The Nevada County School System, Explained: From 38 Districts Down to Just Nine

School safety, coping with the pandemic have been focus of Nevada County schools.

PUBLISHED JAN 23, 2022 1:00 A.M.
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Like many counties, Nevada County classrooms stood empty during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like many counties, Nevada County classrooms stood empty during the COVID-19 pandemic.   Wokandapix / Pixabay   Pixabay License

Not long after prospector and soon-to-be state senator Jonas Spect spotted gold in the Yuba River, uncovering what would become California’s largest deposit of gold, another resource soon grew plentiful in Nevada County—children. The Gold Rush drew fortune seekers from all over the United States, its territories, and from countries overseas. Many traveled with their entire families. Others settled in Nevada County, starting new families in their new home.

With the rapid explosion of a young generation in Nevada County came the need to educate those children. The first schools in the county were privately operated, one-room schoolhouses financed by local parents and often staffed by members of their communities as well.

County Once Had 38 Districts for 2,000 Students

That was the 1850s. Within the next three decades, the school system had gone public, albeit in a splintered and rather inefficient fashion. In the decade of the 1880s, there were about 2,000 students in Nevada schools spread throughout no fewer than 38 school districts. Areas with names such as Blue Tent, Kentucky Flat, Cherokee, Birchville and Mooney Flat each had its own single-room schoolhouse operated by its one-school district.

As of the 2020-2021 school year, Nevada County saw a total enrollment of 11,077 students across just nine school districts, plus the County Office of Education, which would actually be the largest district in terms of enrollment with just over 3,100. The Nevada COE manages nine charter schools, as well as several other alternative education programs. The Nevada Joint Union High School District is next with about 2,700 students across five different high schools in the district. Grass Valley Elementary School District serves about 1,800 students in five schools.

On the other end of the spectrum, Chicago Park Elementary School District has only 170 students in its two schools, while Clear Creek Elementary serves 181 students in one school building.

Overseeing the entire county’s education system is Superintendent Scott W. Lay, who was an administrator—first principal, then superintendent—at Clear Creek for 17 years before he was hired in 2017 by the county board of education to fill out the term of Superintendent Holly Hermanson, who’d held the job since 2007. Hermanson retired in August of 2017, but as in all but five of California’s 58 counties, the superintendent’s position is an elected one. Lay ran for the post in 2018 and won, meaning he must run again in 2022.

Nevada County Schools Face COVID-19

Just over two years into his tenure, Lay faced a serious challenge—the same one faced by superintendents throughout the state and, for that matter, around the United States. In March of 2020, he was forced to shut down the county’s school system due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, children were shut out of their school buildings, required to be away from their teachers, friends and classmates, and try to continue their education through “distance learning,” that is, using technology such as video conferencing to attend class via the internet.

A few months into the pandemic, Lay told the Union newspaper in May 2020 that distance learning was “going pretty well,” but he worried about the educational inequities that the online-only arrangement could cause. At the time, between 10 and 15 percent of Nevada County students had not yet checked in with their teachers.

But Lay was a leader in the effort to get schools open. Five of Nevada County’s districts opened schools, at least partially, in the fall of 2020, and three more followed by February 2021. By March all nine of the non-COE districts were back in operation, though often on hybrid schedules, in which in-person attendance was combined with online distance learning—a measure that helped maintain social distancing inside school facilities by making sure they never got too crowded.

The 2021-2022 school year opened with all schools operational, though a surge in infections caused three districts to consider closing again shortly after the start of the school year.

The county was also among the first to offer COVID-19 vaccinations to all teachers, with everyone who wanted the first shot of a vaccine to receive it during January 2021. Second doses were administered in February. In December, the county set up clinics for teachers and staff to receive booster shots, as well.

The reopening didn’t come without setbacks, however. At one point, one district was forced to close doors once again due to rising case counts. And the county found itself faced with a serious shortage of substitute teachers. Lay said the county had more than 200 subs on call prior to the pandemic. Just 70 remained by September of 2021.

Safety a Focus in School System

Prior to the pandemic, school safety was an issue for the county’s districts. A 2014 civil grand jury report slammed the Grass Valley School District for a wide range of dangerous conditions in the Grass Valley Charter School and Bell Hill Academy facilities that included exposed electrical wiring at ground level and rotting support beams on playground equipment, as well as “improper storage of flammable chemicals in a non-rated office storage locker without warning signs.”

In a 2018 report, however, the grand jury commended the Grass Valley district for taking student safety seriously after several school shooting incidents around the United States, including the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, earlier that year, in which an armed student killed 17 of his fellow students and wounded 17 more. The grand jury did, however, make a point of saying that the county schools still could do better in implementing safety procedures to protect students from violent incidents.

In another 2014 report, the grand jury found that the members of Nevada Joint Union High School District Board of Trustees had failed to complete ethics training required under state law, and were not even familiar with many provisions in their own district’s by-laws.

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