Pandemic Chronicles: COVID as a classmate?

teachers object to reopening schools as virus cases surge in nevada

PHOTO/KRISTEN SCHOENMANN DE HAAN: Washoe County teacher Jacquie Wiebe outside the Legislature's special session in Carson City last week. Teachers want to get back into classrooms, but want to be sure they and the students are safe.
UPDATE, Aug. 6: The Washoe Education Association, a teachers' union, has filed an OSHA complaint with the State of Nevada’s Industrial Relations Office requesting an investigation of the Washoe County School District for unsafe working conditions. The district decided to reopen schools over the objections of the county health officer. In a statement, the district called the WEA's complaint “inappropriate and unfortunate” and wrote “it is not supported by facts. The District’s reopening plan meets or exceeds all directives established by Gov. Sisolak.”

When Washoe County schools open their doors Aug. 17, COVID-19 will be accompanying students, teachers and staff members into classrooms.

Washoe County School District Board of Trustees members said they balanced risks of reopening against the negative aspects of remaining closed. Last week, against the advice of health officials and employee unions, the board unanimously decided to stick to its plan to open the district’s 65 elementary schools to in-person instruction. They also approved, by a 6 -1 votes, hybrid in-person/online education plans for middle and high school students. Trustee Katy Simon Holland was the only member to oppose both plans.

Teachers interviewed by the Reno News and Review last week after the school board meeting were dismayed that the district is going ahead with its reopening plan at the same time COVID-19 cases are spiking in Nevada and elsewhere around the nation.

“It’s incredible; it makes no sense,” said an elementary school teacher. She and other teachers interviewed asked not to be identified so that they could speak freely and avoid retaliation from the district.

“It’s not a plan at all,” she said. “It’s just a matter of saying let’s make some safety measures, open at the height of a pandemic and see what happens. Of course we’ll have the virus spreading at school and in the kids’ homes. How many sick kids are acceptable? How many sick adults? How many deaths? What kind of a cluster of cases would it take for a school to be closed?… They are playing roulette with people’s lives.”

District: plans will be complete prior to Aug. 17

The district has about 64,000 students and 8,000 teachers and staff. Some teachers will return to schools while others will teach via the district’s online option, North Star. It’s impossible to predict how many cases of the virus will develop and how it may spread in a school setting or outward into the community. The school district’s “frequently asked questions” in its reopening plan online says that if “a student tests positive and was at school while infectious, only those students and personnel who were exposed would be asked to quarantine.”

Teachers said they worry that test results are often slow and contact tracing isn’t up to the job of following the spread of infections. County health officials last week said the recent surge in cases has overwhelmed both testing and contact tracing efforts. In addition, most of the district’s employees’ questions about the reopening remain unanswered, teachers said.

“It’s a wait-and-see policy for a life-and-death situation,” an elementary school teacher said. “Look at the FAQs and see how many say the district is still working on policies or say things ‘will be decided on a case-by-case basis’… They really don’t have a clue.”

Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick, who last week urged the trustees to reverse their plan to reopen in-person classes, said after the board meeting that there may be “dark days” ahead given the increasing rate of infections experienced in the county last month. July was the deadliest month for virus cases in Washoe County, with 39 deaths in 31 days. There were 15 fatalities in June and 30 deaths in May. The national death toll topped 150,000 during the last week of July and health officials warned that trend is likely to continue.

The board’s decision coincided with a record-setting week of virus cases in the Silver State and Washoe County. As of Aug. 2, the state had 50,205 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with Clark County accounting for 86% of the infections, according to the Nevada Health Response dashboard.  Statewide, 832 deaths related to COVID-19 have been reported. Washoe County so far has tallied 5,293 cases and 114 deaths.

“I know that there was a lot of pressure from the community and the survey results that the school board was receiving,” Dick said in a conference call last week. He noted the community can help stem the spread of the contagion by wearing masks in public, frequently washing hands and social distancing.

“If we can all push hard in this fight, we do have a chance to get our cases reduced before schools open and be in a significantly better position, so I urge everybody to do that so that we can live the lives that we want to have with our economy open and our schools open”

— Washoe County Health Officer Kevin Dick.

If there’s a major outbreak traced to the schools, Dick, as county health officer, has the power to order their closure. He told the school board he is working with district officials to create a contingency plan in case of an outbreak of COVID-19 in one or more schools. Although schools in other parts of the world have reopened without major outbreaks, teachers interviewed pointed out that those countries, unlike the U.S., had the spread of the virus under control and have successful national test-and-trace programs in operation.

Trustees said they had to weigh the danger of the virus against the harm that would result from an extended school closure. The district produced a video, entitled “Safe and Healthy Practices for Reopening Our Schools.”

Although the district is still figuring out many specifics of the reopening plans, it says on its web page that conditions in schools will be as safe as possible when the doors open Aug. 17. The district also is asking parents to “self-screen” their children for virus symptoms each day before sending them off to school. A checklist is available online.

“When I started thinking about all the other elements of safety for our students and mental health for our students, it really became a decision where I had to go off the issues and concerns I know to exist in the distance learning environment that we would especially face for our elementary school students.”

— Washoe County School Board of Trustees President Malena Raymond

Social distancing limits reduced to 3 feet

Some teachers interviewed also were taken aback by Gov. Steve Sisolak’s decision last week to change the minimum physical distancing requirements from six to three feet for preschool to middle school students. The teachers noted that while children who test positive for the virus are more likely to be asymptomatic or experience only mild symptoms, they still can transmit the infection to adults who may have much greater risk factors for the illness.

Children younger than 10 may be less susceptible to infection, scientists theorize. But some studies indicate that children older than 10 may get infected at rates similar to adults. Middle school students generally range in age from 11 to 14 years old. Under the district’s hybrid plan, middle school students will be in their school buildings two or three days a week and learning from home the remaining weekdays.

“I’m sick not only about the decision the school board made to reopen, but with Sisolak’s announcement that the new standard in social distancing for K-8 is three feet,” said a middle school teacher. “…The latest I’ve read is children up to 10 don’t transmit the disease as readily as older children. Not 12; not 14. In the beginning Sisolak was being cautious and seemed to care about keeping teachers and staff members alive. What the heck happened?”

Some teachers said that the original six-foot distancing standard, which still will apply to high schools, was unworkable in most elementary and middle school classrooms due to overcrowding. “So they did what they always do, move the goalposts instead of dealing with the problem,” said another middle school teacher. “Now they can jam in 20 or 25, maybe 26 or more instead of 15 or so… I don’t even want to think about the hallways. Six feet is maintainable. Three feet is too close a call.” 

One elementary school teacher said she agrees with the decision to open elementary schools because younger children don’t fare well with online classes and keeping them at home also has risks. She cited the CDC’s opinion that extended school closures can be harmful to children.  But she said if clusters of students or staff test positive for the virus, schools should be shut down quickly before the situation runs rampant.

Bill would grant districts immunity from liability

UPDATE: AUG. 6, The Legislature carved out an exemption for schools in the immunity from liability bill, which will become law. Other employers, however, are protected from lawsuits under the measure as long as they "substantially followed" safety directives aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Another sore point for teachers is a legislative proposal that would grant businesses, governments and schools immunity from liability for death or injury stemming from COVID-19 if the employers “substantially followed directives aimed at preventing the spread” of the virus. A bill with that language is expected to be introduced in this week’s special session of the Legislature, according to the Nevada Independent.

“That’s really a slap in the face,” a special education teacher said. “(They are telling us) it’s safe to open, but don’t blame us if you get sick from doing your job. The union told us not to sign (liability) waivers, so now they want a law to protect them from accountability. It’s disgusting.”

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