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Rep. Susie Lee and Communities in Schools Get Back to Basics on Back to School Needs

Susie Lee

Today, Rep. Susie Lee (D-Las Vegas) participated in Communities in Schools’ virtual briefing on bringing kids back to school during an active pandemic. As the Clark County School District (CCSD) continues virtual classes, some students face the risk of being left on the wrong side of America’s digital divide. And as the Washoe County School District (WCSD) has struggled to continue its in-person school plan, Nevadans are left wondering whether there’s any easy answer to the question of how to keep kids learning in school during an active pandemic.

So what’s happening in school?
Photo by Andrew Davey

Last month, some Nevadans were shocked by WCSD’s insistence on resuming in-person classes this school year. But now, WCSD leaders have been stunned by the crippling combination of COVID-19 and smoke from regional wildfires as they’re now scrambling to figure out how to keep schools on track, and whether to integrate more virtual distance learning into their plan.

Meanwhile down south, CCSD reopened seven rural schools for in-person learning, but the rest of CCSD continues to operate virtually and remotely. Even as CCSD has managed to distribute school meals, Chromebooks, and wifi internet to many students in need, some students continue to lack the digital infrastructure (both in internet speed and device capability) to take full advantage of virtual learning. Even in households that were more affluent pre-pandemic, students are running into internet trouble.

So what’s the correct answer here? Communities in Schools (CIS), a national non-profit dedicated to delivering support services to students and families in need, hosted a virtual event today to discuss how wraparound services are crucial to keep students learning and help them succeed. (Note that Lee served as CIS Nevada’s board president from 2010 to 2018.)

“If we are going to make education a national priority, we need to go beyond the classroom.” 
– Rep. Susie Lee
Susie Lee, Communities in Schools, public education, education
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Late last month, Rep. Susie Lee introduced the Communities Serving Schools Act to establish a new federal grant program to help states and local school districts fund critical wraparound services in mental health, physical health, food service, clothing needs, and more. When it comes to the past six months of COVID-19 induced shutdowns and disruptions, Lee noted, “It shined a light on the inequities that our students have faced for years.” She then warned, “Students in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color don’t have enough access to these critical services.”

Lee then stated, “This pandemic has reminded us how important it is to go beyond the classroom.” And she added, “If we are going to make education a national priority, we need to go beyond the classroom.”

While Lee’s bill probably faces a bright future in the Democratic-run House, the forecast looks as grim as ever in the Republican-run Senate, where Republican leaders still won’t say whether they have 51 votes to pass their “skinny” COVID-19 aid bill. And with the September 30 federal budget deadline fast approaching, Republicans have already started scrambling to avoid a federal government shutdown that could begin just as Americans begin to vote in the presidential election.

“It feels really good to have someone cheering you on.” 
– Jazzmine Adair, Rancho High School and Communities in Schools graduate
Susie Lee, Communities in Schools, public education, education
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

Rep. Lee wasn’t the only one who called for more and better support for students during this call. Communities in Schools President and CEO Rey Saldaña recalled, “When school buildings closed across the country in March, it disrupted student learning. It took away things we’ve taken for granted: things like a regular meal, clothing, housing. It also separated children from their friends, their family, and other people they need for their emotional well-being.”

Jazzmine Adair, a recent Rancho High School graduate and CIS participating student, further amplified this point. On CCSD’s virtual learning program, Adair flat-out stated, “I’m not going to lie: It sucked. It sucked. I was used to seeing my teachers twice a week. Suddenly, I couldn’t see them at all.”

While Adair ultimately pulled through, she thanked her CIS mentor, Carmen Martinez, for sticking with her in the midst of this pandemic. When it comes to her CIS experience, Adair didn’t mince words: “It’s helped me become a better leader in my community. And really, it’s made me a better person.” And she added, “It feels really good to have someone cheering you on.”

“In order for learning to happen, non-academic needs must be met. Wraparound services are not just nice to have. They are critical.” 
– Rey Saldaña, Communities in Schools (national)
Communities in Schools, public education, education
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

As the CIS briefing continued, experts weighed in on the importance of wraparound services in keeping students on track to succeed. As Natalie Walrond of WestEd advised, “As schools prepare to reopen for in-person classes, we are strongly advising them to address well-being and connection at school. […] There’s scientific evidence that proves that well-being and connection are critical to promoting good learning.”

But as Saldaña and CIS Nevada CEO Tami Hance-Lehr warned, state and local budget cuts have all too often resulted in cuts to these very wraparound services. And while CIS and other non-profits have tried ther best to make up for government budget cuts (including here in Nevada), they can only afford to do so much on their own.

Communities in Schools, public education, education
Screenshot by Andrew Davey

This brings us back to Rep. Susie Lee’s bill, the Communities Serving Schools Act. While national media pundits continue to obsess over how Republicans’ latest COVID-19 messaging bill may or may not affect the state of the presidential race, public schools and the communities who rely on them have been left to pick up the pieces and rely on non-profit organizations like CIS for help. For all the debate over the last six months over what exactly constitutes an “essential service”, Saldaña stated, “In order for learning to happen, non-academic needs must be met. Wraparound services are not just nice to have. They are critical.”

If you’re in need of medical treatment, contact your primary health care provider first. If you fear you can’t afford treatment from a hospital or doctor’s office, check with the Southern Nevada Health DistrictWashoe County Health DistrictCarson City Health and Human Services, or the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services for resources in your area. For additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square.

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