Lincoln Public Schools students in high school will start with staggered schedules, given the rising number of positive COVID-19 cases in Lincoln and a local health department risk dial moving farther into the high-risk category, Superintendent Steve Joel announced Tuesday.
LPS officials, who have based their reopening plan on the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department's risk dial, said they made the decision to move to staggered schedules to reduce the number of students at school after meetings over the past 24 hours with local health officials. Elementary and middle school students will all come to school, although any student can choose to learn remotely.
Joel said they'll continue to monitor the situation daily.
"It is our hope that we can soon return to normal operations," Joel said. "But again, it will take the commitment of everyone in the entire community in Lincoln."
His announcement didn't erase the worries of a large group of people — many of them wearing red and among the 1,000-plus members of a Facebook group called Safely Open Schools — who stood outside and waited in an overflow room at the LPS offices to air their concerns about the district's plan to reopen.
Twenty-five people came to the microphone to speak, urging Board of Education members to begin school remotely until the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the city goes down and the risk dial is in the safe "green" zone. If students go back to school now, speakers argued, the plan will exacerbate equity issues, put teachers, students and the community at risk and create a remote-learning system that — while better than what happened during the fourth quarter of the last school year — would not be effective.
Jake Bogus, a Schoo Middle School teacher who said he urges his students to use their voices and didn't want to be a hypocrite by not using his, said he's talked to many teachers about the plan and the discussion always comes down to this: Why are we doing this when it would be safer and simpler to go with remote learning?
"Staff and students don't want to mitigate the risk, they want to eliminate it," he said.
His teaching is most effective when he can interact with students and build relationships, he said, but the safety of his students is more important, and if the district gets this wrong, students will die.
Rita Bennett, president of the Lincoln Education Association, which represents LPS teachers, said she appreciates the district's decision to transition to staggered schedules in high schools, but some of the middle schools are just as crowded as high schools, and the district should consider staggered schedules there as well.
And there's still a risk at elementary schools of students getting sick, she said, and a risk to all staff — something LPS officials have spoken little about. Staff didn't feel included in the planning, she said, and after reading the district's extensive reopening plan, 58% had little confidence in returning to in-person classes.
Using teachers with health risks to teach students remotely could have allowed highly effective teachers to continue to teach, rather than taking leave or retiring, she said.
Maggie Thompson, a parent, said the reopening plan fails to address equity issues, because high-poverty schools are older and more crowded, and families in more-affluent schools will be more likely to choose the remote option. Many parents in low-income families are essential workers who will have no choice but to work, sending their children to school and putting them at risk, several parents said.
Thompson also suggested engaging other community groups to offer space for students to learn remotely, and said LPS should beef up its e-learning courses.
Michelle Howell Smith, a parent, said she appreciated comments from district staff about the time and effort that went into the plan, but she doesn't think remote learning that only allows students to be passive observers of class will be effective.
Several teachers said the additional work cleaning classrooms and other tasks is too much to ask if they're still to teach effectively.
An extensive reopening plan released by LPS last week includes many details about how schools will operate in a pandemic, although all of those rules and protocols are based on four arching tenants: students and staff must wear face coverings, self-screen for symptoms before coming to school, wash hands and sanitize work spaces frequently, and physically distance as much as possible.
LPS officials are calling the staggered high school schedules the 3/2 plan. It addresses only the high schools, which last year had more than 2,000 students in five of six buildings. Officials said it's especially difficult with that many students moving between classes to maintain social distancing throughout the day.
Omaha Public Schools has a similar staggered schedule involving students at all grade levels in its reopening plan.
Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic
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