By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
Nevada is awaiting $4 billion from the federal corona virus rescue package and Assemblywoman Jill Tolles, R-Reno, suggested a “guiding principle” state lawmakers should follow in spending that money.
“I would say first and foremost, the general guiding principle is that we should not use those funds to expand new programs,” she said on Nevada Newsmakers. “Because as soon as that (Covid rescue) money runs out, we are going to find ourselves at the edge of a cliff and that would not be the fiscally responsible thing to do.”
Tolles told host Sam Shad that she sees the money going to three areas:
* Replenishing the rainy day fund, although she didn’t say how much should go into the emergency fund of state government;
* Aiding the k-12 education system, where many Nevada students lost as much as a year’s learning with the pandemic, and,
* Helping fix Nevada’s unemployment insurance that left citizens high, dry and frustrated after being overwhelmed with unemployment claims because the pandemic led to a statewide shutdown. She wants the federal Covid rescue money to help retrain workers whose old jobs have been replaced or eliminated because of automation or other factors.
“We have an economy that is struggling and we need to make sure that we continue to bolster our small businesses that have really suffered through this and those individuals who have been unemployed,” she said. “And if they (workers) have come back and those jobs are not there, then how do we re-train them and up-skill them? I will always be a big champion of not just k-12 education but adult education because I believe it is the key to making sure we skill and re-skill individuals into new, emerging industries and the diverse economy.”
Tolles, however, argues that the Covid-rescue funding should also focus mental health problems caused by the pandemic.
“I would argue that we need to take a look at having some of those Covid relief funds address those mental health needs that were already existing and then expanded through this pandemic,” she said.
The pandemic put barriers between people who need mental health services and those services, said Tolles, the co-deputy minority floor leader who serves on the Education Committee as well as Ways & Means plus Commerce & Labor.
“We saw a decrease in people getting the treatment or counseling they needed because they were fearful to go to their counseling appointments in person (because of Covid),” Tolles said. “Maybe they didn’t have access or were not comfortable with switching over to tele-health models.
“Or for some of our individuals, adults with mental health disabilities and (those who use) early intervention services for our young kids, with autism or with other developmental disabilities, you need to be in-person and that was not available for a period of time,” Tolles said. “So we saw an under-utilization. But it is important to note that that is not going to stay under-utilized. I fully anticipate that we are going to see all of those people come back. We need to see them come back into regular treatments.”
Existing mental health services could soon be overwhelmed with new patients who have been suffering through the pandemic’s social and economic hardships.
“We have also picked up through this pandemic, increased populations that responded to unemployment and being in isolation, being home and developing anxiety and depression symptoms,” she said.
Mental health is also a large factor in the “lost learning” issues Nevada’s k-12 students are facing because of the pandemic, Tolles said.
“This has been a devastating year for so many kids, as seen by the increasing rates of anxiety and depression and even the tragic news about suicides,” she said. “It is very concerning, the impact this has had on kids.”
The pandemic’s impact on k-12 students has varied, Tolles said.
“(There has been) an increase in substance-use disorders and then an increase in child neglect and abuse cases,” she added. “When we don’t have teachers’ eyes on kids in school every day, that is our first line of defense and we need to see those red flags to address that — from the law enforcement perspective as well as the treatment perspective.”
Yet the first thing that needs to be done is to get schools to open statewide, she said. On Monday, around 14,000 older Clark County School District students in grades 6, 9 and 12 returned to classrooms after more than a year of virtual learning, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“The first priority, obviously, is just getting everybody open and getting them the support they need, then really making sure we restore those losses as much as possible,” Tolles said.
“In Washoe County, our board chose to have k-through-5 open and then have a hybrid model where kids were able to go to junior high and high school on a varied schedule,” she said. “And so we were shut down for a few months, initially, but then I really commend the (Washoe school) board for working to keep it safely open.”
The ‘lost learning’ crisis has impacted school districts across the nation and the world, according to various reports.
Research at Stanford University indicate that the average American student has already lost half a year of learning in reading and over a full year of learning in math since the pandemic began, according to an ABC News report.
Worldwide, the education of 1.7 billion children in 188 countries was heavily disrupted in 2020, according to a UNESCO reports. More than half the world’s 10-year-olds could still be unable to read by the end of 2021 as a result of the ‘lost learning’ year, according to United Nations and World Bank data.
Tolles and the Legislature are focused on the problem in Nevada’s 17 county school districts.
“When we came to the Legislature and I began working with my Clark County colleagues, some of them didn’t realize that basically, the rest of the state found ways to open in one way or another and Clark County has been closed this entire time,” Tolles said. “And so we are seeing the impact of that and we are going to see the impact of that for years to come, in regards to that learning loss.”
Tolles said she is hopeful the Legislature will be open to the public sometime next month. The legislative building in Carson City has been closed to the public because of Covid.
“We have been pushing within the Assembly Republican Caucus to get this open as quickly as possible,” she said, adding, “but of course, that is up to leadership.”