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WCSD Board Of Trustees Proposes COVID-19 Threshold To Close Schools, Some Teachers Protest Reopening

Two people hold signs. One says, “I can teach from a distance but not from a grave,” and “Please don’t kill my wife.”
Lucia Starbuck
KUNR Public Radio
Tessa Gregory (left), an English teacher at Sparks High School, and her husband Eric Horne, protested the reopening of schools before the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees’ first in-person meeting since March, in Sparks Nev., on August 11.";

Many Washoe County teachers and parents protested the reopening of schools before the Board of Trustees’ first in-person meeting since March. Despite the teachers’ pleas, the board confirmed that school will be starting in person on Monday, August 17.

About 100 teachers and parents demonstrated in front of Spanish Springs High School. Their message to the district: Postpone returning to the physical classroom and increase safety measures upon returning.

Some teachers are terrified to return, including Genevieve Dierenga, a science teacher at Wooster High. She’s worried about her husband, who she said is in a high-risk category.

“If I bring COVID-19 back home, I'm going to be a widow,” Dierenga said.

A woman holds a sign with the Titanic labeled as, “WCSD,” and an iceberg labeled, “COVID-19.” The poster says, “Damn the iceberg. Full speed ahead!”
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
Genevieve Dierenga, a science teacher at Earl Wooster High School, protested the reopening of schools before the Washoe County School District Board of Trustees’ first in-person meeting since March 2020, in Sparks Nev., on August 11.

Dierenga has three kids who will go to school remotely this fall. She said she’s been preparing in case she or her husband contract the virus when she returns to school.

“I went to Costco, and we stocked my freezer with $400 worth of food, just in case,” Dierenga said.

She bought that food just in case she and her husband become hospitalized, and their kids have to feed themselves.

This is the second protest to postpone the reopening of schools in Washoe County. The last demonstration took place Thursday, and since then, there has been one confirmed and one suspected case of COVID-19 among staff members at two different schools. Teachers returned to school last week to prepare for reopening.

Natha Anderson, the president of the Washoe Education Association, a teachers union, organized yesterday’s protest.

“We recognize that [seeing children] in person is incredibly important to find out about abuse of our students, especially our elementary school, as well as the psychological things going on, but the safety mechanisms that are currently in place are very difficult to follow,” Anderson said.

Anderson explained what she would need to see in order to consider schools safe.

“I think the first thing is the practicing of mask wearing, making sure that students are, in fact, wearing them,” Anderson said, “Another thing is the social distancing. We need to make sure that that's being practiced, and that's being practically practiced, not just when feasible, it's being practiced.”

Washoe Education Association members have been pushing to postpone school reopening for another nine weeks, but that wasn’t on the board’s agenda last night.

Instead, the Board of Trustees approved a preliminary proposal for a threshold for determining when to close schools.

Under the proposal, all schools in the county would close if two out of three metrics for Washoe County overall are met. Those metrics look at the number of new cases per capita, the county’s case positivity rate and the percentage of cases increased during specific timeframes.

The proposal will be picked up for final approval at the next board meeting at the end of the month.

Nine people in masks sit around a circular table on a stage facing the audience in an auditorium with a few people sitting spaced out in the seats facing the stage.
Credit Lucia Starbuck / KUNR Public Radio
KUNR Public Radio
The Washoe County School District Board of Trustees at their first in-person meeting since March 2020, at Spanish Springs High School in Sparks Nev., on August 11.

Board member Katy Simon Holland emphasized how important it is to have a strict threshold so parents and teachers can know what to expect.

“I think we owe it to be able to transparently tell people this is the status. These are the metrics that will cause us to close,” Simon Holland said.

Board members also mulled over new safety precautions that will be implemented in schools.

Classrooms will be disinfected each night by custodial staff. Teachers will be given soap and water to clean classrooms throughout the day.

Additionally, even though Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a directive stating that middle school students, and below, are allowed to be within three feet of one another, in Washoe County, middle school students will instead have to be six feet apart.

Temperatures will not be taken at school. Students and staff will need to fill out a self-assessment at home for symptoms.

Superintendent Kristen McNeill said the first few weeks back at school will be focused on addressing COVID-19 issues and concerns.

“I want our teachers and principals to not worry about academics during this beginning time. We will get to that place, but now is just a time for schools to welcome their students back in person or in distance,” McNeill said.

As schools reopen, the district is working with Renown Health to help with COVID-19 testing for employees. The board said those results can get turned around in 30 hours. Priority will be for staff who have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus.

About 49,000 Washoe County students will be returning to the physical classroom on Monday, while the families of more than 15,000 students opted for distance learning.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

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Lucia Starbuck is an award-winning political journalist and the host of KUNR’s monthly show Purple Politics Nevada. She is passionate about reporting during election season, attending community events, and talking to people about the issues that matter most to them.
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