Like many aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the 2019-2020 school year in Nevada to a screeching halt. Since then, schools have remained silent with teachers and students relying on distance learning to complete the semester. But what about next year? Will schools be ready to reopen in the fall? KUNR’s Paul Boger spoke with Nevada’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Jhone Ebert to get her take on the coronavirus’ impact on schools across the state.
BOGER: Superintendent Ebert, you're the person who oversees the state's public schools. I want to get your take on the transition to distance learning. How did the state do?
EBERT: What's been really exciting is the students themselves really [adjusted] quickly to the distance learning environment, and parents are learning what teachers do on a daily basis, [on an] hourly basis.
Where we've seen inequities and gaps that we need to address within our state is those children that do not, and families that do not, have either internet access or a device at home. Some of the school districts were able to loan devices to children right away. But even if they had devices, we've learned connectivity has been a problem. We've had partners step up and provide Wi-Fi hotspots. We have 145 buses that are actually wired with Wi-Fi in school districts. I've been putting them out in communities, but even with that availability, you're still bringing people into groups and we know we don't want the children interacting with each other and making sure that they're staying safe. So people have been working very hard to create a positive learning environment and to make sure that children have the social and emotional support, first and foremost.
BOGER: Nevada schools got roughly $100 million from the federal government under the CARES Act. Will districts be able to use some of that money to address these issues?
EBERT: You're right. We received just over $117 million. Those dollars will be allocated to the school district based on a funding formula that was already in place based on the Title I funding allocations. Those dollars will be pushed out to the school districts.
What's nice is our elected officials made sure that within that allocation there is a lot of flexibility. If a school district makes a determination that they want to spend all of their dollars on hardware and internet connectivity, they may. If they want to spend dollars on professional development, they may. If they want to spend dollars on wraparound services, mental health and support for students, they may. They may also spend it on cleaning supplies for the school district. The range of options for school districts to use that money is wide. And what I've asked of all of the superintendents and the charter school authority is that before making determinations on how those dollars should be spent, that they involve their community, parents, the educators, school psychologists, classroom teachers, building principals, and the students.
BOGER: The state board of education recently put together a committee to look at what will be needed to officially reopen schools across the state. Can you tell me about that group and the scope of the recommendations you expect to see from them?
EBERT: That group is specifically medical professionals in emergency management. We have the state epidemiologist on that committee. We have the medical health professionals in the North and in the South as well as superintendents on that committee. Every superintendent was offered the opportunity to be on the committee or to designate one of their experts. So you'll see some of their emergency management people on there.
This work that they're doing is on the space of the building - what equitable access to a safe environment looks like. From there, school districts will take that information and do their planning. School districts may make a determination that they want students to continue learning at home for a longer period. Other school districts may decide to, you know, have children come in on Monday and Wednesday, and then other students come in on Tuesday and Thursday to create social distancing. All of those great ideas, which I've heard from parents, from families, from teachers, all of those determinations will be made at the local level. So those determinations will not be made by this committee.
BOGER: This is still really the beginning of all of this. What do you foresee being the future impact of this pandemic on the next school year?
EBERT: What we're calling it is the learning continuum. When the children come back to school, or what schooling will look like in the fall, we are going to need to have an understanding of what the children know at this point in time and are able to do. So they're going to look at their competencies, and what's going to need to happen is, in some instances, the grouping of students will look different than our just chronological age, right? That's how we've been moving students forward. You go from second grade, then [you] go to third and fourth and you keep moving on.
At this point in time, we're really going to use the best things that we know about education to look at each student where they're at. Were they able to continue and go beyond the normal education environment during these last nine weeks, [the] last quarter of school, or they didn't have the opportunity for learning? Some students, it's not that they've lost anything, it's just that they actually haven't been exposed [to the material]. They haven't had the opportunity to learn the material, and so grouping students is going to be a huge task. And then, opening schools and having conversations with the parents about what schooling looks like. Maybe it's a grade 2.5? You know, it's not second grade, it's not third grade, but we're meeting the child where they're at and bringing them up as quickly as possible and making sure that they have the knowledge that we want them to have before moving on in a grade level.