ELKO – Anxiety, apprehension and anticipation.
These are just some of the emotions felt by students, parents and teachers when the last school year came to a halt in Nevada due to the coronavirus pandemic.
And they are the same emotions felt by the community today, ahead of the upcoming school year.
It began on March 15 when Gov. Steve Sisolak closed schools statewide to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They were immediately plunged into uncharted territory.
Teachers had to convert in-person instruction to distance learning at literally a moment’s notice, while students wondered what this meant for their grades, sports, activities and graduation.
Education amid a pandemic looked odd and felt odd. Students and teachers tried to communicate via the internet or phone calls. Parents struggled to figure out how to homeschool their children and balance it with work obligations.
The shutdown affected every family within the Elko County School District differently, creating new problems and revealing old issues. It also generated a myriad of questions.
Readers who responded to a call from Elko Daily to describe their experiences requested anonymity, with two stating they were fearful of reprisals on social media from family, friends, neighbors, colleagues and others.
Others quoted in this article are the new superintendent of schools, elected officials and candidates for school board. They provided input into what needs to change for the upcoming year when the state order schools to activate one of three plans in the fall.
Spring of discontent
When schools shut down March 15, life changed instantly for Elko County parent, “Taylor,” who felt the isolation of the situation early on.
“The shutdown was scary for everyone. It definitely felt uncertain and new, and it was clear that the schools were scrambling,” Taylor wrote in an email to Elko Daily.
Taylor described what it was like in the early days of the pandemic for friends and family who suddenly found themselves learning how to connect online to their teachers through Google Classroom without much guidance or clarity.
“Parents didn’t really know how grading worked, what they were supposed to be doing at home, etc.,” Taylor said. “Every teacher had different expectations and ways of doing things, so it was tough.”
Some teachers found ways to arrange a daily roll call online, assigning a story or lesson, but “most just weren’t online.”
“I felt a little on my own,” Taylor said. “I didn’t have the materials I needed for some of the lessons I was given.”
“Iris,” the mother of three elementary-aged schoolchildren, also wanted to share what her family went through.
The family is sustained on two incomes and maintains partial custody for one child.
“The end of the year was a mess not only for myself but also for the kids,” she said. “In my home, we both work, or are out of town. Not to mention, one of the children goes back and forth from one house to another.
Should Gov. Steve Sisolak ask schools to activate a virtual learning plan in Elko County, Iris said it would not work out for her family.
“In my opinion, distant learning is not a fit for my family, and unfortunately, if that’s the case, I will have no choice but to just keep my kids from attending this coming school year,” Iris said. “It saddens me they may or may not have to miss out on a whole year, but under the circumstances, it didn’t work for the end of last year, and it certainly won’t work for this coming year.”
Managing distance learning was a challenge for many families, said Robert Leonhardt, Elko businessman and a candidate for the Elko County School Board District 2 seat. Discussions among other parents, combined with his family’s experience, illustrated the frustrations felt by children and parents.
It mostly boiled down to needing in-person interaction between students and teachers, he said.
“Some students struggled with distance learning, as they need the one-on-one with teachers and not over email or on the phone,” Leonhardt said. “Some I have also talked to said their kids struggled with the lack of social interaction.”
Teachers who spoke to Leonhardt said it was also difficult to contact parents to discuss their student’s progress due to varying work schedules.
Tammie Cracraft-Dickenson, trustee and incumbent for the District 2 seat, called last spring “a terribly difficult situation for everyone,” explaining that no one was prepared for distance learning on March 15.
“Everyone was thrown into the deep end with no life preservers,” she said.
Cracraft-Dickenson described her own experience as a working mother of a special needs child, observing how the situation put “a great deal of stress” on parents and teachers.
“I know from my own personal experience how difficult it was to navigate daily life when my childcare, Elko Explorers, suddenly closed, and my child with special needs struggled terribly to cope with the changes,” she said.
Taylor said special needs children need socialization the most, and believes the lack of hands-on teaching to learn simple functions such as holding a pencil or using scissors could be detrimental in their early education.
“Teachers are going to be afraid to touch them, hug them and wipe their little noses,” Taylor said. “I think it is going to cause trauma and stress for all children if they are forced to go back to school like this.”
Even if schools return to in-person instruction, Taylor believes the experience will be radically different in the classroom, the lunchroom, and the playground.
“Socialization is not going to look the same, recess and lunch will not look the same,” Taylor said. “Kids are going to have more rules, more regulations and more ‘no’s.’ Teachers are going to be stressed. This isn’t an environment that is going to be fun or even conducive to any real learning.”
On the horizon
Since May, the Elko County School District has looked ahead to the 2020-2021 school year.
A committee composed of local health officials, emergency management personnel, school administrators, teachers, support staff, parents and Central Office team members has been developing three distinct learning plans for schools to activate at any point during the year: in-person, virtual, or a hybrid of both.
Superintendent Dr. Michele Robinson said the Board of Trustees would review the plans at their upcoming meeting on July 28, and possibly make recommendations or approve them.
However, the decision to activate any of the three instruction plans ultimately is up to Gov. Sisolak, the Nevada Department of Education, and the criteria they may use to determine which method is followed, Robinson explained.
“Basically, we open school and we use the plan that matches the regulations and the mandates that are in place at that time,” she said.
If schools were to have opened this week, for example, the county would activate the hybrid plan that allows 50% capacity in a classroom. If an outbreak occurred at a school site, then the distance learning plan could be activated for 72 hours to clean and sanitize the building and classrooms.
“It could be any different scenario,” Robinson said. “We need to be prepared. We must be ready to pivot at any moment to distance learning if some scenario occurs that requires it.”
The reopening committee and various subcommittees have met weekly to develop plans that adhere to CDC guidelines.
“It’s a tremendous amount of preparation that we have to put upfront because we don’t know,” Robinson said. “We have to be prepared in as many different directions as possible. The committee has worked incredibly hard.”
Clark County School District announced this week it would enact a distance learning plan this fall, evaluating health conditions countywide every 30 days to determine if schools could transition into a hybrid model.
Meanwhile, in Washoe County, school district trustees could vote on Tuesday to change the district’s initial plan, which allowed elementary students to fully return to classrooms, with a hybrid plan for middle and high schoolers.
The reconsideration comes after Washoe County Health District Officer Kevin Dick recommended that schools go directly to online distance education as COVID-19 cases continue to rise.
When the three plans are presented to the Elko County School Board beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, they will be live-streamed on YouTube and public comment can be offered through a link on the school district’s website.
Due to increased COVID-19 cases, the White House reported on Friday that Elko County is now listed in the Red Zone, with public officials recommending to limit social gatherings to 10 people or fewer.
Robinson said trustees and school officials would answer all questions submitted to the board before and during Tuesday’s meeting.
Community survey response
To gather additional information, the committee sought input from those directly affected by the shutdown: families, students and staff. The surveys asked multiple questions about how respondents felt about how the school year ended, what needs improvement in the fall, and if everyone feels safe to return to campus and a regular learning routine.
The results garnered more than 2,500 responses from families, nearly 400 from students, and more than 700 from staff.
In the district’s summary of the responses, families and students supported a “full reopening or blended model” in the fall, with temperature checks and masks every day.
“Student responses to this question focused primarily on cleaning practices by the school and the availability of handwashing/sanitizer,” the district said in its summary. “Overall, wearing masks was mentioned as something students were willing to do if it meant they could return to school.”
“Students stated they want the school to return as normal as possible,” the district summarized, “but understand that there will be the likelihood of enhanced medical and hygiene protocols that should be in place such as hand washing and temperature checks.”
One student said a reason for returning to school was the ability to stay focused on assignments.
“I didn’t learn with distance learning. Face-to-face is the best way to learn,” the student wrote. “A home environment is difficult to stay focused and learn in. There is also not motivation to work on school from home. A work environment at the school where I go to work is the best way to get an education and actually learn.”
Some parents echoed that sentiment in the survey:
“I do not feel that distance education is a good educational option for kids. It was not successful for my family in the spring, and I want my children to socialize, make friends, and play normally.”
“As a parent, my son does not do well with me as a teacher, I could not be a teacher on any level, and he does not do well at home school.”
But safety was a primary concern, as well.
“My concern is mainly about lunch and recess,” one parent stated. “Keeping kids safe and at a distance.”
Another parent wrote the following:
“Mandatory masks, social distancing, staggered scheduling for classes and lunches, individually wrapped food items, and readily available hand sanitizers in each classroom and hallway, no locker usage.”
For teachers who were faced with teaching from home, some said they had mixed success, depending mainly on reliable internet and classroom participation.
“The most successful thing was when I was able to get ahold of students by phone and do a mini-lesson,” wrote one teacher. “This had to do with issues of the Internet for my class at home.”
Another teacher also said there were mixed results from the experience:
“Very little [success] as far as student involvement. However, it has enlightened me to the amount of resources available for online learning and creativity of students utilizing the internet to complete assignments.”
However, if students can return to their classrooms, some teachers said they required a digital thermometer and plenty of personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies on hand.
Many teachers in the survey said they would return if the school enforced face coverings, temperature checks, frequent handwashing and social distancing.
“Parents must sign a statement that they understand COVID and will not knowingly send their students to school if they are sick,” a teacher said.
One teacher doubted the health precautions would be enough to protect everyone from the coronavirus.
“Even the best mask won’t filter the tiny microorganisms of COVID-19,” the teacher wrote. “It’s probably helpful in keeping other germs at bay, but highly unrealistic that students and staff will maintain and wear them effectively throughout the entire school day.”
A teacher who spoke to the Elko Daily Free Press declined to give her name because she said she was fearful of bringing the virus home to her family. She listed several questions for the school district to keep in mind as they develop the in-person or hybrid plan.
“I am a frightened staff member who loves my students, and I think this is playing Russian roulette with our lives,” she wrote. “We closed down in March for much less, and we all deserve to be protected now with so many more cases in our area.”
Among the questions asked was finding substitutes, hiring more janitorial staff for schools, health insurance for older school district employees and liability insurance in the event of a virus-related death, and procedures should a student or employee test positive for COVID-19.
But she also wondered what all of this would do to the students in the long run.
“Students are already not receiving enough physical activity during the school day, and forcing them to receive even less will greatly affect many more students’ social and emotional development,” she wrote. “What will the long-term effects of this have on our students’ academic performance and mental health?”
What to fix first?
Many lessons were learned after the school year ended. One of them seems to be not to repeat what occurred in the spring.
Among the issues to work on is developing stronger accountability measures for students, said school board trustee Jim Cooney.
Cooney said he heard from parents and teachers that the “no harm, no foul” grading policy handed down from the state department of education removed “an accountability piece” for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.
“In my mind, it dis-incentivized the students to turn their assignments in,” he said.
Another stumbling block was internet access, particularly for students who received Chromebooks from their schools but did not have a way to get online and connect with their teacher.
“It really concerns me that we’ve lost a considerable amount of learning time by doing distance learning online,” Cooney said. “I think it pointed out a lot of the inadequacies of that as we moved through the last three months.”
Mayor Reece Keener said he was aware Elko County is “on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.’” He said the spring shutdown revealed that Elko’s current broadband situation requires immediate attention to serve the school district fully.
“Distance learning during COVID-19 has further revealed the dire limitations and frustrations that our students face in the absence of quality broadband,” Keener said. “It can be difficult and painfully slow for our students to access the educational content that is being provided by the Elko County School District.”
Keener said there is an increase in wireless providers in Elko, “which have demonstratively improved service levels in many areas. Some of these same providers are also slowly providing fiber service to select businesses that have fiber nearby.”
However, Elko is currently sitting at sixth place in having the worst broadband speed out of a survey of 3,000 cities, which Keener blamed on Frontier Communications.
“Our broadband deficiency can be squarely laid at the feet of Frontier Communications’ lack of investment in our community,” he said. However, “based on what I know right now, our situation is improving, and there is help on the way to residents that are craving a better, more reliable broadband product.”
“When it comes to broadband quality, I want to see Elko move from the worst list to the best list,” Keener said.
School Board District 4 candidate Greg Brorby agreed that adequate internet and devices were vital for starting the school year. He wondered if the school district was looking into the internet situation and ensuring enough funding was set aside for PPE in schools.
Protecting teachers who have autoimmune-compromised family members at home was among his top concerns.
“How are those family members going to feel protected if their loved ones go back to school or work,” he said. “What if a teacher has a [vulnerable] spouse who falls into that category?”
Additionally, if parents choose an alternative schooling option outside of the school district, Brorby asked if the district had a contingency plan for a potential loss of funding.
“They get a certain amount of dollars per student,” he said. “It means less funds going to the school district.”
Trustee Teresa Dastrup who represents District 4, said part of the problem in the spring was lack of preparation to switch to online instruction, but distance learning “will look very different in the fall than it did in the spring.”
“At the district level, they’ve been preparing for that with more training for everybody involved, teachers, students and even parents to help with distance learning, if that is the model we have to go back to,” she said.
Dastrup said she hoped schools would not move back to distance learning because of the struggles many families and teachers faced in the spring. Yet, it could be a reality should the state creates a directive ordering it for the school district.
“One way or another, everyone will be more prepared for the school year because I think everyone knows we may have some distance learning if we have a resurgence in a school,” she said.
Dastrup said teachers are planning three separate lesson plans in preparation for whatever may happen.
“I know our teachers are gearing up to do amazing things to teach our kids,” she said.
Glimmers of optimism
On May 18, the Boys and Girls Club in Elko reopened to the community. CEO Rusty Bahr said having the club open allowed children to socialize with others and stay active.
“I think all of the kids at the clubs are doing very well,” he said, observing that members have adapted to screening, sanitization and mask requirements.
“We actually see our behavior problems going down here at the club. We’ve had less write-ups,” Bahr continued. “I think the children are being very mature about this. They’ve adapted very well, a lot better than the parents. I think they’ve learned to have a great time even during these tough times, even with all of these restrictions.”
But last spring’s challenges brought out the best in everyone, Cracraft-Dickenson said. She heard stories about teachers, staff and parents who navigated the difficulties to ensure children and other families received support during the shutdown.
“Our communities have a gift for rising to any challenge that comes our way, and it makes me proud to call Elko County my home.”
Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!
Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.