The Douglas County Health Department is recommending to school superintendents that everyone in local schools wear masks, County Health Director Lindsay Huse said Tuesday.
“The recommendation to all school districts was to follow CDC, AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommendations and they were all given the exact same recommendations, which are that everyone right now should be in masks,” Huse told the Douglas County Board. “How they implement that is a local decision, although we have worked closely with all superintendents on how they are going to make that decision and what that’s going to look like.”
As of Tuesday, a majority of metro Omaha districts were still planning to start the school year with masks optional. But it’s possible some districts may be prompted to reconsider following Monday’s announcement from Westside Community Schools that masks will be required for students, staff and visitors at its elementary schools.
Huse made clear Tuesday where the Health Department stands and why.
Huse expressed concern about COVID cases rising among Douglas County school-age children, especially elementary students. She said the number of cases among children under 19 had tripled in the past couple of weeks, and that they comprise 26% of all COVID cases in the county — the largest of any age group.
What’s more, the highest proportion within the pediatric cases is among children ages 5 to 9.
According to the Douglas County COVID dashboard, 77 cases of COVID were reported among 5- to 9-year-olds in the week ending July 31, up from 16 the week before. The number of reported cases among all youths up to 18 years old rose from 69 to 157 over those same two weeks.
“As you can imagine, that creates some concern when we are about to put kids back into a congregate setting,” Huse said. “Something that I just want to make sure that everyone is fully aware of, especially in light of recommendations that came out last week from various organizations. ... Our elementary kids are the ones who are being impacted most frequently and are of course the ones who haven’t had the chance to be vaccinated because they’re not eligible yet.”
County Board Member Jim Cavanaugh asked Huse if she had recommended to Omaha Public Schools officials that they not require children to wear masks.
She replied: “The recommendation to all school districts was to follow CDC, AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) recommendations and they were all given the exact same recommendations, which are that everyone right now should be in masks.”
However, Huse said how that is implemented “is a local decision.” She said the Health Department supports school superintendents “in whatever decisions they’re making to do the best with mitigation with what they’re able to do.”
Huse said she has deep concerns about the trends in cases, especially among children.
“This is not the sort of situation where waiting to see what happens is a great idea, if we want to keep kids in school and learning, and keep parents at work and keep society moving in the way that we have wanted to keep it going in this pandemic,” Huse said.
Health Department officials had a meeting Monday with school superintendents and local health care systems, including Children’s Hospital & Medical Center.
“I heard a lot of concern from Children’s regarding the fact that other states have pediatric units that are full with COVID kids, and they’re very nervous about something similar happening at Children’s, and I hold that (concern),” she said. “I use an analogy that Nebraskans will appreciate: We’re under a wall cloud, and the funnel cloud is forming. This is something that’s coming, and we have the tools to stop this, or to slow it, to get ahead of it, and not wait for it to happen before we decide it’s a problem and address it.”
The tools she was referring to are primarily vaccinations and wearing masks.
Dr. Alice Sato, hospital epidemiologist for Children’s, said officials are worried that Nebraska is seeing some of the same sudden rise in cases that such states as Louisiana and Arkansas were experiencing about a month ago. Pediatric wards in some hospitals in those states have been filled with children with the RSV respiratory virus and COVID.
“We’ve seen a rise progressively over the last few weeks in the number of positive tests that we have for RSV and for (COVID),” Sato said. “We’re having more ER visits for children who might have mild COVID. We’ve had a few hospitalizations, not a huge number of hospitalizations, but that curve just started going up a week ago, really. So what we are expecting is to see more.”
She said Children’s “agrees with the AAP and the CDC recommendations, that there should be universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status, to include staff and students.”
Officials from several districts said their summer schools and summer activities have largely been free of COVID-19 problems — when masks were optional — and that gives them confidence for the new school year.
Gretna Public Schools Superintendent Rich Beran said he would like to try opening schools without mandating masks.
“If things go south, we can mask up,” Beran said. “Then we’d have a reason.”
Currently, his district is recommending but not requiring masks for unvaccinated students and staff when school starts.
In the Springfield Platteview Community Schools, the plan is for masks to be optional but recommended for all grade levels, a spokeswoman said.
The Elkhorn Public Schools would be mask-optional for students and staff.
The Papillion La Vista and Millard school districts were sticking to their mask-optional plans, spokeswomen said Tuesday.
But they said they’re monitoring the situation.
Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Cheryl Logan on Monday reiterated her district’s intent to have masks optional for students and staff inside buildings and facilities.
Melissa Poloncic, superintendent of the Douglas County West Community Schools, said her district will be finalizing plans this week.
In the Bennington Public Schools, Superintendent Terry Haack said officials are reviewing their options. Any changes would be announced at the school board meeting Monday, he said.
Millard School Board President Linda Poole said Tuesday that the superintendent will brief board members on masking options next Monday.
Poole said the board has asked Superintendent Jim Sutfin to provide them information on “what are we thinking in terms of masking requirements for 12 years and younger. Do we want to go that route? Do we not?”
“There will be a conversation on Monday, and I’m not real sure which way it will go,” she said.
Board members have not met for several weeks, and the COVID-19 situation is “constantly changing,” particularly in regard to spread of the delta variant, she said.
Millard schools start Aug. 11.
Sutfin will provide data “so we can make the best decision possible,” she said.
He hasn’t come up with the recommendation yet, she said.
“He might come with a recommendation to change. He might not.”
The Bellevue Public Schools, which will start classes next week, had not changed their optional-mask plan as of Tuesday.