OMAHA — Nebraska’s public schools will use a color-coded scale to decide what restrictions they’ll put in place when they reopen this fall despite the coronavirus threat, state officials said Friday.
Schools considered to be least at-risk for spreading the virus will be labeled green on the scale, and students will attend classes as normal with some screening procedures in place, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.
Schools facing the greatest risk will be coded red, triggering a return to remote learning only and no participation in athletics.
Meanwhile, schools deemed to be at moderate risk will be categorized as yellow or orange and have restrictions that could include a reduction in the number of students allowed in the building at any one time and a mask requirement when feasible. A school’s color will depend on local infection rates, available hospital space and other factors.
“This is going to be a difficult time for everybody, but we all have the goal of making sure kids go back in the classroom this fall,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said at a news conference to discuss the state’s plans.
Ricketts also reiterated that the state won’t force local school districts to require masks.
Ricketts and Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the state’s reopening plan is based on conversations with school administrators, the state teachers union and public health officials throughout Nebraska. The color-coded system is similar to recommendations released by the Nebraska State Education Association, the union that represents Nebraska public school teachers.
Nebraska’s coronavirus case numbers have slowly trended downward while cases in many other states have surged, but they ticked up briefly earlier this week, when the state confirmed 318 new cases on Tuesday before dipping back down again. Earlier in the pandemic, Nebraska experienced a surge in cases that came later than those in other states.
Ricketts and Blomstedt said it’s important for children to return to school for the social, physical, emotional and nutritional benefits that students may not get at home. Blomstedt said districts are also creating plans for students who contract the coronavirus, and their response “is going to be really dependent on good communication between the school and local health officials.”
Nebraska’s focus on local control has allowed schools to collaborate with teachers, parents, administrators, custodians and even officials from other school districts to figure out what works best for them, said Josh McDowell, the superintendent of Crete Public Schools.
“This is probably one of those instances where we’re not going to have 100% consensus, no matter what we choose to do,” McDowell said. “But we’ve been including people in the process from the beginning.”
Nebraska has confirmed 22,134 known cases and 299 virus-related deaths since the pandemic began, according to the state’s online tracking portal. State officials confirmed 155 new cases on Thursday.
Nebraska currently has 39% of its hospital beds available and 81% of its ventilators available, according to the tracking portal.
Early in the spring, the possibility looked very real that no softball would be played this year at the Smith Softball Complex.
“We normally have a lot of invitational tournaments starting in the spring, as soon as the weather breaks,” said Joe Patterson of Hastings, commissioner for USA Softball of Nebraska. “Most all of those got canceled because of the COVID-19 issue. Honestly, up until probably the middle of May, maybe late May, we were very iffy if we were going to do anything.”
He said the organization condensed state tournaments because a lot of leagues in smaller towns decided not to play at all, given the novel coronavirus disease pandemic and all the related public health restrictions.
“So league numbers are down here, league numbers are down everywhere,” he said. “So we’re having fewer teams register. Those that are playing are tickled to death to be playing.”
Anjanette Bonham, executive director of the Adams County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the return of softball tournaments provides an emotional buoy, as well as a financial one.
“In these uncertain times it’s hard to plan events and know what’s going to happen,” she said. “With the announcement of state softball returning to Hastings for the summer, I think the community was excited for that.”
Softball gives local businesses the opportunity to welcome the teams like they’ve done in the past.
“It brings in a whole new community of people,” Bonham said. “Every weekend from July through August there’s games out there. There’s multiple teams here; people staying in hotels, people shopping, people eating in restaurants. We see a lot of dollars come into the hotels and taxes. It shows we are a successful and welcoming community.”
The Hampton Inn opened in North Park Commons, near the Smith Complex, on July 10. The hotel has more than 80 rooms.
“Anytime there’s a new hotel in the community, it’s a benefit for the community,” said Mikki Shafer, president of the Hastings Area Chamber of Commerce.
Those people are spending time and money in Hastings instead of nearby communities.
While the hotel has a good location, being near the Smith Complex and nearby shopping and restaurants, Shafer encourages visitors to explore amenities throughout the city.
“You never know what makes someone change their mind leaving the community they live in to come to another community,” she said. “If you go and explore our entire community, we have so much to offer.”
Some softball tournaments have combined classes due to fewer teams registering.
Patterson said there were 54 teams playing at the complex two weekends ago.
“People were really appreciative that they were being able to play,” he said. “They all behaved themselves as far as we could tell.”
As youth softball tournaments wind down, the adult tournaments will pick up the first full weekend in August.
“I anticipate our adult slow pitch numbers will be down because league numbers are way down,” Patterson said. “We feel good that we’re at least playing. A few months ago we were that close to saying ‘no softball.’ ”
The Smith Complex isn’t selling concessions during the youth tournaments, instead encouraging families to bring in food.
Even when concessions return at adult tournaments, it will be with limited offerings.
“We’re trying to keep people from congregating,” Patterson said.
Among other changes, teams don’t shake hands after games, waving to each other instead.
Dugouts are disinfected between games. Restrooms are disinfected every hour.
There also is no major bracket posted showing the results of games. Instead, results are posted on the Tournament USA website.
Patterson said there is no forced separation in the stands, because he said enforcement isn’t needed.
“People are doing that on their own,” he said. “I’ve noticed if people are a family unit they are sitting together. I’ve noticed a lot more people sitting outside the fence under a tree, or bringing their own shade structure. That’s good.”
So far, so good. Patterson said Smith Complex hasn’t seen any COVID-19 cases.
Softball itself won’t be profitable at the Smith Complex this summer. But the way Patterson looks at it, the most important thing is to have players on the fields.
“People are trying to get back to normal, so we’re trying to keep the experience as normal as possible,” he said. “Under the circumstances it’s as good as can be, I think.”
The running tally of COVID-19 cases to date in the four-county South Heartland Health District ticked up by six from Wednesday through Friday, according to online statistics maintained by the district health department.
Over the three-day span, the cumulative case count grew by five in Clay County and by one in Nuckolls County. The county tallies for Adams and Webster counties didn’t change.
Laboratory confirmation of two of the new Clay County cases was announced in a news release from South Heartland on Thursday evening. Those two cases involve a man in his 50s and a woman in her 20s, respectively.
The other three new Clay County cases, plus one new case in Nuckolls County, are reflected in the statistics posted to the South Heartland website’s COVID-19 “dashboard” as of Friday evening.
The dashboard is updated daily but doesn’t include details like the gender or age of new patients. South Heartland, like other district health departments in Nebraska, is making a transition to less frequent news releases updating COVID-19 conditions.
With the six newly confirmed cases for Wednesday through Friday, the overall tally of cases confirmed since March 18 in the South Heartland district has increased to 371 — 318 in Adams County, 38 in Clay County, 10 in Webster County and five in Nuckolls County.
Since July 9, Clay County has recorded a total of 10 new cases. In that same span, Adams County has recorded seven new cases, Nuckolls County two, and Webster County zero.
Of the 371 total cases the health district has seen, 333 have resolved with the patients recovering. Eleven patients — all Adams County residents — have lost their lives.
Since March, a total of 21 district residents have spent time in the hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19. That number hasn’t increased since May 29.
The South Heartland website includes a “risk dial” that remains under development. Michele Bever, health department executive director, said in Thursday’s news release that officials are continuing to add to and fine-tune the indicators the dial will take into account.
In its current state of development, the dial shows South Heartland in the “moderate” risk range related to COVID-19 conditions, with the needle moving up slightly. The four risk ranges, in ascending order of severity, are “low,” “moderate,” “elevated” and “severe.”
Bever said the upward movement of the needle in part reflects increases in “positivity” rates over the past three weeks, plus the confirmation of new cases in all four South Heartland counties.
The weekly positivity rate is the number of new COVID-19 cases confirmed in the health district as a percentage of the total number of tests that were administered.
“In addition, social distancing and use of cloth face coverings in public are not widespread practices and we’ve had some large gatherings with exposures in our district,” Bever said. “All of these contribute to a rise in the overall risk level.”
Key preventive steps that can reduce the spread of COVID-19 include staying at home if individuals have any symptoms associated with the viral infection, even if the symptoms are mild; keeping 6 feet of distance from others; wearing a face covering to prevent the spread of germs to others, especially when physical distancing is difficult to maintain; washing hands frequently with soap and water; and cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.
As of Friday evening, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services has recorded a running totally of 22,361 cases of COVID-19 to date. The death toll stands at 301.
A total of 1,584 new cases have been confirmed statewide since July 10, and 15 patients have died, the state agency reported. A total of 16,665 patients across the state have been placed in the “recovered” category since July 10.
As of Friday, 37% of the state’s hospital beds, 39% of its intensive care beds and 79% of its ventilators were available for patients, NDHHS reported.
Adhering to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision protecting gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination, the Hastings Board of Education recently updated its anti-discrimination policies.
Board members approved at their regular meeting on Monday adding “sexual orientation or gender identity” to the list of protected statuses in the district’s anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies for both staff and students.
Board members also unanimously updated the contact information within those policies. The policies now will list the applicable administrative position instead of the name of the person who holds that position.
Within the updated anti-discrimination, anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy, the board also approved an amendment offered by member Bob Sullivan, who is a lawyer. Monday’s meeting was the last one for Sullivan, who resigned because he is moving out of the district.
He recommended adding the words “unlawful and unjust discrimination” at the beginning of all the relevant policies.
Sullivan said the district’s goal in updating the policies is trying to get rid of prejudice.
“What that does is that it makes sure the things we already do that are by this ordinance discriminatory, which is not allowing males into the female restroom and things like that, we would look at whether they are just or unjust,” he said of the amendment. “It’s just to keep men out of women’s restrooms and off of women’s sports teams and things like that. This would clarify that and make it a much clearer policy.”
This isn’t the first time the HPS board has discussed adding specific language to district policies to protect gay and transgender students and staff.
“We have some differing points of view,” Superintendent Jeff Schneider said Monday. “We’ve been contacted by community members. I’ve talked to different board members who have different points of view. I think this is an outstanding example of how leaders should work together to find solutions and find common ground among differing opinions.”
Board President Jim Boeve also commended those who worked on updating the policy.
“If you follow the board, we’ve talked about this for a couple different years and have wrestled with what is the right thing to do,” he said. “There’s policy and procedure involved. Sometimes it’s hard to keep the two separate. Sometimes you keep it separate and people don’t think you’re keeping it separate. I commend Bob and Jeff and the people involved for trying to come up with a reasonable solution in a professional way of doing it.”
Schneider said the district always has worked to cultivate an inclusive atmosphere.
“At the end of the day, however you decide to word this is not going to change our practice in schools,” he said. “We want all — and I can’t stress ‘all’ enough — we want all students and all adults treated well in our buildings. This policy, however you word it, will not change that.”
In other business, board members:
Unanimously approved an amended 2019-20 budget.
Unanimously approved a contract with CASA for an attendance coordinator for the STARS program.
Unanimously approved a resolution on authority to implement health and safety requirements for the 2020-21 school year.
Unanimously approved the purchase of 29 Second Step kits, with bullying prevention information.
Unanimously approved the architect contract with Cannon Moss Brygger and Associates of Grand Island for the Morton renovation and repurposing project.
Unanimously approved the addition a 1.0 full-time equivalent intervention technician at Hastings High School.