Nebraska reopened its schools last August despite the advice of some medical experts, protests from teachers unions and worries it could ignite COVID-19 outbreaks.
As the extraordinary school year comes to a close, education leaders say reopening was the right decision.
"Nebraskans can be very proud of what their educators have done," Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts told The World-Herald.
Reopening proved an immense and controversial challenge. An infectious disease expert from Nebraska said last week reopening likely contributed to spread of the virus.
But the fact that Nebraska school children got more in-school instruction means they suffered less harm to their learning and mental health than many other children in the country who stayed in remote learning. It also means that Nebraska schools are now free to figure out how to make up for any learning gaps, instead of being focused on figuring out how to reopen.
Nebraska's K-12 schools in February nearly led the country in getting buildings open, ranking No. 2 behind Florida, according to a tracking tool created by the American Enterprise Institute.
While kids in Los Angeles, Seattle and Chicago spent more than a year in remote learning — high schoolers in L.A. Unified School District, for instance, were out for 425 days before returning April 26 — the bulk of Nebraska kids had the option to learn in person this school year, if they wished.
The notable exception was the state's biggest district, Omaha Public Schools, which started the year fully remote, a decision favored by the teachers union. But by October, OPS students were back in schools part time, and in February the district offered full in-person learning.
By reopening and keeping schools open, Nebraska finds itself in the position of watching other states play catch up.
As of Feb. 15 — two-thirds of the way through the school year — all students in Florida and Nebraska school districts had access to full or partial in-person learning, the institute reported.
In contrast, it said, remote learning was the only option at the time in 70% of Maryland school districts and 62% of California school districts.
By early April, Nebraska was one of eight states with at least three-quarters of districts offering fully in-person instruction: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and South Carolina, according to the tracker.
Nebraska's differences with most other states became apparent in late winter as federal officials urged the nation's remaining closed schools to reopen.
In February, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky, an appointee of President Biden, said that the CDC had concluded that it was possible for communities to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 while keeping schools open for in-person instruction.
Walensky told the nation's remaining closed school districts that K-12 schools could safely reopen, if they mandated strict mitigation strategies.
When the U.S. Department of Education subsequently held a National Safe School Reopening Summit in March, providing closed districts with a checklist on how to reopen, the advice must have come as a deja vu to Nebraska school officials who deployed those same strategies last summer.
While other states took their first cautious steps to reopen this spring with Biden rescue-plan money, schools here are winding down the school year. Nebraska districts are making plans to use their federal money on catching kids up from COVID-19 learning loss — a loss that, overall, is likely to be less severe than the losses in districts that stayed in full remote.
Nebraska reopened its schools without the threatened teacher strikes, lawsuits or government orders to return to in-person learning experienced in other states.
"I think there's a lot of things for Nebraska to be pleased with, and I think their students are going to benefit," said Nat Malkus, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and director of the Return2Learn tracker.
States that got their schools open early have advantages, he said.
"Number one, they've learned how to safely bring kids back without spending a bunch of money that would have to come from federal assistance," he said. "Number two, the holes that they've developed, that are contingent on how long kids have been out of school, are not as deep."
Several factors contributed to Nebraska's ability to open schools and keep them open, according to education experts and officials.
- Gov. Pete Ricketts, believing the pandemic could be long-lasting and that the best approach was managing the crisis instead of locking down, encouraged schools to reopen their school buildings last fall, after they had been shuttered for the last several months of the previous school year.
- Nebraska's local-control philosophy for public schools allowed superintendents to make decisions, with state guidance, that best reflected conditions on the ground.
- Local health directors worked closely with schools, advising and guiding their decision-making.
- And Nebraska had capable teachers who, in most cases, had access to substantial technology infrastructure which allowed them flexibility the pandemic demanded.
Still, the reopening did not come easy.
After OPS reopened for in-person lessons, the school district temporarily halted in-person classes at some schools because of COVID-19 cases. In November, two of the district's seven high schools, Burke and North, went to all-remote learning at the same time because of COVID-19 cases and additional staff being forced to quarantine.
Teachers faced difficult challenges, simultaneously teaching kids in the classroom and students who chose to learn from home or were quarantining. Some contracted the disease, though the CDC said spread from students to teachers has been rare. Others were so stressed or uncertain about the consequences of reopening they left the profession.
Dr. James Lawler, a director of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Global Center for Health Security, said last week he believes opening schools contributed to spread.
"I'm certainly not saying that schools were the only factor driving transmission in communities — clearly that is not the case — but I think schools were important, and probably much more important than most people realized," Lawler said.
Schools that adopted social distancing, masking and other mitigation strategies avoided large explosive outbreaks, he said. But the number of infections in schools has been "dramatically underestimated," he said.
He said "evidence is growing" that reopening schools contributed to the surge in Nebraska cases last fall.
One of the mistakes made by people, including epidemiologists, is assuming the disease spread quickly in a school setting, he said.
"I think what happens in schools is you have a relatively slow spread that is almost imperceptible, because many kids, and probably most kids, don't have symptoms," Lawler said.
The big outbreaks behave like dry brushfires, while transmission in schools is like "a peat-bog fire, where it's underground, slowly spreading . . . " he said.
He points to a study of three schools in Omaha Public Schools by UNMC researchers. They found more teachers and school children were infected with the disease than reported because cases went undetected without symptoms. However, it's not clear those people caught the disease in school. The research also suggested the majority of those cases were arriving from the community.
Researchers tested air and surface samples within the schools. The majority of samples were negative, including in cafeterias where masks temporarily were off. But they did detect the virus in air samples in two choir rooms.
Nebraska's fatality rate from COVID-19 has been lower than most states.
Lawler described the rate as "middle of the road" among the states. A Heritage.org report ranked Nebraska at 35th highest among the 50 states in February. Statista, an online site, and NBC this month put Nebraska at 40th.
Johns Hopkins University reported last week that Nebraska's fatality rate was about 39% lower than California's. Douglas County's fatality rate was less than half that of Los Angeles County, it said.
L.A. County has a higher poverty rate — 13.4% versus 10.2% — and an older population. It's also heavily Latino, an ethnic group that experts say has been more vulnerable because of less access to health care, lower socioeconomic status and holding jobs that increase their exposure.
As of last Monday, there were a total of four COVID-19-related deaths reported among school-age persons — age 0-19 — in Nebraska since the pandemic started, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Late last summer, there was great uncertainty about the impact of reopening schools.
Millard School Board President Linda Poole, a teacher, was nervous about the reopening decision but says now it was "absolutely" the right decision.
Poole said she believes reopening schools with mitigation measures like masks and social distancing curbed spread — though Lawler said that's "wishful thinking." She doubts all of Millard's 28,000 students and staff would have been so diligent about complying with safety protocols out of school as they were required to be in school.
"When we compare our kids who were in in-person learning versus remote, kids do better when they're in a classroom in front of their teacher," Poole said. "So it not only helped control the spread, I believe, but it also helped kids academically and socially."
Vickie Kauffold, superintendent of Archdiocese of Omaha schools, said it was absolutely the right decision to get students back in the buildings.
"The mental, social and emotional well-being of the students depended upon them being at school learning in person," she said.
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt, who advocated for reopening with masking, social distancing and other mitigation measures, said he knew there were risks in opening — and no guarantees it would work.
"If we open schools and a whole bunch of kids get sick, that's something I've got to live with," Blomstedt said.
A year ago, schools were limping through the final quarter of the 2019-20 school year in remote learning, which exposed its shortcomings.
Blomstedt, Ricketts and school officials reached a consensus on what to do in the fall.
"I thought that was a turning point, right at the beginning of May, where we found the will to get open," Blomstedt said.
As weeks passed, Ricketts said, state officials learned more about the disease, such as how older people were most seriously impacted. Officials also were learning about how closed schools hurt children: the lack of physical activity, missed opportunities for identifying child abuse, rising mental health issues, lack of socialization and, of course, stifled academic progress.
In a meeting early on, Ricketts said, experts from the University of Nebraska Medical Center provided guidance that shaped his approach to the crisis.
"They said, 'Governor, this is a virus. You cannot stop it from coming. All you can do is slow it down enough to make sure you're preserving your hospital systems so you can take care of everybody who needs that acute care.'"
He recalled being told that he faced a "hammer and dance" situation.
That called for a hard shutdown for six to eight weeks, and then managing the crisis after that, he said.
"You had to put the hammer down early, and then you're going to be dancing until we get through it," Ricketts recalled them saying. "And they couldn't say when that was going to be, so immediately my expectation was this is going to be a long-term thing."
He said he tried to find a state of equilibrium, where Nebraska could manage the virus but still let people live a somewhat normal life.
During the summer, schools brought back some students. It was a test of protocols, a pilot project for fall. They were able to roll out sports slowly. They didn't see big super-spreader events.
"We started small and worked our way into being able to say, yeah, we can do this successfully because we actually did it on a small scale," Ricketts said.
As the summer wore on, a few UNMC doctors and local teachers unions, as well as some parents, raised doubts on the wisdom of reopening buildings at full capacity. At the time, then-CDC director Robert Redfield, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said reopening schools was "critically important for our public health."
When the Westside Community Schools announced in late June it would reopen for in-person lessons, within minutes critics assailed the decision, according to Superintendent Mike Lucas.
"We were called 'killers' and all kinds of other things by some," Lucas wrote, reflecting back on the summer in an internet posting. "We were applauded by others. We received death threats. We received accolades. Simple Facebook posts turned into divisive and hate-filled threads."
Then cases began to rise.
"We closed down in March over 1-2 cases," Lucas wrote. "We now have thousands of cases. How could we open back up?"
Rising summer case counts ratcheted up pressure on districts.
In the Papillion La Vista Community Schools, Dr. John Lowe, assistant vice chancellor for health security training and education at UNMC, testified at the July 27 school board meeting.
Lowe said that local case rates were nowhere near the controlled transmission level for large schools to reopen at full density, as Papillion La Vista district officials intended.
Lowe said the UNMC College of Public Health recommended a threshold of five COVID-19 cases per million population per day as the maximum community rate that would allow schools to reopen with a full complement of students in attendance.
At the time, Sarpy was at 154 per million per day and Douglas at 247.
Andy Rikli, the district's superintendent, said the criticism two weeks before school was to start "put enormous pressure on our school district and our board of education."
Nevertheless, the board members felt confident that they could safely reopen all day, every day, with a remote learning option, he said.
"I'm really proud of the decision we've made," Rikli said. "We've done it. But it's been a bumpy road. I think many of us went into this school year thinking, if we can just get to Labor Day."
Rikli said the groundwork for reopening the schools in person came from the challenges educators identified during the closing months of the previous school year.
In some cases, he said, families had no internet, there were not enough devices, and teachers lacked the training to teach remotely.
"I think there were so many failure points in that fourth quarter of last year, many of us, including Papillion La Vista, said from an early juncture 'We need to do better, and we will do better, because our kids' safety and well-being and educational progress is at stake here.'"
Ricketts said he was aware that some UNMC doctors were raising alarm about a full opening.
"We kind of knew where they were coming from. But also, we have 45 epidemiologists in the state of Nebraska. We have our own teams here that we can draw from," he said.
And, he said, his administration relied on national research.
According to Rikli, local health directors played a critical role.
"I'm not sure our schools would have reopened this fall without their guidance and leadership," he said.
The Douglas and Sarpy-Cass health directors met with the metro superintendents, sometimes multiple times a week, briefing them on what they knew about the pandemic and strategies schools could do to mitigate the risk.
Sarah Schram, the Sarpy-Cass County health director, said that early on, the main objective was to find a way to reopen school safely to get kids back to school for in-person learning.
Each school made reopening decisions and plans based on this exchange of information and ideas for their individual situation, she said. And they continued to work with health officials to evaluate how things were going, she said.
Douglas County Health Director Adi Pour credits the nonpharmaceutical steps: the masks, social distancing, and other steps like improving ventilation and redirecting the flow of students in school hallways.
Once school was in session, the health department's epidemiology team worked with schools to identify new cases, do contact tracing and quarantine those who needed to be isolated, Pour said.
COVID-19 testing was offered to schools, she said.
Several of the county's schools opened earlier than others, she said.
"Some of the others felt in the community there was too much spread around and . . . it wasn't safe, like OPS," which delayed returning to in-person learning, Pour said. "That was very, very appropriate."
Schools made it to Labor Day. But things got dicey before Thanksgiving.
When cases surged in October, Blomstedt worried state officials hadn't done enough.
If things got bad, he said, the plan was to have rolling closures instead of mass closures.
State officials were watching the disease progression in other states for clues on the Nebraska surge.
"I remember the governor telling me, this thing's gonna spike, and we're going to see a decline, and we're seeing these patterns in other places," Blomstedt said.
Blomstedt said he felt good, even though the numbers didn't look good.
The state was seeing isolated super-spreader events, such as ill-advised high school parties. But by and large, the social distancing, masks and hygiene in the schools were working.
Ricketts said the state had adjusted quarantine rules to encourage mask wearing in schools — quarantines weren't necessary where everyone in the classroom was masked.
Several Nebraska communities joined Omaha and Lancaster County in adopting mask mandates.
As the case counts went up in October, it was critical that the state had tied its response to the availability of hospital beds, Ricketts said.
"Our surge in the fall came at about the same time as most of the upper Midwest," Ricketts said. "So it was not a unique Nebraska thing. And we could see what happened in the summer in the southern states, when they had their surge. So we had an idea of how long it was going to last here. And, frankly, it turned out to be pretty much the same."
Ricketts said the state was always focused on a Nebraska-specific response. A "cookie-cutter" approach wouldn't work, he said.
He said he left it to districts to create their own plans, based on state guidance, with parent input.
"There were hundreds of local decisions, people who made decisions about what was right for their school, that really made this work," he said.
Guy Trainin, a professor who chairs the department of teaching, learning and teacher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, credited Nebraska's independent mindset, local control, and a robust infrastructure — both human and technological — for the state's ability to reopen schools.
"Local control allowed specific schools in specific districts in specific areas to make decisions based on what was going on there, and that was really powerful," he said.
"We had places that had very low COVID levels, and they could make the decision to stay open a lot longer, while other systems said, 'Hey, it is really bad in Douglas County, so we're going to close for a while.'"
Over the years, Nebraska has made large strides in integrating technology at the student level at most grade levels, he said.
It also has an excellent teaching force that, together with the technological infrastructure, made it possible to teach kids in person and remotely and to "make course corrections in real time," he said.
Trainin cautioned, however, about underestimating the pandemic's impact on Nebraska students.
"While we weren't as disrupted as (the Los Angeles district) was for 400 days — that is ultimate disruption — our disruption was more localized, both geographically but also by kid," he said.
Children who don't have family support at home have been disproportionately impacted, he said. Many Nebraska kids were forced into quarantines, some repeatedly, Training said.
Sarah Turpen, a senior at Gretna High School, quarantined three times this year: someone close to her contracted COVID-19, her sister caught it, and then she got it.
Her case was mild and she recovered over spring break.
Attending school in person, and interacting with classmates, was "definitely needed for me," she said.
Turpen said it was good to have a schedule, leave her house to go to school, and be around other kids, she said.
Last summer, a lot of people were living in fear, she said. By taking steps to get back to normal, it helped them overcome that fear of the unknown, she said.
Turpen plans to attend Colorado Christian University outside Denver next year and study business administration and sports management.
Andrew Blankenship, another Gretna High senior, said everyone last August expected that in-person school would only last a couple of weeks before being shut down. But instead, Gretna remained open.
Returning in person was "the right call" for him, but he said the district was right in offering a remote option for kids who needed it.
Toward the end of last school year, when schools went remote, his grades were "definitely struggling."
"I come back to school, and I'm face-to-face with these teachers, and my GPA this year is the highest it's ever been," he said.
It felt great to be back in the building, he said. He never had to quarantine, having only a low-risk exposure when a student in the classroom tested positive.
Walking across the stage at graduation will be big, he said. Gretna High seniors graduate Sunday.
"The people last year really did get robbed of that experience," he said. "I'm just super thankful we're getting to experience some of these things."
After graduation he'll attend community college for a year. He eventually wants to attend school out of state, but not all colleges can guarantee in-person learning so for now he's staying closer to home.
"It's really scary to move all the way across the country to maybe just be stuck in my dorm room and be on Zoom again for another year," Blankenship said.