Throughout this process of reopening Hastings Public Schools, district officials are working hard to communicate with parents.
That includes an hour-long virtual town hall meeting on Monday evening conducted by HPS Superintendent Jeff Schneider along with Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland District Health Department; and school district physician Curtis Reimer.
The virtual town hall was streamed on the Hastings Public Schools Facebook page. The event generated more than 400 comments, many of which were questions, and more than 5,000 views.
“I understand parents want more specifics than we have right now,” Schneider said in an interview on Tuesday afternoon. “The truth of the matter is we don’t know all the specifics yet. There’s not a book that tells us how to do this. The e-learning, because it’s so new, both to us and parents, people want more specific information than we have, but the fact of the matter is we are developing that as we speak and we don’t have it fully developed yet. And it’s not going to be perfect at the start of the year, but we are trying to have as flexible of options as (we can for) parents so that we can have school, and this is an extremely difficult process.”
Schneider introduced the district’s reopening plan, which included the requirement for face coverings, at the Board of Education’s work session on July 9.
“The face coverings are so controversial we can’t make everybody happy,” he said. “The key was we were able to communicate, so that’s a real positive thing. Not everybody is in full support of our plan. I don’t know how you get everybody in full support under these circumstances.”
Board members will act on the plan during their regular meeting on Aug. 10.
HPS parents have until Friday to opt their students into online learning.
“Of course, some of the people that are choosing online learning are doing so because they don’t like the face-covering requirement, or don’t agree with it,” Schneider said. “The question I’ve had from some of those people is, ‘So if the board doesn’t approve face coverings on Aug. 10 and I change my mind and I want to send my kid to school as opposed to the e-learning, would (the district) allow that?’ The answer is ‘Absolutely.’ If the board changes our plan because they think that’s best, then we will adapt and be flexible with parents.”
A deadline for online learning responses was needed, so the district could establish staffing assignments.
“We’ll try to accommodate as best as we can, but the reality is we have to make class sizes work, both for those in person and e-learning,” Schneider said of parents who don’t respond by Friday. “We’ll do everything we can to help families but it’s not going to be perfect.”
Just as the process of establishing online learning programs is in progress and not perfect, so too is the idea that students and teachers will wear masks for the entire eight-hour school day.
“We’re going to have to get flexible,” Schneider said. “It’s not going to be perfect. Our goal is that the majority of the people in the building are wearing face coverings a large majority of the time, but it’s not going to be 100%. If you watch a group of adults in an area that are pretty faithful about it it’s not 100%.”
HPS students will receive two reusable masks the first day of school, and schools will have disposable masks on hand, too. Schneider believes the number of reusable masks ultimately issued to students will be more than two as the year progresses.
The district also encourages families to send masks with students if they have some the students have been using and feel comfortable with.
The district hopes activities will continue in some manner.
Fall sports teams will begin practicing soon.
“We’re going to have to follow the state guidance on that,” Schneider said. “There’s just a lot of uncertainty.”
At Hastings Middle School, faculty have talked about possibly having half of band attending band class each day, so the members in class on a given day could spread out, he said.
“I don’t think we think anything is going to be normal, but we hope to have them in some capacity,” Schneider said. “But we just don’t know and we’ll have to see how this goes.”
The Adams Central Board of Education will have a special meeting Aug. 3 at 6:30 p.m. to vote on plans for its students returning to classrooms this fall.
The board met Monday for a work session to discuss various aspects of the return, including whether face coverings should be required.
Superintendent Shawn Scott said the board reviewed the entire plan for the school district, but the issue of face masks was the most controversial topic.
“The board had a healthy discussion about that,” he said.
A committee of three board members was formed to specifically examine various aspects of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, as they work to reopen the school.
Scott said the plans are nearly ready for the board to vote upon, at which time he will make the plan available to the public, as well. He said the plan will be subject to change to match the directed health measures enacted by the state of Nebraska.
He said the board has been as thorough as possible with the current information available. The plan will be reviewed Wednesday by the Adams Central Safety and Security committee made up of patrons and staff. The South Central District Health Department also is reviewing the plan to offer suggestions.
The health department is recommending students go back to school, but wear face coverings when possible to help prevent the spread of the virus. The final decision on those recommendations is left to each school board.
Overall, Scott said, the goal of the school board and administration is to get students back into the classroom and have them in session as much as possible.
“This still will change and grow with everything we learn down the line,” he said. “Please have patience with us as we try some things that may work and some things that may not.”
Good news about the overall positivity rate for COVID-19 in the South Heartland Health District last week was offset by increasing case numbers and concern for lack of compliance with recommended safety practices, leaving the district’s risk level for further spread of the disease unchanged.
In a news release Tuesday evening, Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland District Health Department, announced that the risk dial launched in recent times will stay at 1.9 for the second consecutive week.
“The needle on the risk dial remained at 1.9 this week, which keeps our district at the top of the ‘moderate’ risk level,” Bever said. “Some factors that contribute to the risk level have improved, and others have worsened. Overall, the risk for the entire health district is essentially the same as last week.”
The risk dial stood at 1.7 two weeks ago. It is updated once a week.
The South Heartland district encompasses Adams, Webster, Clay and Nuckolls counties. The district’s positivity rate is its number of newly confirmed positive cases of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, for a given week as a percentage of the total number of tests administered.
The week before last, the district saw its positivity rate shoot up from 3.9% to 7.5%, owing in part to new cases in Clay County correlated to a gathering in early July. Clay County saw its positivity rate increase again last week, related at least in part to another cluster spread situation involving gatherings in three Tribland counties.
Overall, however, the district’s positivity rate dropped for last week, and Adams County — which accounts for the largest share of the district’s population and total running case count — has seen its positivity rate drop for three consecutive weeks.
Bever said that the weekly districtwide positivity rate had decreased to 5.1% from 7.5% the week prior, the intensive care hospital bed availability was improved, and the average time from symptom onset to isolation was shorter for the cases reported last week.
However, the number of new cases reported in the district for the week increased by a net 42% from the week previous and COVID-19 testing availability was reduced.
“We also consider compliance with the directed health measures — which was a concern this past week due to large gatherings that had not submitted the required safety plans — as well as gatherings where physical distancing was not followed,” Bever said. “There were some positives around mask use, with a few stores putting mask policies in place and some graduation ceremonies where cloth face coverings were required or encouraged, but mask use in general is not widespread.”
The levels of risk for COVID-19 spread as portrayed on the risk dial — low (green), moderate (yellow), elevated (orange) and severe (red) — are determined using a variety of indicators, including overall positivity rate, weekly positivity rate, trend in number of cases, health system capacity, ability to trace contacts, average number of contacts per case, availability of COVID-19 testing, average length of time for people with symptoms to be isolated, and availability of vaccine. (No vaccine is yet available for use in the world.)
The risk level also takes into account factors such as compliance to social distancing requirements and use of face coverings in public settings.
According to South Heartland statistics updated Tuesday evening, just one new case of COVID-19 was confirmed in a district resident on Tuesday, and a total of 29 cases (running total of 405 cases, minus 365 classified as “recovered,” minus 11 fatalities) were active in the district.
A total of 258 new cases were confirmed across Nebraska on Tuesday, the state Department of Health and Human Services reported. The running total of cases confirmed statewide to date now stands at 25,157, with 321 deaths.
South Heartland District case counts and trends can be found on the district’s Data Dashboard of local COVID-19 case statistics. This dashboard, along with updates, guidance, news releases and other COVID-19 information and links can be found on the district website: www.southheartlandhealth.org.
The Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services provides daily updates to statewide coronavirus COVID-19 cases on its Data Dashboard at http://dhhs.ne.gov/Pages/Coronavirus.