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Crowd of protesters outside LPS district office an illustration that it won't be a normal school year
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Crowd of protesters outside LPS district office an illustration that it won't be a normal school year

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On the eve of a new school year, the scene outside the Lincoln Public Schools district office Tuesday evening was a stark reminder that what would soon unfold would be wildly different than anyone has experienced.

Music blared, bottled water sat on tables, and parents, teachers and community members — nearly all of them wearing face masks — gathered outside the district office to protest the district’s decision to reopen schools.

More than 30 speakers argued that the district wasn’t ready, didn’t have all the necessary sanitizing equipment in place, that teachers were fearful and overwhelmed by the task of readying for a school year that will put them at risk and require them to put themselves, their families and students at risk. 

“Safeguards are not in place and we as a district are not ready,” said a tearful Carrie Brison, a special-education teacher at Lincoln High School who said three of her students had mask exemptions and she didn't get to have a face shield. “We can be better and we should be better. Delay the start of school or start remotely.”

LPS remote learners won't start school until next week

Liz Wysong Hoffart, a teacher at Kahoa Elementary School and daughter of longtime school board member Sally Wysong, for whom an elementary school is named, implored the board to delay the start of school.

“If she (her mom) was still alive she would choose to be courageous and think about students in our district. She would have chosen to wait until the (virus) numbers were at a safe level.”

Several early childhood teachers, including Lorrin Adams, who said she was pregnant and advised against doing home visits by her doctor, said LPS denied their request to do home visits remotely because of the increased danger of going into someone’s home.

During the public comment section of Tuesday's Board of Education meeting, which went on for more than three hours, two LPS officials addressed some of the concerns: Associate Superintendent of Instruction Matt Larson told the board that state education officials told them they had to offer home visits, but LPS is allowing teachers to do Zoom meetings if families agree, not do them if families don't pass pre-screening questions and leave if they get there and don’t feel safe.

Details of learning in a pandemic: Busing, substitute teachers, air flow and sanitizing classrooms

Liz Standish, associate superintendent of business affairs, said each classroom should have bottles of hand sanitizer and disinfectant, and LPS has ordered more face shields to handle additional requests by teachers.

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Because, despite the bulk of public comment, which also included a few parents and a grandparent who said they were happy that school was starting, LPS officials were ready to go ahead with what they said was a fluid plan that would undoubtedly change in an unprecedented situation.

“We’re staying true to what the community wants us to do,” said Superintendent Steve Joel. “It’s going to look different and it’s not going to be perfect and it’s a plan that will have to be fluid.”

As of Tuesday evening, about 20% of students will work remotely — more than 8,000 of them, and high school students will come to school on staggered schedules, so only half of students will be in the building at one time.

Majority of Nebraska teachers surveyed think it's not safe to open schools in their districts

The foundation of the LPS plan is a mask requirement for staff and students, pre-screening for symptoms, frequent hand-washing and sanitizing, and social distancing when possible.

In response to teacher concerns, LPS officials won’t start remote learning until Monday, giving teachers more time to prepare for teaching remote learners and in-person students simultaneously.

Tuesday evening, Joel said the district would delay appraisals and many of the district assessments to reduce responsibilities on teachers and will look for other ways to lighten their loads.

Board member Bob Rauner said LPS is in a different situation than Omaha Public Schools, which shifted to all remote learning. There, unlike Lincoln, positive COVID-19 cases are increasing, not decreasing, he said.

Joel stressed that it’s up to the community to comply with directed health measures,  including wearing masks, and reiterated a reality of the pandemic: plans would undoubtedly change.

“We’ve got a pretty good sense that tomorrow will be a good day for the beginning of school,” he said. “We don’t know what Monday will look like.”

12 LPS staff quarantining after 3 teachers test positive

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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