to stop backroom deals, to make sure that public comment and the people are heard as decisions are made,” she said during the meeting Thursday night. “We want the people to trust our public bodies.”

But Board Counsel Mary-Anne Miller pushed back against the notion of any Open Meeting Law violations, noting that attorneys can ask board members their position on any threatened or pending litigation. She said trustees were informed that no decision was binding until it was put on an agenda and public comment was heard before a vote. Additionally, Miller said contract terms are allowed to be discussed in a closed session before a public vote, and Jara was not obligated to keep provisions of the draft agreement confidential.

Cavazos, the board president, said she was “disturbed” by some events that happened during the contract negotiation process; however, she said her opposition to the contract extension mostly boiled down to leadership concerns, especially regarding working with the seven-member board.

“I think that Dr. Jara has faced some extremely hard challenges, as we all have, as all the parents have, the children have,” she said. “At this point, though, I feel that there have been so many things and so many times and so many incidents where I don’t feel that we have worked as a team of eight.”

Trustee Lola Brooks — one of the four trustees who supported Jara’s contract extension  — offered a different take on the dynamics. She accused Ford, Cavazos and Guzman of trying to stall the process “in a way that’s very unproductive.”

Brooks said superintendents across the country are leaving their posts because of burnout and the constant pressure of competing interests. 

“He is our single employee,” she said. “And I wonder if there were times when we could have expressed our expectations, support or encouragement in more productive ways — in ways that didn’t erode public trust quite so much or quite so publicly.”

Tension surrounding Jara’s leadership has been an ongoing issue that began before the pandemic and intensified during the avalanche of challenges the health situation brought forward. He has been chastised for poor communication and seemingly unilateral decisions, such as when he announced the elimination of dean positions two years ago — in a video message.

Jara, as he has done in the past, renewed his commitment to work with the board. He also rejected any suggestions that he announced results of a vote or a count and, instead, said he spoke about an “agreement.”

“I commend the work that we have done together and we’ll continue to do it together on behalf of this committee so thank you for your vote of confidence,” he said. “We know we have a lot of work, but I’m committed to you and to this community.”

Jara began leading the Clark County School District in June 2018. He previously served as a deputy superintendent of Orange County Public Schools in Orlando, Florida.

Clark County School District plans for in-person schooling this fall, parents must opt out for distance learning

The Clark County School District plans to offer in-person learning five days a week for the 2021-2022 school year, though families can choose a full-time distance learning option if they wish.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara had indicated a desire to bring back all students full time for the upcoming school year, but a news release about online registration sent Monday afternoon solidified the district’s plans. The announcement means a return to a traditional school schedule more than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic sparked massive changes to K-12 education, including a long bout of full-time remote learning in Clark County.

All schools will offer face-to-face instruction five days a week when the next academic year begins Aug. 9, district officials said. Families that prefer to continue full-time remote learning must opt in to that cohort by May 21, but it’s subject to approval from the school principal.

District officials cited staffing decisions as the reason for the May 21 deadline for online learning registration and noted that late requests would be accommodated based on available space at schools.

The distance education option, however, comes with several new caveats. For starters, district officials said students must keep their cameras on “for the full duration of real-time sessions” — a deviation from remote learning norms over the past year. Educators have said many students log on but keep their cameras off, making engagement difficult to ascertain. Students’ reasons for turning cameras off vary, but some haven’t been comfortable with everyone seeing into their home environments. Others have said their weak internet connections make it difficult.

In an apparent attempt to mitigate privacy concerns, the district noted that students may use the “blurred background function” during their live online sessions.

District officials also said an adult must be available to help elementary students who choose the full-time distance learning option. They also laid out the virtual class expectations: 60 to 90 minutes of real-time instruction each day for kindergarten through second-grade students; 90 to 120 minutes per day for third- through fifth-grade students; and 60 to 90 minutes of real-time instruction per week for each middle and high school course.

Some activities and testing will require an in-person presence for distance-learning students, but transportation will not be provided, district officials said. Additionally, students participating in online learning who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch can receive their meals but must eat at the school during their designated serving times, per the National School Lunch Program.

If too many students at one school opt for full-time distance education, some may be assigned to the Nevada Learning Academy, which is the district’s online school that existed before the pandemic.

District officials urged parents to carefully consider their children’s past online learning performance while making decisions.

“Successful candidates for full-time distance education have demonstrated positive attendance and grades during the previous quarter of school,” district officials said in the news release. “All full-time distance education requests are subject to approval by the school principal.”

The Clark County School District continued full-time remote learning until March, which is when schools gradually began reopening. Now, elementary schools are offering in-person learning five days a week, but middle and high schools are operating under a hybrid schedule. High school students, in particular, have shown tepid interest in resuming in-person learning given the hybrid schedule, which only affords in-person learning two days a week.

'Shock and awe': School districts mull uses for massive federal funding infusion

Budget deficits. Staff reductions. Lackluster per-pupil spending.

These are the phrases that have become almost ubiquitous with Nevada’s K-12 education system, which has weathered chronic underfunding. But heavy infusions of federal funding — courtesy of three coronavirus relief packages approved by Congress — have flipped the script In Nevada schools and others across the country. Suddenly, school districts’ financial outlooks aren’t so bleak. 

The third round of federal funding, included within the American Rescue Plan Act, will bring nearly $964.8 million to Nevada school districts. Combined with funding from the previous two relief packages, that pushes school districts’ total haul to roughly $1.5 billion. The Silver State also received $10 million for the Governor’s Education Relief Fund, $50 million to offset K-12 cuts during the special legislative session last summer and $5.4 million worth of competitive grant awards, among other funds.

Humboldt County Superintendent David Jensen said the federal funding brought “shock and awe” by the third wave earlier this year. His largely rural school district, located east of Reno, received $347,289 and $1.7 million during the first two allocations and is poised to inherit an additional $3.9 million from the American Rescue Plan Act. 

“Shock — thinking about, ‘Holy cow, how are we going to spend this amount of money in this short period of time?’ combined with the excitement of, ‘Look what this means we can do that we would not be able to do otherwise,’” he said.

The federal windfall isn’t exactly like winning the lottery, though. The pandemic’s learning disruptions have caused backward academic slides and heightened mental health needs, the extent of which hasn’t been fully determined. School districts have fairly broad discretion to use the money to mitigate those issues as well as other challenges, such as technology connectivity and building air ventilation. 

Another caveat: The funding isn’t recurring. It must be used by expiration dates tied to each round of funding. Those windows are generally two years, though school districts may be able to obtain a waiver for an additional year.

Still, it’s a historic investment in pre-K-12 education at what many view as a precarious time for students and educators. The challenge for school districts, experts say, will be crafting smart plans for how to use the money and then maintaining accountability for it.

“This is like an incredible moment for school districts,” said Marguerite Roza, director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University. “It’s showtime. They’ve got to figure out how to step up and really bring their ‘A game’ to this moment.”

The Clark County School District, which is the fifth-largest in the nation, will receive the lion’s share of the federal funds in Nevada. The latest round of funding will inject more than $777 million into Southern Nevada schools, bringing its relief money up to $1.2 billion. For comparison, that’s roughly half the amount of revenue — $2.4 billion — in the district’s general operating fund this fiscal year.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara briefly addressed the federal funding during a town hall earlier this week. He said district officials are identifying “greatest needs” related to learning loss, mental health and maintaining technology.

“There will be time for community input into where we’re headed for the funding coming from the state and from the federal government,” he said. “I can tell you that this pandemic we have dealt with has really highlighted the inequities we have in (the) Clark County School District and in public education across the country.”

The Washoe County School District, meanwhile, has asked community members to fill out a survey, ranking funding priorities such as summer school, increased instructional staff, more technology, academic interventions for struggling students, professional development and updated ventilation systems. The survey results will help district leaders determine uses for its federal funding allotments, which total almost $122 million, as well as its overall recovery strategic plan.

Some of those items already have been prioritized under the second round of federal funding. For instance, the district estimates it will spend $2.5 million on summer school over the next two years, though that number could fluctuate based on student enrollment. The district also plans to use $20 million to backfill state budget cuts to the class-size reduction program.

Washoe County Superintendent Kristen McNeill said the district’s summer school will be open to all students for approximately five hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The experience will include meals, academic core content and enrichment activities such as virtual field trips, physical education, music and art. An online summer school program will be offered, too. The district expects about 25 percent of students to attend.

“It isn’t just recovery,” Washoe County School Board President Angela Taylor said. “It’s also about advancement.”

As the district gathers feedback and mulls other funding priorities, McNeill said leaders are keeping in mind the responsibility that comes with it — being good stewards of the money.

“There’s going to be an enormous amount of accountability as there should be on the use of these dollars,” she said. “And so I think as superintendents and districts and boards, we want to make sure that we’re very transparent, very open, about: ‘Where are these dollars going?’”

The Washoe County School District plans to do so through media briefings, regular board meeting updates and reports submitted to the Nevada Department of Education.

The Eureka County School District is the only district in Nevada that isn’t receiving any direct relief funding. That’s because none of its schools are eligible for Title I funding, which goes to buildings serving high percentages of children from low-income families.

Other school districts’ total allocations range from $241,197 (Esmeralda County) to $17.8 million (Lyon County). The State Public Charter School Authority will receive a combined $80.1 million as well.

In the White Pine County School District — where students have largely been attending school in person this academic year — the federal funds will help maintain college and career advising positions, counseling services and social workers, said Paul Johnson, the district’s chief financial officer. The district also plans to reinstate some specialist positions, such as physical education or music, at elementary schools. 

Those positions were cut years ago during a budget deficit, Johnson said, so the stimulus money will help fund their return with the hope that state revenue will be in a better position two years from now.

“With the federal stimulus funds, we’re going to be able to buy a couple of years that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” he said.

Jensen said the Humboldt County School District put $310,000 of early relief funding toward building a WiFi radius around schools that will allow students to access the internet at home from their district-issued devices. The pandemic, he said, highlighted the technology inequity that even in pre-COVID times hindered students’ abilities to do research or homework after school.

With the second and third rounds of federal funding, the Humboldt County School District plans to invest in instructional coaches who would work with small groups of students and help teachers improve their lesson plans, specifically for English language arts and mathematics, Jensen said. The district also wants to add a person who would direct strategies for social-emotional and mental health at school sites; several teachers, an aide and a coach to help students learning English as a second language; an interventionist to help junior high students transition to high school; and a director charged with overseeing the federally funded programs and tracking associated data.

The district hopes to receive a waiver that would allow the federal funds to be used through an additional year.

“It’s going to be very difficult for districts to expend this level of federal funding in such a compressed time frame and to be able to demonstrate long-term impact and benefit,” Jensen said. 

Roza, the director of the Edunomics Lab at Georgetown University, said she expects to see a wide array of uses for the federal money. School districts that operated remotely longer may have very different needs than those that resumed in-person instruction relatively early.

Even so, she cautions against uses that could pose trouble when the funding expires. It’s a fiscal-cliff situation. Two years down the line, will districts be able to afford those pay raises or those extra positions they have created?

“Really try to focus on what your kids need and what you think — what kinds of services and so on — will  get you closer to your goals,” she said, stressing the importance of targeted funding initiatives. “So if you’re worried kids did not learn how to read in the early grades, focus on reading.”

On the accountability side, Roza encouraged school districts to track their expenditures from a per-pupil standpoint. For instance, if a district launches an orientation program intended to help students socially, track how many participated, the cost per student and whether the outcomes matched the goals.

“I think we’ll have a lot of examples of things that worked and didn’t work probably,” she said.

In some ways, the federal funding is offering districts a once-in-lifetime opportunity to experiment with academic programs and interventions they may have wanted all along but couldn’t afford. The successes that emerge, Jensen said, could help Nevada educators make their case for long-desired state funding increases.

Nevada is in the midst of implementing a new K-12 funding formula, but so far, state lawmakers have been reluctant to significantly boost education investments. The state’s per-pupil spending trails the national average by several thousand dollars.

“We now have some time to generate data to prove that additional revenues in Nevada, if used strategically and appropriately, can make a difference,” he said.

Could a similar phenomenon occur at the federal level?

While states and local governments primarily fund K-12 education, these landmark relief packages could set the stage for more federal funding moving forward — albeit not at this high of a level, Roza said. The federal government may not want to yank this much money from school districts in one fell swoop.

It’s too soon to say what will happen, but President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.5 trillion federal spending plan provides a hint: It calls for doubling the amount of Title I funding for schools.

In Clark County, fewer older students opt for in-person learning

After more than a year learning from home, 17-year-old Donovan Scurry couldn’t sleep Monday night, distracted by the change in routine the next day would bring.

Tuesday was his first day back in person at Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas. Scurry arrived shortly before 7 a.m., donning a backpack and face mask as he entered familiar turf for the remaining weeks of his junior year. This was his choice, a decision prompted by dwindling grades and lackluster motivation for distance education.

“I just missed the environment,” he said. “And even though coming back is going to be different with COVID and stuff, I just feel like the environment is still what I am used to and what I need.”

The school entrance didn’t contain the normal hustle and bustle associated with morning arrivals. Students trickled in, some in small groups, as the sun grew brighter and the start of classes creeped closer. Of the high school’s roughly 2,800 students, only 480 chose the in-person hybrid option. Because the in-person cohorts rotate days, half that number — roughly 240 students — are on campus Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is a remote education day for all students. 

Unlike Scurry, the vast majority of students opted to remain in distance-education mode for the rest of the school year. Sierra Vista High School’s numbers reflect the Clark County School District at large, which has seen stronger enthusiasm for in-person learning among elementary students. In March, the district began gradually reopening schools, starting with the youngest children, but as of Tuesday, all students have the option of at least some in-person learning. Elementary schools are providing face-to-face instruction five days a week, while middle and high schools are operating under a hybrid model.

More than half of elementary students — 56 percent — have returned to school campuses, according to school district data, but that percentage shrinks considerably for the upper grades. Districtwide, only 36 percent of students in middle and high school chose the in-person hybrid model.

John Anzalone, principal of Sierra Vista High School, chalked it up to several factors. Many students have picked up jobs and may not want to alter their schedules. Some still fear catching COVID-19 or spreading it to family members, especially because vaccines aren’t available for people younger than 16 years old. Additionally, it’s not the same in-person experience: Students only attend school in person two days a week, and those days consist of two 100-minute classes. There are no assemblies or socialization time in the quad.

“To a lot of kids, that’s not fun,” he said. “If I’m 16 years old, I’m probably thinking the same thing.”

Janai Tillman, a senior at Sierra Vista, remembers feeling nervous when students learned they would not be returning to school buildings in August. She asked her mother, who works from home, for tips to stay focused. The 17-year-old started by setting a wake-up time — usually 7 a.m. — and quickly realized she could get her school work done early in the day. Now, she works at a restaurant in the afternoon and plays volleyball in the evening.

Reconstructing her schedule this far into the school year seemed like a hassle.

“I didn’t want to mess up that routine I already had,” she said.

Angelina Ford, a junior at Sierra Vista, opted to stay home, too. She said her friends who returned to school mostly did so because of clubs or sports. So rather than rush to school for a few hours twice a week, Ford’s days usually start like this: She wakes up and rolls to the other side of the bed, careful not to wake her sleeping cat and dog, before flipping on her iPad. Eventually, she will grab something to eat and perhaps move outside to do some reading. 

Ford, whose mother is Clark County School Board Trustee Danielle Ford, didn’t gloss over the difficulties of online learning. Math has been a challenge, she said, but the 16-year-old remained optimistic about catching up academically next year.

“I think it’s going to be the same for everyone, so it’s not like I’m the only one behind,” she said. “It will be like a group effort — we’re all behind so let’s do it together.”

While in-person enrollment is generally lower in the upper grades, the numbers vary by school. The school district has not released information for individual schools, but several principals shared their numbers with The Nevada Independent. At Shadow Ridge High School, 40 percent of students chose the in-person hybrid model. Rancho High School, Spring Valley High School and West Prep Academy, meanwhile, saw only about a third of their ninth- through 12th-grade students return. 

But about 58 percent of students at Boulder City High School chose the hybrid instructional model. The interest was particularly strong among freshmen — 72 percent returned.

“At least it’s a step,” Spring Valley High School Principal Tam Larnerd said, referring to the hybrid model. “It’s not ideal, and it’s not what any of us want for our kids, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara has signaled an intent to bring all students back full time for the 2021-2022 school year, while offering distance education as an option. No plans have been formally announced, but Anzalone said high schools are already brainstorming how to make it work. For instance, what happens if only two students want to take an Advanced Placement Calculus course online? 

“It’s going to be complicated, but in reality, we know it’s coming,” he said. “We know high school is never going to look the same.”

High school students have already come to that same conclusion. Macy Beck decided to finish her senior year at Sierra Vista High School in person. Beck said her government class only has three students attending in person, which has allowed for in-depth discussions and time to bond with each other. But that silver lining, she said, doesn’t make up for all the other losses students suffered this year. They missed sports and yearly traditions. They couldn’t get to know their teachers as easily or see friends on a daily basis.

Instead, Beck said the year seemed filled with excusing coming down from the district about why schools couldn’t reopen sooner.

“I wasn’t happy, and I felt like our school district wasn’t doing much to help that,” she said. “And now I feel like we were kind of thrown a little bone with going back to school, but we still don’t get a lot of the things that make high school what high school is.”

Lawmakers push bill requiring school districts to offer distance learning plans, identify technology needs

For many parents over the past year, the experience of watching their children sit through hours and hours of online distance learning hasn’t been the most pleasant experience.

But even as school districts across the state and country begin rolling out more in-person instruction, Nevada education officials say that lessons learned from the COVID-related school closures can translate into an improved education system for the state.

That’s the impetus behind SB215, a bill sponsored by Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) that would require schools to develop formal plans for distance education, while also identifying solutions for teachers and students who don’t have access to the necessary technology for distance learning. 

“We need to ensure that Nevada's laws create the flexibility needed to ensure student success no matter where their classrooms or their style of learning,” Denis said during a Tuesday virtual press conference on the bill.

The bill itself is the product of several recommendations made by the “Blue Ribbon Commission for a Globally Prepared Nevada,” a group of lawmakers, education experts, teachers and parents that was convened by state Superintendent Jhone Ebert last year to focus on issues of competency-based education, distance learning and instructional time.

Ebert said during the press conference that the recommendations initially focused on ways to add “updates and flexibility” in state law to reflect the ways that school districts adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she said as the work progressed, “we moved toward a more visionary goal of future-proofing Nevada's education system.”

“We know that the academic recovery, reclaiming our education system during COVID-19, is one that we need to take on without looking back but driving everything forward,” she said.

As written, SB215 would require school districts (including charter schools) to develop a plan for distance education, present the plan to members of the public at a meeting and provide a copy of the plan to the “school community,” including parents and employees of the school district.

It would also require each school district to identify students, teachers and other school employees on or before Oct. 1 of every year who do not have access to “technology necessary to participate in a program of distance education,” such a computer or Internet access.

The bill would then require those school districts to develop a plan to make technology available to those students or school employees, including estimated cost. It would have to be finished before Dec. 31 and posted publicly on the district’s website.

Denis acknowledged that “some of the pieces” of the bill would cost money to implement, but said the bill did not have a direct funding mechanism — noting that the bill sets up a “framework” but doesn’t explicitly require districts to actually make the purchases needed to close the technology gap.

Ebert added that many of the potential costs associated with the bill could be addressed through expected funds coming into the state through the late December and March federal stimulus and COVID recovery bills.

Students enrolled in a distance education program who demonstrate “sufficient progress” toward completion of the program would also be eligible to complete their program in a shorter period of time than normal — a nod to competency-based education, where students progress on their own pace as opposed to a more regimented system.

The bill would also remove restrictions on the ability of school districts to set up alternative schedules for instruction, specifically taking out sections of state law limiting those programs to rural areas of populous counties, or requiring the state superintendent to determine issues with overcrowding before approving an alternative schedule.

Denis said he anticipates the bill will come up for a hearing sometime in the next two weeks, and he said that lawmakers this session have an opportunity to use the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to improve the state’s education framework.

The push to expand or create permanent distance learning programs isn’t a surprise. School district leaders, including Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara, have indicated a desire to make distance learning a more robust fixture in their districts given what educators learned over the last year. While some students massively struggled with online learning, others thrived — heightening calls for it to be another choice for families.

“We're at a moment in time where everything has come together to allow us to now move forward in education to really work on innovative ways in doing things a different way than we've done in the past, to help our kids learn even better,” he said.

Jackie Valley contributed to this report.

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.

PHOTOS: Face masks and fist bumps herald return of in-person learning for Clark County's youngest students

For thousands of Clark County’s youngest students, the school day did not start through the lens of a computer screen on Monday.

The Clark County School District began its long-awaited transition to in-person learning after nearly a year of distance education that tested the patience of parents, teachers and students alike while also exposing technology inequities along the way. The scene outside Cyril Wengert Elementary School in East Las Vegas was jubilant by 7:38 a.m. when the first cars rolled through the drop-off line. But a sense of cautiousness hung in the air.

Armed with clipboards and donning face masks, staff members greeted each student as they confirmed that parents had completed a health wellness check that morning. A song with apt lyrics — “celebrate good times” — blared from the school’s sound system.

“We’re as prepared as we can be,” Principal Kimberly Swoboda said. “It’s safety first and, you know, now it’s just getting kids in and watching all the new routines start.”

The debut of a new routine brought one of Tyiqua Turner’s children to tears, but it wasn’t her first-grader, Tynaya. It was the little girl’s 4-year-old sister who suddenly felt left behind.

“She’s just so used to her sister being home,” Turner said.

Despite her daughter’s separation sadness, Turner remained steadfast in her decision. Tynaya, whom she described as “shy but excited,” needed a learning environment free of distractions.

Her daughter was one of 121 students at Wengert Elementary School who will be returning for two days of in-person instruction under the hybrid model. About 37 percent of families selected the hybrid model, Swoboda said, but she expects in-person enrollment to continue growing.

Across the school district, 41,520 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade  — the first group eligible for the hybrid model — will enter school buildings again this week, district officials announced Monday. They’re split between two groups — 21,763 for Cohort A and 19,757 for Cohort B — that will rotate in-person learning days while working from home the other three days. A third cohort has 50,549 students in those grades whose families opted to remain in full-time distance education.

Those numbers aren’t set in stone, though. Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said schools will work to accommodate students whose parents change their minds and want to enroll them in the hybrid model. He said waitlists may be necessary if schools encounter issues with class sizes; however, by April 6, the district plans to welcome back all elementary students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade for in-person instruction five days a week.

The district’s staggered reopening timeline will allow students in sixth, ninth and 12th grades to return under a hybrid schedule on March 22. The remaining grade levels will return by April 6, though only elementary school students will be receiving face-to-face instruction five days a week.

That means the wait will be longer for students like Lily Shipp, a freshman at Foothill High School, who joined dozens of parents and students last week outside a Clark County School Board of Trustees meeting. The rally, coordinated by advocacy organization Power2Parent, brought together those who wish to see even more in-person learning. 

“I spend a lot of my time kind of up in my room away from everything,” said Shipp, adding that it has been difficult keeping her grades up during remote learning.

While the district’s reopening schedule may not be as soon or as fast as some want, it coincides with the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines. Jara said about half of the district’s employees — or close to 20,000 people — have received vaccines through the Southern Nevada Health District or an inoculation clinic at UNLV that was set up for school district employees.

Health and safety measures, such as social distancing, washing hands and wearing masks, will continue even after elementary students return five days a week, Jara said.

“Some folks thought all the mitigation strategies were going to be relaxed,” he said. “That’s not the case.”

At Wengert Elementary school, fist bumps — not hugs — were the common greeting. But the quirks of the new routine didn’t faze Swoboda. She’s just happy to see students in the school, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year.

“We’re not looking at them through a computer screen,” she said. “And I think that’s huge.”

Here’s a peek at the scene outside the school on Monday morning:

A student arrives at Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara, left, talks to a student during the first day of in-person learning at Wengert Elementary School on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
A student arrives at Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Parents watch their children enter Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Students stand in line at Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Students stand in line for the first day of in-person learning at Wengert Elementary School on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Students stand in line for the first day of in-person learning at Wengert Elementary School on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
State Superintendent Jhone Ebert, right, talks to a student during the first day of in-person learning at Wengert Elementary School on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
A student arrives at Wengert Elementary School for the first day of in-person learning on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Clark County School District Superintendent Jesus Jara photo bombs while a parent takes a picture during the first day of in-person learning at Wengert Elementary School on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)
Students stand in line for the first day of in-person learning at Wengert Elementary School on Monday, March 1, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Principals say community engagement efforts key as schools transition to in-person learning

There will be no need for backpacks when Shannon Smith’s second-graders enter their West Prep Academy classroom for the first time on Monday.

Each tiny desk contains colored pencils, crayons, scissors, pencils and a sharpener, an eraser, glue stick, highlighter, notebook, miniature whiteboard, water bottle, supply pouches, folders  — and a see-through plastic barrier to curb the spread of respiratory droplets.

Welcome to a classroom in the age of COVID-19. Under the Clark County School District’s hybrid model — which begins Monday for pre-kindergarten through third-grade students — cohorts of students will rotate between in-person and remote learning. Plastic bins adorned with name tags in the back of Smith’s room will store each student’s supplies, an attempt to  prevent any mingling of germs.

“I’ve been prepping them for the past two weeks,” Smith said last week while standing in her socially distanced classroom, where hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes are plentiful.

She has been giving her students virtual tours. Their major questions, she said, pertain to recess and materials they see set up in the classroom.

More than half of her students have opted to return for in-person learning. The dozen students will be split between two cohorts that come to school two days a week and learn from home the other three days. A handful of students chose to remain in full-time distance education.

The decision made by her students’ families mirrors that of the school at large. About 150 students in pre-kindergarten through third grade — roughly half of children enrolled in those grades — will return to classrooms this week. 

West Prep Academy, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, is a neighborhood school that sits near Lake Mead and Martin Luther King boulevards. All students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals. Knowing the family dynamics — such as pandemic job loss, students being raised by grandparents or parents who don’t speak English — has been vital in the school’s quest to communicate and gain trust with families about sending their children back in person, Principal Monica Lang said. The school has a wellness team that regularly checks in with families to ensure they have the support they need.

“Now that we’re going to face to face, if they have any questions, they’re able to answer those questions as well because they’re calling those families weekly,” said Lakeisha Myers, assistant principal for for West Prep’s elementary school.

Shannon Smith, a second-grade teacher at West Prep Academy, explains how she organized her classroom to meet social-distancing guidelines on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Clark County School District has released results of a survey showing that, overall, 56 percent of families preferred the hybrid model, while 43 percent indicated a desire to continue full-time remote learning. But families’ preferences varied by geography and race. Families living in affluent Summerlin or Henderson neighborhoods, for instance, signaled more interest in the in-person hybrid model than those in central or eastern Las Vegas or parts of North Las Vegas.

A larger share of white students — 67 percent — showed interest in returning to brick-and-mortar classrooms compared with any other racial group, according to the family survey results. Roughly 54 percent of Black and Hispanic students also preferred the hybrid model, while only 39 percent of Asian students did. Meanwhile, 49 percent of Pacific Islander students, 64 percent of Native American students and 58 percent of multiracial students indicated they would likely return to in-person learning.

In Trustee District C, which includes West Prep, about 54 percent of families preferred the hybrid option. West Prep’s in-person enrollment numbers are on par with that, which the school’s leaders say didn’t happen by chance. 

Their messaging efforts to students’ families began back in October, well before the school district had even pegged a reopening date.

Lang said the school sent eight surveys and made 430 calls to families in an attempt to share information and better predict how many students would return when allowed. She and Myers have been working Saturdays to get it all done.

“It’s to make sure that kids don’t fall through the cracks because mom is working 12-hour shifts every day and is not there at night when we’re making the calls,” Lang said.

Jasmine Buford is among those parents who are sending their children back to in-person instruction at West Prep. She didn’t struggle too much with the decision, though. Buford said over the past year she has witnessed her third-grade daughter, Dianeli, regress socially. She’s not as comfortable around extended family members and wants to retreat to her tablet device.

“It’s causing her to turn into like this hermit crab,” she said.

Plus, from a health and safety standpoint, Buford said she leaves their house every day for her job at the Regional Justice Center. 

“Realistically, if I’m not stopping going to work, why am I stopping her from going to school?” she said.

Screenshot of Clark County School District family survey results.

West Prep’s leaders expect in-person enrollment numbers to grow as parents see the hybrid model in operation and feel more comfortable. Brenda Swann, principal of Kay Carl Elementary School, also expects her in-person enrollment numbers to swell but for a different reason: Many of her students’ families did not want to disrupt their schedules for only two days of in-person learning. Only 82 students — 45 in one cohort and 37 in the other — are returning for the hybrid model, said Swann, who noted the “majority were happy to stay online.”

That could change in a little over a month. Last week, Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara announced a staggered reopening timeline that would allow all elementary students to attend school in person five days a week starting April 6.

Swann said she’s “thrilled” by that decision because she thinks it will entice more families to send their children back in person. Kay Carl Elementary School is in Trustee District B, where, overall, roughly 58 percent of families preferred the hybrid model.

“I’m excited to be able to do a soft opening and then we will be gangbusters on April 6,” she said.

In the meantime, Kay Carl Elementary School will continue leaning on its existing community engagement efforts to keep remote-learning families in the loop, Swann said After the pandemic forced virtual learning, the school launched a radio station, 87.9 KCES, that broadcasts in a 1,000-foot radius around the building. Families visit the school every other Wednesday to pick up learning materials, such as new books or printed worksheets. While they wait in the drive-through line, signs instruct them to tune into the radio station.

Swann described the operation as “Chick-fil-A meets Amazon,” and it’s in addition to videos and written messages sent to parents via online learning portals.

“It was the perfect situation,” she said. “They were sitting in their cars. I’ve got you captive.”

Bradley Marianno, assistant professor of education policy at UNLV, said he commends principals and schools staff tasked with quickly creating new schedules, rearranging classrooms to meet social-distancing requirements and communicating with families who have many questions about how it will all work. Despite all those efforts and mounting studies showing low risk of COVID-19 transmission in schools, he said, some families still need “additional reassurances or deeper understanding” of in-person learning procedures.

Marianno said he hopes the district provides some leeway for parents who want to send their children back after their own nervousness dissipates. On the flip side, he said families should remember that the Clark County School District isn’t blindly entering the reopening phase. Many large school districts across the country, including the Washoe County School District in Reno, have already been offering in-person learning.

Whatever the school district can do to mitigate unevenness regarding in-person enrollment, the better off students will be in the long run, he said.

“We know kids learn better in the classroom and if we continue to see a significant proportion of our most vulnerable kids opt out of a return and remain in distance learning, that’s only going to continue to expand learning gaps,” he said.

Clark County School District unveils in-person learning dates for all grade levels, allows sports to resume

The Clark County School District has announced a staggered timeline for reopening schools that will provide some form of in-person instruction to all students by April 6.

Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara, flanked by school board members and employee union representatives, delivered the news Wednesday afternoon outside Dean Petersen Elementary School, which is preparing for pre-kindergarten through third-grade students to return Monday. Jara credited Gov. Steve Sisolak’s decision to ease restrictions — specifically allowing schools to increase capacity limits to 75 percent — with expediting the district’s reopening schedule.

“Our kids are going to need this entire community to wrap their arms around them to get them to succeed,” he said.

While school officials have been busy preparing to welcome back the youngest students on Monday, pressure has been mounting for the district to do the same for older children as well. Power2Parent, an advocacy organization, has planned a protest preceding the Clark County School Board meeting Thursday night.

The district’s new plan, however, gives a light at the end of the tunnel for all students wishing to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms. Students attending the Clark County School District have remained in remote-learning mode since the emergence of COVID-19 abruptly shuttered schools statewide in mid-March last year.

The next eligible group will be students in grade 6, 9 and 12. Their start date under the hybrid model, which rotates between in-person and remote learning days, will be March 22.

Students in grades 7, 8, 10 and 11 will join them in the hybrid model on April 6. On that same day, all elementary students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade will transition to in-person instruction five days a week.

Jara said the district chose the return order based on student needs. High school seniors have graduation fast approaching, he said, while grades 6 and 9 are critical transition years as students enter middle and high school. 

Distance education will remain an option for all families. Based on family surveys and the number of pre-kindergarten through third-grade students enrolling in the hybrid model, district officials expect 60 percent of all students to return for in-person instruction, while 40 percent continue receiving their education virtually.

All district employees, meanwhile, will be back on campuses by March 15 unless they have an approved American with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation, Jara said.

District officials said they’re ironing out memorandums of agreement with each employee bargaining group pertaining to the reopening plans. But Stephen Augspurger, executive director of the Clark County Association of School Administrators and Professional-Technical Employees, signaled support for the announced timeline on Thursday. He said principals have been working diligently, even before the timeline was established, to ensure a smooth transition for students.

“We think this is a good decision. It is well overdue. We’re happy to see it,” he said, before adding: “I think the problem is, of course, this whole year has been one of disruption and chaos through nobody’s fault. It’s just kind of what happened as COVID, the pandemic, unveiled itself and public employees tried to respond.”

The superintendent also announced the return of student athletics and extracurricular activities. Practices for many spring sports — boys and girls track, boys and girls swimming, boys and girls diving, baseball, softball, boys golf and boys volleyball — can begin April 3. Competitions can resume April 16.

Additionally, the district has organized two time windows for intramural fall sports. The first, which runs from April 5 through May 1, is for football that will end with a one-hour intrasquad competition. The second, which runs from May 3-22, will include boys and girls tennis, boys and girls soccer, boys and girls cross country and girls volleyball.

No spectators will be allowed at any athletic events, district officials said. All coaches and adults involved must receive a negative COVID-19 test before activities begin.

Students in other extracurricular activities, such as marching band, theater and drill team, will be allowed to resume practices again as well.

As for graduation ceremonies and plans for the 2021-2022 school year, that remains a work in progress. Jara said his intent is to keep expanding in-person opportunities, not moving backward, as long as health conditions allow that to happen. 

“My goal is we’re in face-to-face instruction when we open school next year,” he said.

This story was updated to include additional information from the press conference.