Papillion La Vista Community Schools has mandated all students, staff and visitors wear masks inside all schools and buildings, as well as district-provided transportation and buses, beginning this week.
“This decision was made due to an increase of positive COVID-19 cases since classes resumed on Aug. 12,” read a post made Friday afternoon on the PLCS website. “Since that time, the Sarpy/Cass Health Department has closed three PLCS classrooms and cases have increased from 28 cases on Monday, Aug. 23, to over 105 cases as of Friday, Aug. 27. Cases are being reported at all school levels across the district.”
PLCS said masks would not be required for outdoor activities, including recess, physical education classes and other outdoor sports or events.
The policy shift was not surprising. When PLCS announced the 2021–22 school-reopening plan at a July board meeting, board members and Superintendent Andrew Rikli made it clear that while schools would open with masks being optional, the district would be working with the health department constantly to provide best practices.
“This is our plan as of July 12, 2021,” Rikli said at the meeting. “Things can and probably will change between now and the start of school. Infection rates could go up. The Delta variant could become more problematic than we think. There a hundred things that can and likely will happen.”
On July 12, the Sarpy/Cass Health Department website reported 20 cases of COVID-19 in Sarpy and Cass counties. As of Sunday, Aug. 29, they were tracking 517 cases, including 112 cases from newborns-to 19-year-olds.
At last week’s meeting, the PLCS Board of Education gave emergency authority to Rikli, allowing him to approve operational decisions in a timely manner between board meetings. It was the same powers granted to him near the beginning of the shutdown.
“With this pandemic, we must remain nimble if we are to stay ahead of its most damaging effects,” Board President Brian Lodes said of reauthorizing the emergency measure.
The district has prioritized keeping students in school and avoiding remote learning. Data compiled by PLCS staff showed a dip in grades and attendance during the shutdown at the end of 2019–20 school year, according to Rikli. When students returned to the classroom in masks for the 2020–21 academic year, tests scores returned to near normal.
“It is clear that the protocols must be adjusted in order to prioritize health and safety and keep learning in person. The Board of Education supports the implementation of this plan,” the PLCS statement read.
A Sarpy County government spokesperson reminded constituents that individual counties do not have authority to require masking, with Nebraska state statute giving that authority to the local health departments, though any directed health measure must be approved by the state. Gov. Pete Ricketts has been clear he does not intend to approve any mandate.
Individual cities have the authority to issue ordinances that require masking, and school boards make the decisions for their districts.
La Vista Mayor Douglas Kindig said Rikli “had a very tough decision, and he did what he thought was best.” He said La Vista is monitoring the situation, and the SCHD has been asked to come speak to the City Council, but there is no talk yet of a city ordinance.
Springfield Mayor Robert Roseland said there had been no discussions with his City Council about an ordinance, but felt confident in Springfield Platteview Superintendent Ryan Saunders to “make the right decision.”
“Our decisions around the pandemic are largely based on what we are seeing inside our schools and in our community,” read a statement from Springfield Platteview Community Schools. “Face coverings are recommended, but not required. We will continue to consult with state and local health officials, metro-area school districts, statewide leaders, and other officials to remain vigilant throughout the school year.”
A spokesperson for the City of Papillion directed questions to PLCS.
The Monday, Aug. 23 Board of Education meeting set the week’s tone, a final gathering in a summer full of withering criticism. Beginning at the May 10 meeting, a small number of speakers have assailed the district’s mask policy. Even when PLCS announced the “mask optional” policy in July 12, the criticism remained unabated.
Regina Foutch, the founder of the Facebook group “PLCS Parents for Liberty,” said her group does not trust Rikli or the board. The group has more than 500 members.
“There’s concern about the leadership and there is division in our community, and it’s from decisions that they have been making,” Foutch said on Aug. 24.
The “liberty” group dominated open public comment most of the summer, and routinely filled the audience. However, with nearly 100 in attendance at last week’s meeting, there was no longer a united front opposed to masks. This time, at least half of the crowd was adamantly for mandating mask use.
The Facebook group “Papillion La Vista Parents for Healthy Kids” launched in August and has nearly 200 members. With Despite concerns for personal safety — in light of nationwide hostilities at other public assemblies — “Healthy Kids” organizer Michael Kuechenmeister said it was important to have their position represented.
During public comments, Lodes and PLCS staff created a balanced slate of speakers with each side getting five representatives. The board president also made clear the hissing and laughing of previous meetings would not be tolerated.
Jean Ballweg — the medical director of pediatric heart transplant and advanced heart failure at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center and the newly-created post-COVID Clinic for Pediatric Long Haulers — said she represents only “her patients.”
“I have been involved with almost every patient that’s been admitted to Children’s Hospital with a COVID diagnosis in the last 20 months,” Ballweg said. “So I see patients who have had acute COVID, patients who have had multi-system inflammatory disease which is a post-COVID inflammatory syndrome. And I see patients who have long-hauler syndrome in pediatric patients.”
She said the average age of her patients is 9-years-old, firmly disputing naysayers who say children are not getting that ill from COVID-19. Of all her patients, 70% were admitted to the intensive care unit, 56% were put on ventilators, and 80% needed intravenous medication to support their heart functions, she said.
“Two of those patients required their chests to be opened with a saw, for a cannulae to be inserted directly into the heart, and blood to be removed from the heart and spun around in a machine called Ecmo to support those patients (similar to the heart-lung by-pass machine used in open-heart surgery, it oxygenates the blood and removes carbon dioxide.) Luckily, they survived,” Ballweg said.
She cited Aug. 19 statistics from the American Academy of Pediatrics that tally 4,413,000 pediatric COVID-19 cases in the U.S. from the beginning of the pandemic until now, which is 14.4% of all COVID patients.
“At the height of the pandemic, they accounted for 3.3 % of total cases,” she said. “The Delta variant is very different.”
The Delta variant is believed to have an “inoculation dose” — the quantity of infectious particles required to establish infection — 1,400% higher than what has come before. Ballweg urged the board to reinstate and reinforce mask policy, handwashing, social distancing and “all the layers of protection” available.
“We have got to get on top of the hurricane that is here,” she said.
The two diametrically opposed groups — one that reveres individual rights and shuns ever-changing government guidance, and one who counts on a united, scientific stand against a viral menace — are in lockstep on a single point: they do not trust Rikli or the board. Not on Monday and not now.
Foutch and her group are incensed. On Monday, the group was joined by people from Nebraskans Against Government Overreach in protests outside of PLCS schools and the central office.
“Pretending like our kids are not affected emotionally, mentally and socially by masks is unsettling,” she wrote. “They don’t even address it. They completely ignore the topic. And when you ask them about masks, they say they cannot comment because it’s personal. It’s become a political issue. Everyone in our community cares deeply about the safety and well-being of our children. The politicizing of masks has torn our community apart.”
In a written statement, Kuechenmeister said, “I thank Dr. Rikli for making the right decision and making PLCS a leader in Sarpy County.”
“It’s unfortunate it took over 100 children to become ill for this decision to be made, but late is better than never,” he said. “We encourage him to continue to heed the advice of our very qualified public health experts and to implement more enhanced measures on top of what was announced for increased safety.”