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Washoe school superintendent recommends switch to distance learning

Updated November 19, 2020 - 7:10 pm

The Washoe County School District Superintendent is recommending a switch to distance learning in early December due to a lack of additional COVID-19 contact tracing and testing capacity.

Superintendent Kristen McNeill is recommending the district shift to fully distance learning beginning Dec. 7, with an anticipated return to the in-person and hybrid models Jan. 19, according to school board meeting materials posted online.

School trustees could vote during a meeting that begins at 4 p.m. Tuesday at Hug High School in Reno.

McNeill cites the lack of an “immediate influx of support in the form of additional contact tracing support and additional testing capacity” as the reason for her recommendation, according to meeting materials.

In a Thursday statement, she said: “We know that in-person learning is the best option for most students, and we have made every effort to accommodate the desires of our families and students during this challenging time by offering learning options. But due to a lack of community resources, WCSD is forced to make this heart-wrenching recommendation to the Board of Trustees.”

The school district — which covers the Reno area and has about 62,000 students and 8,000 employees — is operating this school year with full-time in-person classes for elementary schoolers, and under a hybrid model for middle and high schoolers. About one-third of its students have opted for fully distance learning.

McNeill’s recommendation comes as a fall wave of COVID-19 cases are hitting record-breaking levels. Nevada reported more than 2,400 new cases Thursday. And Gov. Steve Sisolak said Wednesday he’ll announce new mitigation measures “very soon” aimed at helping stop the spread of the virus.

McNeill is also recommending the school board modify this school year’s calendar “using some or all of the currently scheduled spring break to offset days of instruction impacted by the shift to distance learning” and to postpone winter sports — and possibly all sports for this school year.

If the school board approves her recommendation, Washoe County School District students would stay in the current learning models during the week after Thanksgiving and the time would “allow schools and families to prepare for the move to full distance learning,” according to meeting materials.

The Washoe County Health District publicly recommended this summer that schools not reopen with in-person classes. In a Thursday statement, District Health Officer Kevin Dick said: “We applaud the Washoe County School District for making the recommendation to go to full distance learning. We know that this is a very difficult decision to make in light of the importance of education and other nutrition and social services that the School District provides. We support the recommendation based on the rapid rate of community spread that is occurring in Washoe County, as we hit a record for new cases in one day yesterday with 610. We believe that distance learning is the safest path forward for WCSD students, faculty and staff.”

As of Thursday, the school district has reported 152 student COVID-19 cases and 104 employee cases impacting a total of 81 schools since March. And 1,578 people have been listed as exclusions, meaning they were a close contact of a confirmed case.

Currently, 11 schools are already operating under full distance learning temporarily due to reasons such as to allow more time for contact tracing, or a large number of student or employee exclusions.

Teachers have shown up at school board meetings for months to voice their concerns with holding in-person classes. And dozens of educators protested in August outside Spanish Springs High School in Sparks.

The Clark County School District has operated under distance education since school began in late August. Superintendent Jesus Jara announced Monday that classes will remain in that format for the rest of this semester and a plan to transition to some in-person classes will come to the school board in January.

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.