LPS Plan Change: 'Severe' on Risk Dial No Longer Triggers 100% Remote Learning

Oct. 21, 2020, 5:20 p.m. ·

A screenshot of the LPS coronavirus page shows how the LLCHD risk dial impacts in-person learning.

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Lincoln Public Schools will not automatically transition to remote learning if the local coronavirus risk dial reaches the red category. An update to the school district’s web page this week caught some parents off guard.

The re-opening plan is tied in part to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s risk dial: green is low risk, yellow is moderate, orange is high, and red is severe. The county has been in orange since school started in August, which means in-person learning for most students.

Until recently, the plan said if the area ever goes into the "Red-severe" category, all school buildings would be closed and students would participate in remote learning from home.

But that language was removed from the LPS website on Tuesday. Now, it says LPS will work with health officials to "implement plans and protocols that address the areas of concern in our community and schools."

LPS Communications Director Mindy Burbach declined an interview, but said in an email this decision was announced last month.

Superintendent Steve Joel said this at the Board of Education meeting on September 22:

"First of all, we don’t believe we’re going to go to red," he said. "But if we go to red, then we’ll work with the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department to determine if, in fact, our schools are the safest place. Maybe there’s an argument to continue to have school."

Joel talked about it again two days later in a video streamed live on the LPS Facebook page.

Maggie Thompson has two middle school students in the district, both doing the remote learning option.

"You can’t say something in a school board meeting and assume everybody in the district, staff, families, and community members, are getting that information. Not everybody’s on social media either," Thompson said. "They email out about positive cases every day, they email out about clubs every day, certainly a change as big as this should have been a clear email communication."

Burbach said it would have been confusing to send families an email updating them about the change, because it would "imply that going into the Red was imminent or had already occurred. Neither of which was true."

Thompson says not all parents can watch the board meetings, and an announcement there isn't accessible to parents who require a translator.

The risk dial has been "high orange" for two weeks. Health officials update the risk dial each Friday afternoon.

A summary of the LPS COVID-19 Plan includes few details about what the district will do if the "red" category is ever reached. The summary references other planning documents that are not published on the LPS website. Burbach provided two documents to NET News: "Elementary Fall 2020 Red Dial" and "Secondary Fall 2020 Red Dial."

It’s not clear what would prompt LPS to transition to fully remote learning.

The district has been operating with high schools on a 3/2 reduced capacity plan, where students attend in-person only half the week.

Joel announced at the same Sep. 22 board meeting that high schools would return to full capacity at the start of the second quarter on Oct. 19. The district later reversed that decision and plans to continue with 3/2 for high schools until further notice.

There have been at least 277 cases of COVID-19 among LPS students and staff members, according to the weekly illness dashboard. The dashboard is updated weekly and is current through Oct. 14.

New cases of COVID-19 in Lancaster County are up about 14% over the past two weeks. The positivity rate for the county has been above 10% since Oct. 13 (based on a seven-day average of new cases and tests).

A report from infectious disease experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center recommends schools should remain at 100% remote learning unless there are fewer than five new cases per 100,000 residents per day.

When LPS began in-person instruction again in early August, Lancaster County was slightly above that threshold. Over the last seven days, health officials confirmed an average 32 new cases per 100,000 residents — more than five times higher than the UNMC threshold.