Protesters briefly blocked Gov. Pete Ricketts’ car as it left the state Capitol on Monday, then set up a "classroom" on the Capitol steps to illustrate the challenges of socially distancing in schools when they reopen.
In classrooms — like the imaginary one with 25 protesters crowding inside yellow tape on the Capitol steps — teachers will be expected to balance in-person and remote instruction, regular sanitizing, making sure students keep their masks on and monitoring students for symptoms, protesters said.
And then, students will take off their masks in crowded cafeterias and when they are at recess — where keeping them socially distant will be impossible — all of which makes the Lincoln Public Schools' reopening plan unsafe, said JuJu Tyner, a West Lincoln Elementary School art teacher.
“We will demonstrate to delay reopening until there is an actual safe and equitable reopening plan,” Tyner said.
The protest was organized by a group of more than 1,000 LPS staff and parents called Safely Open Schools, who argue that until positive cases go down significantly in Lincoln, LPS should stick to remote learning — which will be more effective if teachers don’t have to teach both in person and remotely simultaneously.
Organizers said they decided to protest at the Capitol and in front of the Governor’s Mansion because LPS officials seem intimidated by Ricketts, who is ultimately responsible.
At Memorial Park in Omaha on Monday, more than 200 educators held a demonstration for similar reasons — and to advocate for a mask mandate. Lincoln has a mask mandate; Douglas County was going to order one, but backed off after the state attorney general challenged the plan. However, the Omaha City Council is considering a mandate.
The Omaha educators also argue metro school districts should not open until there is significantly less community spread of the virus.
At a news conference Monday morning, Ricketts said reopening schools is important for the overall well-being of students, including their social, nutritional and behavioral needs, in addition to their academic needs. And he said policymakers need to look at issues broader than doctors do in making their reopening recommendations.
Two hours later, before the start of the Lincoln protest, a car with Ricketts inside pulled out of a driveway just east of the Capitol steps and a few protesters surrounded it, yelling at the occupants.
About 100 people attended the protest, including one teacher dressed as the Grim Reaper who held a sign saying “I can’t wait to meet my kids!”
They argued that LPS’ plan to reopen schools doesn’t follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines; will put the community, students, parents and staff at risk; and will exacerbate educational inequities, especially because the virus affects people of color at higher rates.
Michelle Clifford, a Lincoln High School art teacher, said this is the time to right a system that relies on schools to provide things other government systems should provide, such as nutrition, universal child care, mental health and health care services.
“Now is the time to enact changes we’ve been too afraid to make,” she said.
The group marched from the steps on the north side of the Capitol to the Governor’s Mansion on the south side, chanting “safely open schools” and “equity in education.”
Jen Jorges, a parent who began the Safely Open Schools group, urged people to make some “good trouble” — invoking a saying by the late Congressman John Lewis — by staying involved, attending public meetings and convincing policymakers to change course.
“Public schools should not be the economic engine of the recovery,” she said.
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