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Ricketts stands by decision to discontinue emergency SNAP

OMAHA — Gov. Pete Ricketts doubled down Thursday on his decision to leave Nebraska as the only state that has discontinued emergency food assistance benefits that were made available under the federal coronavirus relief package, despite pleas from advocates for the poor.

Ricketts argued that Nebraska’s economy has fared far better than others hit by the coronavirus, and that other forms of assistance are still available to those who need it.

His comments came after advocates for low-income Nebraskans called on the Republican governor to reinstate the emergency aid, which ended in July. A group of state lawmakers has made a similar request.

“Our friends, our family members, and our neighbors are being told they should face an unprecedented global pandemic without emergency support for which they are eligible,” said Eric Savaino, who works on food-access issues for the advocacy group Nebraska Appleseed.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, was temporarily expanded during the pandemic to help low-income Americans who took a financial hit due to the coronavirus and subsequent business closures and layoffs. SNAP benefits are financed by the federal government, with the state covering half of the administrative costs.

“The reality for thousands of Nebraska families who are still in crisis, disabled, or working but at reduced hours or at lower paying jobs, is that these benefits were essential and are still sorely needed,” Savaino said.

Advocates said they’ve heard from hundreds of Nebraska residents who relied on the additional aid to pay for food during the pandemic. The Food Bank of the Heartland, based in Omaha, reported a 40% increase in calls to its hotline since March.

“The SNAP program reaches across communities, urban, suburban and rural, to improve access to healthy food for families in need,” said Shelley Mann, an assistant director at the food bank. “Neither the charitable food system, nor SNAP can do it alone.”

Ricketts argued that the extra assistance isn’t needed because Nebraska had the nation’s lowest unemployment rate as of last month. The state’s unemployment rate was 4% in August, compared to 8.4% nationally, and the current numbers are comparable to Nebraska’s jobless rates before the pandemic.

He said Nebraska’s economy also took a small hit relative to other states, based on federal data. Nebraska’s gross domestic product shrank 1.2% in the first three months of 2020, a smaller decrease than any other state, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Additionally, Ricketts said that the number of applications for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has returned to normal levels after a sudden increase.

Nebraska had roughly 70,000 people enrolled in the program in February, and the number rose to a high of 78,000 during the pandemic. It has since dropped to around 71,000.

“Here in Nebraska, being the least impacted the state, we have a way to show the rest of the country how to get back to normal,” Ricketts said at a news conference on an unrelated issue.

A group of 20 state lawmakers sent a letter to Ricketts earlier this month, asking that he extend the emergency benefits. The effort was led by state Sen. John McCollister, a Republican in the officially nonpartisan Legislature who his often at odds with his party.

“Nebraska should not withhold this life-sustaining aid to those residents who remain food insecure,” the senators wrote in the letter.

HC homecoming features 'reverse' parade, belated graduation event

While COVID-19 has succeeded in throwing one aspect of this year’s celebration into “reverse,” Hastings College is powering forward with plans for homecoming festivities this weekend.

Along with football and other spots events, this year’s celebration will include a “reverse” Melody Round-Up Parade that will bring visitors onto the campus, rather than downtown, to hear band music and view stationary floats.

The highlight of the weekend may be an outdoor graduation ceremony for the HC Class of 2020, which celebrated commencement virtually in May but missed out on the traditional in-person event.

Matt Fong, HC vice president for external relations, said 57 or 58 of the college’s graduates had sent in RSVPs by Wednesday afternoon indicating they plan to attend the casual graduation event.

Fong said college officials are pleased that a good number of the recent graduates want to take time to travel back for the in-person event.

“We feel really great about that,” he said. “It’s wonderful to see a group of them who are wanting to come to campus and recognize their graduation.”

The weekend kicks off today, Friday, with alumni speakers and lectures throughout the day. The speakers event, now in its 10th year, highlights good work being done by college alumni and friends far and wide.

Saturday’s agenda opens at 10:30 a.m. with the 69th annual Melody Round-Up Parade, which normally takes place in downtown Hastings. This year, however, community members are invited onto campus, either on foot or in vehicles, where stationary bands and floats will be positioned in various places. Signage will help direct those who wish to remain in their vehicles.

Participating bands this year include the college marching band and the bands from Hastings Senior High and St. Cecilia high schools.

Fong said the “reverse” format is a public health precaution that will reduce concerns about spectators congregating along downtown streets during the ongoing pandemic. The bands will be performing at locations across campus.

College officials anticipate most community spectators traveling onto campus will want to remain in their vehicles and encourage them to do so, Fong said.

There’s no one certain route they need to follow, so they can just keep driving around, he said. The bands will have enough distance between them to avoid impinging on each other’s sound.

“We’re fortunate we have a large campus,” Fong said.

From 11:15 a.m. to 1 p.m., a picnic lunch will be served for a charge in the parking lot between the Gray Center and the Jackson Dinsdale Art Center. The Bronco Marching Band will perform and then lead the crowd to Lloyd Wilson Field for the 1 p.m. kickoff of Hastings College vs. arch rival Doane University. The Bronco Bookstore will be offering HC merchandise on location at the football field.

The graduation ceremony gets under way at 5 p.m. on the lawn at Taylor Hall, giving 2020 graduates who left campus “unceremoniously” last spring a chance to gather and celebrate together in person.

HC class delivery moved online following the spring break due to the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

Fong said Saturday’s event is casual and graduates will wear caps but not gowns. The graduates who attend also will receive special certificates as a memento of the occasion, following up on the official diplomas all graduates received in the mail last spring.

The event will include a talk by Hannah Adams, a member of the Class of 2020; prayer by the Rev. Greg Allen-Pickett, pastor of First Presbyterian Church and a member of the college Board of Trustees; and remarks by Rich Lloyd, the college’s new executive president, and Barbara Sunderman, college vice president for academic affairs.

While the virtual commencement ceremony in May was great, Fong said, college officials committed early on to inviting graduates back to campus for a chance to congratulate each other, thank their teachers, and take their leave of the place that was their home away from home for several years.

“We really think the one-on-one interaction students have with each other and with the faculty is important,” he said. “We wanted to give them one final opportunity ... to fully say goodbye and turn the page.”

Saturday’s evening schedule includes women’s soccer vs. Presentation College beginning 5:30 p.m. at Lloyd Wilson Field, followed by men’s soccer vs. Presentation at 8 p.m.

Also at 8 p.m., a homecoming movie will be shown on the lawn west of Fuhr Hall. Those attending are asked to bring a blanket or lawn chair. The fare will be family-friendly.

The weekend concludes Sunday morning with Hastings College Sunday at First Presbyterian Church, where the 10:30 a.m. “stay at home” worship service will be streamed to the world via Facebook and broadcast live on KICS Radio 1550 AM. The Hastings College Choirs will provide special music for the service, which won’t be open for in-person public attendance.

Virtual celebrations for the honored classes of 2010 (10 years), 1995 (25 years) and 1980 (40) years are planned. More information is available online at hastings.edu/homecoming or by calling 402-461-7363 or emailing alumni@hastings.edu.

Initiative aimed at finding the pulse of child care needs in Adams County

Response has been strong for the countywide survey aimed at better understanding the importance of high-quality child care and educational programs within Adams County.

Adams County Communities for Kids, which is conducting the online survey, is a collaboration of different organizations from Adams County that want to grow, improve and develop early care and education programs for local youth.

The survey takes about 8-10 minutes to complete. Anyone who lives or works in Adams County, with or without young children, is encouraged to complete the questionnaire.

Responses will be anonymous and confidential. Only members of the Adams County Communities for Kids survey committee will have access to raw data. Any data shared with the community will be in aggregate form only — not individual responses.

Participation is voluntary; respondents don’t have to answer any question that they don’t feel comfortable with and can stop the survey at any time.

The survey debuted Sept. 14. Program liaison Wendy Keele said nearly 700 people had responded as of Wednesday morning.

Once the survey results are collected and analyzed, Adams County Communities for Kids will partner with Adams County residents to find solutions to the needs identified in the survey responses.

The survey link can be found at www.surveymonkey.com/r/AdamsCountyC4K. The link also is available on the websites of partner agencies.

The goal is to get 10% of the Adams County population to respond, which would be about 3,000 responses.

Keele said Adams County Communities for Kids may extend the survey period beyond the initial three weeks.

“Our hope is that in three weeks we’ll have the numbers that we need,” she said.

Communities for Kids partners with communities’ public and private entities to support and coordinate planning for access to high-quality early care and education for all children birth through age 8. These partnerships are customized to address each community’s unique assets and needs, so each community can grow and prosper well into the future.

“We know from research that the first five years of a child’s life are so critical for their emotional and psychological development,” Keele said. “Part of that, because we have so many families where both parents are in the workplace, means that it’s the care they are being given and the early education they have through preschool. So it’s critical that those five years be really quality care.”

This survey is intended to determine how best to facilitate early education.

“We just need to find the pulse of the community, so we know where to start,” Keele said.

The first step may be providing more information to help people understand the importance of early education.

“We’re kind of open to find out what the community thinks, and then we’ll go from there,” she said.

Keele said in order to have an accurate community response, it is important to have as many different kinds of people take the survey as possible.

“We need people from all different segments, so we understand an overview of what the thought is out there,” she said.

Part of this project is providing information about child care providers.

“In addition, we want to take it a step further and give information to our parents, so when parents are looking for child care and for preschool we can help them to see the quality programs we have out there and why you would look to a quality program rather than just finding the cheapest place to send your child,” Keele said. “I know the financial part of it is huge because it’s very expensive to have a child in child care, but that’s the other part we need to figure out as a community. How can we help all members of the community have access to quality care?”

The project also is working to identify child care needs in Kenesaw.

“What does that look like?” Keele said. “Are we going to try to find more in-home licensed providers? Are they going to try to come together and have some kind of community child care center?”

As soon as Adams County Communities for Kids gets its survey results back a plan will be determined how best to move forward.

“We are going to be hitting the ground running as soon as we get our results back,” Keele said.

South Heartland logs 27 new COVID-19 cases

A total of 27 new cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, were confirmed Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in the South Heartland Health District.

The district health department reported the new cases, 23 of which involve Adams County residents, in a news release Thursday night.

Two of the new cases are in Nuckolls County, one is in Clay County, and one is in Webster County.

Three of the new patients required in-patient treatment in hospitals.

Since March 18, 540 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in Adams County along with 76 in Clay County, 19 in Webster County and 15 in Nuckolls County, for a districtwide total to date of 650.

Michele Bever, health department executive director, said one hospitalized COVID-19 patient who had been reported to South Heartland as a Clay County resident was determined to live in another county outside the health district, and that Clay County and South Heartland statistics were revised accordingly.

To date, 37 South Heartland residents have spent time in a hospital in connection with a COVID-19 diagnosis. A total of 12 patients — all Adams County residents — have died.

As of Thursday, a total of 534 South Heartland COVID-19 cases had been classified as recovered. That’s 82% of the total number of positive cases confirmed since March.

“We count as recoveries the individuals who tested positive and have completed their isolation period. This means that at least 10 days have passed since symptoms first appeared AND at least 24 hours have passed since last fever without the use of fever-reducing medications AND symptoms have improved,” Bever said.

On Wednesday, South Heartland announced that the district’s risk dial reading, assessing the risk of further spread of the novel coronavirus, has risen into the “elevated” (orange) zone for this week. The increase is attributable in part to a trend of rising weekly new case numbers.

For the week of Sept. 13-19, 53 new positive cases were recorded in the district.

In Thursday’s press dispatch, Bever urged residents to do their part in protecting others.

“This means keeping physically distanced from others, wearing cloth face coverings when we are around others, staying home when we have any symptoms, washing our hands, and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces,” she said.

“We can make a difference in the overall risk for spread of COVID-19 in our communities. Our actions affect others. Please help us turn this trend around by reducing opportunities for the virus to spread from person to person. Let’s keep up the ‘I’ll protect you, you protect me’ approach to keeping our schools, worksites, and events safe.”

For detailed South Heartland COVID-19 statistics, visit the health department website, southheartlandhealth.org. State statistics are available at http://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Coronavirus.