Public schools are one of this country’s biggest assets. Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) in particular is known to be a forward-thinking school district. I often tout our ability to remain “one” district, despite having over 40,000 students from a variety of backgrounds. This has allowed for an equitable education for all students, whether your zip code is 68501 or 68526. Our Title 1 schools are able to educate with the same supplies, books, and equipment as our schools with less than 10% free and reduced lunch. The same cannot be said for districts in many similar or larger cities, including Omaha.
In the midst of the global pandemic, we have heard the American Academy of Pediatrics support school reopening as essential to the development of children, though they have since added some caveats about doing so safely. We have heard workers and workplaces express the need for parents to have supervision for their youngsters during the work day. We have heard social services organizations emphasizing the need for kids to have access to food, clothing, and other basic needs that are often provided by the schools. We have heard students themselves beg for a return to the routine, camaraderie, and fun of school. We all want children back in school. But we need them back in school safely.
The SARS-CoV-2 is novel. We are learning more every day about how it is spread, who is most at-risk, and its many complications. According to all the best information today, we know that outdoor activities with physical distancing and face coverings are the least risky. Indoor activities where many people are in the same small space, air is recirculated, and people are consistently talking or singing are the most risky. Picture a school classroom: 30+ people from different family units in a single small room, no access to windows that open, varying HVAC systems due to age and condition of the building, and the appropriate give and take of information in the form of talking. Pretty much the picture of high risk.
In Lincoln, cases are on the rise. We are back around the middle of May in terms of daily case counts, and these cases are skewing younger and younger. We also know that while the May cases were highly localized to food processing and long-term care facilities, the current cases are not localized at all–they are at large in the community. The mayor and county health director continue to emphasize that anyone is at risk any time they are out in the community. It is also clear from information provided by school board member and president at Partnership for Healthy Lincoln, Dr. Bob Rauner, that our testing is woefully inadequate and delayed to the point that we have no way of getting ahead of any outbreaks.
The City of Lincoln should be in Phase 1 according to the White House gating criteria.
The current LPS plan for students is an all-or-nothing approach that calls for 100% attendance in the classroom (or a synchronous opt-out by parents) in yellow and orange on the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department risk dial with face coverings, school as normal in green, and schools closed in red. These recommendations are in conflict with the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department (LLCHD) recommendations in the yellow and orange categories. Namely, in the orange category, LLCHD recommends leaving your house only for essential travel–work, medical care, or food runs, strict six-foot physical distancing, outdoor events only, and no gatherings of more than ten people. It calls for anyone over 65 to stay home and to have help getting groceries and medications. How will LPS accommodate those employees over 65 years of age? In fact, even in the yellow category, it calls for “cautious expansion of interactions with others, outdoor activities preferred.” The Centers for Disease Control has also released guidelines for opening schools and we don’t seem to be following them either.
So, where is our guidance coming from?
As of yet, LPS has provided no details about how synchronous learning will work, what a school day will look like with protections for students, and zero information about how LPS will protect its vulnerable staff. There has been no communication about what happens when a student is infected or what happens when a staff member is infected. What happens when a student’s family member is infected? How often can students opt in or out of synchronous learning? Will teachers receive hazard pay or extra plan time to figure out how to deliver the same lesson in multiple ways? How will assessments of the students at home work? How will the district ensure those are equitable? How can organizations who employ the parents in this city make decisions about what kind of working arrangements they will offer for fall? Will parents feel backed into a corner to send children to school because they must be at work?
LPS has also not provided any guidance on how they will assess the health of the students in the school. Are parents required to take temperatures daily? Are teachers? If a student presents with a fever, where will we keep them until someone can pick them up? Will there be a mandatory duty to report for students? For parents? For the school to report back to families that someone is ill? How will LPS monitor the amount of time students are excluded from school? Will a doctor’s note be required?
And these are just the questions from a concerned parent and citizen – I can be quite sure staff have additional concerns.
LPS has announced that they will hold a press conference on July 21st to share more details of their plan. That gives parents and caregivers less than three weeks to make an educated decision about what is best for their individual students and families. It also only gives educators that long to determine their own comfort level with the risk and make plans for their future. Oh, and then they have to plan these dual lessons and a variety of additional lessons about how kids can keep themselves safe and what the new rules are going to be. How can educators be expected to answer parental questions about rules and plans with that short of notice? How can parents decide what is best for their family in only three weeks? How can students decide what they are comfortable with?
We have highly paid professionals at LPS. The top five members of the executive team make a combined total of nearly $1.5M per year. Our school board has seven members who have amazing combined resumes including folks who have worked in public health, in education, and in the private sector. But what we are seeing is a failure of imagination. They may have been caught flat-footed in March when we closed schools and limped through the end of the school year, but we are now four months into this and I have yet to hear a truly innovative solution to the myriad problems being laid at LPS’s feet. What about block scheduling? What about alternating days? What about outdoor education? Could we have utilized empty buildings and churches to put kids in smaller groups with virtual synchronous learning? What about upsetting the whole fruit-basket on standards and testing and focus on what kids really need right now – social and emotional connections with peers and caring adults and learning problem-solving skills so that if they are in charge of the next pandemic, their own children aren’t stuck inside a box of what we have always done?
Teachers are not sacrificial lambs. Students are not guinea pigs. Schools should not be pandemic disease vectors.
The disruption in public education has been a long time coming and the time has never been better. People, it’s time to work differently.
Because of the ever-changing guidance, we cannot expect any solution to be perfect or permanent. But we can and should expect our leaders to be consistent in their recommendations. We can also expect employees who are worth their quarter million dollar salaries to get creative. I get it, the school board doesn’t have an easy answer here. They may not even have a good answer.
But they must have an answer that points to science, data, and a care for the most vulnerable people they serve and employ.