Lawmakers approve $700 million in federal aid for schools, unemployment; special session may be needed

Lawmakers began appropriating the state’s share of $2.7 billion in federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) general aid on Wednesday, approving disbursements totaling more than $600 million to pay back unemployment loans, bolster K-12 education funding and upgrade the state’s unemployment system.

They also learned that an additional $1.1 billion of unallocated ARP funds will need to be appropriated by the Legislature in the regular legislative session in 2023 or a special session.

During a Wednesday meeting of the Interim Finance Committee, representatives of the Governor’s Office of Finance told legislators that the state transferred more than $1 billion in ARP funds — roughly 16 percent of the ARP dollars received by Nevada — to the state general fund last week to backfill revenue lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prompted by a question from Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno), budget analyst Tiffany Greenameyer confirmed that any allocations of those funds will have to be approved by the full Legislature and cannot be approved by the interim committee alone, because the money is unappropriated within the state’s general fund.

That means any spending of those $1.1 billion in general fund dollars will need to happen through a special session or in the next regular legislative session in 2023. In June, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) told The Nevada Independent he was “not entirely sure” lawmakers would be able to spend the federal relief dollars without a special session. Lawmakers already expect a special session this fall to complete the redistricting process ahead of the 2022 elections. 

The money from the ARP transfer to the general fund is less restricted than the roughly $900 million to $1 billion remaining in the coffers of the governor’s office. However, the money has restrictions that other general fund dollars do not, including that it cannot be placed into the state’s so-called Rainy Day Fund, according to guidance from the U.S. Treasury.

The news came as members of the committee approved the first major spending of the state’s $2.7 billion in ARP general aid, including allocating $66.3 million for job restorations, more than $300 million to repay federal loans tapped to sustain unemployment benefits, $200 million to address learning loss in K-12 schools and $54 million to modernize the state unemployment system. Most of those spending decisions were approved by legislators at the end of the 120-day legislative session, which adjourned in June.

Initial spending of the federal dollars comes after the group accepted the state’s full $2.7 billion share of ARP funds at its last meeting in June. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden in March actually allocated $6.7 billion to Nevada, but set aside some of those dollars for the state and large municipalities for broader use. 

Other dollars coming to the state have more restrictive purposes, such as a $164,000 allocation for paratransit, which is a public transit service for people who have disabilities, and those dollars are granted to specific agencies, such as the Department of Health and Human Services.

State leaders, including Treasurer Zach Conine and Gov. Steve Sisolak, are embarking on a listening tour over the next two months to gather input on spending the state’s share of funding. Lawmakers nonetheless allocated roughly a quarter of that money at Wednesday’s meeting.

Members of the committee also approved a nearly $800,000 contract with Las Vegas-based public relations firm Purdue Marion, which is helping gather information and assist with community engagement on the state’s listening tour.

As the state continues to receive ideas for spending federal relief dollars, Sen. Chris Brooks (D-Las Vegas), who chairs the interim committee, said lawmakers will be closely following the conversations that happen on the tour.

“This committee is going to be very, very interested in keeping an eye on and understanding and participating in that process as we move forward,” Brooks said.

During Wednesday’s meeting, lawmakers also moved to fulfill several spending requirements established by bills passed during the 2021 legislative session.

The committee approved $373 million in spending to address the priorities listed in SB461, including:

  • $335 million to repay loans borrowed from the federal government to sustain the state’s unemployment fund
  • $15.8 million to address the COVID-19 public health emergency, including bolstering mental health and substance abuse treatment services
  • $7.6 million to combat food insecurity
  • $6 million to augment health care services
  • $5 million for the Nevada ABLE Savings Program
  • $4 million for a statewide expansion of the Dean’s Future Scholars Program at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The bill listed backfilling lost revenue as the first priority for spending general aid dollars from the ARP, a condition that was addressed through last week’s transfer.

The committee also allocated funds to fulfill the provisions of AB495, which called for $200 million in ARP funds for the Department of Education to address learning loss in K-12 schools and $15 million to support charter schools, and AB484, which authorizes the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation (DETR) to use $54 million in federal ARP funds to modernize the state’s outdated unemployment insurance system.

The group of lawmakers also approved a series of other allocations and federal grant applications that total roughly $350 million in ARP funds, including $222 million in ARP Child Care Stabilization grant funds to support families and child care providers and more than $17 million in block grant funds to address the effects of the pandemic on mental illness and substance abuse disorders.

Funding for education

Members of the committee approved several allocations of ARP funds for K-12 education totaling nearly $300 million, including $200 million in state general aid dollars for the Department of Education to address learning loss experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, in accordance with AB495.

Other approved allocations provide the department with ARP funds directly from the federal government, including $18.6 million to support the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

“These funds are intended to support early intervention and special education services for infants, toddlers, children and youth with disabilities and their families,” Nevada Superintendent Jhone Ebert told lawmakers on Wednesday.

The committee also held extended discussions on an allocation of $8 million in ARP Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds to support teacher projects submitted through the DonorsChoose website. DonorsChoose is a nonprofit that allows people to donate directly to classroom projects that are requested by public school teachers.

After multiple members of the committee asked questions about how the department will ensure teachers are aware of the program, Ebert noted some of the ongoing discussions around the program and said that nine Nevada school districts already have staff that support DonorsChoose by helping teachers create their project requests.

“All of [the] 17 superintendents, as well as the State Public Charter School Authority, are well aware of this program,” Ebert said. “We were talking about this project and … getting these funds directly to classroom teachers who have endured so much with this shift. And they know what their students need. They're the ones that are closest to our students.”

The state charter school authority also received a significant boost from Wednesday’s meeting. As part of AB495, the agency was allocated $15 million to address learning loss from the pandemic, a provision that was requested by Republican lawmakers, and the agency will receive an additional $53.5 million to address pandemic-related learning disruptions, through a transfer of ARP funds from the Department of Education.

Funding for child care

As Nevada child care providers deal with staffing shortages and a lack of child care options remains a barrier to economic recovery, lawmakers approved an allocation of $222.4 million in ARP Child Care Stabilization grant funds to provide help to families and care providers in Nevada, by expanding the state’s child care capacity and supporting the industry’s workforce.

“One of the biggest roadblocks to recovery and expansion of our economy is child care,” Brooks said. “I do not see how we make a recovery, unless we really look at child care, and what that does to Nevada working families.”

The majority of the funds (roughly $201 million) will be administered through grants directly given to care providers, such as The Children’s Cabinet, a nonprofit based in Northern Nevada that provides free services to children and youth. Solicitation of applications for those grants will begin within the next couple of months.

“We're utilizing our child care resource and referral partners, The Children's Cabinet and the Urban League, to disseminate the funds directly to eligible child care providers,” Social Services Chief Christell Askew told lawmakers. “As we continue to develop our capacity building projects, our plan is to target underserved populations and childcare deserts.”

The grant funds also include nearly $13 million for workforce recruitment and retention and more than $4 million for family support resources. During the meeting, Brooks noted that the recruitment and retention strategies will involve direct payments to registered child care staff as an incentive for their work.

With the program set to send hundreds of millions out the door to aid the state’s child care providers, Brooks raised questions about ensuring there is accountability and transparency with the program’s spending.

And though discussions about transparency were limited, the funding allocation was passed with a requirement for the welfare division to provide quarterly status reports to the committee on the expenditures of the grant funds.

Is higher ed's quest to 'align' colleges with workforce a solution in search of a problem?

More than eight months after Gov. Steve Sisolak shocked many in Nevada’s higher education world by floating the idea of breaking the state’s four community colleges off into their own governing board, nearly all parties are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Sisolak’s concept took the shape of AB450 — a legislative study committee tasked with aligning the state’s workforce development goals with the community college system.

Aug. 1 marked the one-year deadline for the committee to transmit its report and recommendations to the Legislature, but so far, the governor has not made any appointments to the study committee. 

Unlike similar committees convened through the decades to study the state’s community colleges, the AB450 committee will be composed largely of economic and business representatives — not higher education officials. 

One member will come from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Three more will represent local chambers of commerce or “economic development entities,” including one from the north and two from the south. 

A fifth will be a labor representative with experience in a “jointly administered apprenticeship program” recognized by the state, and the sixth will be the superintendent of public instruction, a role currently filled by State Superintendent Jhone Ebert. 

Rounding out the last two seats are members from the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE): The sitting chancellor, Melody Rose, and one to-be-determined president of a community college. 

Proponents of AB450, most notably the governor, have cast it as a tangible step toward refocusing support of the state’s community colleges as a critical pillar in rebuilding Nevada’s post-pandemic workforce. 

But even as many within NSHE and some regents have signaled openness to AB450’s planned committee, they have also suggested that it may be a solution in search of a problem. Pointing to existing programs, partnerships and more, some have even chafed at the suggestion that a “misalignment” on the issue exists.

“I don't see the example [of misalignment], even when you go to what would be more strictly a community college in our system like [Truckee Meadows Community College] or [the College of Southern Nevada] or [Western Nevada College],” Great Basin College President Joyce Helens said in an interview. “They're all responding to business and industry, all the time, and in very big ways.”

Creation of the study committee comes amid the backdrop of more than $75 million in cuts to NSHE approved by lawmakers in 2021, and also in the midst of nearly a decade of simmering tensions between lawmakers in Carson City and the 13-member board governing higher education.

Beyond the question of whether better “alignment” between community colleges and workforce development is needed, recommendations by the study committee could herald potentially seismic shifts in the state’s higher education structure — everything from governance models to how colleges and universities are funded.

The view from the inside

For those within NSHE, the words “workforce development” are already functionally synonymous with higher education — and have been for years. 

“Higher education was creating teachers 147 years ago,” Regents Chair Cathy McAdoo said, referring to the year UNR was founded. “So yes, it's ongoing. It's not something that's just come on our radar.”

McAdoo, who also chaired the regent’s community college committee last year, said it’s not just community colleges, but the universities, too, that have long been a core driver the state’s workforce. 

“I see all of higher education as workforce development,” McAdoo said. 

McAdoo pointed to myriad higher education partnerships with massive corporations, including MGM Resorts International, Tesla, Panasonic and rural Nevada mining giants — all “proof of concept” of long-running collaboration between higher education curricula and private labor needs. 

While acknowledging that the state’s higher education system as currently constructed isn’t perfect, community college leaders interviewed by The Nevada Independent said they have long held workforce development as a core part of their mission.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, right, and Gov. Steve Sisolak announce a workforce grant during a roundtable at the College of Southern Nevada on Tuesday, June. 22, 2021. On the left is Dr. Federico Zaragoza, president of CSN. Jeff Scheid/Nevada Independent)

Speaking in an interview last month, CSN President Federico Zaragoza touted his college as a “major agent” of workforce development, in large part because of already existing efforts to line up programs with “emerging occupations. 

“So I'll give you an example — we're not producing enough nurses,” Zaragoza said. “So we're right-sizing the program. We now have an opportunity to have a campus begin to offer nursing. So that'll allow us to double the number of nurses in an area of high demand. That helps diversify, obviously, the student enrollment, but also feeds the diversification of the economy.”

Zaragoza also said the community college system would likely play a crucial role in retraining workers whose jobs were wiped away by shifts in the post-pandemic economy. 

“The other element here that's critical is a lot of people are getting displaced,” he said. “About 50,000 of the people that were displaced during the pandemic are not coming back to their previous jobs, so we're retraining those individuals into these areas of high demand.” 

At Great Basin College — an Elko community college with campuses across rural Nevada — part of the existing focus on workforce development comes simply from the realities of operating a school built to service the state’s “rural frontier.”

“This is a business, and we're in the business that embraces the technical college, the community college and the liberal arts four-year missions,” Helens said. “But we have to cover the cost of doing this business, and so the revenue sources work together to be able to do that and balance our bottom line.”

Helens said the school’s work was never in the “abstract,” but rather an active effort to communicate with the largest businesses in the region — namely mining companies or equipment companies such as Komatsu — to develop training programs and job pipelines. 

She touted the school’s successes, praising the rapid development of a welding program and a trucking program with the combined efforts of corporate funding, state grants and existing college resources. 

Helens also said she did not see any implied “misalignment” between existing programs at GBC and the broader stated goal of AB450 in workforce development.

“I don't know where that came from,” she said. “It’s—absolutely nothing I have experienced in my 40-plus years of working in community and technical colleges. And [it’s] the same at Great Basin College. When we were founded, I mean, we're always responding to business and industry. There is no misalignment.”

Helens conceded that there are areas that could be improved, mentioning possible efforts to create “better points of contact” for industry. Still, she praised existing workforce efforts at NSHE institutions and praised partnerships between GBC and other sister institutions like CSN and UNR. 

“I have asked the question, ‘Where'd that come from?’ — just like you are asking,” Helens said. “Give me an example, because I don't see the example.”

Money, governance and the road ahead

If the question of misalignment is nebulous for administrators and regents, it isn’t for David Damore — a professor and chair of the political science department at UNLV, a fellow at Brookings Mountain West and a vocal critic of the state’s governing structures for community colleges. 

“I see it as thinking more broadly about the state's economic development efforts in aligning within the regions to the sectors that the RDAs, the Regional Development Authorities, are supposed to go and recruit to come to the bat,” Damore said. “I don't see a whole lot of integration between what's going on in the economic development world, and the workforce development you're seeing at the institutions.”

Pointing to a 2011 workforce study from Brookings Mountain West that laid out a number of strategic statewide goals for economic development, Damore said there was a fundamental “disconnect” between a centralized statewide higher education system that, in his view, was not responsive to regional economic differences between North and South. 

The process of addressing those issues at a policy level, Damore said, ultimately drove at the twin prongs of AB450: money and governance. 

On the money question — more specifically, the question of how state funding is allocated per-institution by the existing formula — administrators and outside observers have for years characterized the existing structure as “one-size-fits-all.”

Developed in 2011 and approved by lawmakers in 2013, the formula’s current iteration centers on weighted student credit hours as a measure that endeavors to account for the differences between inexpensive courses, such as an English lecture, and more costly resource-intensive lab or graduate courses. 

That formula also came at a critical political juncture for the state’s higher education system, as proponents of a still-young UNLV sought newfound parity for a funding system they had long criticized as tilted toward UNR by influential northern lawmakers — parity that a new formula could deliver. 

“That has been the success of this structure,” Damore said. “UNR and UNLV both made Carnegie [R1 very high-research classification]; you’re starting to see much more research output and all those things. But that comes at the expense of small schools.”

The Legislature on Saturday, May 22, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

For community colleges, both observers and administrators said a gap has emerged in and among an increasingly large slice of students who are in non-degree programs — courses that range from IT certifications to nursing training — that don’t count toward the number of weighted credit hours. 

“I've got about 15,000 students that are non-credit students at CSN,” Zaragoza said. “So the formula doesn't work for them. And so looking at the formula, it's important for workforce because there are different pathways. The formula is perfect for the traditional student, but for non-traditional students that are looking for short-term training, or for short-term upgrading, that are non-credit based, that's the gap that we’ve got.” 

Zaragoza and others have pointed out such gaps could be addressed in the coming legislative session, and he said he was “cautiously optimistic” that 2023 could reverse downward funding trends for higher education in Carson City budget negotiations. 

Amid the financial chaos triggered by the pandemic, Sisolak and state lawmakers had initially slashed state agency budgets by 12 percent for each of the next two fiscal years, a cut that would have amounted to more than $169 million lost over two years for NSHE. 

That cut was ultimately blunted with the distribution of federal aid in the twilight hours of the legislative session, and lawmakers ultimately added back $93 million for faculty and staff salaries in a last-minute move that avoided layoffs. The remaining operational cuts were not restored, however, and NSHE institutions will enter the fall semester with almost $76 million in budget reductions. 

Still, Sisolak called for additional funding for community colleges just weeks later. 

“I've always maintained — from my time on the Board of Regents to the [Clark] County Commission to now as governor — our community colleges are underfunded and underappreciated and overlooked, unfortunately,” Sisolak said during a roundtable event in June. 

It was the second time in as many weeks that Sisolak — who spent 10 years as a regent before being elected to the Clark County Commission in 2008 — had raised the issue of “underfunded and underappreciated” community colleges in Nevada. 

But the second major change that could be spurred by AB450 — and what could ultimately become a more political question — is one of governance structure, though precisely how or what could come is among the many questions with few answers at this early stage. 

Damore — who joined several colleagues early this year in penning an op-ed in the Las Vegas Sun criticizing the community college structure — said one possible outcome is a broad decentralization of community college governance through the use of individual boards for each institution while maintaining the overall administrative structure of NSHE writ-large. 

Whether the AB450 committee and legislative recommendations that follow will treat NSHE administration and the broad idea of “governance” as two different questions remains to be seen.  

“That's the million-dollar question,” Damore said. “The current structure has really conflated governance and administration … And so, the part of the point of having these discussions now, in theory, is having another discussion about whether or not NSHE and the regents should be coupled in this way.”

The mere mention of governance and reform has dredged up another parallel issue: that the Legislature has for years sought to increase its oversight of the Board of Regents, in large part by stripping the regents of their position in the state Constitution and placing them in state law instead. 

That effort eventually took the form of 2020’s Ballot Question 1, which ultimately failed by a narrow margin of 0.3 points. 

But nearly as soon as it died at the ballot box, the measure was revived by lawmakers as SJR7. With language tweaked by proponents explicitly to avoid the pitfalls that sank the measure on the first try, SJR7 sailed through this year’s legislative session. If political winds do not drastically shift on the issue in 2023, SJR7 could be on a direct course to the ballot box in 2024. 

SJR7 and Question 1 before it have for years stirred debates over not just the simple oversight of regents by legislators, but foundational questions over constitutional interpretations and the very purpose of an elected board of 13 regents. 

And though proponents of the measure have sought to distance themselves from the implication that Question 1 could create an appointed board, some lawmakers have long sought to do just that — including a bill as recently as 2019, SB354,  that made it through the Senate before dying in an Assembly committee. 

Even as it is nominally tied to the outside issue of workforce development, the simple charges of AB450 have nonetheless emerged in a political environment in which that question — how the state’s higher education system should be governed — has shaped the broadest contours of higher education politics. 

Administrators have so far said little on the governance question, pointing in large part to the absence of tangible policies to comment on. Zaragoza pointed to his own experience at higher education systems with “two very distinct governance structures,” most notably a stint in Wisconsin, and noted “advantages and disadvantages” to each.

“I've seen both of them work, and both of them not work,” Zaragoza said. “I think the real issue becomes what is the plan? The execution? And what's the substance of what's being proposed? And that's the part that I haven't seen.”

Helens went a step further, praising existing institutional leadership at the community level and saying “we need a system that works; we don’t need another system.” 

“The governance of one system is important because then everybody knows where everybody's doing,” Helens said. “I've had multiple presidencies in different kinds of situations with separate governance systems. It’s always one fighting the other for more funding. The more we are unified and look at our whole state, and serving our state and the importance of all the pieces, the better off we are.”

Beyond the question of how to revise the funding formula, there are few clear answers on how the committee could choose to revise or reform governance. But unlike the many attempts to study the state’s community colleges through the decades, mandatory provisions within AB450 will produce legislative recommendations for 2023 — and a question long asked may finally be answered. 

“You know, this goes back to the founding of the system in the 1960s,” Damore said. “You've had study committees in the 70s and 80s. So the issue of where community colleges fit and what we want out of community colleges is a really, really old question. It's just been studied, but never really acted on.”

Correction, 8/15/21 at 9:05 p.m. - An original version of this story referred to the 2019 bill SB354 as having gone unheard in the Assembly. It has been updated to reflect that the bill was heard in an Assembly committee, but died without receiving a vote in that committee.

Cheers, then jeers: Why the proposed K-12 education funding bill created questions and confusion

A student working on classwork at Pat Diskin Elementary School

What are the fruits of Nevada lawmakers’ efforts to fund K-12 education this year?

Well, that’s difficult to say because they don’t want to talk about fruit at all. They say the two funding formulas — the old Nevada Plan and the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — do not lend themselves to an apples-to-apples comparison.

Last week, state lawmakers patted themselves on the back for adding roughly $500 million to the education budget. Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas), who warned there would be naysayers and skeptics, declared that she had “been waiting a damn long time to put this amount of money into education.”

The celebratory dust had barely settled before questions began emerging. When the large K-12 education funding bill (SB458) dropped earlier this week, education observers noticed a peculiar aspect in the very first section: The total public support for the upcoming biennium will be an estimated $10,204 per pupil the first fiscal year, followed by $10,290 per pupil the next fiscal year. Both figures are lower than the total public support appropriated in the current biennium — $10,227 per pupil for Fiscal Year 2019-2020 and $10,319 for Fiscal Year 2020-2021.

The apparent decrease muddied the water for several days with few clues clarifying the situation. But, late Thursday afternoon, Sen. Mo Denis (D-Las Vegas) said he had received information from the Legislative Counsel Bureau pointing to ending-fund balances as the culprit. In 2019, under the Nevada Plan, school district and charter schools’ ending-fund balances were calculated into the per-pupil estimate for total public support, Denis said. Moving forward with the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan, ending-fund balances are not calculated into total public support.

It’s a calculation deviation with a large price tag attached to it: For the current biennium, ending-fund balances totaling $283.5 million were included in total public support each year, Denis said. 

So despite similar language describing total public support in SB458 and SB555, the K-12 funding bill passed during the 2019 session, the two aren’t mirror images of each other. It’s unclear what the combined ending-fund balances would have totaled this year, but it likely would have been enough to significantly prop up the per-pupil estimates for total public support.

“This is the highest amount we've ever put in for schools,” Denis said.

Still, portions of the additional $500 million were used to backfill pandemic-related education budget cuts, making it more restoration-oriented than a pure funding infusion. Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-Las Vegas) couched it as progress during a tough time. 

“The Strip was dark,” he said, referring to the pandemic shutdown of the state’s primary economic engine. “It’s impossible to suggest that we’re not going to have to make some difficult decisions. I think that, quite frankly, it is incredible that we came even close to pre-pandemic spending. And so it’s a good signal moving forward.”

The shift to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan has also caused meteoric change to many categorical funding programs — such as Class Size Reduction, Read by Grade 3 and Zoom and Victory schools — which are being swept into the larger education funding pot and then redistributed to students. Therein lies another difficulty measuring the 2019 Legislature’s education appropriations with those happening right now in Carson City.

In theory, it will be easier to track moving forward — after this first biennium of fully transitioning from the old funding model to the new one. Then it will be time to cue the appropriate fruit comparisons, or at least that’s how lawmakers envision the process playing out. 

As it stands now, Carlton said comparisons between the upcoming biennium and previous one are “like grapes to watermelon.”

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert pointed to the Commission on School Funding as proof of the complexity of moving away from one finance model and implementing a new one. The advisory body met 22 times during the interim and issued a series of recommendations for how to transition. Still, there’s no crosswalk, so to speak, between the two models.

“It’s natural to ask for a crosswalk — how do you get from where you’re at and to where you're going?” she said. “The fact of the matter is, that’s not how this was developed.”

But the mere perception of a funding dip has rankled education advocates. The Nevada State Education Association, which has routinely questioned moving to the new funding formula without a significant bump in revenue, has openly critiqued the proposed K-12 budget on social media and in legislative hearings.

NSEA has raised concerns about the so-called weights — extra money intended to support certain student groups — established in SB458. The weights — 0.24 for English learners, 0.03 for at-risk students and 0.12 for gifted and talented students — will serve as a multiplier to the statewide base per-pupil funding. The result appears to be approximately an extra $1,648 for English learners, $209 for at-risk students and $837 for gifted and talented students.

NSEA leaders called the at-risk weight “anemic” and incapable of covering the expense of services meant to support low-income students.

Educate Nevada Now, an equity-focused organization, issued a statement Thursday lamenting the lack of financial clarity surrounding SB458 when it was unanimously passed in a joint subcommittee last week.

“We are glad that lawmakers could restore those funds, especially after such trying economic challenges, but we need to be clear about what these dollars mean and manage people’s expectations,” Amanda Morgan, ENN’s executive director, wrote in a statement. “This does help put us near where we were in 2019, but it does not mean students will see smaller class sizes or that schools will see more resources or supports.”

The ending-fund balance rationale posed by Denis didn’t dissipate skepticism among NSEA and Educate Nevada Now officials who want lawmakers to produce documents showing the money transactions.

“This whole thing doesn’t engender a lot of confidence in the new formula,” said Chris Daly, an NSEA lobbyist.

Lawmakers, however, argue that schools will see more resources courtesy of the massive wave of federal coronavirus relief funds. The three rounds of federal funding stand to bring Nevada school districts roughly $1.5 billion. The Clark County School District alone expects to receive more than $777 million through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is the third round of federal funding.

School districts are developing plans for how to use the federal funds, especially in terms of mitigating academic challenges created by the pandemic. The caveat, of course, is that the federal windfall is not recurring. The funds must be used within specific timeframes.

“I would count on the educational experience being better for our children,” Ebert said, referring to the effect of the federal funding.

But Michelle Booth, communications director for Educate Nevada Now, cautioned against an overreliance on the pandemic-related federal funding.

“Federal funds are great,” she said. “They’re helpful, but everybody knows that unless we do anything different, unless we have revenue, we’re going to have a fiscal cliff after that.”

Another unknown with five days remaining in the legislative session is whether lawmakers will pass any measures boosting mining taxes. If that were to occur, Denis said that money could be directed into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. 

Frierson on Wednesday expressed optimism there would be movement on the mining front but didn’t divulge details. Republicans, who will be key to getting a deal through, said they haven't seen concrete language on what a compromise tax deal with mining would look like and can't commit until they do, but have heard it’s in the ballpark of $70 to $80 million a year.

"I expect for there to be a policy passed dealing with revenue from mining, whether it's a resolution on the ballot or a deal,” Frierson told The Nevada Independent. “I expect to do something."

This story was updated at 8:33 p.m. on May 27, 2021, to include additional comments from Nevada State Education Association and Educate Nevada Now officials.

Implementation bill, budget votes lay groundwork for launching new education funding formula

The Senate Finance Committee took a step Tuesday night toward fully implementing the new K-12 education funding formula despite repeated concerns raised about the lack of additional revenue.

The committee held its first hearing on SB439 — a largely technical bill involving how money will be distributed through the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan — and heard more than an hour of public testimony before immediately moving into a work session. Ultimately, lawmakers voted to approve an amended version of the bill, moving it forward in the legislative process toward a vote of the full Senate.

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert lauded the legislation as a critical step in the journey toward improving per-pupil funding in Nevada, which consistently ranks near the bottom among states when it comes to school finance. The Pupil-Centered Funding Plan replaces the 54-year-old Nevada Plan, and will dramatically change how money flows to schools. It sweeps more than 80 revenue streams into one giant education funding pot and establishes “weights” that will direct money to students based on their needs.

“This work is difficult, but it couldn't be more important than at this moment where we are currently redesigning the future of education,” Ebert said.

In the waning hours of the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers passed SB543, which created the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Since then, the 11-member Commission on School Funding has met nearly two dozen times to discuss how it should be implemented and funded. The advisory body recently issued funding recommendations, specifically targeting property and sales taxes as revenue generators that could help the state achieve per-pupil funding levels at least on par with the national average over the next decade.

But, as it stands now, no new revenue has been funneled toward education — a point that has frustrated the statewide teachers’ union and other education advocates. Multiple people affiliated with the Nevada State Education Association spoke in opposition to SB439 on Tuesday, describing it as legislation crafted behind closed doors that didn’t address the union’s concerns. 

For instance, the union wants Zoom and Victory schools, which receive more money to help students learning English as a second language or living in low-income households, grandfathered into state law rather than gradually phased out during the transition to weighted funding.

“Ever since the introduction of SB543 two years ago, NSEA has expressed policy concerns at every opportunity — the lack of educator voice, no new revenue, watering down Zoom and Victory schools, freezing and squeezing school district budgets .. a giveaway to charter schools and undoing the rules of collective bargaining,” NSEA’s executive director, Brian Lee, said during the hearing. “SB439 fails to adjust a single issue raised by educators showing its backers are unserious about developing and delivering a funding plan to benefit all Nevada students.”

Meanwhile, charter school leaders were pleased to hear charter schools would be added to the hold harmless clause of the new funding formula, but it didn’t ease all their concerns. 

Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the State Public Charter School Authority, testified in neutral and pointed out that charter schools would not be receiving district equity adjustments or auxiliary funding for transportation services under the new funding plan. She said that means charter schools would only bank approximately 93 percent of the funding the neighboring Clark County School District receives. In Washoe County, charter schools would receive 92 percent and, in Elko County, 76 percent.

The Washoe Education Association, Mi Familia Vota, the Charter School Association of Nevada and Battle Born Progress were among the organizations that opposed SB439.

Even those who voiced support, such as the Clark County Education Association, pushed for more education funding.

“No more excuses and no more delays. No more telling the nation that we enjoy a last place ranking on education,” said Karl Byrd, a social studies teacher at Knudson Middle School in Las Vegas. “It's time to fully fund our schools, and SB439 is a step in the right direction.”

Budget groundwork for transition

The SB439 hearing came hours after lawmakers took a preliminary vote to make a full transition to a new funding formula for schools for the next two years, instead of the phased approach the governor recommended — a move that opens up many more questions lawmakers will have to answer in the final three weeks of the session.

Gov. Steve Sisolak had recommended a phased implementation of the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan that would involve putting all state-level school funding ($2.7 billion) into the new formula in the coming biennium and not pulling locally generated funds into the formula until later.

But that arrangement drew legislative scrutiny because schools draw about 70 percent of their funding from local revenue sources. That means students in counties that have less ability to generate local funding would likely receive less funding than their counterparts in wealthier counties.

Members of a joint Senate-Assembly budget subcommittee also took another key step toward launching into the new paradigm when they voted to set the “average base per-pupil amount” the new formula will provide to $6,954 per student in the fiscal year 2022 and $7,090 in fiscal year 2023. Further adjustments, such as ones meant to account for variance in wages and the cost of living in state’s 17 counties, would stem from the base the Legislature sets.

Weights — which are extra allotments of funding to address students with extra needs — will be multipliers calculated off the base. They will go toward students learning English as a second language; students defined as “at-risk”; and students who are gifted and talented. 

On Tuesday, subcommittee members also gave their approval to many of the governor’s recommended education budget cuts and changes. While the votes help move the budget closing process along, lawmakers expect to revisit many of their decisions in coming days, likely to restore funding for programs using some of the $910 million more the state has to work with because of new, higher-than-expected revenue projections

Groups including Educate Nevada Now also want lawmakers to use some of the nearly $3 billion it will receive in flexible federal COVID relief funds to help boost funding to schools and facilitate the transition from the antiquated funding formula to a new model.

The subcommittee’s work will then move to the full Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means committees for further review. Those committees are set to take up the matter on Friday.

Cuts to class size reduction

Lawmakers on the subcommittee approved a recommendation in the governor’s budget that cuts class size reduction funding in the coming biennium, then transfers what is left to a general State Education Funding Account that will be redistributed through the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan.

Meeting class size requirements, which limit first and second grade classes to a 17:1 ratio and third grade classes to a 20:1 ratio, would cost an estimated $314 million over the biennium.

But Sisolak has called for cutting funding levels by $156 million in an effort to balance the budget and still maintain base per-pupil funding levels. The remaining money would be incorporated into the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan but would not be restricted to class size reduction and would be available for collective bargaining.

The state remains far from class size targets, with districts frequently requesting “variances” that allow them an exception to the rule. A state-commissioned study from Data Insight Partners found that 87 percent of students are in class sizes larger than the non-binding recommendations from the state, which called for a 15:1 student-teacher ratio for grades 1 through 3 and 25:1 in all other grades. Meeting that would require an additional 3,000 teachers in the state.

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer (R-Reno) said the cut would make it impossible for districts to meet class size goals, and he added that the cut needs to be reevaluated in the future.

“It's nonsensical to think that they would be able to meet those targets when we provide them less funding to do so,” Kieckhefer said. “And not having enough money is a perfectly adequate reason for not complying. So I would expect every school and every district to submit that form to the district to justify their inability to meet those targets.”

Zoom, Victory and Nevada Ready 21 programs moved

Lawmakers took the governor’s recommendation to fold $165.2 million designated to support English learners, at-risk students and those who need personal computers into the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Instead of having Zoom Schools, Victory Schools and English learner grants, that money would be converted into a weight (an additional sum of money) that flows to students who have those special needs.

The goal is to serve a wider group of students with the kinds of services available through the programs — such as pre-K programs, professional development and wrap-around services. Victory School grants support 35 of the lowest-performing schools in the state and 21,730 students within them, but there are more than 247,000 students in the state who are considered “at-risk.”

Zoom Schools and the English Learner Grant program serve nearly 44,000 students in the state, although nearly 52,000 students are considered eligible for English learner weighted funding.

The Nevada Ready 21 program offered grants to help connect students to computing devices — a goal accelerated when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and districts used funds including federal aid to obtain devices for distance learning. State education officials said funds would still be needed to maintain and replace those devices as they reach the end of their life cycle.

The Nevada Ready 21 funding would be reshuffled into “base” per-pupil funding within the new formula.

Weights for underperforming students restored

Members of the budget subcommittees gave preliminary approval to transferring about $140 million from the New Nevada Education Funding Plan into the account funding the new Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. The program, authorized through SB178 of the 2017 session, allotted $1,200 for every low-income or English learner student who was scoring in the lowest quartile on proficiency tests and was not enrolled at a school receiving Zoom or Victory program funding. The program served more than 58,000 children.

Funding was eliminated in a round of budget cuts during the 2020 special session, but lawmakers on the subcommittee supported the governor’s recommendation to restore it and then transfer it this session to the larger pot of general education money. State officials acknowledged they missed a Feb. 1 deadline for getting an independent analysis of the programs’ effectiveness to the Legislature, saying they faced challenges choosing a vendor and following through with the assessment because of the pandemic.

Instead of funding $1,200 weights, the money would be redistributed, with 50 percent contributing to weights for English learners and 50 percent supporting weights for at-risk students.

Read by Grade 3 funding reduced

Lawmakers approved the governor’s recommended cut of $50 million over the biennium to a handful of education programs, primarily Read by Grade 3 and college (cut by $33 million) and career readiness initiatives (cut by $10 million).

Several lawmakers who voted for the cuts said they wanted to prioritize the accounts when the state decides later how to redistribute money gained because the Economic Forum has projected more tax revenue than previously expected in the coming biennium.

“This is a motion that I would prefer to vote against. But I will vote for because of the process that we're working through here,” Kieckhefer said. “I think these cuts need to be restored. And I sure have them on the tops of our list along with some others as we move forward in the session.”

Lawmakers voted to transfer the remaining funding for the initiatives to the Pupil-Centered Funding Plan. Read by Grade 3 laws developed over the past six years would remain, including the requirements that schools submit a literacy plan for approval by the Department of Education and that schools designate a licensed teacher as the campus literacy specialist.

Sen. Heidi Seevers Gansert (R-Reno) opposed the transfer, saying that she likes the current arrangement through which the literacy money is budgeted separately and subject to separate accountability. She also floated the idea that in the future, there could be a new weight for students who cannot read at grade level.

GATE programs funded at higher level

Experts have differed on how much should be spent on the 2-4 percent of students identified as gifted, but the subcommittees ended up approving a more generous amount for GATE. The state’s Commission on School Funding recommended a target weight of 0.14, while the consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates recommended the more modest weight of 0.05.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairwoman Maggie Carlton (D-Las Vegas) said she was comfortable funding the services at a lower level.

“Even around that conversation of 0.05, we weren't talking about taking your money out of education and putting it someplace else,” she said. “All the money in the education universe that we have been talking about, for over 100 days now, is staying in the education universe. It's just how the pie is sliced.”

But she said members of the Senate wanted a weight of 0.12, which is what was ultimately approved, for $10.4 million over the biennium. Several members expressed thanks for that action.

“We don't have that many students. And I think that funding is critically important,” said Seevers Gansert.

Teacher incentives melded into general education account

Lawmakers on the subcommittees voted to restore a cut to a program that offered incentives to teachers in low-income and underperforming schools, but rolled the $5 million into the larger fund for paying for education.

The program allows bonuses that would increase a teacher’s base salary by up to $5,000 a year. But fiscal staff said the typical bonus was closer to $1,000 per teacher, and the Nevada Department of Education could not provide data about how effective the incentives were to recruit and retain teachers.

General fund spending reduced, marijuana revenue up

In the governor’s recommended budget, the amount of money the general fund is contributing to the “Nevada Plan” to support education is $1.5 billion in the coming biennium, down 2.2 percent from the levels in the current biennium. But the overall amount the state is contributing to the plan is up because of increases in non-general fund revenue sources in the state that support schools, such as an annual tax on slot machines and a 10 percent excise tax on retail sales of marijuana.

When local revenues are added into the mix, there will be about $9 billion directed toward education through the Nevada Plan in the coming biennium, which equates to average per-pupil spending of $9,149 in the fiscal year that starts in July and $9,292 in the following fiscal year. State support accounts for about 30 percent of that.

Part of that state support is ever-increasing revenue collections from a tax on marijuana. Although the state has the option to use marijuana money to “supplant” the general funds it contributes to education, lawmakers voted to add the $62 million in incremental marijuana money expected in the coming two years on top of what they have budgeted to give schools from the general fund.

In total, the state expects the marijuana tax will generate about $185 million for education over the next two years.

Under proposed bill, push to change community college governance will start as a study

Sign in front of the UNLV College of Engineering

Gov. Steve Sisolak surprised the state’s higher education world this January when he suggested during his State of the State address that Nevada’s four community colleges should be governed by a “new independent authority” — presumed to be outside the existing Nevada System of Higher Education. 

“We need to recognize that our community colleges will play an even bigger role in workforce training,” Sisolak said at the time. “That’s why I will be asking the Legislature to work with the Nevada System of Higher Education over the next two years to develop a framework to transition Nevada’s community colleges to a new independent authority that will focus on making Nevadans job ready. Community colleges, together with union apprenticeship programs, are critical elements in building Nevada’s workforce and economic future.”

Then, it was unclear exactly what such an undertaking would look like, and community college presidents all deferred judgment on the idea until a concrete proposal existed. 

Several months later and that concrete proposal has finally emerged as AB450, which received an initial hearing last Thursday in the Assembly Education Committee. 

Sponsored by the governor’s office and presented by Sisolak’s policy director, Heather Korbulic, AB450 stops short of implementing any immediate changes. Instead, it would create an interim committee that would study workforce development programs at the state’s community colleges, as well as the role a change in governance structure could have in the way such programs — and the colleges themselves — are funded. 

“To reiterate, the governor believes that the NSHE funding formulas are in need of review, and that's why he specifically called on this study committee to analyze existing funding structures,” Korbulic said.

Last overhauled in 2013, those formulas ironed out differences between institutions through the use of weighted student credit hours, weighting more expensive courses, such as labs or graduate courses, higher than comparatively low-cost courses. 

However, community colleges have complained that the formula is “one-size-fits-all,” and that it does not adequately account for the material differences between community colleges and their research university counterparts. 

The seven-member committee would be split between education officials and economic development representatives, including: one member from the Governor’s Office for Economic Development; three members from local chambers of commerce (two south and one north); State Superintendent Jhone Ebert; Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Melody Rose; and one of the state’s four community college presidents. 

Though Thursday’s hearing on the bill was brief, a handful of questions did emerge over the committee’s makeup. Committee Chair Shannon Bilbray-Axelrod (D-Las Vegas) asked Korbulic if the governor’s office had considered the addition of labor group representatives, and later, a spokesperson for the Nevada Faculty Alliance testified against the measure so long as it excluded faculty and student representatives.   

In responding to Bilbray-Axelrod, Korbulic said the primary driver behind the committee’s small size was keeping it “quick and nimble.”

“So what we thought that we were doing is creating a bill that would allow for a lot of flexibility with primary stakeholders at the table and then allowing for subcommittees to be formed from there, and then also having a public forum in order to include all of the voices that felt like they wanted to be heard,” Korbulic said.

The bill received testimony in support from the Vegas Chamber, as well as testimony in neutral from the Clark County Education Association, which supported the measure in spirit but declined full support without assurances from lawmakers on CCEA’s pupil-centered funding plan. 

Waived through legislative deadlines, AB450 must still receive approval from the Assembly Education Committee before heading to the full floor for a vote.

Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in Behind the Bar, The Nevada Independent’s newsletter dedicated to comprehensive coverage of the 2021 Legislature. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Sisolak sets June as goal for 100 percent reopening as some counties prepare to get there on their own

Gov. Steve Sisolak is lifting a statewide social distancing requirement on May 1 that he says will enable every county in Nevada to reopen to 100 percent by the beginning of June.

Final decisions about whether to go to 100 percent will, however, remain in the hands of counties as the state prepares to hand the pandemic health and safety decision-making baton to the counties by May 1, as previously planned. Sisolak denied that the announcement — which comes just one day before counties start presenting their reopening plans to a state task force — was essentially designed to steal the counties’ thunder. 

Though Sisolak framed full reopening as a goal the state is challenging local jurisdictions to meet, multiple counties have signaled their intent in recent weeks to reopen businesses to 100 percent capacity as soon as possible after the state hands over decision-making authority. 

Sisolak, during a press conference on Tuesday, said the announcement was not a matter of who gets “credit” for reopening.

“I’m not interested in who gets credit,” Sisolak said. “We have made the best decisions possible and I’m excited to be in the position that we’re at today. I really am. It’s the first really good news I’ve been able to deliver in a long time, and I’m hopeful that our residents take it that way and we can all move forward stronger.”

For the last year, Sisolak has faced heavy criticism from the general public over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic — both from those who believe he’s been too stringent in imposing statewide restrictions and those who believe he’s been too lenient — and will likely endure a challenging re-election bid in 2022. 

He has also come under fire, at times, from local government leaders who have voiced frustrations with the state after repeatedly being left out of decision-making conversations and finding out about new policies at the last minute. 

Many local leaders were hopeful after Sisolak announced in February that he was transferring decision-making authority to the counties by May 1, though his Tuesday announcement may now preempt counties’ plans to reopen to 100 percent.

Sisolak sounded a note of optimism about the position the state finds itself in, despite the fact that some public health experts have warned that the increases that many states, including Nevada, and other countries are seeing is the beginning of a possible fourth wave, particularly as variants of the virus continue to spread. 

The governor cited the growing number of vaccinated Nevadans, better levels of care in hospitals and still-low case numbers in his announcement that the state will be ready to open fully by June 1. Sisolak, however, demurred when asked whether the state would step in or what will happen if cases grow beyond the “very slight increases” he said the state is currently seeing.

“I will continue as we move forward to listen to our Medical Advisory Team,” Sisolak said. “I cannot make a commitment on what’s going to happen, two weeks or four weeks or eight weeks down the line, and I don’t have a specific trigger number, whether it’s hospitalizations or test positivities.”

Over the course of the last year, the state has often set metrics — in the form of cases, hospitalizations and test positivity rates — to determine how open or closed businesses ought to be.

Sisolak stressed that he believes a combination of mask wearing, which will be mandatory in public for the foreseeable future, and increasing levels of vaccination will enable the state to meet the June 1 goal.

Sisolak also announced on Tuesday that, as counties take over control of setting local COVID-19 health and safety measures on May 1, so, too, will county school districts and charter school boards assume responsibility for schools' mitigation efforts, including social distancing standards.

County school districts and charter school boards have been working with State Superintendent Jhone Ebert, the Nevada Department of Education and the State and the State Public Charter Authority to receive PPE, set up testing, conduct contact tracing programs, and prioritize vaccines for educators, Sisolak said, adding that the varying types of schools within the state necessitate different approaches to ensure safe learning and working environments.

"That doesn't mean mitigation measures such as social distancing will go away – it means each district or charter sponsor has the opportunity to review and make decisions best for their schools," Sisolak said.

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)

Years-long legal battle over Opportunity Scholarship growth freeze continues in the Nevada Supreme Court

Photo of the top front of the building with the words Supreme Court of Nevada

A scholarship program for students attending private K-12 schools in Nevada is at the center of a tangled legal debate about whether the Legislature’s decision to freeze the program’s growth two years ago ran afoul of a high bar for raising taxes. 

The Nevada Supreme Court heard arguments for nearly an hour on Monday on whether AB458 is unconstitutional. The bill, passed along party lines during the 2019 legislative session with Democrats in favor, froze the Opportunity Scholarship program’s more than $6 million credit cap and eliminated the 10 percent annual increase in tax credits available to the program through the modified business tax (MBT), which is a tax on payroll. Private businesses fund the scholarship program through donations, and receive tax credits in return. 

In the Senate, Democrats were one vote short of attaining a supermajority when they passed the bill. Joshua House, an Institute for Justice attorney representing Nevada families whose children are enrolled in the program, argued that the Legislature needed a supermajority to pass the measure because it generates state revenue. 

“Nevada requires that a bill that creates, generates or increases any public revenue in any form to pass by two-thirds supermajority of each legislative house,” House said during his argument. “When the Assembly Bill 458 was proposed, everybody understood that it was going to be a revenue-generating bill. The bill sponsor repeatedly stated that it was intended to increase tax revenues.” 

Under the “Gibbons Tax Restraint Initiative” added to the Nevada Constitution in 1996, measures that raise taxes require two-thirds approval by the Legislature rather than a simple majority.

House asserted that because participating businesses received fewer tax credits as a result of the eliminated 10 percent annual tax credit increase, that money was funneled back into the state, resulting in revenue generation.

Nevada Deputy Solicitor General Craig Newby countered that adopting the bill did not change a state tax method, and added that as the program is operated through private organizations and funded by private businesses, the state is not responsible for any harm to the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. 

“The tax credits for subsection four (of the Nevada Revised Statutes) remain the same and identical from year to year. They have not changed in any way, shape or form,” Newby said. “They just have not increased indefinitely into the future, as plaintiffs would desire and would prefer as a policy outcome.” 

Newby also questioned whether the plaintiffs had legal standing in suing the state. 

“There must be harm, and those arguments have been addressed in the record, but it must be fairly traced to the actions of the executive defendants,” Newby said. “Respectfully, the actions that plaintiffs, parents, contend have harmed them are fairly traced to the private scholarship organization based on the structure of the statute in the program, not the Department of Taxation, not the Department of Education.” 

Kevin Powers, general counsel for the Legislative Counsel Bureau, also weighed in during the oral arguments and said that the bill created a change in appropriation of funds, not an increase, calling AB458 a “revenue-neutral measure.” 

Powers cited cases from state courts in Oklahoma and Oregon to drive his argument forward. 

“Those courts made clear that their constitutional supermajority requirements did not contemplate that a reduction in tax credits or tax exemptions increased revenue, because the underlying computation base for the tax didn't change the taxable subject,” he said. 

The Legislative Counsel Bureau wrote in an opinion in May 2019 that the supermajority rule did not apply to the bill. 

The legal battle began in August 2019, when Nevada parents and participating program businesses sued State Superintendent Jhone Ebert, the Nevada Department of Taxation and state tax commissioners. A Clark County judge ruled against them, deciding the supermajority provision did not apply to the bill. 

The Nevada Supreme Court has not yet issued a decision on the case.