After months of back and forth about when students will return to in-person learning, the Clark County School District announced Wednesday that students pre-K through third grade will return to school starting March 1.
The announcement came on the heels of an article in the New York Times that highlighted the number of student suicides in the district since the coronavirus pandemic.
The article has stirred up a lot of controversy.
Some parents argue now is the time to get kids back into classes, where they can socialize, which will ease the psychological strain. Others say the district should wait until the vaccine is more widespread.
Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara told KNPR's State of Nevada that he can't definitively link the number of student suicides directly to the pandemic, but he believes there is a connection.
He's basing that belief on what he has witnessed. He said a month ago he substitute taught an honors biology class to get an idea of how things were going.
"All you see is phone numbers," he said, "Kids chatting, interacting with you through the chat. You're telling me that that's how we're educating kids?"
He said the online platforms make it difficult for teachers to see if a student is struggling because they can't see how they are responding. The superintendent said he is not blaming the teachers, but he does say it is a real problem.
Kathrine Lee, an assistant professor at UNLV's School Psychology program, agreed.
"I think that's the challenge right now," she said, "We literally don't have eyes on them... we see blank screens. We don't see the children. We don't see their eyes. We don't see them taking notes. We don't see when they're confused, and we also don't see when they're struggling."
She said the parents she has talked to have expressed concern about motivation. They report struggling to get their kids to focus or complete their work.
"Development is supposed to be in person for children," Lee said "They're learning about themselves. They're learning about how to be with other kids, and I think they're really missing out on that."
Lee said the socializing aspects of school are especially important for middle and high school students. She said it is during those grades that children shift from learning through their families to learning from their peers. It is also when they begin to figure out who they are.
With so much riding on those school years, many people have asked why the youngest children are going first. Jara said early childhood education like learning to read has to be done face to face.
"That's why for me, and the decision that we agreed upon, is to start slow and small with our youngest kids that need that social interaction with their classroom teacher," he said "That's why we're starting there."
Lee agreed that learning reading and early math skills at a young age is vital. She also said that children who miss that can eventually have their learning curve impacted.
One solution to mental health issue created by the pandemic is increasing the number of school psychologists. Lee said the ratio should be 1 school psychologist for every 500 students.
While Jara supports the idea of hiring more psychologists for students, he does point out that state funding is going to be a problem. In addition, the school district has a number of priorities that need to be addressed - school psychologists are among them.
John Vellradita is the executive director of the Clark County Education Association. He also supports more psychologists in schools, but he notes there are two fundamental problems with achieving that goal. First is the funding, and the second is the workforce.
"We have a shortage. We have a national pipeline shortage starting with classroom educators and all these other licenses professionals," he said, "Even if we had the money and the resources, we still would not be able to fill the kind of positions that we need to fill at the levels we need to fill."
He said it is not flipping a light switch and filling schools with mental health professionals.
While adding more psychologists is an issue that remains to be addressed, the return to school now has a date. March 1 is when children pre-K through third grade will have the option to return, Jara said.
He is encouraging parents to fill out the CCSD survey about hybrid learning so they can start to figure out bus schedules, staffing levels and a lot more.
With that announcement on Wednesday, came hundreds of questions, said Rebecca Dirks Garcia, the president of the Nevada PTA and the administrator of a CCSD parents Facebook page.
"With the hybrid return, when it got posted last night that it's March 1, we have already compiled over three pages of questions from parents that they don't have an answer to, and yet, as the superintendent said, we're expected to give an answer by tomorrow," she said, "And yet the district hasn't provided those answers."
Some of the questions included whether teachers would be changing, would the after-school program Safe Key be available, what would be the procedures for days kids weren't in school and what are the procedures for bathroom breaks and lunch.
Jara said all of those questions are good questions. He advised parents to contact their school and their school principal directly. In addition, he pushed back on the idea that the district hadn't provided that information.
It is not just parents who have questions about returns. It is also teachers. One of the biggest questions for teachers is whether they will be required to return to in-person learning.
Vellradita said parents need to fill out the survey so the district knows how many students are returning and how much staff they will need.
"We are clearly serving, right now, educators that want to go back and those that do not want to go back," he said, "Once we know what the parent population is that says they want students in the building, we can put together appropriate staff complement to match it."
Vellardita said there are teachers who have legitimate concerns about their health or the health of their families. However, others want to return to an actual classroom.
"There is a growing number of educators, after several months of this school year and the tail end of last school year, that have concluded that this distance learning model isn't sustainable to teach a kid," he said.
He said those teachers want to return, but they want to return safely. Vellradita said the agreement the union worked out with the district addresses those safety concerns.
Besides safety protocols, the union and the district are also working closely with Clark County and Commission Chair Marilyn Kirkpatrick to get educators and school staff vaccinated.
"We understand that the capacity on a daily basis would be maybe a minimum of 1,000 vaccinations," he said, "So, we're confident that this is going to be executed because we know that it's in the hands of a very confident and committed elected official."
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