Categories
COVID-19 Education

Board of Ed. Says Hands Are Tied: BDSM or Passing the Buck?

On Tuesday, the State Board of Education declined a request from the Nebraska State Education Association to mandate masks in all Nebraska schools.  The petition was further-reaching though: the Board was asked to instate a mask mandate, as well as to develop strategies for online and remote technology, to require all sick children and adults stay home, and to designate a staff person responsible for responding to COVID-19 concerns, among other suggestions.  Despite the reasonableness of these requests, they were denied for a multitude of made-up reasons: 

  1. Because “it asks the State Board to essentially ‘issue’ new regulations not currently in the school accreditation regulation.”   
  2. Because “the Legislature has committed to DHHS the power and authority over ‘all matters relating to necessary communicable disease control’ in regard to COVID-19,” and therefore “the State Board has no authority to mandate the wearing of facemasks for all students and staff in all schools.” 
  3. Because “The fact that DHHS has not exercised its specific authority to issue a Directed Health Measure to require PPE in schools across the state does not mean that the Department or the State Board can impose such a requirement.”
  4. Most ridiculously, because “Requirements concerning the health measures required of individual staff and students’ PPE or facial coverings do not concern ‘buildings and grounds.’”

As fights over school rage on a larger scale across our country and on a smaller scale in districts across Nebraska, I see parallels between my experiences in LPS and the four rationales the Board gives for shirking responsibility.

  1. Bureaucracy: As senseless as it sounds for the State Board to say that they can’t create new rules to respond to a global pandemic, bureaucracy reigns supreme in public education.  In the spring and summer, Lincoln Public Schools teachers suggested that middle and high schools implement block scheduling – already practiced at Southwest High School – to more effectively cohort students, by limiting the number of other teachers and students they would come into contact with each day.  LPS stated that a provision in the teacher contract would require a vote to change schedules.  And instead of, say, taking a vote over the summer to make a change for safety, they remained bound by red tape.  Local and State boards present their hands, asking to be tied.  
  2. Ricketts & his calls for “personal responsibility”: While Lincoln Public Schools, Omaha Public Schools, and many other districts across our state have issued their own mask mandates, the influence of Ricketts is strong.  In September, Steve Joel went on record with NET, saying, “I think the governor has been very clear that schools need to be, needed to be reopened.  And so, you know, we went at it with that perspective.”  The State Board is at least smart enough not to out themselves, but the claim of lack of authority from those in authority reeks of Ricketts.  The phrase “personal responsibility” is implicit in statements that everyone should be following the rules, even though the Board will not actually make them into rules.  “Personal responsibility” is also what leads some of our community to believe that LPS teachers are 42% more likely to be exposed to the virus than Lancaster county not because of school spread, but because of their own unsafe behavior.  
  3. Passing the buck: Blaming DHHS for not issuing PPE in schools is valid, but unhelpful.  It prioritizes language nuance over human lives, when the only truth is that someone needs to provide teachers with PPE.  In August, the LPS school board listened to a woman with a rare immune disorder cry that she is fearful for her life, but can’t afford not to work.  She asked for an N95 mask to keep herself and others safe and was denied.  Our CLC partner, Civic Nebraska, provided them for her instead.  Again in December, that Life Skills program – with many students physically unable to wear masks, with needs that require extremely close proximity – was denied N95 masks once more.  Special Education programs have been the most consistent to close in LPS due to staff shortages.  Students’ legal educational rights are infringed upon, as IEP managers must perform class covers and are left with no contract time (they are also full-time teachers) to meet with students on their caseloads, and paraeducator and co-teacher absences are not being filled to meet the demands of the sub shortage.
  4. No clue what the hell this rationale is: Buildings and grounds may hold more leverage than students and staff in the eyes of the State Board, but it’s no more offensive than the fact that contract hours matter more than workplace safety in Lincoln Public Schools.  This is the rationale given to deny high-risk teachers the opportunity to teach remotely, even as there are young and healthy teachers continuing to volunteer to teach in-person.  Instead, we all cram into school to do both at the same time.  

The Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA) responded that “the Board’s attempt to stand behind legal justifications for its failure to act lacks credibility” and that it has “joined with Governor Ricketts in simply passing the buck.”  In the land of Nebraska Nice (read: respectability politics), I appreciate the firm statements made by NSEA.