The Nebraska State Education Association on Thursday formally petitioned the Nebraska State Board of Education to impose a mask mandate in the state’s schools.
But the commissioner of education and the president of the education board expressed doubt that the board has that authority.
“I’m not sure what authority we have on any of this, if anything,” board President Maureen Nickels said.
NSEA President Jenni Benson submitted the petition to the board on behalf of the teachers union.
The union is asking the board to require face coverings in Nebraska schools for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year.
Unless the board acts, the union says, there will be “irreparable harm” to the school system, educators, children and the state.
The petition does not specifically call on schools to adopt the interventions and protocols recommended by the University of Nebraska Medical Center or the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Union officials had said earlier this week that they wanted the board to require districts to follow those.
The requests in the petition are more limited in scope.
The union wants the board to impose the mask mandate via its powers to oversee the state’s school system and to regulate accreditation, meaning that accredited public and private schools that violated the requirement would put their accreditation at risk.
The petition asks the board to require that all teachers, administrators, staff, volunteers and children in the third through 12th grades wear face coverings.
The union wants schools to ensure that sick children and adults stay home, that those with an infected person at home quarantine, and that those infected with COVID-19 not be allowed to return to school until they complete the prescribed period of isolation.
The union asks that the board study the transmission of the virus in school systems and “take remedial action as is necessary.”
Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said Friday that he’s looking into next steps for responding to the petition.
“To me the basic question is, ‘Can the state board impose specific health standards on school districts?’ ” he said.
Blomstedt said the Nebraska Department of Education has authority to ensure that school districts follow the health standards established by the governor and local public health departments.
But he doesn’t believe that the department can specify health standards for schools.
Much of what the union is requesting is already being done. Masks and social distancing are already required in the state’s larger school districts, including the Omaha Public Schools, the Lincoln Public Schools, the Millard Public Schools and other Omaha-area districts. But there are some school districts across the state where masks are only recommended.
The union said many school districts are ignoring the mask recommendations of Gov. Pete Ricketts and the Nebraska Department of Education.
School buildings, classrooms and programs are closing daily because of a shortage of teachers — a situation unsustainable in many districts, the union petition says.
If schools are required to close again, like they did in the spring, there will be long-term harm to children, the union said.
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