Ricketts Upbeat About Schools Reopening; Still Analyzing Extra Unemployment Benefits

Aug. 24, 2020, 5:19 p.m. ·

Gov. Pete Ricketts speaks Monday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Gov. Pete Ricketts gave an upbeat assessment Mondayof the effort to reopen schools in Nebraska, as well as offering praise for President Donald Trump’s record as the Republican National Convention got underway.

While Ricketts was positive about schools’ reopening during the coronavirus pandemic, part of his message during a news conference Monday was about the psychological effects of keeping things closed down, both for students and other people.

“People considering – seriously considering -- suicide is up dramatically, because of the isolation that goes along with COVID-19,” Ricketts said.

The governor said the Centers for Disease Control found 10.7 percent of adults considered suicide in June, compared to 2018’s 4.3 percent. And the figures were higher for those aged 18-24 and for minorities. And Ricketts said 40 percent of those surveyed in June reported problems with behavioral or mental health, or increased use of drugs and alcohol to cope with the pandemic.

“These mental health issues are very, very serious. And that is why we need to be thinking about the complete picture of the restrictions we put in place and look at the broader picture with regard to what we’re doing with regard to restrictions, and not just (be) focused on the number of people getting coronavirus, although that’s very important, but looking at the other issues that go along with it,” he said.

State Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said he’s heard a lot about students, families and teachers being excited to get back to school.

Blomstedt said he doesn’t have any comprehensive figures on how many students or teachers have tested positive for COVID-19, or how many school districts have been affected.

“No, not yet,” Blomstedt said.

He said that information is collected by local public health districts, and the Education Department is working on how to gather and use it.

“We’re actually talking with local public health about what our best approach to that – the data actually feeds through them and then up to the state. It might be something that I also try to work with the governor a little bit around how that would come together,” he said.

Executive Director John Wyvill of the Nebraska Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing said in-person learning is important for deaf and hard of hearing students.

“We can see from firsthand knowledge of our experiences earlier in the school year, late last year, the disruption of academic success has hurt hardest the deaf and hard of hearing students, because working in a remote environment is not exactly the best outcome,” Wyvill said.

On other subjects, Ricketts said the state is still analyzing whether to participate in a program announced by President Donald Trump Aug. 8 to resume supplemental unemployment benefits. Those benefits of $600 a week expired in late July. Trump signed a memorandum offering $300 a week in federal funds, and asking states to chip-in another $100. The states have until Sept. 10 to decide whether to participate.

As the Republican National Convention gets underway, Ricketts said there are no plans for him to speak to the gathering. But he said it’s a good opportunity for people to hear about Trump’s vision for the next four years, and he praised Trump’s record.

“If you back pre-pandemic, this administration, which is probably the most federalist administration I’ve ever seen since Ronald Reagan, created the most dynamic economy that put so many Americans, millions of Americans back to work, created the lowest African American unemployment rate, the lowest Hispanic American unemployment rate, literally lifted millions of people off of food stamps, millions of people out of poverty just tremendous results for the American people to be able to pursue the American dream, and I think Americans would want to hear how the President intends to continue that in the next four years,” he said.

Editor's note: Commissioner Matt Blomstedt is a member of the board that oversees NET.