Lincoln Education Association Opposes Full School Reopening

July 20, 2020, 6:45 a.m. ·


The Lincoln Education Association released a statement last week opposing a full reopening of schools in Lincoln. Allison Mollenkamp of NET News sat down with LEA President Rita Bennett to learn more.

For those who haven't had a chance to read your statement, why does the Lincoln Education Association oppose a full school reopening?

Our main concern, obviously, is health and safety for everyone. What we've seen, and particularly lately, in our community is that our COVID rates are on the increase. And we've crept back into that "orange"category according to the health department's risk dial.

Our concern is that by reopening schools fully at this point—or very soon—we might, in fact, create a bit of a disaster perhaps. When you think about over 40,000 students and thousands of staff members, all getting back together in environments even with masking and some other requirements that would help to minimize some of the risk, it's not going to be risk free, and we know that.

We really are concerned that we have a responsibility for our entire community. What we've learned about the virus over the past months is that it really does take a community commitment to distancing, to mask wearing. And even the county health department's own standards, for the "orange" part of the risk dial, [require] gatherings of less than 10 people. So our concern is really community wide, we want to be part of that solution to help defeat this virus. And we know how to do it, because other countries have. So that's just really our concern.

And in addition, we know that remote learning isn't necessarily a great option for every child and family, so we also have concerns about that. We've had teachers who've worked in the summer attending [professional development] sessions to increase their skills for delivering excellence in remote learning—we know there are a lot of concerns about that. But we've also suggested that perhaps it doesn't have to be an either or proposition. If it's not all remote, then perhaps staggered scheduling could be done so we could reduce the numbers of people in a building all at once ... There might be some other ways that we want to work hand in hand with the district to help plan some some other possibilities.

Lincoln Public Schools have not announced the final details of the reopening plan yet. What indicators do you think LPS should look at as they make decisions around reopening?

Well, first of all, as our statement said, we do applaud the district's continued meetings with the health department. We know that Dr. Joel also has some physicians on the steering committee, including Dr. Rauner, who is on the school board as well. So we really do applaud the district's efforts. We know that they're also looking at health concerns and considerations.

I know the plan being released is likely to have elements of what's already published on the district website, depending upon where we are in those different risk dial colors—green, yellow, orange, red—and we also recognize that the district has to plan for every eventuality, including a full 100 percent return. So we get that.

There will be some elements of it that will help to alleviate some of the many, many, many questions that teachers have had regarding logistics ... But in terms of the overall philosophy of whether it's safe to do a 100 percent return, that still remains in doubt in our eyes.

In your statement, you mention "political pressure that is more focused on a pretense of normal for the sake of the economy." Where do you see that pressure coming from, and why do you feel schools are pushing towards a full reopening?

Well, first of all, let me say that [political pressure] is not so much a statement specifically about [Lincoln Public School District's] motivation at all. That's more what we've seen from Washington, for example. We've heard the President talk about withholding funding unless ... essentially wanting to hold school districts hostage, saying 'If you don't completely reopen...', holding pressure over governors, for example, to say funding will be affected in your state if you don't get your schools reopened.

Now, [President Trump] hasn't offered any asterisk on that "schools reopened" piece. So it would be nice if there was some nuance to those messages, saying, 'Reopening in as safe manner as possible, in accordance with what's happening with the pandemic in your community,', for example, that's kind of what we're looking for. So that's really the reference to the political pressure ... I mean, it's easy to see it. I've seen other politicians from other areas of the country who pretty much said the same thing. They're also the same types who don't believe that wearing masks is necessary. So there are a lot of mixed messages out there.

There has been a failure, we think, with respect to the whole country's response to the virus. Back in February or March would have been the time that we could have really implemented some stringent things that would have enabled us to be over this by now—we shouldn't be having this conversation. Had there been stronger leadership to do the very things that medicine and science say are necessary to defeat the virus, or at least to get it down into that "green category", none of this conversation would even be necessary.