The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has put together a better picture for how the return to school should look.
Students and teachers wearing masks. Physical distancing in the classroom. Daily temperature and symptom checks for staff and students.
No playgrounds for recess. No cafeterias. No shared devices, books or supplies.
It’s clear that school will look a whole lot different in the continuing pandemic.
But the head of the Nebraska teachers union, who’s also a former Nebraska teacher of the year, said the guidance coming out of the CDC doesn’t recognize the reality of teaching.
Maddie Fennell, executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said Nebraska would be better served working with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and its in-house experts, who are willing to talk with teachers.
Fennell said the return to school will take creativity and some discussions with teachers that have not happened yet.
“We’re going to have to think way outside the box,” she said.
Planning for next school year was already underway across the state when the CDC released its guidance.
The Nebraska Department of Education has started an effort called Launch Nebraska to support school systems as they plan to restart schools.
State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said different groups are having regional discussions on the issue. He cited discussions in the Omaha metro area, in Lincoln and Lancaster County, and with Nebraska’s rural schools association, which has some 100 superintendents in eight working groups discussing scenarios.
Blomstedt said he’s seen huge progress the last two weeks. But he said the discussions still involve “getting people organized to have the right conversations.”
Last week, the CDC came out with a “Schools Decision Tool” to help guide how and when to reopen schools. It was a generic tool that asked a series of yes-or-no questions.
On Tuesday, the agency followed up with a longer list of more specific guidance. They are guidelines, not requirements; the CDC specified that implementation should be guided by what’s feasible, practical and tailored to each community.
Among the more basic suggestions: Teach and reinforce hand-washing and encourage students to cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue.
But even the basic ideas could combine with a complicating wrinkle. If students cough into a tissue, for instance, they should then immediately wash with soap and water for 20 seconds, or at least use hand sanitizer.
Some of the other guidance:
» Wear cloth face coverings as feasible.
» Avoid sharing electronic devices, books, learning aids, gym equipment, art supplies or games.
» Space desks 6 feet apart when feasible and turn desks the same direction.
» Close cafeterias and have students eat in the classroom, with their own meals or plated food in disposable wares.
» Go virtual for activities, including field trips, assemblies, performances and parent meetings.
» Stagger school arrival and drop-offs.
Fennell said she saw some problems in the suggestions.
One guideline was: Ensure that students and staff stay as static as possible by having teachers stay with the same children. That could be all day for younger children or “as much as possible” for older children, the CDC advised.
Asked how that would work in high school, Fennell replied, “It doesn’t.”
If the idea is to keep younger students in place all day, Fennell said that’s bound to cause depression and behavioral problems, along with “not a lot of learning.”
Blomstedt said he’s still going through the CDC guidance. In some cases, he said, the blanket statements won’t work, but he’s more interested in the intent behind them.
Blomstedt said the actual goal of keeping groups of students together might be to make contact tracing easier if someone becomes infected.
Blomstedt said decision-makers will need to rely on their understanding of what makes people safe, then work hard to address those items.
“There are no grand answers,” he said.
Three metro area school districts say they don’t have answers yet, either.
Jeremy Maskel, a spokesman for the Omaha Public Schools, said the district has a team preparing for a range of possible scenarios for next school year, and it has seen the CDC guidance. But as the pandemic continues to evolve rapidly, it’s too early to say specifically what school operations might look like, he said.
Said Rebecca Kleeman, spokeswoman for the Millard Public Schools, “We know next year will be different, and we will work through whatever adjustments are needed to continue education for students.”
The Westside Community Schools will hold community information sessions to share more details on June 25, July 16 and July 30. The meetings will be held at 6 p.m. at Westside High School and streamed online.
But for now, Superintendent Mike Lucas said the district doesn’t yet know “what August and beyond could look like.” He said Westside is planning on multiple scenarios.
“Providing a safe learning and working environment is of extreme importance as we forge ahead,” he said.