Coronavirus, budget cuts imperil Nevada’s struggling schools

June 23, 2020 GMT

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) — Nevada educators worry the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic fallout threaten to reverse recent funding increases aimed at lifting the state from near the bottom of the nation’s educational rankings.

For years, Nevada schools have ranked among the nation’s worst. A report presented last week to state lawmakers showed it ranked 44th in the U.S. for per-pupil spending.

The report said K-12 student achievement was improving at the seventh fastest rate of any state in the country, but still ranked 43rd in current achievement scores.

Now, the pandemic has sent schools reeling. As students and teachers adapt to online classes, administrators are confronting reopening challenges and potential budget cuts.

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“It’s very intense,” Clark County Superintendent Jesus Jara said. “It’s taken its toll.”

While working on a reopening plan for the district’s more than 320,000 students and 33,000 employees, Jara is closely monitoring lawmakers’ efforts to plug the state’s $812 million budget hole.

Tax revenue from gambling, hospitality and live events, which has long underwritten most of the state’s budget, plummeted after the pandemic shuttered businesses and slowed tourism. On June 12, the Legislature’s finance committee approved a plan that projected a $265.3 million shortfall in the account for education.

The alarming figures arrive a year after what many education advocates viewed as a triumphant finish to the legislative session — when lawmakers dedicated $2.3 billion for schools, adding $327 million to reduce class sizes, allocating $72 million to boost teacher pay and spending more than $100 million on reading and safety initiatives.

Cuts will imperil the progress, Jara said, and make it more difficult for districts to continue improving. “If we’ve learned anything from the virus, it’s that the inequities in urban schools are great,” he said.

Clark County School District, which encompasses the Las Vegas area and is the nation’s fifth largest, has seen its efforts to transition to remote learning hampered by the fact that 70,000 students don’t have access to Wi-Fi capable devices, Jara said.

As staff puts together a reopening proposal by Thursday, Jara said the district’s large class sizes make transitioning students back to classrooms even more difficult in the era of coronavirus.

The district plans to rotate groups of students into classrooms to ensure social distancing and classroom cleaning can take place, Jara said. On days when students are not in classrooms, they’ll log in to class remotely from home.

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Under Jara’s proposal, one cohort of students will attend class on Mondays and Tuesdays, classrooms will be cleaned on Wednesdays and a second cohort will attend class on Thursdays and Fridays.

The district plans to contain students to classrooms during their lunch periods and is still finalizing transportation plans. Purchasing the laptop computers necessary to roll out a remote learning plan could cost an estimated $28 million.

John Vellardita, executive director of the Clark County Education Association, said lawmakers looking to balance the state’s budget should understand reopening costs.

“You cannot talk about reopening these schools by cutting the funding at significant levels and at the same time recognize that COVID-19 requires more funding just to be able to reach about one-third of students in Clark County School District alone,” he said.

Vellardita vowed that teachers won’t return to classrooms unless they’re confident in the district’s safety precautions.

“We’re not putting people’s lives at risk if there aren’t these types of precautions in these schools,” he said. “You don’t roll out a plan and not put one damn dollar on it when everyone knows what it’s going to cost to reopen.”

Lawmakers have long fought over the need to diversify revenue streams and whether the ideal mechanism is raising taxes, luring new industries to the state, or both.

The pandemic has galvanized both sides. Advocates like Vellardita are arguing now is as good a time as any to wean the state from relying on gambling and hospitality tax revenues. Opponents, however, are saying any tax hike could threaten economic recovery and hurt residents who are already struggling.

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Sam Metz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.