By Kayla Anderson
On Friday, September 11, the Washoe County School District held a media briefing to discuss the major issues surrounding school operations and the covid pandemic.
School District Superintendent Dr. Kristen McNeill began the meeting by stating that it was a Distance Learning day for all students because the air quality was bad due to the smoke ushered in by the West Coast wildfires. The Washoe County Health District has been monitoring air quality as it relates to the U.S. Air Quality Index and issuing warnings as to how breathing the air will affect one’s health. Last Friday, the AQI was at 157 prompting the school closures and by the weekend the Health District issued a Stage 2 Air Pollution warning (it was downgraded to an Advisory on September 14 when the AQI dropped below 150).
Dr. McNeill stated that the poor air quality has added a layer of complexity in reopening schools this fall on top of dealing with the pandemic. However, Dr. McNeill assures residents that WCSD staff and teachers are doing everything they can to continue their students’ education while keeping them safe and preventing a big outbreak of the ongoing health pandemic.
As of September 13, there have been 36 positive Covid cases in 26 Washoe County schools. It has conducted 116 Covid tests of WCSD employees through its partnership with Renown. The District does not track whether the individuals are teachers or students.
“Our work with Renown has really helped as far as making sure that a lot of these (potential Covid) cases are looked into early,” she says. Dr. McNeill stated that its contract with Renown Health has amplified employee testing, especially in identifying cases early and isolating those with Covid.
Dr. McNeill says that on a typical day, there are 800-1000 students who are absent in relation to the new excluded attendance code but the large majority of those who display symptoms of Covid do not necessarily test positive for the disease. Those cases make up two percent of the 41,000 students who are on an in-person or hybrid learning plan.
To address the new “exclusions”, the District also excludes people from school grounds if they receive a letter from the Washoe County Health District recommending that a specific individual be excluded due to a variety of reasons, like maybe if they were in close contact with a covid-positive person outside of school or are traveling back from a hotspot area.
Dr. McNeill also said that there is a 3.39 percent drop in student enrollments from previous years but believes that this could be due to people leaving the county if parents lost their jobs, families moving to homeschooling, or students transferring to charter schools outside of the District.
“A large portion of those students are kindergartners and going to kindergarten isn’t required in Nevada. I think we’ll see those kids start to come back (over time),” Dr. McNeill says. She reiterated that District makes a concerted effort to reach those students by going to their homes and checking on them if necessary and is confident that they know where the majority of those 2,000 lost enrollments transferred to.
In looking at the big picture, Dr. McNeill says that teachers, principals, and students are working really hard to keep the schools open and she believes that they have a good system in place to send out alerts if the day before if there has been a change in operations.
“I think we need to put this in perspective- we’ve had 31 cases between 62,000 students and employees, and in the broader 400,000 people in the Truckee Meadows area,” Dr. McNeill adds. The District has also hired two additional employee health nurses and other staff to help with contact tracing, and notes that the partnership with the Health District has been beneficial to helping curb the spread of Covid.
The WCSD is adding a Covid monitoring system to its website that shares ongoing information about positive cases. The portal will be updated daily and available to view at https://www.washoeschools.net/. The WCSD will also continue hosting media briefings every Friday and share the videos to its Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/WashoeCountySchoolDistrict.