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Nebraska education chief: School may not be normal in the fall

Nebraska education chief: School may not be normal in the fall

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Will school get back to normal for Nebraska kids in the fall?

You know, the kind of school where hallways bustle with students, band members march shoulder to shoulder and football players get in each others’ faces.

Don’t count on it, officials say.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt is advising local district leaders to draw up contingency plans in case the coronavirus crisis lingers on.

“I don’t believe it will be normal in the fall,” Blomstedt said.

It’s hard to say yet what the situation might look like this fall, but possibilities include delaying the start of the school year, separating students into groups and rotating them into school buildings at different times or using partial or complete distance learning.

Of course, there’s still time between now and then for a medical breakthrough, a presidential reopening order or other event that could turn the tide against COVID-19 and clear the way for normal operations.

Most districts are slated to start in mid-August. The first day for students in the Omaha Public Schools is currently Aug. 18.

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But even the start dates on the calendar are in question, as some officials have floated the idea of starting later in the fall or having only staff return in August to organize and prepare for whatever plan is put into effect to meet the health requirements.

Already, summer school is looking iffy, with some districts rescheduling later in the summer and reimagining how summer school might be delivered remotely.

“I think it’s going to be very difficult to have summer school in June with students,” Blomstedt said.

He said it’s prudent for local officials to plan on disruptions in the fall. He wants them to be prepared and not wait until the last minute to draw up plans.

So, what might those plans look like?

Nothing’s for certain yet — not by a long shot — but it’s instructive to recall why schools closed in the first place.

The governor has said that schools are the most concentrated gatherings of people in the state. Closing them was to blunt the disease’s spread.

Blomstedt said that unless there’s a vaccine or antibody test by then, or assurances that medical facilities won’t be overwhelmed, schools should prepare for the possibility that gatherings will still be limited.

Gretna High virus closure_00001 (copy)

Ninth grade physical science teachers Trina Nelson, left, and Shauna Stauffer maintain a safe distance while planning lessons in an empty classroom Friday at Gretna High School. The school’s teachers reported to work, but no students were on the premises.

The most drastic scenario would be for districts to continue distance learning with students staying at home.

Because schools already rolled out distance learning this spring, by fall they should have the wrinkles ironed out and know where it’s working and where it’s not, and what more they need as far as training, technology and resources if it’s to continue on a grander scale.

A less drastic scenario, if health officials deemed it safe, would be allowing smaller groups of students to enter schools, he said.

Schools might have to separate students into smaller groups who would be kept isolated from one another, he said. Student groups could report to the school building on different days — for instance, one group attends classes on Monday and Tuesday, the other on Thursday and Friday, he said.

Blomstedt said it’s possible that delivering lessons via television could play a bigger role. Already the state teachers union, Nebraska State Education Association, is providing televised lessons through its Teacher TV.

Perhaps, he said, those TV lessons could be scaled up, and classroom teachers could take on more of a tutoring role, he said.

Students could even attend three weeks in class followed by three weeks of remote learning, all aimed at avoiding spread, he said.

Blomstedt’s outlook tends toward the cautious side — as it has been since the start of the crisis. But he points to the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 for a history lesson. The flu subsided but rebounded with a second deadly wave.

At the time, he said, there were waves of shutdowns.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has spoken optimistically about the possibility of schools reopening in the fall.

But he has also suggested that things wouldn’t be completely normal.

During a White House briefing on April 7, Fauci said he couldn’t predict accurately what the situation would look like but said he expected that by fall “we will have this under control enough that it certainly will not be the way it is now, where people are shutting schools.”

Medical officials, however, would still have to identify, isolate and contact-trace people with the disease, he said.

With an antibody test, officials would know more about the actual penetration of the infection in society, he said. Knowing how many people have been infected, who’s protected and who’s vulnerable would help inform decisions on how close to normal things can return, Fauci said.

“The bottom line is: No absolute prediction, but I think we’re going to be in good shape,” he said.

Blomstedt said it’s important that schools complete this school year and provide kids with learning opportunities in the summer.

Millard Public Schools Superintendent Jim Sutfin told his board this week that district leaders are discussing ideas for fall, including the possibility of full remote learning and smaller groups in school.

“Without immunizations, we’re going to be in a tough spot for a long time,” Sutfin said.

OPS has a team working on plans, according to Jeremy Maskel, communication director.

Fall is too far out to talk specifics right now, Maskel said.

“Much of that will be determined in coordination with health officials and the Nebraska Department of Education,” he said. “We have already gathered feedback to evolve and grow our distance engagement efforts this spring and will continue to do so heading into fall.”

He said the district should decide soon on how to handle summer school.

Lincoln Public Schools Communication Director Mindy Burbach said district leaders have begun initial discussions.

“Without further guidance on timing and social gathering limits, it is difficult to make firm plans in regards to next school year,” Burbach said.

For now, the district’s focus remains on providing meaningful learning for students and finishing the current school year as strong as possible, she said.

Officials will examine the effectiveness of current remote learning and look for ways to improve it, she said.

Lincoln is considering potential changes for summer school, she said.


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joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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