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. 

Behind the Bar: Stablecoin, utility regulator fines, abolishing K-12 commissions and more compensation for the wrongfully convicted

Behind the Bar is The Nevada Independent’s newsletter devoted to comprehensive and accessible coverage of the 2021 Legislature. 

In this edition: A bill on “Stablecoin” that is totally not related to Innovation Zones, increasing utility regulator fines, changes to wrongful conviction compensation and heartburn on abolishing education-focused commissions, including one created by beloved former Assemblyman Tyron Thompson.

Check this link to manage your newsletter subscriptions. This newsletter is published on Mondays and Thursdays.

I want to hear from you! Questions, comments, observations, jokes, what you think we should be covering or paying attention to. Email me at

I’ve spent a lot of time this week thinking about Texas.

Everyone is generally aware of the massive power grid failures that left millions of Texans without reliable electricity, natural gas service, or even clean water in the midst of a massive winter storm. Dozens of deaths have already been reported and the toll is expected to rise.

I’ve avoided commenting on much of the news in Texas because I’m just not an expert in ERCOT, natural gas pipeline infrastructure or the wild confluence of factors that led to the greatest forced blackout in American history (I also have to write this newsletter). There have been some great breakdowns of what exactly happened to the Texas power grid, as well as some not-so-great ones.

But back in 2017 and 2018, I spent probably too much of my time following the debate and issues around potential implementation of a similar retail energy market in Nevada, in the form of Question 3. It would have amended the state’s Constitution to require that Nevada set up a retail electric market similar to the one in Texas and a handful of other “choice” states (I wrote a long story about why the measure failed).

Even if Question 3 had passed, Nevada would still be in a much different position than Texas. ERCOT, the grid manager for Texas, isn’t connected to any other state’s grid in order to avoid federal regulation. Nevada also has a much different mix of fuel resources than Texas, a different geographical layout and different weather conditions and patterns that affect electric supply and demand in different ways.

I don’t want to get too far in the weeds on retail choice states and what happened to Texas last week, again because this is nominally a newsletter about the Legislature and not Riley’s Thoughts About Electric Markets.

One universal takeaway from last week is this: our lives are governed by increasingly complex systems, whether it be the electric grid, health insurance, unemployment insurance or even the operations of the state government and Legislature. At the same time, expertise in those areas is harder to find, and people tend to apply their political priors to complex systemic issues.

It’s why I’m glad to work in a newsroom where I have the flexibility to spend a few days digging into regulatory filings for a more-than-surface level dive into resource adequacy and how worried Nevadans should be about a California or Texas-size grid disaster happening next summer.

I think there’s real value in reporting on complex issues that is not only deep and accessible, but free to the general public. So while stories on utility regulatory filings aren’t going to get the same attention as a story on which players the Golden Knights have signed, there is a real public service in digging into these issues before they reach the catastrophe phase.

— Riley Snyder

Assemblywomen Claire Thomas, left and Daniele Monroe-Moreno during the first day of the 81st session of the Legislature in Carson City on Monday, Feb. 1, 2021. (David Calvert/The Nevada Independent)

Conine prepares Stablecoin bill, says it’s not related to Innovation Zone run on Stablecoin

Treasurer Zach Conine wants to prepare Nevada government agencies to accept the cryptocurrency Stablecoin as payment — although he insists his bill on the subject is unrelated to Blockchains LLC’s well-publicized proposal to create an entire “Innovation Zone” that secedes from the surrounding county and brings in tax revenue through a Stablecoin product.

Conine discussed the concept on Wednesday as SB39 at a hearing in the Senate Committee on Government Affairs, where he fielded a question about the polarizing Innovation Zone concept.

“The way I'm interpreting this bill is that it is connected to this innovation city. And this is a foundational piece for it to work,” said Democratic Sen. Dina Neal.

“It's not connected,” Conine retorted. “So the ability for us to take payment in the form of Stablecoins — and Innovation Zones, at least to the extent that I understand them — have nothing to do with each other.”

Stablecoin is a type of cryptocurrency that is tied to a reference point such as the U.S. dollar, in contrast to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin that don’t have such a peg and are much more volatile. Conine’s bill authorizes government entities to accept Stablecoins as payment in government transactions, just like they can accept credit cards.

“Now one of the reasons we want to put it into statute versus, say, just doing it in the same way that we don't necessarily contract a new piece of statute when we do PayPal or Zelle or something like that, is because we want companies to know that Nevada is open for business, to try and attract businesses that do this kind of thing to try it here,” Conine said.

Stablecoin operators, like credit card companies, can charge a fee for transactions using their Stablecoin. Blockchains LLC envisions creating its own Stablecoin to power “Painted Rock Smart City” and also be circulated well beyond the semi-autonomous Innovation Zone, according to a draft presentation of the proposal obtained by The Nevada Independent.

As previously reported in this newsletter, a PAC registered to Conine and his wife Layke has taken $60,000 from Blockchains LLC founder Jeff Berns. But it’s also not the first time Conine has tried his hand at solving byzantine monetary conundrums (see: his ongoing attempt to solve marijuana banking).   

“In today's connected world, technology changes rapidly and government is often the last to keep up,” Conine said. “Senate Bill 39 presents an opportunity for the state to not only keep up, but to forge a path ahead.”

— Michelle Rindels

Utility regulators seek update to fining powers largely unchanged for four decades

Last year, the California Public Utilities Commission assessed a $200 million fine against Pacific Gas & Electric Company for its role in the deadly 2018 Camp Fire that left 85 people dead.

But if a similar tragedy happened in Nevada, caused by negligence by one of the state’s utility companies, the Nevada Public Utilities Commission would likely only be able to assess a much smaller fine — somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000.

That’s the reason the PUC filed SB18, which was heard Thursday in the Senate Committee on Growth and Infrastructure. PUC officers said that updating the fine amounts (many of which were set up to 40 years ago and never updated) would give the regulatory body the ability to levy fines that would be more than a flesh wound to the massive, investor-owned utilities like NV Energy or Southwest Gas that the commission currently oversees.

“Ultimately, the purpose of this bill is to empower the PUCN to impose fines that are concerning to those companies,” PUC Executive Director Stephanie Mullen said during the hearing. “We don't want the maximum fine amount to be something that they're comfortable paying, nor do we want the fine framework to be so prescriptive that it allows for companies to engage in a cost benefit analysis as to whether it makes business sense to comply with the law.”

For violations of rules and laws covering natural gas storage facilities and pipelines, the legislation (per a proposed PUC-backed amendment) would raise the fine amounts from up to $1,000 per day to $200,000 per day, with a maximum fine set at $2 million (previously set at $200,000). PUC General Counsel Garrett Weir said those amounts were in line with existing federal standards.

The bill would also create an administrative fine category — anyone who provides the PUC information which is “inaccurate or misleading and which the person knew or should have known was inaccurate or misleading.” Doing that, or violating any rulings or orders of the PUC, could now be punishable by a fine of up to $100,000 per day (up from $1,000) and a top-line limit of $10 million (up from $100,000).

It would also raise the fine amount for the unusual crime of operating a public utility without first obtaining a certificate of public convenience (or failing to file a report required by the Commission) from a modest $500 penalty to a maximum fine of no more than $50,000. 

Fines are remitted to the state’s general budget account and not kept by the PUC.

A cadre of business organization and utility representatives — Southwest Gas, Nevada Resort Association, Nevada Taxpayers Association, Vegas Chamber — testified against the bill, with a general concern that the fines were being raised too much. A lobbyist for NV Energy testified in neutral, saying that the utility agreed the fines should be raised but thought they should be tied to inflation rates.

Weir said the commission was willing to work on adjusting the administrative fine scale, but he noted existing law requires the PUC to consider the appropriateness of the fine to the size of the business and other mitigating factors. A larger fine maximum would give the PUC more flexibility in punishing bad, but not the worst, behavior.

“I think the commission struggles with determining what to fine an offense where, say, $100,000 is the maximum, is appropriate, but you don't want to send a message that that's an egregious violation, as something where there's loss of life, or some sort of terrible outcome,” Weir said. “So it's really a struggle. You hope to have that larger range to assess an adequate penalty when something is bad, but not the worst possible type of violation.”

— Riley Snyder

Advocates seeking more compensation for those wrongfully convicted

Public defenders and criminal justice advocates are concerned that a bill to revise the law on compensation for wrongful convictions does not include provisions accounting for the time that a person spends behind bars prior to their conviction.

“As the bill is drafted, it says you would receive compensation only after the time you were wrongfully convicted,” John Piro, of the Clark County public defender’s office, said during a legislative hearing on Friday. “However, there is time that you spend in jail waiting for your case to go to trial, and those are years of your life that you lose, as well.” 

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Yeager (D-Las Vegas), primary sponsor of the bill (AB104), said he thinks opposition for the bill comes from a good place and that he would “probably love to give even more compensation” to those who have been wrongfully convicted. But he also said he was unsure of the proposals from those opposing the bill as it stands.

“The request really is to compensate folks for pre-conviction incarceration,” Yeager said during the meeting. “And as many of you know, people are incarcerated, right or wrong, they're incarcerated all the time before they get to trial. And right now, if you're incarcerated before you get to trial, and you go to trial, and a jury acquits you, the state doesn't compensate you for that time.”

Nobody testified in support of the bill during the hearing. Yeager said that he would continue to work out issues with the legislation before taking it to a committee vote.

The proposed measure builds off of another bill from 2019, AB267, that makes Nevada one of 35 states allowing people who were wrongfully convicted to collect payment from the state as compensation for the time they lost while behind bars.

Since the establishment of AB267 in Oct. 2019, seven individuals have filed wrongful conviction compensation complaints, and the state has settled four cases resulting in aggregate payouts of $7.69 million, including nearly $1 million approved this month for Reginald Mason. That cost could continue to rise, however, as the law includes a provision for reimbursement for other continuing costs such as health care or housing assistance.

— Sean Golonka

Mentoring panel championed by Tyrone Thompson may be spared in commission clean-up

A bill proposed by the Nevada Department of Education would revise and abolish commissions and advisory councils that are no longer in use, inefficient or have overlapping duties, but there is a chance that some on the chopping block — such as the Commission on Mentoring — could be spared. 

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert presented the bill, SB76, to the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday. It states that the duties of the proposed-to-be abolished commissions, councils, and training programs would be transferred to the Department of Education.

The department hopes that eliminating the committees would make the agency more efficient, as it is difficult to recruit to fill seats on the panels and meet quorum. Abolishing the committees would not get rid of the work the department already does in those topic areas, Ebert said.

The Nevada Commission on Mentoring (NCOM), established by the late Democratic Assemblyman Tyrone Thompson, was on the list of being abolished, but Ebert said that the bill would be amended to keep it because it is the only place in state law that details mentoring issues in the education landscape. The bill language is expected to be changed so the mentoring commission remains in statute, but the Department of Education would not be providing the administrative support, which allows the commission to operate independently.

Karl Catarata, a youth commissioner in the Commission on Mentoring, commented in support of amending the bill. He said his experience with the commission has come “full circle,” as he was mentored by Thompson and he is now part of the commission. 

“I hope that you all consider keeping the state entity that regularly brings together mentoring leaders across our state and vote in the affirmative for the...amendment this session,” Catarata said. “The commission is always willing to work with you all on this committee and the Department of Education to continue successful mentoring outcomes, while being frugal and efficient about resources for our throughout the state.”

Some boards, commissions and councils currently set for elimination include the State Financial Literacy Advisory Council, the Commission on Educational Technology, the Council to Establish Academic Standards for Public Schools and the Statewide Council for the Coordination of the Regional Training Programs. 

Sen. Roberta Lange (D-Las Vegas) suggested that the Education Committee should look at each commission that is proposed to be abolished and have a more in-depth discussion on whether to keep it or not. 

— Jannelle Calderon

Bill would stave off court fees for more people facing eviction 

Lawmakers are considering a bill that could help Nevadans facing eviction by simplifying a process to avoid court fees.

When someone is given an eviction notice, they must file a summary eviction notice with the court, which costs $71 in Clark County. During a legislative hearing on Friday of AB107, Bailey Bortolin, policy director for the Nevada Coalition of Legal Service Providers, said the fee can pose a hardship for those facing eviction.

“That's a real impediment if the reason that you're there is because you didn't have enough money to pay to pay your rent in the first place,” Bortolin said.

The state already has a law in place that allows Nevadans to waive the fees required to prosecute or defend a civil action, but Bortolin said that that law is inadequate.

“By and large, our fee waiver system allows many people, thousands of people, every year to proceed, but it's not specific in who that should apply to,” Bortolin said. “And so what we've found is really just inconsistent results across the state.”

The bill would expand and broaden the qualifications for who can apply to have their fees waived, including any client of a legal aid program, any recipient of a state or federal program for public assistance, or anyone who “has expenses for the necessities of life that exceed his or her income.” 

Bortolin also noted that the courts would not bear the burden of waived fees and that the fees for the civil action filings would be paid by the legal aid providers in the state.

Criminal justice advocates noted during the hearing that the bill would make it easier to dispute evictions at a time when many Nevadans are struggling financially. 

“Poverty should never be punished by forcing unequal access to justice,” Liz Davenport of the ACLU of Nevada said during the meeting. “Existing law does not provide Nevada's courts a clear and objective standard for granting fee waivers and further does not provide an applicant with clear guidance.”

— Sean Golonka


The Senate Committee on Natural Resources unanimously passed SB 52 on Tuesday, which would establish a voluntary state-based program for “dark sky” designations. The bill authorizes the state’s Division of Outdoor Recreation to create a voluntary program designating certain parts of the state as “dark sky” areas, which are remote parts of the state not affected as much by light pollution. The photo above was taken south of the Massacre Rim Wilderness Study Area, one of two areas in the state certified as a Dark Sky Sanctuary by the International Dark-Sky Association. (Joey Lovato/The Nevada Independent)

What we’re reading

Our legislative fundraising overview and breakdown.

Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto will each get their own Senate subcommittees. Turns out that being 86th and 80th in Senate seniority can pay off!

The Assembly Republicans revealed their 2021 legislative priorities on Thursday. The caucus has also said its official position is that the 2020 election, where Republicans picked up three Assembly seats, was not “fraudulent.” 

Nevada Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office is backing a bill to ban no-knock warrants, made infamous through the police killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor.

A very technical clean-up bill on the state’s unemployment system usually wouldn’t get a lot of public attention, but DETR nonetheless remains in the spotlight.

Connecting released inmates with Medicaid benefits (Nevada Current)

More details on the bill to curtail debt-based suspension of driver’s licenses (Nevada Current)

Update on the “tainted voter rolls” lawsuit filed by former AG Adam Laxalt (Associated Press)

About one-third of the Nevada Supreme Court budget is based on administrative assessments, which have gone down greatly since the start of the pandemic. (Nevada Appeal)

More national coverage on the ‘Innovation Zones’ (The New Republic)

Sen. Ben Kieckhefer is planning a bill that would create an esports regulatory body (Las Vegas Review-Journal)


Days to take action on Initiative Petitions before they go to the 2022 ballot: 18 (March 12, 2021)

Days Until Legislator Bill Introduction Deadline: 21 (March 15, 2021)

Days Until Sine Die: 98 (May 31, 2021)

Nevada to open up vaccines to seniors 65 and above at retail pharmacies starting next week

Nevadans between the ages of 65 and 69 will be eligible to receive the vaccine next week at retail pharmacies across the state, officials announced Wednesday.

While individuals in that age group have long been eligible to receive the vaccine in other states, as well as in some individual jurisdictions in Nevada, including Elko County, this is the first time that all seniors statewide will be eligible to receive the vaccine. State officials made the decision earlier this year to prioritize vaccinating the 70 and older population before turning to those between the ages of 65 and 69, much to the frustration of many seniors in that age group in Nevada.

The governor also announced that full-contact sports governed by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association can resume, and he’s allowing some schools and buses to increase their capacity limits as well.

Shots for those 65 to 69 will only be available initially at retail pharmacies that are currently offering the COVID-19 vaccine — including both those that receive their own allocation of doses through a special federal program and those that receive doses as part of the state’s allocation. Smith’s, Walgreens and Walmart are offering the vaccine to residents in several counties, including Clark and Washoe, while Raley’s and Safeway are vaccinating at select locations in rural Nevada, including Tonopah, Yerington and Hawthorne.

Gov. Steve Sisolak, at a press conference on Monday announcing the expansion of vaccine eligibility, noted that not everyone who wants the vaccine will immediately be able to get the vaccine with a still limited number of COVID-19 vaccines being sent to the state by the federal government. 

“We know it will not be enough to cover the range of Nevadans in this age group,” Sisolak said. “We continue to ask Nevadans to be patient as we await increased allocations from the federal government.”

Sisolak said the state’s goal is to work with counties to enable them to open up vaccine appointments at other distribution sites — including community vaccination events — to the 65 to 69 age group by March 1. More than 16 percent of the state’s population is over the age of 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The announcement comes amid news that the state is working on a new statewide vaccine appointment system through Salesforce that aims to streamline a registration process, which, to this point, has been spread out across multiple platforms and varies widely by jurisdiction. The Salesforce system will be voluntary for local jurisdictions to opt into.

Sisolak, at the Wednesday press conference, also announced that football and other full-contact high school sports will be finally allowed to resume across the Silver State. But the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association is expected to impose strict regulations on how athletic programs can safely resume and will establish COVID-19 testing programs for coaches, students and staff.

Some high school athletes have been sidelined from certain sports since last spring, disheartening many students who view those activities as their outlet and, in some cases, their ticket to higher education if they could parlay it into a scholarship. Football, rugby, wrestling, basketball, group cheer and dance, and lacrosse are among the full-contact sports that have been prohibited under a directive issued by Sisolak in the fall.

The governor’s latest directive only pertains to NIAA-governed teams, though, meaning club and travel leagues are not yet cleared to resume playing full-contact sports. Sisolak said the decision to allow NIAA to resume full-contact sports was made because they’re “highly regulated” and overseen by school districts.

The governor indicated local entities may be charged with deciding when non-NIAA full-contact sports can resume. The state hopes to transfer some decision-making authority to local jurisdictions by May 1.

Schools that have already had some in-person instruction, meanwhile, will be allowed to increase capacity in classes to accommodate more students, as will school busses. Schools that choose to bring back more students, however, will be subject to strict measures.

State Superintendent Jhone Ebert said schools can increase their capacity limits to 75 percent, or 250 people in a contained space, if students and staff continue wearing masks and social distancing. Similarly, school buses can begin transporting more students by operating at 66 percent capacity.

Those new rules won’t apply to the Clark County School District, which isn’t starting its return from distance learning until March 1.

In June, Sisolak issued a directive that allowed school buildings to reopen if districts followed state guidance and submitted their plans to the Nevada Department of Education for approval. While some rural school districts were able to return to brick-and-mortar classrooms full time, other school districts began the year under a hybrid model, which rotates groups of students in person, to accommodate the social distancing requirements.