Most Northeast Nebraska schools are starting to discuss what the fall will look like, but administrators don’t want to finalize plans too early.
While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently published more guidelines on opening school systems for the 2020-21 year, rural schools are cautious to commit to the new recommendations.
“Honestly, to make plans for the fall right now is too soon, because the CDC guidelines will probably change again,” said Andrew Offner, superintendent of Winside Public Schools. “Some of the things I’ve heard about the guidelines is that they are not advantageous to schools; you can't have 6 feet in between people or social distance correctly in school. I don’t want to put a statement out saying this is what we’re going to do, and have to change it again.”
The guidelines, though not required, paint an unusual picture for how schools might operate in the fall.
This includes no recess, cafeterias and shared materials; students and teachers socially distancing and wearing masks; and daily temperature and symptom checks.
The CDC also is recommending groups of students stay together and with the same teacher throughout the day and groups not to mix.
Schools should tailor the recommendations to fit the community, according to the CDC website.
Administrators at Hartington-Newcastle Public Schools are preparing for a few different scenarios for the fall, Superintendent A.J. Johnson said. It would be ideal to have students start as normal, but staff are also preparing for a reduced-capacity approach and remote learning.
“What we choose, we just can't just say right now,” Johnson said. “Some of the (CDC’s guidance) is a little impractical. One of the things they are saying is no recess, but you can't keep kids inside for eight hours a day without having them move around; that’s impossible. We will have to keep safety at the paramount of the discussion, but we have to keep the learning environment in mind.”
Pierce Public Schools staff are preparing for the possibility of remote learning,but are hopeful for a normal start, said Mark Brahmer, high school principal.
Students at Pierce High School received new instruction and curriculum from April to the end of the school year. Brahmer said he’s grateful because it prepared teachers for the 2020-21 year.
“Learning is best with kids present in the classroom, and we want to get back to normalcy,” Brahmer said. “As the summer progresses and if we might have to start with a different model, we will discuss it then.”
Battle Creek Public Schools has outlined three specific scenarios for the fall, similar to Hartington-Newcastle and Norfolk Public Schools, Superintendent Jake Luhr said.
The first scenario is starting normal, with the second one being limited class size. If local health officials mandate gatherings of 25 or fewer, Luhr said he’s optimistic that Battle Creek would still be able to accomplish that in school.
“The third scenario is starting the school year the same way we ended it, which would be very challenging,” Luhr said. “Relationships with kids is how teachers are effective; it's challenging to build quality relationships with kids if you start remotely. That’s the worst-case scenario.”
Luhr said he’s seen the new CDC guidelines, but the district won’t be considering them until closer to the first day of school in the likely case that they would change.
The Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association, which serves school districts statewide including about 50 in Northeast Nebraska, has formed several committees to analyze the CDC guidelines, said Jack Moles, executive director.
Eight committees, composed of 100 superintendents and Educational Service Unit administrators, are preparing possible solutions and ideas for schools to follow in the fall. The association will form a document after discussing recommendations from local, state and federal health officials.
“One of the things we didn't want to see happen is, for example, some hard and fast rules that apply to all schools, that might fit well in Omaha but not rural Nebraska, or vice versa,” Moles said. “Hopefully, in the next month or so, we’ll come out with some ideas that schools can consider. My hope — and expectation — is that no two schools will have the same plan.”
For now, school administrators also may access a “School Decision Tool” that was released recently from the CDC. It’s a guide on how and when to reopen schools with yes-or-no questions that include safety actions and ongoing health monitoring.
In addition to the CDC, the Nebraska Department of Education has started an effort called Launch Nebraska to support districts as they plan to restart schools.
The project also offers guidance for the incoming school year, but it released specific recommendations on Thursday that address summer programming and activities.
Like Winside, district administrators from Elgin, Laurel-Concord-Coleridge and Stanton are waiting until later in the summer to avoid making plans with fast-changing guidelines.
“I don’t want to spend a lot of time making these plans and they change in a month,” Offner said. “They (the CDC) are going to get feedback from schools. I’m trying to be cautious, because every week there’s something new. I do know ending a school year like we did is OK, but we can't start a school year like how we ended it.”