Six Omaha area teachers unions are calling on local officials to implement mask mandates because of a record-breaking surge of daily COVID cases from the omicron variant.
Presidents from education associations representing the Omaha, Millard, Bellevue, Papillion La Vista, Ralston and Westside school districts sent a letter to five city councils on Thursday seeking a communitywide mask mandate.
In the letter, the presidents said that regardless of whether local school districts are requiring masks, it will “take more than the health and safety protocols in our schools alone to get COVID under control.”
“Our students and staff do not spend every hour in our buildings,” the letter says. “We need strong mitigation efforts that impact the entirety of our community, not just our school buildings, if we are going to keep our students and staff safe and our schools open for in-person learning.”
Omaha city officials, though, expressed skepticism that a mask ordinance would receive the support needed to be passed by the Omaha City Council.
Douglas County marked its highest daily COVID-19 case count of the pandemic on Wednesday, with 1,547 new cases reported.
Daily case records had already been broken within the past week, with Wednesday’s count surpassing the previous record of 1,188 daily cases Dec. 30. The department reported 1,038 daily cases on Tuesday.
The 4,731 cases reported for the week ending Saturday were the county’s highest weekly total, breaking the previous record of 4,268 cases recorded during the seven-day stretch that ended Nov. 21, 2020.
Union presidents also said that masks should be required until there is more adequate COVID testing in the area. Omahans are experiencing lengthy wait times at testing sites.
In the letter, the presidents said they are concerned about the ongoing workforce shortage impacting teachers and school staff. They said they fear that without a universal mask mandate schools could be looking at classroom and building closures.
“There are already significant concerns about having access to an adequate number of substitute teachers,” the letter said.
Omaha’s indoor mask mandate expired on May 25, 2021.
Some Omaha area school districts have strict mask mandates in place, while others have more relaxed protocols.
Ralston Public Schools and Westside Community Schools recently issued mask mandates for the first few weeks of the second semester.
Omaha Public Schools currently requires masks in all district buildings. Masks are optional at school districts in Gretna, Elkhorn, Bellevue, Papillion-La Vista, Bennington and Millard.
Asked about implementing a mask mandate during a press conference Wednesday, Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert noted that as mayor, she doesn’t have the authority to impose one.
Stothert said that she was unaware of any plans from City Council members to introduce a new mask ordinance.
City Council President Pete Festersen told The World-Herald on Thursday that while he will continue the discussion of a mask mandate with his colleagues, he feels that “there is not enough support for an ordinance to pass at this time.”
Under the normal process by which city laws are passed, it would take about five weeks for a mask mandate in Omaha to go into effect if the council sought one. The ordinance would need to be introduced at one meeting, publicly discussed at a second and voted on at a third. Then, 15 days later, it would take effect.
In August 2020, the council bypassed that process by unanimously passing an emergency ordinance, which required votes from six of the seven council members.
The process, Festersen said, is “very challenging.”
“Like many communities, we’re experiencing a surge (in cases),” Festersen said. “I understand the concerns from the teacher association. I think masks are an effective tool, but there is not enough support for a mandate at the moment.”
Soon after the letter was sent, Councilman Don Rowe said he received “a flood” of emails from constituents both for and against a mandate.
“I think that goes to show how polarizing this topic is,” Rowe said.
The councilman, whose district includes southwest Omaha, said he doesn’t think a mask mandate would “accomplish what we need.”
“Right now, I really believe people can make a choice to wear a mask,” Rowe said.
In August 2021, a mask mandate requested by Douglas County Public Health Director Lindsay Huse was rejected by the State of Nebraska.
Huse had asked the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services for approval to issue a directed health measure requiring people to wear face masks indoors in the county. The temporary mask mandate would have applied to school districts across Douglas County as well as other indoor settings.
Stothert said at the time that she did not support another mask mandate.
Huse could impose a mask mandate for just the City of Omaha, a decision that would go into effect more quickly than the council process. That route was discussed during the summer of 2020, before the City Council enacted its mask mandate.
But then-County Health Director Adi Pour did not pursue the option.
On Wednesday, Omaha’s Fire and Police Departments implemented mask mandates as the agencies faced a staff shortage of a collective 74 people due to the omicron variant.
In the letter from the teachers unions, the presidents stress that the communitywide mask mandate wouldn’t have to be active for long, but only to help get through the ongoing case surge.
“We ask you to help our schools and communities get through this surge the best way we know how — by utilizing all of the tools at our disposal to keep everyone safe and healthy enough to go to work and to school,” the letter said.