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OPS, Millard, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue close indefinitely to slow spread of coronavirus

OPS, Millard, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue close indefinitely to slow spread of coronavirus

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UPDATE: Officials with the Elkhorn Public Schools and Ralston Public Schools said Tuesday that they are extending the closure of all schools. Both districts do not have a tentative return date but will evaluate the situation every two weeks.

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The Omaha Public Schools and the Millard, Papillion-La Vista and Bellevue school districts on Monday closed indefinitely in response to the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Westside officials said district schools will remain closed through April 12.

The announcements from the districts came after Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt recommended that Nebraska schools lay plans for alternative operation — without students — by the end of the week.

OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said she would evaluate conditions every two weeks, as recommended.

Millard Superintendent Jim Sutfin said in an email to parents that the district will begin remote learning March 24 and that officials expect this to be a six- to eight-week closure of the district’s buildings. “We will reopen as soon as we are confident we can safely do so,” he wrote.

Blomstedt on Monday that said he is not issuing a mandate to schools. However, he said he expects that by Monday, Nebraska schools will not have any students in class.

Blomstedt recommended that school districts work regionally, by educational service unit, to develop an orderly plan to transition to an alternative learning environment by Friday, unless told to do so sooner.

Schools should be prepared to operate in the alternate learning environment for six to eight weeks, he said, with a review of operations every two weeks, including plans for reopening.

Blomstedt’s statement is the strongest yet that the school year is about to change dramatically for Nebraska school kids, teachers and parents.

Gov. Pete Ricketts still could initiate a mandatory closure for any districts that haven’t closed. Ricketts has outlined the following triggers: two confirmed community spread cases in the Omaha metro area, one or two in Lincoln and one in a rural region.

The governor has said that a closure could last six to eight weeks.

Michael Ashton, superintendent of Archdiocese of Omaha schools, issued guidance to Catholic schools that they are expected to follow Blomstedt’s recommendation.

He said schools may need some time to prepare for an indefinite closure.

In addition, Blomstedt announced Monday that he has suspended annual statewide academic testing this spring.

The six-week testing window for the Nebraska Student-Centered Assessment System was supposed to open Monday.

The battery of math, science and English language arts tests — and the ACT for high school juniors — are used for state and federal accountability. The State of Texas similarly suspended its state testing.

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Blomstedt said earlier in the day that individual Nebraska school districts already had closed temporarily. He said the results from testing would not be valid or reliable for the end of this school year.

The Nebraska Department of Education indicated that it was working with the ACT organization to determine whether all public high school juniors, who normally would take the ACT as a state assessment, can have the opportunity to take the test free of charge at a later date.

OPS has rolled out a home-learning program that provides lessons for students. But the lessons won’t be graded and are intended only to keep kids engaged while they’re at home.

Blomstedt said he hopes that if schools are required to close, they still would be able to reopen yet this year.

Ricketts said the state still has just one known community transmitted case of coronavirus disease, in Douglas County.

Early Monday, parents of children in OPS were downloading lessons online or picking up packets of lessons in person at their children’s schools.

Kristen Lightfoot, a first grade teacher at Gilder Elementary, picked up packets of printed lessons for her children who attend the school — Jack, a fourth grader, and Allie, a first grader.

They contain three weeks of lessons.

“I can’t wait to have my class back,” she said. “I hope everyone stays healthy.”

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Kristen Lightfoot leaves Gilder Elementary School on Monday morning after meeting with Principal Cassie Schmidt, who is in the doorway. Lightfoot, a first grade teacher at Gilder, picked up packets of printed lessons for her own two children, Jack, a fourth grader, and Allie, a first grader.

All elementary students were to receive packets. The packets are grade-specific and provide lessons on reading, writing and math. District officials asked that families complete the packets for the duration of the closure.

Once a student has completed the lesson for the day, parents were encouraged to have their student read a great book. The packets do not need to be returned to school.

OPS’s middle and high school students were to get their home lessons digitally. Those lessons won’t be graded either.

Logan said some people have asked why the lessons aren’t graded. She told the school board Monday night that district officials aren’t sure whether staff will be available if they get sick or have to care for a loved one. The district doesn’t want to make promises it can’t keep.

Logan said parents can ask teachers questions about the home learning curriculum via email if needed.

OPS spokesman Jeremy Maskel said Monday the home learning is going well.

“I’ve talked to several schools, and interactions with families as they pick up the materials have been positive. We know our teaching and learning staff worked very hard on these resources to support student engagement through a closure. And families have been very receptive.”

He said online engagement has been very high. He said many families have gone online to download lessons and materials.

The coronavirus also threatens to disrupt Advanced Placement courses and testing. AP courses are high-level high school courses that can earn students college credit.

Jaslee Carayol, director of media relations for the College Board, said officials are working on the situation.

They are developing resources to help schools support learning during extended closures, she said. They also are working on a solution that would allow students to test at home, she said.

The College Board will post more information Friday.

Concerns over the virus also have prompted rescheduling of ACT and SAT exams.

ACT has rescheduled the April 4 national ACT test date to June 13, 2020.

The ACT organization said it would communicate directly with all students registered for the April test date. Those students will receive an email in the next few days informing them of the postponement and instructions for next steps.

“ACT is committed to making every effort to help those students impacted by this test date change, particularly those high school seniors who are facing deadlines for fall 2020 college admission,” ACT CEO Marten Roorda said in a statement.

The College Board, which administers the SAT exam, announced that it was canceling the May 2 SAT test. Makeup exams for the March 14 testing date also are canceled. Registered students will receive refunds.

The College Board indicated that it would provide future testing opportunities for students as soon as feasible.

Logan said this is a scary time for students who are experiencing a catastrophic and unprecedented event while they’re young. She encouraged students to reach out to friends, family, teachers or professionals if needed.

“We look forward to the day we can return to normalcy,” she said.

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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