Congressman Jeff Fortenberry hosted a town hall via telephone Friday afternoon to inform constituents about the plans for the coming school year in Norfolk.
Fortenberry facilitated a discussion between callers and Drs. Jami Jo Thompson and Leah Barrett, superintendent of Norfolk Public Schools and president of Northeast Community College, respectively.
Thompson and Barrett both outlined plans their respective administrations have set up for the fall semester. Thompson said the school district is using a four-tiered, color-coded advisory level system to determine how full the schools are permitted to be. Currently, the district is at the yellow level, which is a moderate risk.
Under this classification, the schools can be full capacity, but cleaning, hand-washing and distancing guidelines will be in place. If conditions worsen to orange, schools will go to 50% capacity and, at red, schools will move online entirely.
Face masks are required for staff and visitors and highly recommended for students.
Students and staff will be screened for symptoms every day, and steps will be taken to ensure students stay distanced, such as staggering when students are released from classes.
Barrett said Northeast is attempting to make its campus less dense, by holding various classes in some online format. The semester also will end before Thanksgiving. Face masks are required by anyone in a public, indoor area on campus.
One caller asked both about where they were getting their guidance from. Both said the primary source of information is the Elkhorn Logan Valley Public Health Department. Barrett said the college has used the National College Health Association and the University of Nebraska as a resource, while Thompson said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Education Association and the state department of education have helped, as well.
Devin Wiebelhaus, a Norfolk High graduate and current Lincoln resident, said he was appreciative of the administrators’ plans, especially the mask requirements.
Wiebelhaus also posed a difficult question: What happens if a staff member or student were to die from COVID-19, and how would students and staff deal with the emotional toll?
Thompson said the school district has taken great steps to ensure the safety of all students and staff, but they also had a committee that has made a plan in the event of a death. The district has crisis response teams and grief resources that would be made available, and Thompson said the district has invested in mental health by adding more mental health practitioners last year.
“We value the health of our students as a whole, not just on the physical level,” Thompson said.
Fortenberry also asked a few questions himself, with several focusing on how the schools have adapted through the use of technology.
“This pandemic has caused a digital leap,” he said.
He asked Barrett about a new type of online class through Zoom that is different from traditional online classes. Barrett said the classes are “real-time teaching at a distance” and that she expects the classes to be comparable to in-person classes in terms of the level of interaction and engagement.