Leaders of the Nebraska state teachers union on Monday called on Gov. Pete Ricketts to impose stiff new COVID-19 restrictions, including mandating masks statewide, temporarily closing bars and suspending indoor dining.
The board of directors of the Nebraska State Education Association adopted a wide-ranging resolution aimed at pushing the governor and various state and local leaders to take a more aggressive approach to the pandemic. The move, the board says, would head off a school shutdown, ease the stress teachers are feeling and show them some empathy.
The directors called on Ricketts to impose directed health measures that would mandate masks, limit indoor and outdoor gatherings to 10 people and temporarily close bars. The union wants the governor to temporarily suspend indoor dining and launch a Takeout Nebraska campaign encouraging people to buy takeout meals.
Regarding schools, the union wants the governor to direct school districts to reduce the density of students in classrooms through the use of alternative staffing and attendance patterns, especially when students are eating. Some Nebraska districts, such as the Omaha Public Schools, already are operating under hybrid models in which students attend on alternate days, while other schools have a majority of students attending daily in person.
In an emotional appeal, NSEA President Jenni Benson said the union holds Ricketts “100% percent accountable for what is happening.”
“If the leadership in this state won’t make hard decisions and put mandates in place,” Benson said, “our schools will close, whether or not they stand up and say schools need to remain open.”
And more Nebraskans will die, she said.
When asked Monday about the NSEA’s resolution, Ricketts said he’s asking people to use masks when appropriate, such as when they are closer than 6 feet to another person for more than 15 minutes. Ricketts said the state won’t impose a statewide mask mandate.
If COVID-19 patients fill 25% or more of hospital beds in the state, Ricketts said, he will issue new and tighter health restrictions, a plan he outlined last week.
The NSEA board also is calling for a moratorium, until January, on all in-person youth and high school sports and extracurricular activities.
Union leaders surveyed 18,600 members at the end of October. Of the 6,500 educators who responded, 86% reported feeling overwhelmed, stressed, frustrated or worried about teaching during the pandemic.
Some of those surveyed indicated that they plan to leave teaching.
“The responses left little doubt that educators are at the breaking point,” Benson said. “They are concerned that the needs of their students are not being met. They are worried about their health and safety and that of their students and families.”
Union leaders, through the resolution, also are appealing to the Nebraska State Board of Education for action.
They want state board members to declare that schools should adopt the interventions and protocols recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the University of Nebraska Medical Center until the risk of transmission is abated.
The union board directed Benson to file a petition with the state board making that request.
The petition also will request that the state board initiate studies of the virus’s transmission in schools and “take remedial action as is necessary to enforce safety accreditation standards.”
On Friday, the president and vice president of the State Board of Education signed a resolution on behalf of the board strongly recommending a statewide mask mandate. The full board has yet to vote on it.
The union resolution further calls on school administrators to provide their teaching staffs with relief, including adjusting curriculum and relaxing the pace at which new material is introduced to students.
“Teachers know their students and will advance them academically,” the resolution says.
They want more administrators to pitch in and help cover classrooms when a teacher is out. And teachers want more planning time instead of training.
The resolution says school administrators should provide factual COVID-19 numbers to the public and staff and “listen to educator input, show empathy and leadership.”
In the association survey, educators were asked to choose the word that best described how they felt about teaching under COVID-19.
Choices on the survey included focused, happy, inspired, angry, worried, stressed and frustrated.
The top answer: overwhelmed.
Other popular answers: stressed, frustrated and worried.
Educators were asked, “How has the COVID pandemic affected your long-term professional planning?”
Of the 5,850 who answered, 213, or 3.6%, said they would quit teaching at the end of the school year.
Fifteen percent said they were looking for another job and would leave teaching as soon as they found one. Five percent of responding teachers said they would retire at the end of the school year. Three out of four said they had no plans to leave the classroom in the next five years.
The statewide survey provides a glimpse of what educators were feeling and thinking on a variety of COVID-19-related topics 2½ months into the school year.
Six of 10 respondents said they lack enough time to prepare for their teaching workload.
More than nine out of 10 respondents supported requiring masks for school staff and students.
Fifty-two percent said their district leaders were not listening to educator input relating to COVID-19 issues.
Benson said people need to stop blaming teachers for the rising COVID-19 cases because teachers had a baby shower or ate lunch together.
“I look on Facebook, I look on social media, and bars and restaurants are posting great big Husker parties,” Benson said. “Hundreds and hundreds of people without masks. And yet we’re pointing fingers at teenagers who had a slumber party with five friends or we’re pointing fingers at educators. The blame needs to stop, and actions need to start taking place.”
World-Herald staff writer Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.
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