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Douglas OKs plan to reopen schools

A line of buses at the Douglas County yard.
Shannon Litz | The Record-Courier

After five hours of presentation, debate and public input Douglas County School Board trustees approved sending a plan to reopen the schools that combines in-person and distance learning to the state.

“We’re going to change this plan umpteen times,” School Board Trustee Keith Byers said on Tuesday, acknowledging that the plan as written will be changed.

District Superintendent Keith Lewis presented the 84-page plan as upward of 300 people listened to the virtual meeting.

“The irony is not lost on me that we’re talking about opening school at a Zoom meeting,” Board President Robbe Lehmann said. However, he pointed out that under the coronavirus mandates there would be no way to accommodate the hundreds of people logged onto the meeting.

Among the challenges the district faces in opening its schools even part time is how to keep safe its 5,455 students and 805 employees.

“Our focus has been to provide the best education we can for students while ensuring we also prioritize minimizing risk to our staff and students,” Lewis said in the forward. “I want to be clear that I do not believe it is in the best interest of our students, staff and families to keep our schools closed completely to in-person instruction.”

The schools were closed with very little notice on March 15 due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Teachers cobbled together curriculums on the fly to work with their students online. That worked for some, but not for others.

School is scheduled to start Aug. 17 in Carson Valley and Aug. 31 at Lake Tahoe, unless something comes along to stop it.

That’s a possibility since Douglas County has experienced an upswing in coronavirus cases since the state opened businesses at the beginning of June.

The number of coronavirus cases from the county has more than tripled since June 1 to 109 as of Tuesday.

Members of the public had concerns about some portions of the plan, including a proposal not to use taking temperatures to screen students.

Dr. David Johnson asked trustees to take temperatures as part of the screening process, saying it only takes a second.

“Taking temperatures is a reasonable measure,” Johnson said. “Students will show up at school with a lot of things that will cause them to have a fever, and COVID is not at the top of that list. The reason to do it is to reduce anxiety in the community that a student could bring home a very serious disease.”

Trustees asked Lewis to re-examine the decision not to screen students and will discuss it in August.

Parents and teachers expressed concerns over an A-B schedule that would have students attend class every other day.

Danielle Frolander-Smith said it will difficult for parents who have to work to have their children in school one day and out the next. Several parents suggested clustering days students attend school instead of staggering them to allow parents more flexibility with their work schedules.

Also at issue was whether to require students 9 or younger to wear masks, which the district said is being sought for teacher safety.

Because of distancing rules, the first challenge to getting students to school is transportation.

The district is encouraging parents to bring their children to school rather than rely on the bus.

To accommodate 6 feet of distance on the bus would reduce their capacity to 17 percent each, and the district doesn’t have enough buses to take even half the students at that rate.

Transportation Director Brian Linford told school board trustees that if the district can load to 50 percent capacity, they could get students to school without affecting four-fifth of the routes.

“Running the buses at half capacity will keep transportation for federal and state mandated programs intact and allow relaxed physical distancing to transport all general education students.”

Face coverings will be required on all buses and school property for staff, students and visitors.

A priority is in-person teaching for students in kindergarten through third grade at the elementary schools.

One of the issues yet to be resolved is just how many parents will send their children to school next month.

Teachers pointed out that a survey conducted in mid-June was taken before the current coronavirus spike and some said they might have given a different answer today.

To accommodate parents who prefer not having their students in school, Director of Curriculum Romy Cronin Mack described Douglas Nevada Online, the district’s new distance learning tool.

She said they are asking parents who want to use the tool to commit for a semester.

The number of parents who avail themselves of that option or who decide to home school will determine the available space for those students who attend school.

Those schools with smaller populations, including Zephyr Cove Elementary and Whittell High schools at Lake Tahoe may be able to fully accommodate in-person learning at all grade levels.

The online option would provide a certified teacher and allow students to work at their own pace.

“Students in secondary schools who use the online option may be able to recover or earn more credit than they would in a traditional mode if they work hard,” according to the plan. “The challenge is keeping students and staff safe while making sure they have equitable access to instruction.”

Lewis said the plan will need to allow schools to pivot between in-person and distance learning as conditions change.

“There will be active cases of coronavirus in Douglas County when school opens and through the school year,” he said. “The goal of the plan is to minimize risk.”

School Board trustees are scheduled to meet again on Aug. 11, where they will tie up loose ends before the start of school.