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HPS board to act on easing mask policy

When members of the Hastings Board of Education meet on Monday, they will act on a recommendation from district administration to ease the district’s mask policy.

At a work session Thursday, Superintendent Jeff Schneider recommended that effective May 17, face coverings be “recommended” as opposed to required in all HPS facilities.

New directed health measures went into effect Thursday. The directed health measures no longer require students to be quarantined for exposure to one positive case when masks aren’t in use.

Adults also have had the opportunity to get the vaccine, thus limiting their risk.

May 17 is the day after Hastings High School graduation.

Given the fact that the district expects a large crowd in the gym for graduation, administrators feel that the safest thing to do is to require the face coverings for the event.

This can be revisited by the board at any time.

Schneider thanked Michele Bever, executive director of the South Heartland District Health Department, and Dr. Curtis Reimer, district physician, for their continued guidance.

Parents and staff members also have reached out.

“I want to emphasize when I spoke with both Dr. Bever and Dr. Reimer (Wednesday), both of them said to me, ‘We understand where you’re going with this recommendation,’ ” Schneider said. “ ‘We support it. Please, please emphasize the fact that we highly recommend wearing face coverings. We understand what you are doing, but please don’t lose that.’ ”

Prior to announcement of the new directed health measures, Schneider was planning to propose making the change effective May 24.

“That made great sense to me because we got through the school year and major activities,” he said.

It was a fear for Schneider that a student would be forced out of a major event in his or her career because that student was sitting next to someone who had COVID-19 and didn’t wear a mask.

“I didn’t want to speak to a parent or a child who was crushed because they couldn’t participate in senior honors night, or a concert, or graduation, or whatever the event was that’s so important to those kids at the end of the year,” he said.

According to the new directed health measures, that student won’t be quarantined in that scenario.

So he moved up the timeline to May 17, which is the day after graduation.

From the beginning of the school year, Schneider was most concerned about quarantines.

“What we were worried about was keeping kids at school,” he said.

Teachers can ask students to wear masks in their classrooms but can’t require it.

The only way a student would miss the last week of school is if he or she tests positive for COVID-19.

Board member Tracey Katzberg expressed concern about students following the requirement between May 11 and May 17.

“It’s not perfect,” Schneider said. “You won’t hear me say it’s perfect. It’s not. We’ve had a large percentage of people comply. I think it will be fine. It might be a little more of a challenge the last few days knowing it’s coming to an end.”

Even after the city of Hastings’ requirement ended on Feb. 23, compliance remained strong among HPS students and staff for wearing masks.

“For the most part, most of our students have been unbelievable in doing what we asked them to do and I think most of our staff is the same,” he said. “There could be a challenge or two, but I think we’ll be OK.”

Schneider said the board could treat graduation differently from the remainder of the school year.

“I’m guessing we’re going to have three times the people in that gym that we ever had in that building on a normal school day,” he said.

Board Vice President John Bonham suggested making the policy change effective May 11, which is the day after Monday’s board meeting.

He lauded families and staff within the district for being so diligent following the mask requirement this school year, but said it would be nice for students if the board can give them a week and a half without masks.

Many of the board members agreed with making the change effective May 11, but some suggested still requiring masks during the graduation ceremony.

“I will tell you, as a pharmacist, masks work, period,” board member Brent Gollner said. “We have seen such a dramatic decline in influenza cases this school year, it’s been incredible.”

Out of 4,100 staff and students, Hastings Public Schools has had 11 COVID-19 cases in district schools since the beginning of February.

“That’s about how many influenza cases we saw this winter,” Gollner said. “At the same time, we’re seeing some major mental health situations occurring in schools across the nation. I think giving them the opportunity to take masks off at the end of the year would be a good thing.”

Board President Jim Boeve said he isn’t sure how he will vote on Monday, but he still leans toward May 24.

“I think we need to finish strong,” he said. “Let’s get this thing over with and close the book on this year.”

Amplifying education

When the opportunity presented itself for Kailey Rayburn to have a voice amplification system, the Lincoln Elementary second-grade teacher didn’t think she was a priority.

“I said I’d love to have one, but I don’t need to be the first on the list because I thought I was a pretty loud person — that my kids could hear me well and engage,” she said. “As the speakers slowly came in, they were asking teachers with the biggest classes and the highest needs. So I said, ‘Sure. I’ll try it.’ My teaching partner (fellow Lincoln second-grade teacher Rochelle Andersen) had gotten one and said she loved it and said, ‘You really need to fight to be the next one.’ ”

Rayburn and Andersen are among 86 classroom teachers from throughout the Hastings Public Schools who received voice amplification systems so far this year, courtesy of the HPS Foundation.

Craig Kautz, executive director of the HPS Foundation, said those 86 voice systems represent slightly more than half of all the district classrooms. The majority of the new systems went into elementary schools.

“You can always tell when teachers know something is a good thing,” Kautz said. “They start asking for it. Early on, I don’t know if all of our staff felt this way, but it’s just been kind of a growing chorus: ‘Boy, this really does work; this is something I appreciate.’ ”

He has received thank you notes from many of the teachers and principals who received voice systems, including Rayburn.

Kautz said the research is clear on the importance of students connecting with the “constant and adequate” sound of the teacher’s voice in the classroom.

“When you think about a teacher being in a room, they could be over in one corner of the room working with a student and turn and say something to the entire class,” he said. “The class may or my not hear that depending upon where they are. What this does is it allows there to be a constant and adequate voice level throughout the room.”

The system connects around the speaker’s neck with a magnetic clasp. The speaker’s words are amplified through a speaker barely larger than a piece of paper.

In Rayburn’s case, the speaker is at the front of the classroom on a bookshelf.

Around 70 donors, ranging from banks and service clubs to anonymous individuals, helped fund the foundation purchase of the voice systems.

Kautz said his predecessor, Jessica McAndrew, was integral in starting this project.

“There’s just a lot of people who have been involved,” he said.

Some HPS teachers had voice amplification systems prior to this year.

Jade Bartunek, a kindergarten teacher at Watson Elementary, has used a voice amplification system for seven years dating back to when she taught at Morton Elementary. The Morton Parents, Teachers Organization helped purchase systems for teachers there.

“We’ve had them for a really long time; we’ve been very fortunate,” she said. “It’s awesome that everybody’s getting them now.”

She said she thought Hawthorne Elementary was the first HPS school to use the systems. Those first systems were on loan from Educational Service Unit No. 9 to help hearing-impaired students.

The system definitely helps with engagement, Bartunek said. Students get to use it, too.

“When I have students come in from the other classrooms to read to my kids, they get to use it,” she said. “So it’s kind of a fun incentive, too, for them. It helps those kiddos that maybe lack confidence. It helps project their voice. As far as teachers, the engagement’s huge. I can tell a difference when I don’t have it. It’s saving your voice, too. Especially with masks, it’s really hard to hear somebody behind a mask.”

Kautz said it wasn’t in response to the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 pandemic that the foundation began purchasing the systems for teachers. The pandemic made the systems more popular, however, because face masks inhibit vocal inflection.

“It proved to be real advantageous (during the pandemic), but I would tell you these systems are advantageous just to learning all the time,” he said.

Like Bartunek, Rayburn said the increase in student engagement with the voice amplification systems is obvious.

“Honestly, the kids are so much more engaged with the speaker just because everyone can really, truly hear,” Rayburn said. “There’s no question whether they are hearing you. It’s kind of funny, if you don’t have your speaker on it almost feels like you are talking to the wall because they are not engaged. They are not listening near as much as when I turn the speaker back on. It’s like instantly ‘The teacher’s talking. Here I am.’ It’s almost like an on/off switch for them.”

Life without education does not compute to Bradley Keasling

Education is the foundation upon which Bradley Keasling has built his career as a businessman, teacher and educator.

The recipient of the 2021 Outstanding Alumni Award from Central Community College-Hastings, the 40-year-old husband and father of two will deliver an inspirational address to graduates at this year’s CCC-Hastings commencement ceremony at 2 p.m. Friday at Heartland Event Center in Grand Island.

Keasling is a Harvard native. His career path has spanned multiple commercial enterprises, including farming, the meat industry, retail, manufacturing, finance, banking and sales.

A natural-born leader by his own assessment, he believes his early years of working the family farm near Harvard and subsequent pursuit of a degree in information technology and networking at CCC helped instill in him a solid work ethic and determination to complete tasks. Both have served him well in the business world.

“I’m a product of a great community college story,” Keasling said. “The thing back in the late ‘90s when I was in high school was I wanted to go to UNL to get the best education, so I was really disappointed I wasn’t going there with all of my friends.

“I disagree with that thinking now. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to go 15 miles down the road, receive a great education, come out without debt, and have a pathway for my future.”

It was with aspirations of becoming a “computer geek” that Keasling enrolled at CCC upon graduating from Harvard High School in 1999. Both his skill set and drive to join the workforce seemed to point toward a career in fixing computers, he said.

“I wanted to fix everybody’s computer, and I was pretty darn good at it,” he said. “That’s what my high school counselor recommended, and that was definitely the direction that was put forth by Bob Glenn, former admissions director at CCC.”

But after obtaining his associate of applied science degree in information technology and networking in 2001, Keasling quickly learned an advanced degree would be necessary to complete his journey to journeyman repairman.

“I found out I needed more than an AA in information technology,” he said. “I couldn’t be the computer guy anymore by just turning on the computer. I had to have certifications and a bachelor’s degree.”

Dabbling in banking and other business ventures requiring leadership know-how led him to consider a career in business management. His drive to repair hard drives was replaced by a newfound drive to lead others.

“Leading people is a passion of mine,” he said. “It’s fun being able to see the big picture. I never manage people, I lead them. That’s where I belong.”

Continuing his education, Keasling enrolled in Bellevue University, where he earned an online bachelor’s degree in business management in 2006 and master’s degree in business administration in 2008.

In his work as outreach manager for Bellevue University, he assists CCC students looking to pursue educational opportunities at a higher level.

His roles at CCC have included adjunct teaching and his current full-time position as associate dean in the business division serving the Grand Island and Columbus campuses and Kearney Center.

In his speech Friday, Keasling intends to share with the graduating class how success in life can be achieved through perseverance. Following the never-say-die drive of his mother, a “high school drop-out,” he asserts it is the ability to see a task through from start to finish that separates those who actually achieve goals from those who fall short of them.

“The most important thing I’ve found is to keep standing and pushing forward, even when you don’t think you can,” he said. “Never give up, even when you think the challenges and barriers are too much. As you push forward, you will find yourself and understand where your strengths and weaknesses are as an individual.”

His faith in God gives purpose to his daily journey, he said. A member of Peace Lutheran Church in Grand Island, he serves on the church’s Mission and Ministry Council and Praise Team, filling in as lay minister when needed. He also serves on the CHI St. Francis Foundation Board of Directors.

“Faith is No. 1 in my life,” he said. “You’ve probably heard this a lot, “All the glory to God.’ That’s where it’s at. I couldn’t do anything in my life without that path and my faith.”