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

From the Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight series
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In a few days, students, teachers, parents and administrators will begin putting into practice the 600 pages of procedures Lincoln Public Schools officials created to keep COVID-19 at bay.

Despite protests by teachers and parents who think it’s too dangerous to be back in school, teachers reported to work last week, rearranging their classrooms so the desks faced one direction as much as possible, taking stock of the hand and surface sanitizers they’ll use and setting up remote-learning stations.

And next week, 83% of the district’s students — the ones who did not choose to learn remotely — will be back in school, though only half the high school students will go at one time.

Most parochial schools also will open next week, or the week after. Both Pius X and Lincoln Lutheran will open school to all students, but have a remote option and mask requirements. At Lincoln Lutheran, masks will be required when 6 feet of distance can't be maintained. 

While teachers are worried about their safety as well as their students' and the community's, they're also worry about logistics.

How do you juggle teaching — both remotely and in person — cleaning surfaces and keeping kids apart and masked?

“There’s a huge concern about the reality of serving both remote and in-person learners at the same time,” said Lincoln Education Association President Rita Bennett. “Because there’s a whole list of expectations, of all the things they’re supposed to be doing to support the remote learners, in addition to the in-person learners.”

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

There’s limited time to figure everything out, she said, and while summer school remote learning was “synchronous” — that is, kids Zoomed into their classes at a certain time each day — teachers weren’t teaching both in-person and remotely simultaneously.

“I think overwhelming is a good word,” she said, especially for teachers who all want to do things well. “It is very, very frustrating. No one wants to drop a ball.”

Each school can determine how best to arrange remote learning, said Matt Larson, associate superintendent of instruction, though he knows of only one building where they’re grouping all remote learners together.

Among the other issues facing teachers and students next week:

Substitutes

LPS — like districts across the country — worries about whether there will be enough substitutes to fill in for teachers who must quarantine or stay home because they’re ill, especially since many substitutes are retired teachers at greater risk because of their age.

Although the district typically has 600-800 substitutes — a number that fluctuates throughout the year — it’s often difficult to find a substitute for a particular class, Bennett said.

There may be subs on the roster, but they might not have expertise in the subject area needed, or may only want to work certain days of the week or in certain buildings.

LPS moves to staggered schedules for high schools when classes start

“I think that impacts the day-to-day availability of subs,” she said.

Enter a pandemic, and the demand for subs is likely to increase, as possible COVID-19 symptoms that wouldn't normally keep teachers home will now require them to stay away.

LPS asked subs in a survey how comfortable they’d be working this fall. Of the 256 who responded, 5% said they wouldn’t be comfortable and won't be working, said Eric Weber, associate superintendent of human resources. Another 36% said they are hesitant but still plan to teach.

So even though LPS has 635 subs on the books now — about 60 more than last year at this time, Weber is estimating he’ll have at least 5% fewer subs available, based on the sample that responded to the survey.

The Nebraska State Education Association asked 482 retired teachers statewide who substituted last year whether they’d do so again this year. Of those, 158 teachers (33%) said they would; 102 (21%) said they would not and 222 (46%) said they weren’t sure.

A shortage of subs burdens teachers, who may have to fill in at a moment’s notice, and risk greater exposure by teaching a group of kids they don't normally teach, Bennett said.

Busing

LPS buses more than 3,500 students to school each day in 153 buses and two minivans.

District officials will not require 6 feet of distance between students sitting on a bus, but they will require masks, will allow just two students per bench rather than three and will space students out on different benches and will open windows when possible, said Liz Standish, associate superintendent of business affairs.

There will be assigned seating and children from the same household will be seated together. There will be a plastic sheet installed behind the driver’s seat, and the first passenger seat directly behind the driver will be used as a sanitation station for students.

LPS transports special-education students, English language learners, students in early childhood programs, those who attend The Career Academy and other focus programs, as well as students who are assigned to schools more than 4 miles from their homes.

A quarter to a third of the buses are filled to capacity on any given day, and the capacity of all those buses will be reduced by the two-per-seat requirement, said Ryan Robley, LPS director of transportation.

The most crowded buses typically are those that take students from Air Park to Schoo Middle School, he said. LPS added one route there, but has not had to reduce the number of students who ride the bus.

LPS officials expect the number of students choosing to learn remotely will reduce the number riding buses daily, Robley said. So far, more than 7,000 students have indicated their intent to learn remotely, not all of whom ride the bus.

Nearly 17% of LPS students opt for remote learning, many from low-income schools

Ventilation

Proper ventilation of schools, necessary to reduce the possibility of virus spread, should not be an issue at LPS, even at older schools, thanks to a 20-year, $300 million-plus endeavor to update air-handling systems at all the schools — projects that will be finished with the renovation of Park Middle School and Everett Elementary School as part of the current bond issue, said LPS operations director Scott Wieskamp.

“Even though our buildings are old, the mechanical systems are new,” he said.

When Park and Everett are finished, all schools except Scott and Lux middle schools will have the more efficient geothermal heating-and-cooling systems. Scott and Lux were built at the time the renovations began, using standard heating-and-cooling systems, which are still efficient, Wieskamp said.

LPS has aligned the systems to follow recommendations of the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.

Maintenance workers will check heat pump and air-handling systems monthly and replace filters as needed; set systems for three air exchanges an hour (no change from before the pandemic but in line with recommendations); disable settings that previously limited fresh air coming into the buildings; and monitor carbon dioxide levels, which are an indicator of good ventilation.

LPS also will turn on ventilation systems in buildings an hour earlier and leave them on an hour later to help flush the buildings with fresh air before people arrive and after they leave, Wieskamp said, and they’ll visit buildings regularly to monitor air-quality levels.

The sanitizer situation

The quantities of hand sanitizer needed for students to use every time they come and go from a classroom will be provided by Innovation Campus at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, so there will be plenty available, Standish said. 

Access to those handy Clorox wipes is another story.

Secondary teachers will be expected to clean their rooms between each class, elementary school teachers to do so mid-day, and custodians will clean the common areas during the day, as well as all rooms at the end of the day.

Since Clorox wipes aren’t easily available — and would be expensive to keep in stock even if they were — LPS is using a diluted bleach solution recommended by the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and paper towels, Standish said.

LPS ordered 20,000 spray bottles but is still waiting for the spray bottle tops, so the room sanitizer will have to be poured until they arrive, hopefully by Aug. 17.

Fair warning: because it’s a bleach solution, it could discolor clothes if spilled.

Teachers can bring their own Clorox wipes, though they’re limited to two brands: Clorox and Seventh Generations, which are recommended by the local health department.

Protesters rally at Capitol over Lincoln schools reopening

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

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government 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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