Clark County School District on Friday detailed plans for the summer, including distance-learning options for students and safety precautions for any employees whose jobs require them to return to buildings once they reopen in phase 1. But there are scant details on what precautions the district is considering for the 2020-21 academic year, when the masses of students, teachers and staff are expected to return to classrooms.
“We don’t know what the school year will look like,” Superintendent Jesus Jara said in a virtual meeting with the media last week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week drafted guidance for schools set to reopen. The agency recommends schools consider spacing out seatings 6 feet apart, having students eat lunch inside classrooms rather than in a communal cafeteria, and staggering arrival and dropouts to limit direct contact with parents. USA Today reported education leaders across the country are also exploring the possibility of students attending school for two or three days a week and doing the rest of their learning at home, using gyms for classrooms to allow for social distancing, and cleaning shared surfaces more.
Guidance for schools is likely to evolve between now and August 13 when the CCSD school year is scheduled to begin. Still, with experts projecting at least another year before a vaccine might be available to the public, and with businesses readying to open and potentially bringing “a second wave” of patients and deaths, school districts are crafting plans for the fall.
And parents are aware.
“I think we all need to be prepared that we won’t be back to normal in August,” opined one parent on a popular social media group. “I’d love to be wrong but the timeline doesn’t work and we can’t do social distancing. Every scenario described can’t work without more teachers, more classrooms…”
CCSD, like every public agency, is facing budget cuts due to the economic shutdown. Gov. Steve Sisolak last month directed public agencies to prepare for budget reductions for the current fiscal year, and to prepare budgets cuts of up to 14 percent for the next fiscal year, which starts in July.
The district already has some of the largest class sizes in the nation, as well as a teacher shortage that necessitates the heavy use of substitute teachers. Nurses, which CDC guidance notes says will play an important role in reopened schools, are typically shared across multiple locations.
Jara has said he hopes to offset the expected budget reductions with federal money and through returning grant money to the state. The district is slated to receive approximately $75 million from the relief packages already passed by Congress. Last week, Jara signed onto a letter with 61 other superintendents of large urban districts. The letter urges Congress to allocate more than $200 billion to school districts.
“With additional federal funds, America’s public schools will be able to add summer school, expand the school day after reopening in the fall, retain and stabilize our teaching force, address the needs of our most vulnerable students, narrow the digital divide, and having a fighting chance at salvaging the futures of millions of young people,” reads the letter.
When speaking about a potential tranche of federal dollars through an additional stimulus package, Jara characterized it as necessary to minimize the impact of statewide cuts, to stabilize the budget and to address technological needs of students.
One thing Jara has acknowledged publicly is that students will need help catching up academically. When schools closed their doors mid-April, teachers were directed to review already taught material and not teach new material since not everybody has the same access or resources needed to make distance learning viable. That means a quarter of the school year has essentially been lost.
Jara told media last week the district is figuring out how to correct “the COVID slide” — the term being given to the academic setbacks expected as a result of school closures. The concept is based on the “summer slide” that typically occurs between academic years.
“We’ll be looking at standards we may have missed,” he said, “and how do we embed them into the school year.”
Local education advocates say the district knows how to catch students up. The only real issue is whether the district will have the resources to invest in it.
“It’s a lot of what we’ve already been doing but more of it,” said State Education Board member Felicia Ortiz in an interview with the Current last month. “Longer school days. Summer or winter programs. Reading programs. All of the extras that right now only get paid for if you’re one of the schools that qualify (for the Zoom or Victory programs).”
“Ideally we have additional learning time next year,” said education advocate Sylvia Lazos last month. “That’s the ideal. The reality is we’re going to have a budget gap next year and all districts are going to be struggling to provide even the same level of services.”
Both agreed that additional money — not budget reductions — will be necessary if the district wants to catch students up academically.
“If we are going to be serious about it,” added Lazos. “Are we serious? Or are we just going to pretend that somehow teachers can solve it on their own? They don’t have resources and they can’t.”
Jara said he expects to see budget details from the governor this week.