The Clark County School District is looking to implement a “test to stay” program when in-person classes resume Wednesday.
Monica Cortez, assistant superintendent of the student services division, made the announcement during a Thursday night School Board meeting at Valley High School in Las Vegas.
The strategy, which has been supported by the federal government, is already being used in a number of other school districts across the country.
It’s designed to keep more students and employees in school buildings if they test negative for COVID-19 and don’t have symptoms after they’ve been deemed a close contact with a confirmed case.
The school district, which has more than 300,000 students and 40,000 employees, announced Tuesday it’s taking a “five-day pause” because of “extreme staffing shortages” spurred by a surge of COVID-19 cases.
Students will only miss two days of school as it’s already a long holiday weekend. And they will make up those days Feb. 7 and April 25.
Superintendent Jesus Jara said Thursday he appreciates the School Board’s leadership as the district takes a five-day pause.
“This is not a closure of our schools,” he said, calling it a pause “so we can catch our breath.”
A school year calendar amendment will come to the School Board at its next meeting and will be submitted to the state, Jara said.
As for the “test to stay” program, Cortez said there’s “extremely strict criteria” for which employees and students can participate, noting the exposure must only occur in a school setting.
It’s a voluntary program and if someone doesn’t want to participate, they’ll be quarantined for five days, Cortez said.
Once an employee or student is notified of their exposure, they have 24 hours to test, Cortez said. As long as they’re asymptomatic and test negative, they’re able to be at school.
They must test every other day until day seven, she said. And if someone misses a test, they’re discontinued from the program and must quarantine.
If they test positive at any point, they go into isolation, Cortez said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as the state, has been clear that the “test to stay” strategy is about keeping students in school for instruction purposes only and isn’t applicable for students to do after-school activities and athletics, she said.
The district is confident it will have enough rapid tests, which will be used for the “test to stay” program, Cortez said.
She also pointed to recent expanded capacity at community testing sites.
Trustee Lola Brooks expressed appreciation of Cortez’s work. She said parents and employees are frustrated about the phone hold times while trying to get through to COVID-19 hotlines to report cases, exposures and possible symptoms. “We are just in a difficult moment.”
The district recently opened online forms, one for employees and one for parents, for those who aren’t able to get through the phone line.
The intent is to transition back by Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday to the standard procedure of answering just phone calls, Cortez said, depending on where the district stands in addressing those requests.
In December, she added, the waiting time on the phone lines was rarely longer than 20 minutes.
More than 250 workers in health services will continue to be on the job during the five-day pause, with the exception of Monday, which is a holiday, Cortez said.
As of Thursday night, the district had received more than 8,400 parent requests and more than 4,300 employee requests since Saturday morning, she said.
Cortez said she feels comfortable saying that by the end of the day Tuesday, staff will have addressed everyone they possibly can.
The school district updated its quarantine and isolation guidance in late December to align with new CDC recommendations, which generally shortens the amount of time that people need to be in isolation or quarantine.
The revised document states students and employees “may or may not” be quarantined if they’re determined to be in close contact of someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.
Those decisions are made on a case-by-case basis using factors such as vaccination status, consistent mask use or a previous infection within the last 90 days.
During their meeting Thursday, the School Board also voted 6-0 to approve memorandums of agreements with employee unions to provide a retention bonus of up to $2,000 for each full-time worker. Trustee Lisa Guzman abstained because of her employment with the Nevada State Education Association.
As of Jan. 1, employees are slated to receive $1,000, followed by an additional $1,000 if they’re still on the job May 25.
To pay for the bonuses, the district is setting aside about $66 million in federal coronavirus relief money.
Trustees also unanimously approved 2021-23 agreements between the school district and two employee unions — the Police Officers Association of the Clark County School District and the Police Administrators Association of the Clark County School District.
Both contracts include a 3 percent cost of living adjustment, a 5 percent increase in insurance contribution per year and a handful of other changes.
During its approximately two-hour meeting — a much shorter session than usual — the School Board heard public comments, many of which were related to the five-day pause, staffing shortage or working conditions.
Kelly Edgar, a teacher in the district for nearly 24 years, said she’s concerned about the staffing shortage. She said colleagues have left the district because they’re overwhelmed.
Educators are simultaneously addressing learning loss, social-emotional needs of students and large class sizes, Edgar said.
She said teachers are also expected to be students’ parents, and are no longer able to hold students or their parents accountable for their behavior.
Teachers are exhausted from the burden, she said, noting they’re also often substitute teaching for other classes using their prep periods. “I don’t blame teachers for quitting.”
Erin Phillips, president of the Power2Parent organization, urged the district to keep schools open after the five-day pause.
She raised concerns about emocha Mobile Health, which teachers use to fill out a daily symptom monitoring tool. If they answer questions in a way that indicates they have possible COVID-19 symptoms, their account is flagged and they can’t return to work until they’re cleared.
Healthy teachers are being kept at home because they can’t get clearance to get back to work, Phillips said.
She also said the mental health of students is in danger and the inconsistency of wondering if schools are going to shut down is “so damaging to our kids.”
A student at East Career & Technical Academy said he was a sophomore when the district switched to distance learning due to the pandemic and it felt like an easy vacation at first.
During his junior year, he lost motivation and his grades plummeted to “D”s and “F”s — down from “A”s and “B”s before, he said. He added he’s now a straight “A” student since classes are back in person.
The student — who said he’s a construction major at his high school and has been accepted into UNLV’s School of Architecture — asked for the district to at least allow students to do hands-on work in their program classes if distance learning happens again.
Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.