The Lincoln Education Association, in a rare break with the school district that employs 2,300 of its members, issued a statement Thursday asking the district to delay fully reopening Lincoln Public Schools until the spike in COVID-19 cases ends.
“The decision to open schools knowingly asks teachers and all school personnel — thousands of our neighbors, friends, and family — to put themselves at risk by opening our school buildings and returning to all in-person instruction,” the statement reads.
“There is a very real probability that adults in our school system will become ill or even die with COVID by reopening now. That is not a price that our community should pay.”
LPS should delay reopening of schools until the Lincoln-Lancaster County health department’s “risk dial” is firmly in the green (safest) range, or until the county has 14 days with no new cases, the statement said. The dial is now in the orange, or high-risk, range.
Until then students should be taught remotely, a system that is more robust than it was the final quarter of last year, or the district should consider staggered attendance that would allow for physical distancing, the union statement said.
Association President Rita Bennett said the statement is in response to hundreds of calls the union has gotten from concerned teachers, who worry not just for themselves but for vulnerable family members they'd expose and for students and their families.
The statement comes just days before LPS will release a detailed reopening plan during the regular briefing by Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird and Lincoln-Lancaster County health department officials on Tuesday. District officials say the 30-page overview with more than 500 pages of supporting details for staff will answer many of the questions and will flesh out details of how to mitigate the risk to students and staff.
The plan, developed with guidance from local health officials, is based on the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s risk dial.
That’s the problem, according to Bob Rauner, a school board member and public health doctor who has created regular YouTube community virus updates. The LPS plan is solid, he said, but it’s pegged to a risk dial created by officials who won't say what thresholds are used to calculate the risk.
Positive cases in Lincoln and Lancaster County have been ticking steadily upward for the past three weeks, a trend that Rauner said puts Lincoln on the same trajectory as Southern states where cases are dramatically spiking.
By calculations used by other countries and many health officials — the rate of positive cases based on population (not a positivity rate based on the number of tests taken) — Lancaster County should be in the red (highest) risk category now, he said.
“If we continue in our current trajectory, we won’t have kids in school,” he said.
When cases started going up, mask use should have been made mandatory, including in restaurants and bars, which means people could only eat outside, he said.
“It started changing three weeks ago and nothing has happened,” Rauner said. “When the fire starts raging again, you have to put water back on it. We haven’t started putting water back on it.”
What happens in the weeks before Aug. 12 — and where the risk dial sits — will determine how the plan is implemented, but right now, health department officials have given schools the green light to reopen, Superintendent Steve Joel said.
"We do believe the plan is very comprehensive and it is going to answer most, if not all, the questions that have been raised," he said. "We have to follow our lead from the health department. There's a lot of strong opinions out there, but we have to rely on the folks that know this stuff best.
School Board President Kathy Danek said she understands teachers’ anxiety about returning to school, but it’s important to have a reopening plan, which the state education commissioner and Lincoln Board of Education instructed district officials to create.
“We need a multi-layered plan that reacts to changes in the pandemic,” she said, and she said she will wait to see the risk level in August before deciding whether to fully reopen schools.
The community knows the broad strokes of the plan: That LPS at this point plans to reopen schools at 100% capacity, that they will require students and staff to wear masks, will enforce rigorous hand-washing and sanitizing rules, will attempt to enforce 3-foot physical distancing and will give parents the option of having their students learn remotely instead.
State Department of Education guidance, which will be released Friday, include plans based on similar risk levels, with remote learning recommended for the highest risk level. For moderate to high risk, state guidance recommends 6-foot distancing or plexiglass barriers, facial coverings, alternative scheduling to keep class size at 20 or fewer, limiting large gathering sizes and suspending close-contact sports like basketball, football and wrestling. It says schools should also focus on providing resources for social, emotional and mental health.
In Lincoln, there’s been a growing chorus of concern on social media from both teachers and parents worried about the safety of bringing large groups of people together — particularly from teachers frustrated by what they say is a lack of information or their inclusion in decisions about reopening.
“Teachers are, by and large, advance planners and perfectionists because we are so committed to doing the best job we can,” Bennett said. “Teachers want to know stuff because we make lesson plans all the time. We are used to having to dispatch Plan A to go to Plan B, but usually they know what Plan B is.”
District officials met with a teacher’s advisory group twice and took all the questions they had — along with those other teachers and staff members emailed to district officials — to health department officials, Joel said. They also worked with teachers to figure out how remote learning would work.
Eric Weber, associate superintendent of human resources, said his office has heard from about 300 staff members seeking some kind of accommodation, everything from early retirement or leave requests to adding plexiglass barriers to work areas. The requests come from all staff members, not just teachers.
He said the district will have conversations with all those employees and try to accommodate them, prioritizing those based on documented medical needs of the employees.
The LEA statement says the LPS plans are contrary to local health department guidance for the community when the risk dial is in the orange or high-risk category: staying at home as much as possible; keeping at least 6 feet of distance with anyone outside the home and not having gatherings of more than 10 people.
Joel said health department officials told them the recommendations are outdated. health department officials didn’t respond to questions to clarify.
District officials appreciate teachers’ concerns, but must think of the educational welfare of 42,000 students as well as their safety and that of staff, and the plan does that, Joel said.
Educators want to be in school with students, but the situation has changed significantly since mid-June, when the district first announced plans to fully reopen, the union statement said. Schools are often “factories for illness,” and now the pandemic makes that reality life-threatening.
"We think there's a greater chance of us getting back to 'normal' if the whole community can make a commitment to doing those things (necessary to reduce the spread)," Bennett said.