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The complexities of containing a pandemic with masks in schools
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The complexities of containing a pandemic with masks in schools

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Want a glimpse of what school will look like this fall?

Take a peek inside Cedars Community Learning Center, where students have a new accessory to complement the traditional shorts and T-shirts of summer: cloth face coverings in all manner of color and pattern, bright eyes peering out above them.

Masks cover the mouths and noses of all but one of the 18 students at the CLC, one of several precautions summer program supervisors have taken to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

Teachers explained to the elementary school children that they need to wear the masks to help prevent the spread of the virus and keep people safe — including the one student who doesn’t wear one because of a severe asthma problem.

And they’ve told students they’re getting some great practice for fall, when they’ll return to Clinton and Hartley elementary schools and a district that will require all students to wear masks.

Despite angry parents who filled the board room to oppose the new rule — including a group that gathered more than 3,000 signatures in an online petition — Lincoln Public Schools officials say they plan to move forward with the decision, one recommended by both the local health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But they acknowledged that masks won't work for every student, a point John Wyvill wants to make sure both local and state officials understand.

Wyvill, executive director of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, said cloth masks will create substantial barriers for students who rely on lip reading and other visual cues to understand what their teachers are saying.

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Deaf and hard-of-hearing students already miss about 30% of what happens in a classroom, he said, and masks would make it significantly worse.

He’s advocating for schools to have a plan that would likely include clear masks to make sure those students — 894 statewide, including about 120 at LPS — aren’t at a disadvantage.

“We’re not getting into a debate about freedom or rights of expression,” Wyvill said. “When you play football in high school you need to wear a face mask. If they say (students) need to wear a mask for public health you need to do it. ... We are just saying if you need to do this you need to have a plan.”

Amy Rhone, director of special education for the Nebraska Department of Education, said districts need to find ways to work around anything that impedes accessibility for students with special needs, not just those who are hard-of-hearing.

“Clear masks are just part of the puzzle,” she said. Students on the autism spectrum could have sensory issues that would make masks difficult, for instance, and it could be problematic for students with severe behavioral issues.

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“We’re trying to help districts understand that putting blanket policies in place might not work.”

Instead, it will likely require different plans for different students. The state education department’s overall guidance to schools is to follow CDC and local health department guidelines, and Rhone's office is trying to help them meet those guidelines for students with special needs.

“We’re trying to be thought of as partners in all of this, not compliance police,” Rhone said.

LPS is working through the same issues.

“We’re in the process of defining what would be potential student exemptions for facial coverings and the process by which parents would obtain that potential exemption,” said Matt Larson, associate superintendent of instruction.

In general, he said, LPS would provide exemptions for documented medical or significant behavioral issues.

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Parents speak out against masks in schools; LPS still figuring out pandemic costs

They’ve yet to define them all, but LPS already has purchased clear masks: 2,000 for teachers and 200 for students, said Jenny Fundus, director of special education. The larger number of clear masks for teachers is necessary because in secondary schools, students have different teachers for each subject.

LPS also is looking at ways to allow speech pathologists to do their work, which requires that students see how they form words and sounds and that teachers see how well students imitate their examples. That might be accomplished by using clear masks, face shields or desk covers that would put a clear barrier between student and teacher, Fundus said.

“We’re just exploring ways to help our teachers do their jobs,” she said.

Rhone said the work is particularly challenging, because students with special needs are taught in regular classrooms — a philosophy known as inclusion — and it’s important that making plans to accommodate students with special needs doesn’t involve isolating them in separate classrooms.

There also are challenges beyond those for students with special needs.

Elementary school students need to see teachers’ faces during phonics lessons, for example, as do English language learners in some of their lessons. Larson said district officials are working with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department to establish when it would be appropriate to pull masks down for certain instruction.

State officials are also helping districts navigate another challenge: the cost.

Federal coronavirus aid money will help offset costs caused by the pandemic, Rhone said, and some regular special-education funding could be used to pay for new needs, such as software for iPads to provide enlarged text for visually impaired students if they need to work remotely.

Specialized equipment is more costly: The 100,000 cloth face masks LPS bought for students and staff cost $1.40 or $3.40 apiece , depending on size. Clear masks for students cost $18 apiece and the 2,000 between $2.40 and $4.55 apiece for adults. Clear student masks cost more because fewer companies make them and they’re in short supply, Fundus said.

The group of parents who came to the school board meeting to oppose masks raised concerns about students with disabilities, PTSD and anxiety, but also about masks impeding social interaction and communication for all students.

At LPS, amplification systems added to all LPS classrooms several years ago will be a critical part of helping all students understand their mask-wearing teachers clearly, Larson said. Teachers wear a small microphone around their necks that hooks up to a system that amplifies their voices at the same level to all parts of the classroom.

Bob Rauner, a school board member and public health doctor who has provided weekly updates on the pandemic, took issue with some of the documents cited at the board meeting by parents who opposed masks as being outdated or taken out of context — and said scientists are constantly learning more about the virus and how best to prevent it.

Case in point: An early study indicates masks might not be necessary for young children because they don't spread the virus as easily, though that theory has yet to be proven, Rauner said. If it is, LPS could modify the mask rule with regard to younger children.

In the meantime, he’s made pleas on his weekly YouTube video for parents not to overreact and be patient.

“We’ll make a decision based on evidence not based on Facebook posts and screaming and yelling,” he said. “This is the time to be calm, look at what the evidence tells us and respond to what that evidence tells us.”

And one thing that’s been proven, he said, is that masks, in combination with social distancing and hand washing, is the cheapest and most effective way to contain the virus.

And in the CLCs  — a much smaller setting than a school — the masks, after a couple of weeks of adjustment, have stayed on for the most part, albeit with reminders, said Mandy Suing, Cedars' CLC program director. That’s been the biggest issue, she said: kids tiring of the masks and pulling them down.

In addition to masks, students sit in assigned seats and each get their own bags with markers and colors so they don’t need to share. At lunch, they take off their masks and sit at assigned seats, three to each long table. Every student has their own water bottle.

They wash their hands before and after lunch, and when they come in from outside. A young man in a batman T-shirt who put his orange mask on after lunch without being asked, can also tell a visitor why they’re important. And that he doesn't much like wearing them.

But Suing thinks the clear expectations at the beginning helped.

“We started it from Day One, the minute they walked in the door they knew what was going to happen,” she said. “I just think worldwide it will have to be a norm."

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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