- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2020

Omaha World-Herald. May 17, 2020.

Innovation, creativity can help Nebraska reopen schools this fall

The abrupt shift to remote learning this year has weighed heavily on Nebraskans. Teachers, students, parents, school districts - all have had to scramble. It’s widely conceded that remote learning lags that achieved through face-to-face classroom interaction. And the need for parents to stay home to tend to their children makes restarting the economy - a vital need for Nebraska and the nation - even more difficult and delayed.

It’s imperative, then, that Nebraska school leaders explore creative ideas so that schools can reopen this fall to the greatest extent possible. Such an approach would boost instructional quality and set Nebraska on a path toward economic revival.

The Nebraska Department of Education is a key player on this issue. Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt provides frequent guidance to school districts after consulting with state and local public health officials and the Governor’s Office.



“We know the challenges happening in the households across the state, for sure,” David Jespersen, the department’s public information officer, told The World-Herald. The agency agrees that in-class student/teacher interaction is best. But the agency’s priority, Jespersen said, must be “basing all of our decisions on public safety and public health of our students and their communities.”

Schools are particularly vulnerable to possible coronavirus exposure, which is why they were among the first institutions to be shut down early in the virus emergency, he said. Students come from throughout their community, congregate tightly in school and don’t social distance responsibly as adults do. That’s especially the case for younger children. When students return home, they’re at considerable risk of being asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

Nebraska’s 244 public school districts are home to 329,000 students and 24,000 teachers.

The Department of Education recognizes that the virus situation is changing over weeks and months, and it’s encouraging that the agency is looking at creative options for the fall. Its top preference, Jespersen said, is a return to traditional in-class instruction: “We are truly starting with putting everything on the table and seeing what works.” But if virus conditions warrant measures short of a regular reopening, the department is looking at various options, including:

• Delayed start. Depending on the virus situation, districts could delay opening by several weeks. That option presents complications including “a hindrance to instructional hours and timelines for different events,” Jespersen said.

• Staggered class scheduling. Classes wouldn’t meet every day but instead could be scheduled for, say, Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Tuesday/Thursday.

• Remote/in-class combination. Instruction would continue remotely but students also would visit the classroom once or twice a week in small groups.

• District-specific approaches. Restrictions would vary depending on the severity of virus conditions in individual districts. Twenty-some Nebraska counties so far have registered no positive COVID-19 cases, Jespersen noted. If that remains the case this fall, it might be possible for districts there to open on a regular schedule. At the other extreme, any counties that remain hot spots would understandably face tougher restrictions.

Another wild card, Jespersen said, is the possibility of a coronavirus resurgence later this year, creating a new wave of complications and tough choices. In the end, he said, the decisions affecting schools aren’t made by education officials: “They’re made by COVID-19.”

As Nebraska school officials face such challenges this fall, it’s important that they deliver the needed innovation. Our schools must move out of lockdown and into more flexible, effective support for students, parents and communities.

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The Grand Island Independent. May 13, 2020.

TestNebraska system gets failing grade

During the weekly COVID-19 response call on Tuesday, Teresa Anderson, health director of the Central District Heath Department voiced frustration over the lack of virus testing results from the state. Two weeks have passed since the last positive test results were communicated locally.

According to Anderson, in that short time the positive test result rate for our district has mysteriously dropped from 18% to 3%. CDHD cannot report the test data because it has not received the results. This is leading to false hope across the state and particularly in here in Grand Island, which remains one of the state’s hotspots.

State officials appealed to everyone to use TestNebraska as the standard to gauge trending for COVID-19 infection rates. Through TestNebraska, the National Guard began testing in Omaha and Grand Island on May 4. It is now clear that the TestNebraska system is failing because it was not properly tested prior to release.

The key failure in the setup process is due to the lack of a provision for distinguishing the origin of tests, which is critical in breaking down the results to better target areas for containment and remediation. The addresses of those tested did not transfer through the process to the data system accessed by the local health department. Additionally, there is no mechanism in TestNebraska for providers to be notified of results, positive or negative, as provider information is not requested when registering.

Anderson reports that CDHD is doing everything it can while diligently trying to follow the state’s advice. The state, under the direction of the governor, is failing Grand Island right now. Support is needed for CDHD and our local medical community. The doctors, nurses, technicians, staff and emergency responders are on the front lines of a life-and-death battle to fight the virus, tend to the afflicted and keep everyone else safe and healthy.

Since there is no reliable baseline for knowing whether that battle is being won or lost, health care workers are flying blind and the public may be led to believe that the cloud is lifting.

The CDHD fears that by letting up on social distancing now, the anticipated next wave of infections will occur sooner than expected and could potentially be worse than the first round. Countries in Europe and Asia are already seeing a resurgence of infection levels and are being forced to backtrack on lifting restrictions.

Everyone in the community has a role to play in winning this battle to prevent the spread of infections and save lives.

Anderson notes that patience is in short supply. CDHD is not sure how to help individuals get their results back from tests from over a week ago. At the same time, the governor is making decisions to open areas of the state while test results are on hold.

She cautions that we are not out of this yet.

“We need to wear masks in public,” Anderson said. “Stay home when possible. Practice social distancing. Wash hands often.”

We agree that the lack of accurate and timely test results pushed out by the state is simply unacceptable for Grand Island. The state must do better if the public and our health workers are to be kept safe and resources are to be applied to maximum benefit.

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Lincoln Journal Star. May 17, 2020.

Reflections on a most unusual election

It probably never was just about the stickers, but now we know for sure.

Those little round “I voted” stickers have been a treasured Election Day fashion accessory for years. But far more important are the ballots behind them. And Tuesday’s voter turnout – the huge participation by mail and the relatively small number actually at the polls – proves people want to do the right thing — sticker or not.

A few reflections on Tuesday’s vote, which was historic more for happening the way it did than for any results returned by the electorate:

Voting is important. And folks did it. In record-setting numbers – with 471,000 casting ballots. That was 14% more than the previous primary record set in 1972. And four out of five ballots was done early by mail.

How we voted was important this election. Our state political leaders of both parties – sometimes painfully divided on issues of policy – came together to encourage, for the safety of all, voting by mail. Poll workers, because of the time commitment for training and on Election Day, are often older or retirees. By minimizing traffic at the polls, we minimized risk for both voters and election workers.

Was something lost in Tuesday’s election? Perhaps. There is a special connection made as we stand in line with our fellow voters, when we check in with the poll workers, many of whom we know or, at least, recognize from one election to the next.

The very deliberate act of traveling to a polling place, marking a ballot and handing it over is one as old as democracy, and there’s something special about it.

But there’s also something special about overcoming unprecedented challenges posed by this pandemic and doing something so normal as voting in this very abnormal time.

We have no way of predicting where, as a community and a state, we will be in the fall as we prepare for the November election.

We would hope to be in a place where decisions can be made in a timely and collegial manner, without lawsuits and threats of disenfranchisement or civil unrest. We would hope that every decision made is aimed at allowing the largest number of citizens to participate. We would hope that what we have learned about early and mail voting is used to the advantage of better turnout. And we would hope that we are in a place where in-person voting is safe and available to all who prefer that option.

And maybe, in addition to our traditional “I voted” stickers, some community group will sponsor “I voted (early by mail)” buttons for those availing themselves of that option – something more durable for lapels and shirts, to be worn to remind us all in the weeks before Election Day that we still have time to make our voices heard.

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