Nebraska’s early push to reopen schools during COVID has other states playing catch-up

By Joe Dejka May 16, 2021 Updated May 17, 2021 – 14 min to read – Omaha World Herald

Nebraska reopened its schools last August despite the advice of some medical experts, protests from teachers unions and worries it could ignite COVID-19 outbreaks.

As the extraordinary school year comes to a close, education leaders say reopening was the right decision.

“Nebraskans can be very proud of what their educators have done,” Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told The World-Herald.

Reopening proved an immense and controversial challenge. An infectious disease expert from Nebraska said last week reopening likely contributed to spread of the virus.

My cmnt: This so-called infectious disease expert is undoubtedly a democrat who refused to listen to the science which told us early on that children 18 and under have almost zero chance of getting sick from Covid-19 (NOT testing positive – which tho’ labeled a ‘case’ by dishonest officials means virtually nothing healthwise) and are not spreaders of the virus.

But the fact that Nebraska school children got more in-school instruction means they suffered less harm to their learning and mental health than many other children in the country who stayed in remote learning. It also means that Nebraska schools are now free to figure out how to make up for any learning gaps, instead of being focused on figuring out how to reopen.

Nebraska’s K-12 schools in February nearly led the country in getting buildings open, ranking No. 2 behind Florida, according to a tracking tool created by the American Enterprise Institute.

While kids in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago spent more than a year in remote learning — high schoolers in L.A. Unified School District, for instance, were out for 425 days before returning April 26 — the bulk of Nebraska kids had the option to learn in person this school year, if they wished.

The notable exception was the state’s biggest district, Omaha Public Schools, which started the year fully remote, a decision favored by the teachers union. But by October, OPS students were back in schools part time, and in February the district offered full in-person learning.

By reopening and keeping schools open, Nebraska finds itself in the position of watching other states play catch up.​

As of Feb. 15 — two-thirds of the way through the school year — all students in Florida and Nebraska school districts had access to full or partial in-person learning, the institute reported.

In contrast, it said, remote learning was the only option at the time in 70% of Maryland school districts and 62% of California school districts.

By early April, Nebraska was one of eight states with at least three-quarters of districts offering fully in-person instruction: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Carolina, according to the tracker.

Nebraska’s differences with most other states became apparent in late winter as federal officials urged the nation’s remaining closed schools to reopen.

In February, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky, an appointee of President Biden, said that the CDC had concluded that it was possible for communities to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 while keeping schools open for in-person instruction.

Walensky told the nation’s remaining closed school districts that K-12 schools could safely reopen, if they mandated strict mitigation strategies.

When the U.S. Department of Education subsequently held a National Safe School Reopening Summit in March, providing closed districts with a checklist on how to reopen, the advice must have come as a deja vu to Nebraska school officials who deployed those same strategies last summer.​

While other states took their first cautious steps to reopen this spring with Biden rescue-plan money, schools here are winding down the school year. Nebraska districts are making plans to use their federal money on catching kids up from COVID-19 learning loss — a loss that, overall, is likely to be less severe than the losses in districts that stayed in full remote.

Nebraska reopened its schools without the threatened teacher strikes, lawsuits or government orders to return to in-person learning experienced in other states.

“I think there’s a lot of things for Nebraska to be pleased with, and I think their students are going to benefit,” said Nat Malkus, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute ​and director of the Return2Learn tracker.

States that got their schools open early have advantages, he said.

“Number one, they’ve learned how to safely bring kids back without spending a bunch of money that would have to come from federal assistance,” he said. “Number two, the holes that they’ve developed, that are contingent on how long kids have been out of school, are not as deep.”

Several factors contributed to Nebraska’s ability to open schools and keep them open, according to education experts and officials.

  • Gov. Pete Ricketts, believing the pandemic could be long-lasting and that the best approach was managing the crisis instead of locking downencouraged schools to reopen their school buildings last fall, after they had been shuttered for the last several months of the previous school year.
  • Nebraska’s local-control philosophy for public schools allowed superintendents to make decisions, with state guidance, that best reflected conditions on the ground.
  • Local health directors worked closely with schools, advising and guiding their decision-making.
  • And Nebraska had capable teachers who, in most cases, had access to substantial technology infrastructure which allowed them flexibility the pandemic demanded.

Still, the reopening did not come easy.

After OPS reopened for in-person lessons, the school district temporarily halted in-person classes at some schools because of COVID-19 cases. In November, two of the district’s seven high schools, Burke and North, went to all-remote learning at the same time because of COVID-19 cases and additional staff being forced to quarantine.

Teachers faced difficult challenges, simultaneously teaching kids in the classroom and students who chose to learn from home or were quarantining. Some contracted the disease, though the CDC said spread from students to teachers has been rare. Others were so stressed or uncertain about the consequences of reopening they left the profession.

Dr. James Lawler, a director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said last week he believes opening schools contributed to spread.

“I’m certainly not saying that schools were the only factor driving transmission in communities — clearly that is not the case — but I think schools were important, and probably much more important than most people realized,” Lawler said.

My cmnt: The rest of this lengthy article can be read by clicking the OWH link above.

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