A whiteboard on the wall in the office of Dr. Kristen McNeill reminds visitors — and McNeill — to exercise patience and grace each day. The message is likely to be needed in coming months as schools around Nevada work through a multitude of issues to get on their feet after the COVID-19 pandemic, said McNeill, superintendent of the Washoe County School District (WCSD). “We’re using those words — patience and grace — a lot these days,” she said.
As students from kindergarten through high school begin to establish their new post-pandemic routines, top school administrators focus on putting into practice the lessons that they’ve learned in the last year.
“As adults, if we don’t use this pandemic as an opportunity to improve how we educate our students, then shame on us,” said Dr. Jesus Jara, superintendent of the Clark County School District (CCSD).
No one is entirely sure about all the ways that K-12 education will change. But everyone is sure that change is coming.
“The pandemic really taught us that innovation must be the lifeblood of education,” said Kimberly Regan, founder and chief executive officer of Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School in Reno. “There is no going back to the old ways of schooling.”
School of Tech
From the state’s largest school district in Clark County — 320,000 students and 40,000 employees — to single-site charter schools in rural communities, educators said the pandemic gave them greater appreciation for the value of traditional learning systems. That appreciation was accompanied by greater understanding of the capabilities as well as the limitations of technology for remote learning. Administrators now need to figure out what worked during distance education, expand on the successes and fix the weaknesses.
“We can’t go backward now in terms of how technology is used in public education,” Jara said. The challenges of remote learning became apparent early in the pandemic, as administrators learned that thousands of students didn’t have access to the devices or Internet connections they needed.
“Distance education really highlighted the inequity in the community,” Jara explained. “The ability to get a device in the hands of every student that needed it was really a monumental task.”
The community stepped up. Led by partners such as the Connecting Kids Community Task Force, Cox Communications and the COVID-19 Task Force, the Clark County district was able to get devices into the hands of students and get them connected to the Internet.
“The pandemic expedited the process of getting the technology in the hands of all students,” Jara said.
But last spring’s rush to buy computers and other gear to support remote learning planted a time bomb in the finances of schools, McNeill noted. “We know that those devices have a life of three or four years,” she said. “We’re going to need to replace them, and we’re going to need a sustainable funding source to do so.”
Adam Johnson, executive director of Democracy Prep at the Agassi Campus, thinks the replacement cycle could be even shorter, with upgrades required every 18 to 24 months. Faster replacement schedules will add to schools’ financial headaches.
Changing the Way Educators Educate
But hardware and fast connections are only part of the issue. Educators still are sorting through the role of technology and remote learning in post-pandemic schools. For many education professionals and parents, brick-and-mortar schools look better than ever.
“Virtual education is not the most effective way to learn for most students and for most family structures,” said Melissa Mackedon, chief executive officer of Oasis Academy, a K-12 charter school in Fallon. “I hope the impact is that, as communities, we have a greater appreciation for how lucky we are to attend school and prioritize funding those schools.”
McNeill added, “You simply can’t teach classrooms six hours a day in a Zoom session.”
On the other hand, Regan says educational technology opens the door to personalized learning, improved critical thinking and increased self-responsibility among students. “The days where students sit in whole groups and the teacher instructs from the front of the classroom as the expert of knowledge are long gone,” she said. “We are not in the business of mass-producing students as in the industrial era.”
And Johnson noted that technology opens opportunities for very targeted classes. For instance, Democracy Prep — a network of 21 schools across the nation — could offer online classes in subjects such as Korean or high-level calculus that might not have enough enrollment at any single location.
“The pandemic has forced our entire school community to take large strides forward in terms of implementing strong digital teaching techniques,” Johnson said. “I am excited to combine our digital instructional learnings with our tried-and-true, in-person techniques when we return to campus.”
Safe and Clean
Classroom-based learning, however, requires careful analysis — and lots of work — to ensure students are safe. Just to cite one example, Clark County School District swapped nearly 50,000 air filters to improve air flow in schools, and many were upgraded to higher-efficiency MERV-13 filters. Some schools reduced the number of stalls in restrooms. Plexiglass separates some workstations. Hand-sanitizer stations are ubiquitous. Democracy Prep will be upgrading its gym, Johnson says, providing more live-streaming capabilities so that fewer people need to be in the bleachers to enjoy events.
Transportation departments, too, are getting involved. Washoe County school buses travel with open windows and open roof hatches to improve ventilation, and drivers enforce social distancing and mask-wearing.
Charter schools, who don’t have the sources of funds that are available to traditional districts for facilities, often need to find answers that don’t involve renovation of school buildings, said Victor Salcido, executive director of the Charter School Association of Nevada. Some charter schools, for instance, bring only half their students into schools on any given day — allowing better social distancing — while the other half work remotely.
“Every facility has to adapt to doing its job in a different way,” Salcido said.
Computer hardware and HVAC systems may be the easy part of the equation for school officials who are preparing to deal with a wide range of problems faced by students. If nothing else, there are the academic issues that arose during a year that was chaotic at best.
“We almost have had a lost year,” said Salcido. “We want to avoid having a lost generation.”
Closing the academic gap may take a focused effort. “Ideally, each public school would be able to bring a content-specific person on board for the next one to three years whose entire purpose would be to help close that achievement gap for students who have fallen behind,” said Mackedon. “Having that extra layer of intervention and support could be the difference of making up the gap or not for some students.” But she said those positions would require new, earmarked funds.
A particular challenge for teachers, Johnson said, is designing lessons that allow students to catch up at the same time that they’re learning new material. While teachers are accustomed to seeing “summer slide” when students return for a new school year, the pandemic year is all that, and more. And it’s not just lessons that were lost during the pandemic.
The pandemic presented many young students with adult-sized problems, Jara said, and the school district’s professional staff will be working closely with the entire community to help students succeed in the classroom. “We will need to ensure our students are provided with wraparound services including community resources and mental wellness checks,” he said.
That’s the story in Northern Nevada, too. “Mental health will be front and center for us,” said McNeill. “Our students are going to need a tremendous amount of support. Our families have had losses.”
The challenges faced by students and families in a post-pandemic world are no surprise to teams at Communities in Schools (CIS) of Nevada, part of a nationwide organization that brings community resources into schools to prevent dropouts. Those resources can range from tutoring to new shoes, from mental health counseling to a box of groceries for a hungry family.
Communities in Schools works in 75 schools in Nevada — 53 of them in southern Nevada — and it had a waiting list of schools that had requested its services even before the arrival of COVID-19. With pandemic-related closures of the school buildings where Communities in Schools does its work, the organization and its many partners found themselves making more visits to students’ homes to get them the help they needed.
Tami Hance-Lehr, chief executive officer of the Nevada organization, expects the needs will continue to grow even as the nation moves beyond the worst of the pandemic. “Our families were struggling before the pandemic,” said Hance-Lehr. “Now, the needs are the same, but there are more of them.”
For instance, high school students who took jobs to help support their families — or worked more hours to keep families afloat — may have fallen behind schedule on the coursework they need to graduate from high school. Now CIS staff will focus on getting those students back on track. Families whose breadwinners work in low-wage jobs have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and Hance-Lehr said many of them will continue to struggle even if the economy bounces back.
“It’s going to take years for our families to recover,” Hance-Lehr said.
Resilience and Recovery
Even in the very short-term, Mackedon said many students will face adjustments. Some students have been spending excessive time in front of computer screens during the pandemic, and others have gotten accustomed to late-night schedules that won’t work as classrooms get back to normal. But while some adjustments may be necessary, Mackedon said no one knows for certain what psychological issues lie ahead.
“As a community and society, we really don’t know for sure what the mental health fallout is for anyone, adults or children,” said Mackedon. “We have to be nimble and ready to respond to whatever presents itself to us.”
The biggest change that educators see, however, is one that they have the hardest time defining. Somehow, they see a greater spirit of cooperation between schools and communities, a sense of pride among teachers, administrators and students who rose to the occasion when the pandemic crashed over Nevada a year ago.
The 8,000 employees of the Washoe County district have become more skillful communicators, better collaborators, stronger members of teams as a result of the pandemic’s shocks, said McNeill. None of that is likely to go away soon.
“I’ve learned that when facing challenges together, we are a collective force capable of doing hard things,” said Regan. “Our human capacity to pivot and level-up to meet the educational challenges is remarkable.”
Johnson said he’s hopeful that the pandemic’s lessons will inspire Democracy Prep students as they move on to college and careers. “While we would not hope to re-create these circumstances, we would hope to leverage some of this resilience when it comes to preparing scholars for life after K-12 education,” he explained.
Not all of the changes brought by the pandemic are huge — but they’re no less important because they’re small. Because of pandemic requirements at Oasis Academy, for instance, Mackedon began overseeing student drop-off and pickup herself — a task far outside her printed job description. Even as things return to normal, she’ll be out front of the Fallon school at the beginning and end of every day.
“It has allowed me to learn students’ names, meet and greet their parents and start their days off on a very positive note,” she said. “It has allowed me to catch issues early and contact a counselor before a student is even in the doors.”