Schools grapple with how to safely reopen this August

photo of girl watching computer
Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

The opening of a charter school has been delayed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, underscoring just how monumental the task of operating schools this fall is.

Las Vegas Collegiate was on track to open this August but leadership informed the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority board on Friday it will be deferring opening until the 2021-22 academic year. Founder and Executive Director Biante Gainous told the charter school board the evolving nature of the pandemic and related safety guidelines has put the proposed elementary school in a position where it is not confident it will be able to keep its promise of safety and academic learning.

“As a new school we want to make sure we are prioritizing our most important stakeholder. That is children,” said Gainous. “The best way to do that is we can start on solid ground that is not amidst a pandemic.”

Gainous continued, “We want to sit on the side of caution to make sure we do what is best for families.”

Jill Schreidl, who chairs Las Vegas Collegiate’s board of directors, added that the elementary school environment is distinct from higher grade levels. “We’re starting with the littlest people who do not understand social distancing. Personal space is not a thing in kindergarten. That presents an additional challenge when it comes to school safety.”

Charter school board chair Melissa Mackedon said the news was heartbreaking but called Las Vegas Collegiate wise for making the “tough, tough call.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last month issued guidance for the reopening of schools. It includes recommendations such as spacing students 6 feet apart within classrooms and buses, staggering arrivals and dismissals in order to reduce crowd sizes, closing communal spaces like cafeterias or playgrounds, and minimizing use of shared objects such as pencils, books or computers.

Additionally, schools across the country are grappling with how they can be prepared to transition to entirely remote learning should schools be abruptly shut down again. When Clark County School District had to do so in mid-March, Superintendent Jesus Jara candidly told the board the district could not guarantee that learning would continue through the pandemic — and for many students it didn’t.

The “distance learning” requirements established by the Nevada Department of Education were minimal, and the levels of engagement differed dramatically by school and by teacher.

Looking ahead to next academic year, the expectations will be different. Everyone knows a second wave may be possible, particularly if COVID-19 has a seasonal element the way the flu does.

Gov. Steve Sisolak during a Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce event last month said school operations will likely look different county by county, but he emphasized that “kids have to learn something,” even if they are at home.

“You can’t be homeschooled and nothing happens for a year,” he said. “Kids need to benefit.”

Las Vegas Collegiate has the option to delay its opening, existing schools do not.

CCSD has formed a 31-member working group focused on reopening schools. It also conducted a survey to gauge concerns about the reopening of schools and support for mitigation methods. Some of the options in that survey included: making no changes to the school day or year, implementing a year-round calendar, beginning blended learning with half-days being in person, blended learning with certain days of the week being in person, blended learning with certain weeks being in person, or full-time distance education.

Upwards of 90,000 responses had been received as of Friday. The input from the survey and the working group will be given to “subject matter experts” and funnelled through several layers of district leadership before ultimately making it to the Board of Trustees for consideration.

Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden told the charter school board on Friday that all of the schools it oversees have created — or are in the process of creating — working groups similar to CCSD. They have encouraged family input.

Mater Academy Lead Principal Renee Fairless told the Current she is intrigued by survey results from schools in other states that suggest parents begin to feel comfortable leaving their children home alone at around age 11 or 12. That might lend itself to a solution where the grades applicable to those ages and older embrace distance learning while younger kids are taught in-person with stringent safety and social distancing precautions.

Mater is conducting its own survey to gauge the needs and desires of its families.

CCSD top officials and education advocates have noted that, in addition to implementing safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff, schools will also need to wrestle with catching students up academically since approximately a quarter of the school year was effectively lost due to the statewide shutdown.

All of these tasks will be exacerbated by budget issues that have already begun hitting state and local budgets and will continue into the next fiscal year.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.