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A look back at how school went sideways in Nebraska in 2020
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A look back at how school went sideways in Nebraska in 2020

Springville Elementary was one of the schools that welcomed students back for the first time this semester after starting the year with remote learning.

Remote learning? How many students and teachers had done or even heard of remote learning in January 2020?

The pandemic upended K-12 education in Nebraska and elsewhere in 2020. Schools shut their doors. Teachers and students were forced to connect virtually. And when school did resume this fall, it looked far from normal.

It was a weird, hard, frustrating and demanding year for teachers, students, parents, administrators and school support staff. As calendars are flipped to 2021, here’s a look back at how it all unfolded. From the early rumblings about COVID-19 in February to news of vaccinations in December.

February

Dr. James Lawler of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security addresses a gathering of area school officials at the Omaha Public Schools’ headquarters on Feb. 27.

Lawler tells them that area school districts would need to cancel large gatherings and possibly close schools if the coronavirus began to spread in the community.

After the meeting, OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan sends an email to school board members, saying the district’s schools could close within the next month because of the coronavirus.

March

Early in the month, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells school officials to start planning for how they would teach kids during a closure, such as providing lessons online. Area districts start updating their pandemic plans.

On March 7, the Fremont Public Schools become the first in Nebraska to announce that they would close because of COVID-19. The March 9 closure, one of the first in the nation — even before the Seattle Public Schools — was supposed to last only three days. But the schools would not open again for five months.

On March 12, OPS announces that classes will not resume after spring break. Other area districts already scheduled to be off for spring break close schools a day early. In the coming days and weeks, the school closures keep coming until every school in the state stops offering in-person lessons.

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Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt

By March 20, most schools are already closed to students, and the few remaining are closed by the end of the day.

The closing of Nebraska school districts and private and parochial schools forces teachers to quickly pivot from traditional classroom learning to remote learning for about 366,000 schoolkids in 1,200 schools.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt calls the shift “herculean.”

“It’s about as remarkable as I could imagine,” he said.

Blomstedt recommends that schools not return to normal operations for the rest of the school year.

April

On April 1, Gov. Pete Ricketts directs schools statewide to operate without students in their buildings through May 31. He also cancels extracurricular activities, meaning no spring high school sports season.

Blomstedt advises district leaders to draw up contingency plans in case the coronavirus crisis lingers.

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

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Papillion-La Vista South High School's stadium is lit up in April as part of the "Be the Light" campaign.

Empty stadiums glow like beacons in the darkness as school districts turn the lights on to celebrate the class of 2020. Districts and parents come up with socially distanced celebrations to celebrate seniors.

May

The OPS board approves the purchase of about 54,400 iPads for all OPS students in case remote learning must continue in the fall.

Graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020 are virtual events. One of the strangest school years in recent memory ends for students in the metro area.

Superintendents across the state try to prepare for the myriad ways the coronavirus could disrupt school in the fall, but they face a lot of unknowns.

June

Districts start preparing for the new school year by ordering masks and gallons of hand sanitizer. It’s a hint of what’s to come in the fall.

One by one, districts start releasing their plans for the fall. Some plan to bring all students back, while OPS announces that students will be divided into two groups that will attend school on different days.

July

Districts continue to announce more details about what school is supposed to look like in the fall. Members of the public pack school board meetings to cheer or jeer the plans.

School districts announce that they will offer fully remote learning options in the fall.

Omaha-area teachers gather at Memorial Park in support of a mask mandate.

August

Teachers again gather at Memorial Park to demand a mask mandate. After weighing the health risks, some teachers retire instead of returning to the classroom in the middle of a pandemic.

Parents, teachers and students tell the OPS board that they are nervous about in-person lessons. Days before school is scheduled to start, OPS officials reverse course and announce that students in the state’s largest school district will start the year remotely and that all fall athletics and activities are suspended.

Students in other area districts return to school for the first time since March.

September

After a month of school, little spread of COVID-19 is tied to reopened schools, but some medical professionals worry about possible asymptomatic spread going undetected.

Dozens of athletes and parents protest outside OPS headquarters to demand that officials let them play sports. Sports remain suspended for the rest of the fall season.

October

OPS elementary and middle school students head back to the classroom for in-person lessons for the first time since March. High school students return two weeks later.

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Monday, Oct. 5, was the first day of in-person classes for OPS elementary and middle schools. A sign on the door at Springville Elementary School welcomes students back to the building.

COVID-19 kills the snow day. Several districts announce that their students will learn remotely on would-be snow days.

Enrollment in Nebraska public schools drops for the first time in 20 years. Enrollment in Catholic schools statewide drops by 1,400 students.

On Oct. 29, a custodian who worked at Grace Abbott Elementary School dies of complications from COVID-19, the first Millard Public Schools staff member to die of the disease.

November

Teachers in Nebraska say they feel overwhelmed and overworked, especially where they have been asked to simultaneously teach students learning remotely and those sitting in their classrooms.

The state teachers union petitions to mandate masks in Nebraska schools.

December

Teachers and school leaders say that while some Nebraska kids managed to keep pace academically from home the first semester, other remote learners fell so far behind that they are failing or at risk of it.

The first semester comes to a close. Teachers and students get a well-deserved winter break, but school won’t return to normal in January.

Some districts will go remote after winter break to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Masks, social distancing and hand-washing will continue in schools.

There is hope. Nebraska’s vaccination plan puts teachers in the second priority group. They likely will get the vaccine in the coming months.

World-Herald staff writer Joe Dejka contributed to this report.


Our best Omaha staff photos of 2020

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Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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

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