Along with the usual challenges of a new school year, 2020 is adding one for the history books.
To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Clark County School District starts Monday with online-only classes.
"We're ready," Superintendent Jesus Jara told KNPR's State of Nevada, "We're going to open up virtually, online. I can tell you we're ready because I believe in the 42,000 employees in the Clark County School District that are going to do the best they can for our students."
Jara said he has been visiting schools and there is an excitement in the air for the beginning of school, but it is different than excitement he normally sees when classrooms are full of students ready to get back to school.
The School Board will get a report on the cases every 30 days and plans may change depending on virus numbers. Jara said the decision to reopen in-person learning will depend on health data, and he's not sure when that will be.
"We need to see a positivity rate that is really low," he said, "There are some states, some districts that are looking at... if a consideration to open is below a 5 percent, and we're not even close to that yet."
According to the state Department of Health and Human Services, the test positivity rate in Nevada is at 10.5 percent, and in Clark County, the positivity rate is 11.7 percent.
Jara said there is no way to know when test positivity rate or other virus indicators will go down, but he has a lot of faith in CCSD staff to get through this challenge.
Students get a lot more than just an education and social interaction at schools. Thousands of students rely on free or reduced-price meals through the school.
The district is still waiting for federal waivers to provide meals at distribution points. But even without the waivers, 67 percent of the district’s students — more than 200,000 students — will be getting those meals.
Jara said the district is working to expand food distribution sites from 40 to 320. Students will have to be with a parent to pick up meals and they will have to show identification and verification that they are part of the program.
However, students don't have to go to their designated school. If an elementary school student lives closer to a high school, that child can go to the high school to pick up food.
"We're not going to let a kid go hungry," Jara said, "We're going to do whatever it takes to get our kids fed as we have all spring and summer. We're partnering with Three Square and some of the other community partners to help us through this process."
CCSD is using a new learning platform for students. Jara said district leadership has talked with the teachers union about their concerns with the program.
He said the district will work to improve communication about the new platform and increase training on how to use it.
Despite those concerns, Jara said he is confident about next week.
"We're normally worried about the A/C, worried about the building space, the busses. Now we're worried about the technology, which is something we can't control," he said, "We are putting all our experts to make sure that when all 18,000 educators turn the switch on... that it's ready."
The superintendent said they've been testing the technology and they've activated a command center, so on Monday morning if anything goes wrong tech experts will be ready to help.
Overall, Jara wants teachers and staff to relax, be patient and be flexible.
"Our kids are resilient and flexible and that's what I ask of the adults, to do the same," he said.
One of the biggest challenges for the coming school year is not just the technology but making sure students have access to a device to support the learning platform and access to the internet.
Rebecca Garcia is the president of Nevada PTA. She said a majority of the students in CCSD have the equipment and connections they need; however, she is still getting contacted every day by parents still needing a laptop.
She said families that have been put on a waiting list for a computer should contact their schools again to make sure they get what they need.
Another challenge students and parents may run into is the lack of uniformity when it comes to learning platforms and communication. Some teachers are using apps like Classroom DoJo and Remind but others are going to be using Canvas and Google Classroom.
"That is, I think, one of the things (where) parents were hoping for a little bit more uniformity in how communication was going to be coming from the district," she said, "I think there is some frustration from parents that there's not a single point of communication for all students."
Garcia said in her case she has 16 teachers for her three kids. She admits that communication is going to be a challenge, but like Superintendent Jara, Garcia is confident in the school staff.
"Teachers are amazing. Educators are just problem solvers and their heart is always focused on serving kids," she said, "I know that there has been tremendous efforts to try to make this distance learning process work."
On the parent side of it, Garcia knows it will be a struggle for parents, especially parents who are currently working, to manage their workload and help guide their children through the school work.
"I do have real concerns about how the schedules are going to work for families, especially with multiple children, and ensuring that there is flexibility because this is a really challenging time for families already," she said.
The city of Las Vegas, Clark County and the library system are trying to help parents with a new Vegas Strong Academy. It will be similar to the Safekey after-school program but will be available all day at some libraries and community centers.
Rebecca Colbert is the head of collections and bibliographic services for the Las Vegas-Clark County Library District. She also administers the CCSD parent Facebook page.
She said during the lockdown in the spring a lot of parents were not working at all, so day camps were not as necessary but that has changed.
"When large employers in town would survey their employees, they were worried about losing staff who would have to stay home with their kids," she said, "Some of the larger employers, the county, the library district, have tried to provide space both to help their own staff and then the community."
Colbert said while there are now 45 different day camps open for the school year, she doesn't believe that is nearly enough for the demand.
"There are probably 50,000 children in K through 5 that will need some kind of care provided, and these 45 day-camps can't do it," she said.
Colbert said some parents are putting together learning or child care pods, which are groups of parents that offer to take each other's kids one or two days a week, switching out with other parents within the pod.
But that only works if you trust the parents when it comes to supervision and social distancing.
"It is a stressful time to be a parent," she said, "In one way, the high unemployment rate is probably helping this school year succeed."
In some ways, distance learning comes down to how the student reacts to the situation. Some students might thrive in an online-only situation, while others will suffer.
Meredith Freeman is a member of HOPE for Nevada, a nonprofit focused on public education. She said there are things that help students to be successful in a virtual model.
"I think the biggest thing that families need to remember is that we have to stay positive and flexible, and communicate directly with our teachers to let them know what is and isn't working for our specific children," she said, "Then teachers, being as creative as they are, will be able to help adapt what they're doing to meet our individual students' needs."
Freeman said parents can set up structures to keep their students on task and motivated.
"We as parents are going to have to play a much larger role in motivating our children and helping them to find success and keeping them on task," she said.
Jesus Jara, superintendent, Clark County School District; Rebecca Colbert, administrator, CCSD Parents Facebook group; Meredith Freeman, member, HOPE for Nevada; Rebecca Garcia, president, Nevada PTA
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