CCSD’s back-to-school plan: Lots of detail, but no particulars

Superintendent Jesus Jara
CCSD Superintendent Jesus Jara at Wasden Elementary School on the first day of the 2020-21 academic year in August. (Photo: Christopher DeVargas / Las Vegas Sun, pool)

The good news? Schools are now required to clean their microwaves.

The bad news? Students, teachers and support staff will actually be on campus to use them.

Except most won’t be allowed to heat up their food.

According to the Clark County School District reopening plan, students are encouraged to eat at their desks. Six feet apart from each other and facing forward. No talking. Or laughing. Laughing may induce spitting. Spitting may spread COVID. 

Good luck with that. Even Miss Trunchbull – the notoriously evil school marm in Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” – couldn’t stop students from tittering in class.

This bit of information is part of an exhaustive 205-page reopening plan put out by CCSD on Nov. 9. That’s when the public, teachers, principals and CCSD Trustees first saw it. Trustees will vote on the plan Thursday evening, Nov. 12.

Really, though, the plan is pretty repetitious. They lay out what they’re going to say. Then they say it. Then they put it in a list. Then they put it in a graph.

There are 10 pages devoted to the details of cleaning. Another 10 are filled with layouts of every possible CCSD classroom by square footage – except for classrooms that are smaller than 900 square feet. Of which there are many. Oh, and 850 classrooms have been identified as being so poorly ventilated they need extra air quality equipment. 

Think about that for a second.

The instructional plan is the same one the Trustees provisionally approved over the summer: Cohort A in school Mondays and Tuesdays; Cohort B in school Thursdays and Fridays. The other days online. Cohort C all online. And Wednesdays would remain as they are now.

The plan says that “class rosters may need to be adjusted to accommodate the differences of students who participate in full-time distance education and balance class sizes to ensure reduced capacity.” Translated into plain English: Many kids will have to change teachers.

“At my school alone, 75 percent of my kids may need to be re-rostered,” one elementary principal told me. If all the third grade teachers opt, say, to teach distance for health reasons, then the in-school cohorts will have new teachers.

Even in high school, said Spring Valley Principal Tam Larnerd, students will have different teachers. That’s assuming they stay. He already has teachers telling him that they intend to take extended sick leave next semester.

Students with disabilities are still screwed. They’ll be in school, but they’ll actually be getting less one-on-one attention than they do now, through distance learning. In fact, this plan specifically says of special needs students, “all services may not be able to be provided in the same manner as typically provided.”

Music will be in the air, as choral classes will be moved outside or in gyms. All wind instruments will be segregated into a separate area of the band room. Students must either push their masks to the side or make a slit so their mouthpiece can fit through the hole – which is not going to make 6th graders titter at all.

But since almost every instrument in a middle or high school band makes sound through blowing, I’m not sure how you can segregate them.

In fact, many of the recommendations in the plan fall apart when you look at implementation.

Those example classroom set-ups? They leave little room for kids to get to and from their desks. If someone in the middle of the room has to go to the bathroom, multiple kids will have to stand to let them pass – like on an airplane. How does this facilitate social distancing?

Students will still use Canvas. Even when they’re in school. That, combined with distancing requirements – and no recess or breaks to play with the dog or Zoom with friends – means they’ll be going to school to sit and stare at their computers for longer than they are staring at their computers now.

Currently, a number of CCSD students use desktop devices at home. Since students are required to bring their computers on days when they’re in school, CCSD will have to issue Chromebooks to those students. There is nothing in the plan that indicates how many Chromebooks the district has left.

One of the reasons given for a return to school is a spike in suicide rates. That’s a red herring. In the first nine months of 2019, there were 11 suicides of CCSD students. That number was 13 in 2020. And even Trustee president Lola Brooks – a staunch ally of Supt. Jesus Jara – said at a meeting last month that there is no evidence distance learning is the reason for the slight uptick. The world has turned upside down. People are out of work. There is lots of uncertainty.

To be fair, suicide rates are strangely hard to get in Clark County. But the idea that there were as many suicides in September 2020 as there were the entire year before just defies logic. If 11 or more kids killed themselves in one month in Clark County, we would be making national news.

And going back to school is likely going to add more stress. “Changing teachers is a big deal,” the elementary school principal said. “How is this good for mental health to take away the handful of constants that have been there?”

The real story, though, is not the plan, it’s why we are talking about returning students to schools as numbers are rising. Gov. Steve Sisolak is threatening a return to mandatory business shutdowns if we don’t bring numbers down by the Monday before Thanksgiving. Supt. Jara announced Wednesday that most personnel will work from home until then. On Oct. 5, we had 337 new cases. On Nov. 7, we had 1,824 new cases in the state, according to the COVID Tracking Project. At the end of May, we were in the 100-200 new cases per day range. And we were shut down. Now we’re considering going back to school?

The answer to this may lie not in the plan, but another agenda item CCSD Trustees are considering Thursday.

The Task Force Initiative for Educator Safety and Screening (or T.I.E.S.) program, is to be administered by the Teachers Health Trust, which is run by the Clark County Education Association.

The COVID testing is voluntary, and will be free to staff and teachers. The cost is covered by $13.2 million in CARES Act funding from the spring.

Here’s the catch: if the money isn’t spent by Dec. 31, it goes away.

Teachers are in buildings beginning Dec. 1. They won’t have time to get their classes ready for January. They’ll still be teaching. But testing will be starting – and presumably the money spent – by the end of the year.

So, are we going back to in-person learning because it’s best for the students or because we don’t want to lose the allocated money?

Larnerd thinks it’s the latter. He predicts that schools will reopen in January and be closed again by February. By then, the CARES Act money will be spent.

Ultimately, Trustees will pass this new hybrid plan, likely in a 4-3 vote – based more on petty infighting than any consideration for students.

COVID, of course, will be the decider, one way or another. What ultimately happens will depend on who’s listening.

(The national suicide hotline number is 800-273-8255. Clark County’s is 702-731-2990. There’s also the Children’s Mobile Crisis Response Team, 702-486-7865)

Carrie Kaufman
Broadcast, digital and print journalist Carrie Kaufman has covered the Clark County School District for public radio and The Nevada Voice since 2015.