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Reopening schools in Lincoln: Balancing educational harm of staying closed with risk of the virus
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Reopening schools in Lincoln: Balancing educational harm of staying closed with risk of the virus

From the Milestones in Nebraska's coronavirus fight series
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School — starting in 10 days for thousands of Lincoln children — won’t be the school those students remember.

If they come to the buildings that have been shuttered since March, their noses and mouths will be covered with masks, they’ll regularly squirt their hands with sanitizer, the water fountains will be shut off and their parents will have made sure — Lincoln Public Schools officials hope — that they aren’t feverish or coughing or short of breath before they leave the house.

Their desks, when possible, will face one direction. They’ll be as far apart as possible, though not likely 6 feet, or even 3 feet in some cases.

In elementary school, students will spend the majority of the day in their classrooms with the 20 or so other students and their teacher, except for P.E. and lunch.

In high school, just half the students will be in school at one time — a change LPS officials announced last week in response to rising COVID-19 cases in the community.

LPS moves to staggered schedules for high schools when classes start

Middle schools — where LPS officials say movement between classes and among groups of students falls in some middle ground between elementary schools and high school —  won't have a 50% plan like the high schools. Everybody will be following the protocols being preached by school and local health officials: pre-screening, masks, frequent sanitizing and distancing as much as possible.

But not all the kids will be there when classes resume Aug. 12: As of late afternoon Friday, forms to learn remotely had been submitted for about 16% of LPS students, kindergarten registrations were down by about 120 students compared with last year, and statewide applications for home schooling are up 21%, though it’s unclear how many of those families live in Lincoln.

And not everybody thinks going back to school now is a good idea. 

A group of more than 1,000 parents and current and retired LPS staff is pressuring the district to delay the start of school, begin with all remote learning or, at the least, stagger all schedules.

Members of the group, who came to the school board meeting last week and are planning a protest at the state Capitol on Monday, said teachers were largely left out of the planning and the district's reopening plan is unworkable, doesn’t follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and won’t adequately protect students and staff.

LPS officials think the reopening plan — created in collaboration with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department and which allows for changes depending on the COVID-19 risk level in the community — does the best job possible of mitigating the risks to staff and children.

“The health and safety of both students and staff, as it always is, is one of our fundamental and primary concerns,” said Matt Larson, associate superintendent of instruction. “It is why in developing our plan, we collaborated with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department is the entity in our community with experts in epidemiology, infectious disease and public health.”

Those who don't think it's safe to reopen point to a playbook by the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health, which says the positive case threshold for reopening in the moderate-risk range should be 25-50 cases per million people.

Going back to school: One teacher's decision in a pandemic

That’s significantly lower than Lancaster County’s seven-day rolling average, which was about 150 per million last week.

The team that wrote the guidelines looked at districts around the country that successfully reopened schools, and case levels, with a couple of exceptions, were at those lower levels.

Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the UNMC College of Public Health, said controlling the disease in the community is the baseline for reopening schools, along with rigorous testing, tracing and masks.

“If you want to protect kids, get cases down in your community,” he said. “Until you control disease in your community, you cannot open safely without outbreaks.”

Bob Rauner, a member of the Lincoln Board of Education, a public health doctor and one of the authors of the UNMC guidelines, said Lincoln isn't there because the state hasn't followed precautions necessary to lower spread in the community. 

"Ali (Khan) is one of the world's leading experts in this," Rauner said. "I wish the governor would listen to him more."

It all puts schools in a tough position, but the decision to reopen is more complex than one number, he said.

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LPS' plan follows many of the recommendations in the UNMC plan. And Rauner said he doesn’t think it’s irresponsible to open Lincoln schools, given the safeguards put in place and with Lincoln’s mask mandate.

Nothing will be perfect, he said, and reopening plans are a matter of balancing the risk of the disease with the educational harm to students if schools don’t reopen.

The COVID-19 death rate for students is low, he said, less than dying of influenza or in a car crash, and the potential harm to students who can't be in school are great —  especially for elementary school students, who are at greatest risk of losing ground. School officials argue that not being in school increases food insecurity for low-income students, causes concerns about meeting students' social and emotional needs, and increases the risk of abuse not being reported.

Face masks, hand-washing, screening, distancing foundation of LPS reopening plan

“All of this is a balance of risk,” Rauner said. “We are balancing a harm vs. a harm.”

Lincoln’s positive cases appear to be leveling off, thanks to the mayor’s mask mandate, and if the number of new cases continues to drop, he said, reopening schools will be safe, Rauner said.

Lincoln could be like Singapore, which reopened safely with higher positive caseloads by putting in protective measures as positive cases trended downward, Rauner said.

But if cases keep going up in the next week, he said, LPS could decide to shift to remote learning.

Among Rauner's frustrations: that local and state health officials will not release information about where children are getting infected — information vital to helping school officials make decisions.

If children are getting cases from child care and bringing it home, for instance, it would be less safe to open schools than if those children are getting COVID-19 from family members or other places in the community.

“The real question is how did they get it? That’s what contact tracing is supposed to do,” Rauner said.

Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department officials said in an email they can’t share specific information about positive case investigations but generally, the largest transmission in children younger than 19 comes from home or family members. There have been no large clusters or outbreaks among children, although there’s been “some transmission” in older children from group activities such as baseball or basketball, local health department officials said.

Teachers union asks LPS to delay full school reopening in face of spiking COVID-19 cases

Of all positive tests in Lancaster County in the past two weeks, 4.75% are in children under 10 and 10.96% in children 10-19 years of age, health department officials said. State health officials did not respond to a similar inquiry.

Among the concerns raised by teachers are what happens in the district's middle schools, which have fewer students than high schools but are still often crowded. Four middle schools each had between 800 and 900 students last year; Scott Middle School topped 1,000 students.

Rauner said the situation in middle schools — as their name suggests — falls in the middle.

Middle school students are older and more able to handle remote learning independently and maybe while parents are working, but still less independent than high school students, he said.

They move from class to class more than elementary school students, he said, but less than high school students and they tend to be separated more by grade level and group than high school students. And they’re more likely to come from just one part of town, which reduces the risk of community spread.

Given the other safety measures in place, LPS' Larson said, the local health department doesn’t recommend staggered schedules in middle school.

LPS officials say the other factor that will help increase the ability to physically distance students at all levels is the number of students opting for remote learning.

The 16% — more than 6,000 students — who have filled out forms to learn remotely is not a complete picture, Larson said. For one thing, parents had until midnight Friday to submit the forms, and LPS must confirm all of them before it comes up with a final number.

It appears that nearly half of the forms submitted are for elementary school students, Larson said.

Milestones in fighting the coronavirus

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or

On Twitter @LJSreist

“The health and safety of both students and staff, as it always is, is one of our fundamental and primary concerns. It is why in developing our plan, we collaborated with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. The Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department is the entity in our community with experts in epidemiology, infectious disease and public health.”

 — Matt Larson, associate superintendent of instruction

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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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