Coronavirus Briefing

Steve Joel, Lincoln Public Schools superintendent, speaks during a news conference on coronavirus at the County-City Building in March.

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Despite the local health department’s coronavirus risk dial now being in the “high risk” range, Lincoln Public Schools expects to welcome all students back to the classroom next month, Superintendent Steve Joel said during a virtual Face the Chamber speech Tuesday.

But as has been the case since schools closed in March, that comes with caveats: that procedures put in place can mitigate but not eliminate the risk, and that changing COVID-19 conditions could change the plan.

“We believe ... that we can safely ... reopen school for 100% of our students today, unless conditions change,” Joel said.

District officials have a contact tracing and notification plan in place for the “likely event” that a student or staff member is exposed to the virus, and LPS will follow Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department guidelines for quarantining, Joel said.

LPS officials hope that the procedures in place will minimize that risk and will avoid a district-wide shutdown. But temporary shutdowns of classes or schools could happen, he said.

“I think that’s something we’re just going to have to deal with when it occurs,” he said.

Next Tuesday, LPS officials will release a plan — more than 100 pages long — with all the procedures to make schools as safe as possible, a document Joel promised would answer all questions.

The bottom line of those pages of protocols: It will only work if students and staff wear face coverings.

“The only way we can open up schools is if we require face covering,” he said. “I think we’ve got 130 doctors signed on a statement saying face coverings need to be part of the solution. (With masks and other procedures), we believe we can greatly mitigate the risk of spread.”

Six feet of social distancing won’t be possible in classrooms with 25-28 students, but with face masks, experts — including the American Academy of Pediatrics — have said 3 feet is sufficient, he said, a point made earlier by officials.

Procedures also will include frequent hand washing, wiping down high-contact areas two to three times a day and sanitizing common areas.

“Having said that, every parent will have to make their own decision with regard to whether they want to send their children to school or they want to participate in remote learning.”

When the district’s plan goes public next Tuesday, parents will get a waiver form they can fill out if they want to choose remote learning for their children. They’ll have 10 days to read the plan and make a decision, Joel said.

District officials also are in the process of gathering information from teachers and other staff with underlying health conditions and will try to accommodate them, he said, but some may need to make hard decisions.

“We’ll do everything we can to accommodate, but the expectation is we’re going to be holding school and we need teachers and staff in their roles."

Other points Joel made during the chamber speech:

* Elementary students will be “cohorted,” meaning grade levels will do things together in isolation from the rest of the school. Lunches will be socially distant, and “specials” such as music and art will be brought to students in their classrooms, rather than them going to a different classroom shared by all students.

* They’ll go outside as much as possible, where students can take “mask breaks.”

* In secondary schools, not all students will be in the hallways at the same time and teachers will monitor the hallways to make sure students keep masks on and are physically distancing.

* The only non-school personnel in the schools will be gifted and TeamMates mentors. 

* No carnivals, open houses or other such gatherings. Joel noted comments from parents that students get together outside of school with no social distancing, but said school officials must control what they can.

* The half-day attendance plan favored by parents won’t be financially or logistically feasible. LPS conducted a survey more than a month ago asking whether parents preferred having students go a half-day every day or attend every other week if school populations had to be reduced. He didn’t say what the alternative would be.

* LPS and the agencies they work with will continue to offer Community Learning Center before- and after-school programs, with certain safety protocols in place.

* A plan for extracurricular activities, including sports, is still being developed in conjunction with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department. Contact sports, he said, increase the risk of spread, as do large gatherings of spectators.

* The face-covering requirement will include discipline procedures for students who refuse to wear them, with the ultimate consequence for continued refusal being a move to remote learning.

* Remote learning — including if conditions worsen to the point the district had to close doors once again — will be significantly more rigorous than this spring, with students having specific virtual class times with teachers.

* Addressing the social unrest in Lincoln and around the country since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police is another district goal. “We understand it is time for something to change substantially, not just be ‘it’s a good idea,’” he said. “So we’re committing to that.”

As for the pandemic plan, they may need to tweak and adjust it as school gets underway.

“There is no way we are going to get this perfect,” Joel said. “It’s just a different world we live in right now. It’s a worn-out cliche, but who’s got a playbook for a pandemic?”

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

This article originally ran on journalstar.com.

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