Education in Nevada has long been plagued by lower-than-average graduation rates and test scores. The coronavirus pandemic has only added to the state’s education woes. Leaders in education have the difficult task of improving rankings while creatively overcoming issues brought to the forefront by the pandemic. Recently these leaders met in a virtual roundtable, hosted by City National Bank, to discuss education and how the state can improve.
Connie Brennan, publisher and CEO of Nevada Business Magazine, served as moderator for the event. These monthly roundtables bring together leaders from different industries to discuss relevant issues and solutions.
What Impact is COVID Having on Education?
Jesse Welsh: The biggest challenge facing us right now is COVID and how it’s impacting everything we’re doing. It has opened up some opportunities for more online and hybrid learning models, which is probably a good thing. It’s not just the daily efforts to try to mitigate some of the medical impacts of COVID, but [it’s also] some of the ways politics is playing into the schools as well. We had some parents who pulled two kids out of the school system when the state started to mandate masks, that’s across all public schools at this point. They basically chose to home school. We’re seeing some of that going on right now, in terms of the data. There’s some parents, with all this stuff going on with COVID, that just decided to hunker down, home school and come back when it all blows over.
Shelley Berkley: The pandemic is front and center right now. Delivering educational services to these youngsters is much easier when you’re doing what I’m doing [in higher education] than if you’re in K – 12. My daughter-in-law is a teacher of three- and four-year-old deaf children in the Clark County School District. Trying to educate three- and four-year-olds that can’t hear virtually is not possible. There are a lot of little ones that are being left behind, and it’s going to be very hard to catch up the longer this pandemic and restrictions continue.
Roxanne Stansbury: One thing we’ve really learned from the pandemic is that the competencies we always say our students need for the future became a reality for teachers when they had to immediately shift to online education. The teachers who we saw rise to the surface were those who were able to exercise flexibility and to think creatively and innovate.
Dr. Melody Rose: We all went into this pandemic with some pre-existing conditions in higher education. This is not Nevada specific, but it certainly affects us. Our industry is going through a tremendous transformation. There are alternate sources of education popping up in everything from the for-profit online institutions to corporate America. [The latter] is stepping into the breach and providing workforce development where they feel traditional higher-ED has moved too slowly. We also have some significant challenges to our business model around affordability and debt management, and we have some equity challenges as well.
Dr. Keith Whitfield: Here [at UNLV] we are an urban research university. What that means is things that happen in our community directly impact and affect us. COVID, of course, was significant. We did [classes] last year with an 80/20 split, 80 percent remote and 20 percent in person. We’ve switched that now to 60 percent in person and 40 percent remote. Normally, we’d have about 90 percent [of students] in person and 10 percent doing some kind of online [classes]. It speaks to Chancellor Rose’s point that online education has been there before the pandemic Making that shift was still a big challenge. A lot more instructors were teaching in a remote or online format. I’m at one year in about three weeks on the job; I started during the pandemic. One of the things that was an easy switch for me was, we held the same kinds of priorities that I had when I was working a position in Detroit. [Those priorities were] that student, faculty, staff safety and health comes first, then you manage all the other things from there.
Dr. Kristen McNeill: We’re one of the largest urban school districts across the country that stayed in person throughout the pandemic. The board took a very courageous approach by having in-person learning last year. Our 67 elementary schools were in person five days a week, and both of our levels of middle and high school were on a hybrid model because we couldn’t fit all the students with social distancing requirements. Going into this year in 21-22, we are open and have full, in-person learning. We do have a distance learning option with our online school, North Star Online. We have approximately 1,000 students enrolled in North Star.
How Will the Pandemic Change Education Moving Forward?
Berkley: I see significant changes in the way we deliver educational services. If COVID taught us anything, it’s that we can learn remotely. We can also teach remotely. Prior to the pandemic, if somebody asked me if they could work from home, my answer would have been absolutely, unequivocally not going to happen. It’s nine to five here at Touro, and that’s where you perform your services. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve seen so many of my faculty and staff that are just as productive, if not more so, online. We make sure all our students are prepared; we want to maintain professionalism. At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lot of people look like they had just pulled themselves out of bed and dragged themselves over to the computer. That’s not the way we do this. [Students] are in a new type of environment but a classroom, nonetheless. We’re going to be relying more and more on technology to educate our students. It’s going to be, not only time saving, but money saving as well. Another thing that’s going to be different is, if you’re sick, stay home, don’t be a martyr.
Jeremy Gregerson: While I agree we are going to be moving in a direction to allow for more remote contact, I don’t think that we’re going to see massive migration [in K-12]. The technological infrastructure that’s been developed to address the pandemic has fallen differently on different ages of children and Zoom fatigue is real. This is not how human beings for thousands of years have passed knowledge to one another. Being in the same room, connecting and communing with other human beings is central to education. I think that most of us even would prefer to have meetings in person because a lot of nuance is lost when you’re looking at your Hollywood squares on a computer screen.
Whitfield: In-person learning, that engagement that happens, can’t be replaced. But I also agree that we’re going to make a bit of a shift, hopefully to more hybrid. You might have a combination of some people remote and some in-person, as well as trying to build out some of the online opportunities that exist. A lot of our students are coming from other places anyway, and they’re managing their time, how they’re working and providing for themselves economically. What we’ve all had to learn during the pandemic is to provide additional flexibility for students. But I think there has to be an element, for a college education, where people are actually there in person. For the sake of success, innovation and inspiration, there’s that extra little bit being in person does provide.
Renee Coffman: It doesn’t necessarily have to be either/or, it doesn’t have to be all online or all in person. One of the things the pandemic allowed us to do is to launch our new Master’s of Science program in a high-flex modality where there is synchronous online and in-person opportunity. On the scientific side, the lab and research projects they do, it’s kind of hard to do those online. So, it allowed us to open up our minds a little bit to different types of modalities, being creative and innovative in the education space to allow for more opportunity. Not pigeonholing ourselves into just online or in-person. These high flex modalities are going to be very powerful in the future.
Stansbury: Yes, we need that connectivity of face-to-face instruction and technology affords for so much personalization. Moving forward, I hope it becomes a call to action for teacher prep programs so that they’re not just teaching teachers the nuts and bolts of classroom management. [Hopefully they also teach] how to cultivate competencies to remain flexible and resilient in a very uncertain educational landscape.
Rose: It is time for us in education, and higher education specifically, to center the student and meet them where they are. That goes to the question of how much of our curriculum is online, how much is hybrid and how much is face to face. We need to be understanding our student’s needs and making colleges student ready instead of making our students college ready. The onus is on us to understand the requirements that students are bringing to us. Increasingly, they are coming into higher education with very complex lives. They’re holding down multiple jobs. They’ve got children or they’re caring for elders and so understanding where they are and what they need from us is going to be the successful model in the coming decades. Nationally, the college-going population is expected to decline for the next decade or more. The folks that are going to be competitive within that environment are going to come to the student experience with a customer service mindset.
Is Education in Nevada Adequately Funded?
Welsh: It’s safe to say [education] is not at an adequate funding level. That’s one of the biggest problems we have, and have had, in Nevada. There’s always this feeling that there’s change around the corner and we’ve not quite gotten there. The recent developments with the pupil centered funding formula, there are some positives there. But without the addition of new money into that formula, all it does is shift the pieces of the pie. The last session with the addition of some of the funds from the mining tax was a positive. Perennially, [Nevada is] in the bottom ten, if not the bottom five, in terms of per pupil funding at the state level. When you look at some of the more urban areas, funding levels for pupils are even lower. In the charter world, funding is even lower because we lose a slice of that too. Something has to be done. We need a bigger pie.
Rose: From the public higher education lens, we’re funded per pupil at the median nationally and we’re very grateful for that. The question I would have going forward in Nevada is: Are we deploying those dollars as strategically as we can? Are we deploying with a strategy in mind for economic development, diversification, workforce development and incentivizing the things the state most needs? Going forward, we will be encouraging a conversation around the infrastructure needed for the research enterprise. Those things lead to economic diversification and the health of our economy generally. A greater focus on incentivizing our community colleges around workforce development and short-term training for displaced workers is imperative; this economic downturn has made that clear. Going forward are going to be having a strategic conversation around best use [of funding].
Gregerson: As an independent school, we’re self-funded, so we’re not reliant on public funding. In the last year we saw a ton of people moving in from out-of-state, then postponing or suspending their moves because of their dissatisfaction with the larger public school system. The funding question becomes a bigger question of how we can compete for workers who are desirable. It’s a serious concern for everyone, regardless of whether you’re in the public or private sector, because we want those workers. You have to have the funding and the accountability. As a superintendent of a large school district, I’m all for competition within our own state sponsored charters and for private schools. At the end of the day, it leads to better educational opportunities for students. As far as funding, I was appreciative of the fact that we were able to change an archaic system as far as funding. Nevada is not the same state that it was back in 1968, and our demographics have shifted for all the right reasons. When we talk about educating each student moves because of their dissatisfaction with the larger public school system. The funding question becomes a bigger question of how we can compete for workers who are desirable. It’s a serious concern for everyone, regardless of whether you’re in the public or private sector, because we want those workers.
McNeill: You have to have the funding and the accountability. As a superintendent of a large school district, I’m all for competition within our own state sponsored charters and for private schools. At the end of the day, it leads to better educational opportunities for students. As far as funding, I was appreciative of the fact that we were able to change an archaic system as far as funding. Nevada is not the same state that it was back in 1968, and our demographics have shifted for all the right reasons. When we talk about educating each student to the highest levels, that’s going to take resources.
Berkley: If we want economic development, there’s an easy path to it; invest in our education system. Without that, we are just whistling in the wind and making the same comments that we make every biennium. Last time I looked, the only way to generate money to spend for the common good is through taxes and until we have an honest discussion about that in this state, we’re going to still be trying to educate our students on the cheap. They’re going to be able to get decent paying jobs in the casinos and that’s where they’re going to end up instead of really giving us an opportunity to diversify our economy.
Whitfield: We do need more funding for students. We need to have a plan that seeks to try to have every child, every adult, be educated and into the areas in which they want to be able to pursue. Investment in education is going to pay off in lots of different ways. I want to clearly demonstrate the value of an education from a research institution. The example of companies wanting to move into the state, I’ve heard that. I’ve only been here a year and there were a couple of companies who asked [about] the capacity [of Nevada] for providing a great education if they were to move there. We know that it can happen.
Berkley: It is as true a statement today as it was 40 years ago, when I served in the legislature, we were only as good as what K – 12 produces because 86 percent of the students that go to any of the state-supported institutions of higher learning in Nevada, come from Nevada. If we want to have a good higher education system, we need to have a very good K – 12 system.