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Clark County schools will NOT open for in-person learning this fall, opting instead to do distance learning for all students for the first nine weeks of the school year.

Originally, the plan was to have a hybrid model with online learning and staggered in-person learning. There was also an option for online-learning only for students and parents who didn’t feel comfortable in a classroom.

Superintendent Jesus Jara told KNPR’s State of Nevada that changed when cases of coronavirus continued to climb.

“When we started looking at the health data and started looking at the cases going up, here in Clark County especially, it brought pause to say, ‘how can we bring back our educators and our students?’ As that has always been our top priority – the safety and the health of our children and our staff,” the superintendent said.

He said as the cases continued to rise the best solution was to go to an online-only learning model – for now.

Jara was clear that the first nine weeks are the beginning. The School Board will get a report on the cases every 30 days and plans may change depending on those numbers.

“We don’t know where everything is at this point. It could be a semester. It could be the first marking period,” he said.

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The superintendent said if the numbers change the district could move to the hybrid model.

“Eventually, we could be in a Phase 4 in February and March and then everybody is back to school. We don’t know that,” he said, “The plan gives us a pivot point to go back and forth.”

While timelines are still uncertain, one thing Jara was certain about is that the distancing learning this fall will be much different from spring.

“It’s not going to be the crisis we were in. The team has been doing a phenomenal job looking and preparing for distance education,” he said.

District leadership has been meeting with principals about the online-only plan, he said, and when teachers return in August there will be intense training on the new online model.

“There’s going to be assignments. There’s going to be grades. There is going to be accountability for students and for parents,” he said, “We’re putting that system in place and we’ll be sharing that with our educators when they come back.”

One of the biggest concerns about schools not reopening is childcare. Many parents are returning to work and they are worried about who will watch their children while they’re gone.

Jara admits that is one of the biggest challenges left to tackle. He is hopeful that partners in the community will come together to find a solution.

“One of the things that I feel very comfortable to say in this community is people care about our schools, care about our children,” he said, “I think I’ve seen some of the movements in the last 24 hours from this community from our county commission, from our properties. I’ve had conversations with MGM. I’ve had different discussions – how do we then help them. We’re going to come back together and say, ‘How do we help our families as we find a safe place for our kids because people have to work.’”

The superintendent said a plan has not been worked out yet, but he is sure it will be in place by the time students return to school August 24.

The decision to return was not just about parents and students but also about teachers. John Vellardita is the executive director of the Clark County Education Association, which represents teachers in Clark County.

He said there was a fear among many educators about returning to the classroom, and now, after the school board’s decision this week there is a sense of relief.

“Safety is a priority in terms of the decision that superintendent and the school board made,” he said, “I know it reflected the results of a survey we took of over 11,000 educators that basically said: ‘We don’t feel it is safe to go back but we want to educate, we want to teach.”

Vellardita said people understand that distance learning is the new model – at least for now – and they’re ready to move forward with it.

However, he admitted the teachers he has talked to have been a little surprised and frustrated by the reaction from some parents to the plan. He noted that at the beginning of the lockdown teachers were being heaped with praise because parents got a glimpse of what full-time teaching was like, but now, the demands from some parents that teachers go back – no matter the risks – were surprising.

“I think it's taking some of our folks a little by surprise that’s there’s been this kind of swing,” he said, “From our perspective, it’s normal given the circumstances that people have these very emotional and very passionate positions right now.”

Vellardita said there is a lot of conflict among teachers because working with kids and being in a classroom has been their lives’ work.

“Teachers want to teach. They really do,” he said, “They’re very conflicted about carrying out what their passion is, which is to affect the lives of children, and at the same time, do it under these ever-changing circumstances.”

He said teachers want to do this the “right way,” both in terms of effective education and safety.

In the middle of the debate about how to open schools safely, as been a controversy surrounding Superintendent Jara.

Earlier this month, Gov. Steve Sisolak and Nevada Dept. of Education Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert released a strongly worded statement calling Jara “dishonest” in connection with Assembly Bill 2.

The bill would have allowed the district to take back money from individual schools to pay for district-wide budget shortfalls. The bill never went anywhere during the special session, but it was strongly criticized by lawmakers.

Now, the school board has called a meeting to discuss whether to terminate Jara’s contract.

Jara told KNPR’s State of Nevada that he will remain focused on Southern Nevada students and how to safely reopen schools.

“This political football – or whatever it happening – I stay because there are so many of the 320,000 students that I’m serving that continues to be my focus and it will be my focus until that last day I’m here,” he said.

Vellardita had a stronger response to the controversy. He said the whole thing is a distraction at a time when the district is dealing with budget cuts and safety concerns from COVID-19. In addition, he questioned the motivation for it all.

“This matter we think is driven by a political agenda,” he said, “We think it is actually good now that there is going to be a meeting because we’re going to be very vocal about what the backstory is on AB2. As well as, the political agenda that is being driven to get rid of Superintendent Jara.”

He said people don’t know all of the facts about the controversy. He refused to say what those facts were but welcomed the chance to explain them during the meeting scheduled for July 29.

“This story has been blown way out of proportion and the calling for his removal from the school district superintendent’s job is absolutely ludicrous,” he said.

Guests

Jesus Jara, superintendent, Clark County School District; John Vellardita, executive director, Clark County Education Association

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