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State ed commissioner: Flexibility and balance keys to working through pandemic
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State ed commissioner: Flexibility and balance keys to working through pandemic

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The Nebraska Department of Education began working through the effects a pandemic has had on its education system Friday, including discussing a declaration enumerating what rules schools will and won’t have to follow.

In a broad sense, the declaration, which board members have yet to approve, says the department will provide as much flexibility as possible to districts on state education rules ranging from instructional hours to mandatory attendance requirements and library and media availability, staff development and saying the pledge of allegiance daily.

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It addresses issues raised in a petition filed in May by Kraig Lofquist, director of the ESU Coordinating Council, which coordinates the activities of the state’s 17 educational service units.

The petition asks the department to spell out how it will handle a variety of rules and regulations, as well as a number of state laws regarding education.

Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said some of the issues have become moot, such as concerns over accreditation, since the board just accredited all schools and ESUs for the coming year. Other issues will need to be addressed going forward.

One of the challenges, he said, is state education officials have had to rely on laws passed after the 1918 pandemic, which required some interpretation about how to best manage things a century later.

“Our intention is to do two things,” he said. “Provide the pathway forward, indicate the board will continue to offer the accommodations necessary for dealing with the pandemic. At the same time we can’t give anything away for individual rights and responsibilities (of students).”

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One of the big issues is requirements for special-education students, which impact federal reimbursements schools get for educating students with special needs. That and some other issues relate to statutes or federal law, which the state department doesn’t have the authority to change.

It’s a balancing act, said Blomstedt and board member Rachel Wise.

“What we don’t want to happen is to have our most-vulnerable students fall through the cracks,” Wise said.

There also might be an opportunity to change or update rules to reflect things educators have learned through the pandemic regarding practices such as remote and digital learning, Blomstedt said.

The petition didn't ask for clarification about a detail several parents who wrote letters to the board are concerned about: Requiring students and teachers to wear masks, a recommendation in a state education website offering guidance for schools for reopening this fall. 

Several parents said they wouldn't send their children to school if such a requirement existed.

The board dealt with several other issues related to the pandemic:

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* New ACT dates — The state is working with ACT to arrange times — tentatively set for Sept. 22 and Oct. 6 — for this year’s juniors to be able to take the test. The state now gives the college admissions test to all juniors as part of its state assessments, but it also offers all students a chance to take the test once for free. Because of the school closures prompted by the pandemic, this year’s juniors didn’t get to take the test. The new dates will be optional, state officials said, and won't be used as a state test. State tests were suspended this year because of the pandemic.

*  Testing contracts — The board approved extending contracts to two other companies that administer state tests. Because there were no state tests this year, the money will be used to help teachers with more “formative” tests used in the classroom so teachers can gauge how well students are learning the information, and clarification for tests given to students with severe disabilities.

* Frontline workers — The board approved a resolution supporting all frontline workers, including those who work in schools.

* Commissioner salary — The board approved a contract for Blomstedt that, at his request, froze his salary at $232,620. He was supposed to get a 2.3% raise, to $237,971. Board members approved the contract, but said he deserved the raise, given the job he’s done, especially the work he’s put in to manage the pandemic. He also opted not to take a 2.95% raise in 2017.

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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