As Families Make Tough Choices, UNMC Report Says Transmission Too High to Reopen Schools

July 28, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·

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School districts across the state are announcing their back-to-school plans even while COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Nebraska.

Recommendations from experts like the University of Nebraska Medical Center and local public health departments sometimes contradict; teachers and parents are closely following those plans as they make difficult decisions.

Twenty teachers lined the sidewalk near Omaha's Memorial Park last Friday — tied together with lengths of rope marking six feet of distance.

They chant: "Show me what six feet will look like – this is what six feet will look like."

Teacher Katrina Jacobberger says they want to show what safe physical distancing in a school setting would look like.

"Twenty is smaller than what my average class size was last year," Jacobberger said. "And here we are lined up as if we were ready to go to the cafeteria in an elementary classroom. Six feet apart, 20 of us, takes up about a block."

Jacobberger helped organize the protest to let the community know many teachers don’t feel safe returning to the classroom with rising levels of COVID-19.

Teachers held signs saying, "We went from undervalued to expendable," and "I would die for my students – please don’t make me."

A recent Gallup poll found 57% of K-12 teachers are concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 at work – compared to just 21% of all other U.S. workers.

School districts have released detailed back-to-school plans that include mandatory masks and intensive cleaning protocols. Some, like Omaha Public Schools, will teach with reduced capacity: only half the student population in a classroom at a time, with remote learning the rest of the week.

Back-to-School Plans

Omaha Public Schools

  • Students last name A-K: attend every Monday and Tuesday, alternating Wednesdays
  • Students last name L-Z: attend every Thursday and Friday, alternating Wednesdays
  • Masks mandatory
  • Remote learning option available

Lincoln Public Schools

  • In-person attendance for most students
  • Masks mandatory
  • Remote learning option available
  • Possibility for 50% capacity instruction in high schools

Grand Island Public Schools

  • In-person attendance for most students
  • Masks mandatory
  • Remote learning option available

The teachers here say the whole community should be responsible for reducing the spread of COVID-19. Teacher Molly Davies wants Gov. Pete Ricketts to order a statewide mask mandate

"I mean, the idea that we could have different rules and different policies in different zip codes or different districts when we don't live in a silo is a little unreal," Davies said.

Gov. Ricketts supports mask wearing in schools, and most Nebraska districts plan to require masks for students and staff.

But Ricketts not only opposes a statewide mandate, he says he’s exploring legal options to challenge the local mandate in Lancaster County. A similar mandate in Douglas County will likely go into effect this weekend.

"I'm worried about my students," Davies said. "I mean, if you think that remote learning and PPE is expensive, try the trauma sensitivity for the students that are orphaned, for the grandparents that they accidentally kill."

A recent report from infectious disease experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center says mask wearing in both schools and communities is critical.

Dr. Ali Khan is dean of the UNMC College of Public Health – he says with community transmission numbers the way they are now, masks aren’t enough to open schools safely.

"I want every kid back in school, but they've got to be sent back safely," Dr. Khan said. "And if we don't do that, what we will see is disease within the students; hopefully mild, but unfortunately they will infect teachers and staff and they will come back home and infect grandparents and others in their community."

The UNMC guidelines say districts should use only remote learning if the community has at least five daily cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people.

Nebraska’s daily rate is three times higher than that threshold, and Douglas County is nearly five times higher.

Teacher Molly Davies says the report is discouraging.

"After I read that...I was bawling. I was absolutely inconsolable," Davies said. "More than anything, I want to go back to school. And that to me was just like, a little bit of a nail in the coffin that I was gonna be able to see my students."

UNMC School Recommendations

"We encourage that schools reopen no sooner than controlled community transmission, regardless of the political phase."

In Lancaster County, where Lincoln Public Schools plans to re-open in two weeks, the latest average shows nearly 17 cases per 100,000 population per day – well above the UNMC threshold of five.

LPS Superintendent Steve Joel says in making their back to school plan, they sought out recommendations from a lot of different health experts.

"I think that's one of the dilemmas we all have," Joel said. "Who is the authority that a local school district is going to align with, to be able to make the best decision for our kids?"

LPS is working with guidance from the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.

UNMC School Recommendations

"In many areas, local public health and city officials have developed risk dials...It is important to note that in most cases, these dials were used to inform business and community reopening and were not necessarily created with schools in mind."

The LPS plan calls for in-person instruction for most students unless local health officials say the local virus risk increases to severe. All students and staff are required to wear face masks.

And like most school district plans, it includes details for switching completely to remote learning if schools need to be shut down again.

Joel says the plan is designed to mitigate risk because they can’t eliminate risk altogether. And families can choose remote learning even while most students are back in the classroom.

"We truly have the best interests of our students and our families in mind and our staff," Joel said. "But we also know that everybody has to make some decisions based on their personal circumstances.

For some families, even a small amount of risk is too much.

Brandi Reimers has a muscle disease called myasthenia gravis. Reimers and her husband live in the Nebraska City school district, where their two sons will go into fifth and seventh grades this year.


Brandi Reimers and her husband Justin have two boys, Rhys and Jackson. Last fall Reimers spent four days in the hospital for treatment related to her muscle disease myasthenia gravis. (Photos courtesy Brandi Reimers)

Reimers receives intensive treatment in Omaha every two weeks, and her medication suppresses her immune system.

"If someone has something, I’m generally going to catch it from them and it’s going to be harder for me to recover from it," Reimers said. "My muscle disease affects my vision, my speech, my swallowing, my chewing, my breathing. That’s the one where if I got COVID, I can almost expect I would be on a ventilator."

With COVID-19 cases on the rise in Nebraska, they can’t take the chance that the boys could bring the virus home to her.

So Reimers is going to homeschool this year, something she never, ever considered before.

"I don’t believe that I can teach the boys better than their teachers can," Reimers said. "But at this point, I can keep my family safer than the school can."

The boys say they’ll miss their friends a lot, but they know how important it is to keep mom safe.

Applications to homeschool in Nebraska are up at least 21% this year, but not all families have the option to keep a parent at home.

"This is hard for everybody. This is hard for the administration, it’s hard for the teachers, its hard for the students, staff," Reimers said. "Nobody’s in a good position here. It feels like a lose-lose no matter what happens."

Dr. Ali Khan says he hopes the UNMC report will prompt parents to reach out to their community representatives.

"We're hoping that some of these thresholds will drive parents to work with their elected leaders to say, 'drive down cases in my community,'" Khan said. "Because nothing will ever protect children more than driving down community transmission. Not staggering, not masks, not hand washing, not pods, not big buildings, not social distancing. Nothing will ever protect our children more than driving down cases in the community to zero."

As Nebraskans across the state weigh the options and make their own decisions, most districts are planning some form of in-person instruction starting in the next two to four weeks.

This story is part of the America Amplified initiative. America Amplified is a national public media collaboration focused on community engagement reporting.