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Students in Westside district now will attend school for only part of the week, officials say

Students in the Westside Community Schools will attend school only part of the week, district officials announced Tuesday.

The district said that from Aug. 18 through Sept. 4, some students will attend school in person while others will be at home.

The Omaha Public Schools and Ralston Public Schools have both announced that their students will be divided into two groups that will alternate days attending school.

The Westside district’s schedule will look different for elementary and secondary students.

Elementary school students will be divided into two groups based on their last names. Students whose last names start with A through K will attend school in person Mondays and Tuesdays. Students whose last names start with L through Z will attend school in person Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, everyone except teachers will be at home.

On days when students are not in class, they will have opportunities between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. to participate in live or prerecorded teaching lessons and small-group work.

Students who are home will not be expected to participate in six hours of continuous screen time.

Middle and high school students will be broken down into even smaller groups. Students whose last names start with A-E will attend school in person on Mondays, students with last names F-K will attend Tuesdays, students with last names L-R on Thursday and S-Z on Friday. On Wednesday, middle schoolers and high schoolers will be home.

On days when those students are home, they will have about 30 minutes or more of work per class per day that they will be expected to complete. The assignments will include such things as writing work or collaborating virtually in small-group discussions.

Families who have students with different/multiple last names may contact their building principal by 5 p.m. Aug. 4 to determine an assigned attendance group for their children.

In a note to parents, Superintendent Mike Lucas said the format will allow students who wish to return to in-person learning to get into classrooms a few days a week, meet their teachers, see friends and work toward a more normal school experience.

Lucas said district officials wanted students to attend five days a week because the primary objective has been to get students back in school.

“However, our local medical experts are telling us that the community infection rate in Omaha is still too high to safely open schools in a traditional format that we so desperately want to get back to,” Lucas wrote.

Lucas cautioned that COVID-19 concerns by the start of school Aug. 18 could require that all students stay home and learn remotely.

“We know this is a scary and emotional situation for many of our students, staff and community,” Lucas wrote. “It’s also become divisive and overwhelming. Please hang in there with us during this stressful and difficult time.”

Westside High holds graduation ceremony

New study links Omaha evictions to racial segregation and disparities

Evictions of people from their homes occur much more frequently in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods of Omaha than in majority white parts of the city, according to a new report that examined eight years of court records.

Many of the neighborhoods with the highest frequency of evictions also tend to have low incomes, low scores on standardized tests at neighborhood schools, lower life expectancy and higher rates of COVID-19 infection, according to the report, called “Understanding Evictions in Omaha.”

It may not be surprising, of course, that evictions often occur in high-poverty areas. Or that those areas have an array of health, education and wealth challenges, some stemming from a history of racial segregation.

But the authors of the new report — Creighton University assistant professor Pierce Greenberg and housing lawyer Gary Fischer — say the overlapping nature of those issues suggests that changing eviction policies could improve people’s lives and neighborhoods.

“While by no means a solution to systemic racism, local housing and eviction policies provide one key avenue to address racial disparities in Omaha,” they wrote.

For example, Fischer recommended an examination of the Omaha Housing Authority’s eviction practices, because that agency accounted for 7% of the eviction filings. The report also recommended making more legal representation available to people being evicted, possibly through a public right-to-counsel program.

Fischer, retired general counsel of Family Housing Advisory Services Inc. in Omaha, also said better enforcement of Omaha’s housing code would help. It is not uncommon, he said, for people to be evicted while they’re withholding rent because their landlord won’t make repairs, but the tenant has no other, better affordable place to live.

Greenberg and Fischer counted and mapped more than 39,000 eviction cases filed in Douglas County from 2012 through 2019. Of those, more than 28,000 resulted in evictions.

“It’s important that people understand the sheer number of evictions that are happening,” said Erin Feichtinger, an advocate who works for the Omaha nonprofit Together. “Perhaps more importantly, people need to understand that each of those numbers represents a person or a family who then lost their housing. … This is a crisis. Right now, it’s a public health crisis. And before that it was a crisis anyway, just on a human scale.”

While the report found higher eviction rates in historically racially segregated and disadvantaged parts of North Omaha and public housing developments in South Omaha, the authors did not assert that people were evicted specifically because of their race. In fact, the data did not include the race of people being evicted.

Nor did the report say that being evicted was causing issues such as coronavirus infections or premature deaths, despite the statistical correlation, or that there was a cause-and-effect relationship between individuals’ academic performance and eviction. (Although the authors said other research has shown such a link.)

But the report did establish that those dynamics were all occurring more in some parts of the city than others.

Both evictions and household income track with race and geography, the report said. The 34 majority nonwhite census tracts in Omaha have an average median household income of $32,566, compared to $71,083 for majority white census tracts.

“Likewise, majority non-white census tracts have an average of 41 evictions per year, compared to 17 per year in majority-white tracts,” the report said.

With support from Creighton University and Family Housing Advisory Services, Fischer and Greenberg started work on their research before the coronavirus and this summer’s protests. They said the pandemic and renewed recognition of racial inequality have made it even more relevant, and that greater efforts to reduce evictions could help improve public health and equality.

Those efforts also would make a difference for individual families.

Nyaluak Duop and her 8-year-old daughter are currently facing eviction from their apartment. Duop described an uphill financial climb since she fell out with family over her pregnancy at age 18. She was homeless for a time. Her car broke down, and she had to decide between paying for a car or paying the rent, she said. She slept in her car and her daughter stayed with Duop’s friends and relatives. But Duop made it through school to become a certified nursing assistant, and got a job at a hospital.


Nyaluak Duop and her 8-year-old daughter are currently facing eviction from their apartment at The Heights.

A year ago, she moved into an apartment at The Heights, a complex in west Omaha. She said she was keeping up on her rent, but fell behind after her hours were cut because of COVID-19. With her lease expiring at the end of July, Duop said she wanted to move out at month’s end, and tried to make a partial payment, but the company wouldn’t take it unless she agreed to a formal payment plan. She faces an eviction hearing Wednesday.

Duop said she’s going to stay with a friend for a while, and her daughter will stay with a relative. She said she has the money. She wants to avoid having the eviction on her record because it will make it harder to rent an apartment or, as she dreams of doing, to buy a house.

Scott Mertz, a lawyer for Legal Aid of Nebraska, is representing Duop. He said he was trying to work out an agreement with a lawyer for Duop’s landlord. Often, Mertz said, lawyers from his organization or others are able to help people avoid having to move out, or at least not have an eviction on their record.


Nyaluak Duop faces eviction from her Omaha apartment that she planned to leave at the end of the month

Kristy Lamb, vice president of property management for NP Dodge, said the company tries to avoid evictions, works with tenants and is taking extra measures because of the pandemic. That includes offering tenants an “Essential Home Plan,” in which they agree to seek help from community resources and can sign on to a payment plan to get caught up. She said Duop declined that.

“We don’t want to add to anyone’s hardship and add in a situation where residents are without housing during this pandemic,” Lamb said. “But we do look at it as a cooperative effort.”

Joanie Poore, CEO of the Omaha Housing Authority, said by email that the eviction report “provides an important awareness as to the multifaceted, significantly detrimental effects that evictions may have on households, especially households with children.”

The agency has about 2,700 public housing units, making it Nebraska’s largest landlord. Poore said the agency has taken steps to reduce evictions. OHA imposed a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent during the pandemic. Poore said evictions are a last resort for the agency.

Gene Eckel, a real estate lawyer in Omaha who represents landlords and property managers, said the people in the multifamily rental industry he works with don’t want to evict people.

“Typically what I see from people in the multifamily industry, they really try to work with people,” he said. “And it’s only when they get to the point where they’re a couple months behind and they need to file an eviction.”

Eckel noted that the report does not identify why people were evicted, such as if they violated their lease through misconduct or damaged the property. He said there should be further study that drills down into the reasons for evictions. More rental assistance would help, and Omaha badly needs more affordable housing, he said.

George Achola is a former Omaha Housing Authority lawyer who later served on its board and is now an executive in private real estate, including developing affordable housing.

“While they (Fischer and Greenberg) do a very good job of identifying what they believe to be some of the effects of eviction, I think eviction is just another symptom of the underlying cause, which is poverty,” Achola said.

He said a lot of people are one car breakdown or illness away from losing their housing. It’s true that public policy, including historic redlining, the concentration of public housing and a shortage of affordable housing, contribute to that, he said. Policymakers, business and philanthropists need to work together, Achola said, to address the underlying causes of poverty.

Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

'Essential should not mean expendable': Lincoln rally seeks to protect meatpacking workers

As the coronavirus pandemic persists, workers at the Smithfield Foods pork plant in Crete have face masks and shields.

But it’s not enough to fully protect them from the virus that’s sickened thousands of meatpacking and food production workers, longtime Smithfield worker Geraldine Waller said Tuesday at a rally on the steps of Nebraska’s State Capitol.

Disposable masks are easily soiled by animal blood and breathing during long shifts. Face shields fog up — a safety hazard when workers are wielding sharp knives and meat hooks to butcher hogs. Locker rooms remain crowded and the production line hasn’t slowed, even though workers are still calling in sick or staying home because they worry about contracting the virus.

“We are human beings, essential workers, not robots and not disposable,” Waller said.

The rally was the latest attempt to draw attention to the struggles of meatpacking workers and press the Nebraska Legislature and other state leaders to help enforce stronger safety measures in plants, including paid sick leave, mass testing and more transparency around reporting coronavirus cases. Organizing groups included Children of Smithfield, Nebraska Farmers Union, Refugee Empowerment Center and the Nebraska State AFL-CIO.

The companies that own many of the plants in Nebraska, including JBS USA, Tyson Foods, Smithfield and Cargill, say they have tried to slow the spread of the virus by providing masks and other protective gear, enforcing temperature checks and installing dividers to separate workers on the line.

“Plexiglas dividers help, but it’s not enough,” said Eric Reeder, president of United Food & Commercial Workers Local 293 union that represents meat and food production workers in Nebraska. “Many facilities have ventilation systems that haven’t been updated for 20 or 30 years. … Essential should not mean expendable.”

In a statement, Smithfield Foods said its precautions meet or exceed federal health and safety guidelines.

In a recent letter to federal lawmakers, Kenneth M. Sullivan, the company’s president and CEO, said production workers are receiving extra hourly pay during the pandemic. The company has granted some form of paid leave to nearly 3,000 workers who are staying home because they are older or have serious health conditions, and spent tens of millions of dollars procuring masks, face shields and gallons of hand sanitizer.

“Since the onset of the pandemic, we have worked around the clock to respond to an unprecedented pandemic and implement aggressive measures to protect our employees’ health and safety while also safeguarding America’s food supply,” the statement said.

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha plans to make a motion Wednesday to suspend the Legislature’s rules in order to introduce a new bill addressing safety in meatpacking plants. It is a last-ditch effort — the Legislature is wrapping up its session that was shortened due to the pandemic and the deadline for introducing new bills is long past.

“We can’t wait any longer,” Vargas said at Tuesday’s rally. “Every single month we wait is another group of individuals exposed to the virus, potentially spreading it in our communities.”

As of Tuesday, coronavirus cases related to food or meatpacking plants made up about 19% of Nebraska’s total confirmed cases. More than 4,800 meatpacking workers have tested positive for the virus since March, with 223 hospitalizations and 21 deaths.

Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020

Omaha campaign uses memes, pets to help reduce stigma associated with mental health issues

A new campaign aimed at reducing the stigma often associated with mental health issues is poised to launch Thursday.

The campaign, however, may not look much like the typical awareness-raising effort.

Instead, it will use tools such as memes, pets and storytelling to allow people to share their experiences with mental health concerns and help them connect with others, said Sarah Sjolie, CEO of The Wellbeing Partners, formerly Live Well Omaha.

“It’s all (about) getting people to share their mental health stories in an effort to normalize it,” she said.

Mental health stood out as the No. 1 issue in the 2018 assessment of health needs in the community conducted by local health departments and health systems, Sjolie said.

“They felt stigma in admitting that there was a problem and in going out and trying to find resources to help,” she said.

Participants also reported feelings of social isolation, whether they were suffering from serious mental health issues or going through something more short term, such as a divorce.

“Socially, it wasn’t cool to say, ‘I’m having trouble,’ ” Sjolie said. “So the idea is to reduce stigma around it by shining a light on everyday people to share their stories.”

One part of the campaign, called Spokesimals Midwest, will encourage people to upload photos of their pets, which will be paired and shared with simple messages of encouragement and support and facts about mental health.

The other, WhatMakesUs, will offer testimonials from people living with behavioral health issues and their allies. They’re intended to show that people with such diagnoses are more than just their conditions.

The campaign will include the Douglas, Sarpy/Cass and Pottawattamie County Health Departments. Other partners are the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency.

Funding it are CHI Health, the Sherwood Foundation, Region 6 Behavioral Healthcare and the Mutual of Omaha Foundation.

Wellbeing Partners will work with Public Good Projects, an evidence-based nonprofit public health messaging group. The organization, which previously has worked with the Kaiser Permanente health system, will create memes and videos intended to tell participants’ stories.

The organization also will start a directory of mental health resources and evaluate its impact at the end.

The group will distribute the materials as toolkits to its partners, which can add their own logos and distribute them via social media or other channels. Employers and community organizations can contact Wellbeing Partners to get involved.

“This is not a high-dollar project,” Sjolie said. “But we hope it has a huge reach.”

Sjolie said the group hears from employers, especially with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, that mental health plays a role in talent retention.

A recent U.S. Census Bureau survey conducted in early May indicated a third of Americans were showing signs of clinical anxiety or depression.

The findings suggest an increase from before the pandemic. On one question on depressed mood, the percentage reporting such symptoms was double that found in a 2014 national survey, the Washington Post reported.

How to cope with the stress of social distancing

Staying away from crowds — maintaining what’s known as “social distancing” — is the right move during this coronavirus outbreak. But it also could mean that people disconnect from their support systems.

In Nebraska, about a third of adults reported symptoms of anxiety and depression. In Iowa, the figure was 26%. But some states have been harder hit. In Mississippi, nearly half of adults reported such symptoms.

“If we can become a more understanding, inclusive society,” Sjolie said, “it just helps with everything.”

The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, noted this week that the pandemic has significantly impacted minority communities in Nebraska. Existing difficulties in accessing health care can compound the challenges many minority groups face during a public health event such as a pandemic.

The department is raising awareness about the issue and encouraging Nebraskans to talk about the importance of mental health care and treatment to help break down barriers, including negative perceptions about mental illness.

Agency officials also stressed the importance of providing culturally competent behavioral health care to everyone in need. The agency is working on a series of webinars addressing implicit bias in health care. The webinars are expected to begin rolling out in early fall.

Those who need help can contact the Nebraska Family Helpline at 888-866-8660. Staff are available 24/7, and interpreters are available. Also available for mental health counseling and more is the Rural Response Hotline, 800-464-0258.

Our best staff images from July 2020

Photos: Our best staff images from July 2020