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Masks will be optional for GPS students returning this fall

Masks will be optional for GPS students returning this fall

Gretna Public Schools will open the 2021–22 school year Aug. 12 with masks optional.

The announcement was to be made to parents by email July 21.

The decision — made with the help of health department officials — comes at a time when local mask mandates have expired and people are getting vaccinated, said Assistant Superintendent Travis Lightle.

“With those guidelines being eased, we are able to not mandate masks and don’t have to worry about losing the thousands and thousands of school days that we did have to worry about last year,” Lightle said. “Masks were so important last year, yes, for making sure it (COVID) didn’t spread, but what people didn’t realize were the amount of school days that were saved due to quarantines.

“We were somewhere around 17,000 days missed last year due to illnesses and quarantines. Had we not worn masks, we would have had to quarantine more students and would have been into the hundreds of thousands of school days missed.”

School officials throughout the greater Omaha metro meet often with local health officials to discuss protocols and plans surrounding school reopening and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As of July 20, there were 58 active COVID cases in Sarpy County, according to the Sarpy/Cass Health Department website. Just over 50% of the county population is vaccinated.

Last Wednesday’s letter to parents was also expected to share quarantine recommendations, such as: fully vaccinated individuals with a close contact will not need to quarantine; students wearing masks with a close contact will not need to quarantine; students who are not vaccine and not wearing a mask may have to quarantine under the direction of the public health department.

Lightle said enhanced cleaning and disinfecting protocols, including frequent sanitization and handwashing, will remain in place for the upcoming school year.

He said the district is still unsure what the full plan will look like, as things are constantly changing throughout the pandemic.

A full plan and protocols will be available through the COVID-19 Updates page at gpsne.org once available.

The page will also offer information on the district’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act or, CARES Act funding, federal aid disbursed in Nebraska by the state Department of Education.

GPS recently received its third round of aid, just over $1 million. Previous rounds were spent on the temperature scanners for all school buildings and technology upgrades to help teachers better serve students during remote learning.

GPS plans to use the money to purchase new reading curriculum for elementary school students in an effort to keep up to date with current reading standards and to “help catch up learning loss from the last year and a half,” Lightle said.

He said by putting all the money toward the reading curriculum, it frees up some money elsewhere in the budget to add some staff, particularly in special education at the middle school level.

The CARES Act funds make up 1.5% of the annual budget. GPS has three years to spend the money.

“It just really made sense to spend it all at once,” Lightle said. “It was on the list anyway. This allowed us to ease the pressure we were going to feel and freed up money so we could also run a full, three-week summer school for students, which we’ve never done.”

GPS will receive public input on its website on both the CARES Act funding allocation and the return to learn protocols. The information can be found under the COVID-19 Updates tab at gpsne.org.

“We understand the year has been difficult for everyone,” Lightle said. “We understand the very diverse opinions. We will continue to do the best we can as we focus on the kids and try to make sure their school year is as successful as possible.

“Everybody is ready to move forward and get back to normal, whatever normal is. We also understand we need to be cautious, but there is definitely an excitement from everyone to see the students’ faces back in the building as we continue to navigate this pandemic.”

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