How are Nebraska’s public schools faring as the COVID-19 pandemic continues?

Ann Hunter-Pirtle, Stand For Schools’ founder and executive director, has been impressed by the “incredible” and “inspiring” work she has seen from Nebraska educators, students and families.

“That’s maybe a story of the pandemic that we haven’t heard enough,” she said. “We’ve heard a lot of stories about what’s gone wrong, but not a lot about what’s gone right. And I think what’s gone right has been really remarkable in a lot of ways.”

Stand For Schools — a Lincoln-based nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and advancing public education in Nebraska — hosted a webinar last week to discuss Nebraska’s public schools and the challenges and successes they had seen over the past 20 months.

Joining Hunter-Pirtle for the 47-minute webinar were two state government officials whom she called “amazing public education leaders”: Nebraska Commissioner of Education Dr. Matt Blomstedt and state Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont, chairwoman of the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee.

“If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s really that public schools will constantly amaze us with the ways that they can succeed and meet challenges,” Hunter-Pirtle said.

Blomstedt highlighted a few of those successes.

“In the midst of the pandemic and even in the earliest days, school leaders and teachers and others were strategizing about how they were going to get back in and very worried obviously about the students that they were serving and needing to be served,” Blomstedt said.

“It’s actually just kind of a remarkable thing,” he said. “I just came off of a national conference with my peers around the country. Every time I tell the story of how we got back in school, I describe it as the will of school leaders and schools across the state to figure out a way to get back in.”

He recalled when school districts across Nebraska were following directed health measures issued by Gov. Pete Ricketts and students were not attending school in person during the pandemic.

“I had school leaders and teachers and others either tweeting at me, emailing me, saying, ‘Hey look, I’ve got this student that needs served in this fashion or in this way,’ and they looked for a lot of different ways to be able to do that,” Blomstedt said.

“By the time we actually reentered into the school settings after May 2020 and folks started doing that work, they got very good at figuring out new ways to do things,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure and stress to do that.”

He noted Nebraska school leaders started to think about individual families and how best to help them during the pandemic.

“Of course, we did a lot of that with food,” Blomstedt said. “I did tell a reporter at one point that if all we did was serve 300,000 meals a day — if that’s all we did in a school system — wouldn’t that be remarkable in and of itself? It made us really appreciate those types of things that were taking place.”

He expressed pride in how Nebraska school districts did not give up in the face of challenges created by COVID-19.

“What we did well was not give up — not give up on our students, not give up on our families, not give up on the ideals of education,” Blomstedt said.

“Not everything was perfect,” he said. “It never tends to be, but I think the compassion and the caring and somehow people finding the energy to do that work was quite remarkable.”

Hunter-Pirtle asked Blomstedt and Walz about which kinds of challenges are schools facing this year that have been seen before and which types are more recent due to the pandemic.

“One of the biggest challenges that we have in schools is the availability of mental health resources for kids and their families,” Walz said. “We continue to see challenges of mental health issues for kids, for students.”

She noted students’ mental health issues have just been compounded by the pandemic.

“Many children are faced with having to deal with the pressures at home,” Walz said.

She noted many families were already stressed out before the pandemic because of poverty and food insecurities, with its arrival just making matters worse.

She praised Nebraska educators and staff members who help students cope with their mental health issues.

“Sometimes that’s a really dark place for kids,” Walz said. “We need to make sure that we have resources that are available in schools to help with that.”

But while looking out for their students, teachers also have suffered as well.

Blomstedt recalled a school visit — he did not say where — during the pandemic where there were no students in classes that day.

“I was really able to engage with administrative staff and some key teachers and others,” Blomstedt said. “When they’re realizing that they’re under strain as well, it’s harder to be able to serve their students as effectively.

“They even had stories where the students would go home and tell a parent that they’re worried about their teacher,” he said. “These types of things are really a challenge in the midst of the pandemic.”

He brought up the challenge of achievement gaps that existed before the pandemic.

“When you’re talking about the equities or inequities of educational access, educational opportunities that actually go into the housing access, go into workforce issues, go into all of that, that has an impact ultimately on how our students are doing in schools,” Blomstedt said.

He noted this gap-widening experience is happening all over the United States.

“I’ve talked to school officials about how they’re really dealing with students that maybe behaviorally are a year or even two behind where they would expect,” he said.

Hunter-Pirtle asked Blomstedt and Walz about potential steps they see as necessary to meet the challenges in education created by the pandemic.

Walz noted the mental well-being of school staff members and teachers is important to remember just as much as students’.

“We need to make sure that we’re aware of how they’re feeling and how they’re able to perform their job,” Walz said. “It’s just as important to make sure that we’re providing resources for them as it is that we’re providing resources for kids.

“That’s one of the things I think that we need to look at in the future: How can we provide more resources not only to kids and families, but also to the teachers,” she said.

Blomstedt noted the Nebraska Department of Education wants to figure out what it can take off the plates of school leaders and teachers as a sign of support and to make their lives a little easier.

“We tried to, again, produce some kinds of flexibilities — the opportunity for teachers to take kind of mental health days and be able to not have to worry as much about those types of conditions,” Blomstedt said.

“It’s a push and pull, though, because kids need to be in school,” he said. “If you have a day not in school, there are pressures somewhere else.”

He commended Nebraska educators for all of the responsibilities they take on with their jobs and noted being a teacher “probably has to be the most responsible profession ever invented.”

“They put pressures on themselves,” Blomstedt said. “As I’ve had a teacher advisory group, I’m like, ‘Hey, it’s OK. It’s not going to be all perfect for you.’

“We’re trying to find ways to remove some of those pressures and pressures that we put on ourselves to manage in this moment.”

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