V is for vaccine, D is for delta: Back-to-school is a lesson in uncertainty

Here’s what is known so far about Nevada school districts’ back-to-school COVID plans.

By: - August 6, 2021 5:48 am

The Clark County School District is requiring staff to either submit proof of vaccination or submit to mandatory weekly testing for COVID-19. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)

A national survey commissioned by the National Education Association found that, in late May, 86% of members had received at least one dose of a vaccine. But local data on the vaccination rate of teachers and other education staff has not yet been made available by Clark County School District.

It’s one of many unknowns lingering ahead of the new school year, which begins Monday and will see approximately 300,000 students return to physical classrooms, many of them for the first time since March 2020.

A district spokesperson told the Current on Tuesday that the district did not have data to release yet because its new vaccine policy — which requires staff to either submit proof of vaccination or submit to mandatory weekly testing outside their contracted hours — was less than a week old and the platform for submitting proof had been up only days.

Still, CCSD’s vaccination policy is more proactive than other districts within Nevada. Washoe County School District is not tracking the vaccination status of its employees, according to the Reno Gazette Journal, and will only ask for proof of vaccination in the event of an outbreak when testing would be required.

Nationally, other large school districts are requiring K-12 school staff be vaccinated or tested weekly. They include New York City and Los Angeles teachers within the largest and second largest school districts in the country.

It is widely believed that educators have a higher rate of vaccination than other professions such as police officers and prison guards, two groups who have come under criticism recently for low vaccination rates. U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a White House press briefing Thursday said “about 90% of educators across the country are vaccinated.”

But even with a high vaccination rate among educators, parents have concerns. The emergence of the more transmissible delta variant, reports of troubling rises in the number of pediatric infections, and breakthrough cases infecting vaccinated individuals has some parents worried about sending their children — many of whom are too young to be vaccinated — into a district with aging buildings and the largest class sizes in the nation.

O is for online learning

CCSD in July announced that only 5% of registered students had opted for full-time distance learning. Parents were asked to opt in to full-time distance learning by May 21. But on Tuesday, Superintendent Jesus Jara said individual schools and the central office were in the process of evaluating new requests from parents whose preferences may have changed since then.

The district operates a fully online school, Nevada Virtual Learning Academy. A letter from NVLA Principal Michael Martin posted online notes that enrollment at the school ballooned from 450 full-time students last school year to nearly 4,000, as of Tuesday.

“We continue to accept hundreds of new students daily,” the letter continued.

Martin said the school does not have a waitlist and will continue to enroll students as applications come in, but he cautioned that it would take time. New students would unlikely be set up by Monday, the first day of school.

Additionally, a dozen brick-and-mortar district schools are providing an online option this year. Those schools were selected based on demand and buy-in from staff.

Enrollment throughout the district is ongoing, and the official numbers used to determine funding levels for the district and its individual schools are not determined until September. However, the district’s overall enrollment is expected to fully rebound this upcoming year, after dipping last year because of the pandemic, say officials.

Similar to last school year, each CCSD student is expected to have access to a district-issued Chromebook. That should make another pivot to remote learning possible in the event of mandatory quarantines or mass closures. But what those scenarios look like in practice will likely vary by school.

As for what might trigger classroom or school closures, district officials have said only that they will work with local health officials to determine the appropriate protocols. The CDC has released extensive guidance on school operations as part of an overall effort to return (and keep) children in physical classrooms. That guidance takes into consideration myriad factors, including the ability to socially distance and the presence of other mitigation measures, such as face masks.

M is for masks

This week, Gov. Steve Sisolak issued an emergency directive requiring all K-12 school staff across the state to wear face coverings while inside school buildings, regardless of their vaccination status.

As for students, the rules are less uniform. When on school buses, all students must wear masks. When indoors, the rules on masks vary by county. Students in Clark and Washoe counties are required to wear masks when inside schools, regardless of their vaccination status. In the state’s 15 other counties, mask policies for students are still up to districts or schools, though they must comply with any applicable state or local directives.

Sisolak’s latest directive also requires weekly testing of unvaccinated students, staff and volunteers who travel to other schools or venues outside of the county for athletics or activities.

Currently, Covid-19 vaccines are available for people aged 12 and up. The 12 to 17 age group has a low rate of vaccination compared to older age groups. Public health officials urge parents to get their child vaccinated.

Pfizer is expected to request emergency authorization for children aged 5 to 11 this fall.

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April Corbin Girnus
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. 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 two mutts.