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The way back will be slow, and 'normal' isn't in the cards anytime soon

After nearly six weeks of economic pain and coronavirus curtailments, the question on most Nebraskans’ minds is when — and how — we’re all going to get back to normal and what “normal” might look like.

With no full timetable announced, Gov. Pete Ricketts on Friday addressed easing some restrictions in parts of the state starting next week. Much depends on the ability to corral the virus and beat it back. But government and health officials have warned that resuming regular life is shaping up to be not one clean rip of the Band-Aid but a slow, painful pull.

They cautioned that the return to normal will come piece by piece rather than all at once, just as restrictions were rolled out. It also is likely to follow different timelines in every state — possibly in every county — and that life probably won’t look quite the same as before for a while.

“Don’t look at what’s going on in the U.S.” as a whole, said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s College of Public Health. “Even though it’s one pandemic, it’s 50 different pandemics, and different pandemics even within states.”

In mid-April, President Donald Trump released a three-stage plan with two-week pauses between phases. To get started, a community is supposed to have evidence of decreased disease — namely, a decrease in cases — coupled with the health care capacity to deal with those who get sick.

Ricketts reiterated in an interview Friday that he will work with health officials to craft a plan that’s right for Nebraska.


The Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium parking lot is empty as many nonessential businesses remain closed.

“As I’ve said all along, we’re going to be doing a plan that’s tailored for Nebraska,” he said. “It’s going to be tailored not just for the state as a whole but geographically throughout the state.”

The governor announced a series of steps that will begin to ease restrictions next month in more lightly impacted parts of the state, including the Omaha metropolitan area.

The existing restrictions in Douglas, Sarpy and Cass Counties, set to expire Thursday, will be extended to May 3. Then they will pick up May 4 with new measures that will remain in effect through May 31.

Restaurants in those areas will be allowed to reopen to in-person dining with a number of restrictions, including being limited to 50% of capacity, 6-foot spacing for tables and masks for employees. Barbershops, tattoo businesses and massage therapists also will be allowed to reopen with a 10-person limit and the requirement that patrons and proprietors wear masks. Ten other public health districts with lower numbers of COVID-19 cases also will get those same rules.

A 10-person limit on gatherings remains statewide, but a new health measure will allow religious services beginning May 4, also with restrictions.

“We’re going to do a little bit, wait and see, and then maybe take the next step,” Ricketts said.


Marcus Butler handles a to-go order Friday at Dante Pizzeria. Many business owners in the Omaha area went into planning mode after Gov. Ricketts announced a series of new directed health measures that will allow restaurants, barber shops, tattoo parlors, salons and massage therapists to reopen on a limited basis.

Another example of that approach, he said, was his Monday announcement allowing elective surgeries to resume May 4 — if hospitals had sufficient beds, protective gear and ventilators to handle coronavirus patients. While most hospitals in Omaha probably can meet those marks, Ricketts said Friday, those in Grand Island and Lexington currently cannot.

A leading indicator of impacts on hospitals, Ricketts said, has been the rate of positive tests for the virus in given areas. About a week after test rates rose in Grand Island, patients ill with COVID-19 began arriving at the local hospital. So when rates began to rise in Lexington, officials employed the same sort of early warning system and began moving patients to hospitals in North Platte and Kearney.

Each state will be on a different timeline. Some already have begun the process of reopening. Georgia, whose governor on Friday began reopening businesses such as hair salons and bowling alleys, appears to be about two weeks past its peak in cases.

Some such moves, however, have prompted concerns nationally among health officials, who say rushing back simply will provide the virus with new targets and fuel additional spread.

“People are getting a little tired of being at home, but it’s not time to open things up yet,” Dr. Angela Hewlett, medical director of the Nebraska Biocontainment Unit, said Thursday, before Ricketts’ update. “We’re still seeing an increasing number of cases. Yes, we haven’t seen a huge surge in cases in Douglas County in particular, but we’re definitely seeing that in other parts of the state. I don’t want to have things open prematurely (when) there’s a chance that we could see a large spike in infection.”

A closer look at what health officials say needs to happen before we’re ready to reopen and what it might look like when we do:

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Testing is important, Hewlett said, because health officials need to know how prevalent the virus is in the community before they can make informed decisions about opening up and moving on.

Most people who get the virus don’t require hospitalization. Others have only mild symptoms or none at all. Studies have just begun to pick up on those hidden cases. A recent study of 210 pregnant women in New York, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that 14% tested positive but had no symptoms.

“What we don’t know can definitely hurt us,” Hewlett said.

Testing in the state has ramped up in recent weeks, although shortages of testing supplies continue to be an obstacle in some places.

In addition to the Nebraska Public Health Laboratory — which is on the UNMC campus — a second lab on the UNMC campus and a CHI Health lab, Methodist Health System and Bryan Health recently have begun doing their own testing.


A man receives a nasal swab in his vehicle while receiving RPP testing at a drive-thru testing clinic at Bryan Health's LifePointe Campus in Lincoln.

Previously, testing in the state largely had been limited to those most at risk — the very ill, health care providers and first responders. With increased capacity, however, the state health department last week issued new guidance easing the threshold for testing.

In addition, Ricketts last week announced an initiative, TestNebraska, to increase testing by up to 3,000 a day, adding to the roughly 600 to 800 being tested each day now. The program mirrors one launched the same day in Iowa and one already underway in Utah.

To accomplish it, the state is working with a consortium of Utah firms, some of which have connections to suppliers of needed materials in Germany and China.

Testing locations will be determined in part by responses to the online assessments, which will show where the need is greatest.

Ricketts said state officials would like to do even more testing and will continue to look for ways to add tests. The testing initiative is part of an overall plan to find and isolate those who are coronavirus-positive and then trace and quarantine those with whom they have been in close contact.

Hewlett said she’s excited to hear about the governor’s testing initiative and thinks it can help.

“We really need widespread testing in order to know what we’re dealing with,” she said. “So I’d like to see a lot more testing done, which I think is on its way.”

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A significant downturn in cases

Hewlett said she would like to see numbers trending downward significantly — not just for a day or two, but for a couple of weeks — before the state reopens.

“If we are testing more people, and yet we’re still seeing that downtrend in positive tests, then maybe things are on the downswing,” she said.

Nebraska’s numbers suggest the state may lag some others in reaching peak cases. And they certainly support the need for a regional approach to reopening.

For the U.S. as a whole, average new cases appear to have peaked about two weeks ago and have generally been trending downward.

But thanks to big spikes in cases in several major meatpacking counties such as Hall, Dawson and Dakota, Nebraska’s daily case numbers have been sharply rising. Iowa’s daily case trend line also has been surging upward.

Meanwhile, daily new cases in Douglas County are relatively stable. They had been trending downward for two weeks before picking up somewhat again in the middle of last week.

Ricketts said the stable numbers in the Omaha area — Lincoln, too — indicate that the social distancing and hygiene measures put in place over the past six weeks have worked, slowing the virus’ spread.

Contact tracing

Health officials say this step must be beefed up in order to corral the virus — not just now but in the months ahead when the virus sparks anew, as they warn that it will.

The state on Thursday announced a more aggressive contact-tracing effort intended to augment what’s being done by local health departments. By May 1, 325 state employees will be redeployed to do contact tracing, and eventually 1,000 people will be doing the work.

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When will things return to “normal”?

Hewlett said she doesn’t see that happening any time in the near future. As long as there’s one case, there’s a chance for it to spread.

For one, people can spread the virus before they show symptoms. And no one has immunity to it.

So things will look different for a time.

“It’s not, ‘Go back to January,’ ” Khan said. “Those days are gone for us for a while. It’s social distancing, it’s masks, continued hand-washing, potentially temperature checks when we go in and out of our businesses.”

Ricketts also has cautioned Nebraskans hoping to see social distancing measures disappear after May 1.

“In fact,” he has said, “we will probably be doing some social distancing for the foreseeable future, until we have a vaccine.”

Khan said that even gradual reopening will require ongoing attention to places where people congregate in large numbers — prisons, schools, businesses and nursing homes.

“With this disease in the community,” he said, “any place where you put a whole lot of people together at once … is where you’re going to see outbreaks.”


An empty parking garage in downtown Omaha. Many nonessential businesses remain closed and employees are often working from home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

From there, the virus can spread into the communities, increasing the risk to a wider population. Officials will have to think about alternatives, he said.

State education officials, for instance, already have raised the possibility of delaying the start of the school year this fall, separating students into groups and rotating them into school buildings at different times, or using partial or complete distance learning.

University of Nebraska officials announced Friday that their campuses would reopen in the fall to students, albeit with social distancing measures in place.

Dr. Josue Gutierrez, a family practice physician in Crete, said he sees a need for an organized, collaborative effort among primary care providers, public health departments and schools to help catch any subsequent waves of the virus and prevent spread.

What will it take to get to normal?

First are drugs that can help people who are infected from becoming really sick, Hewlett said. Also helpful would be drugs that could keep people exposed to the virus from getting it.

Numerous clinical trials are underway in the United States and around the world. A UNMC researcher is leading a local arm of a national trial on one drug, the antiviral remdesivir. Early results are expected soon.

Also on the list is a vaccine, which could give people some of the immunity the population currently lacks.

Federal officials have stressed that it could take between a year and 18 months to develop a vaccine. Both drugs and vaccines take time because they require careful study to prove they work and won’t hurt people.

“While that process is a lengthy one, I’m definitely confident that this will pan out and we will get a vaccine,” Hewlett said. “But it’s just unfortunate that it can’t come as soon as we would like.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Coronavirus is not the flu — it’s much, much worse

Dr. Ali Khan says it’s time to put to rest the idea that coronavirus is no more deadly than the flu.

For as bad the coronavirus outbreak has been, Khan, a leading infectious disease expert, said the numbers could get “very ugly” if the virus were ever to spread as widely as the flu.

The flu versus the coronavirus argument is still bouncing around based on the simplistic comparison of the death toll between the two viruses.

In the coming days across the United States, the number of people who have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, will pass the annual toll from 2018 and 2017 from the flu and pneumonia.

In Nebraska, that has already happened as COVID-19 deaths last week passed Nebraska’s official count of deaths from this flu season.

But a deeper look into the infection numbers shows the coronavirus threat is far worse than the flu.

The coronavirus crisis shows why it’s critical to support local journalism

Nationally, the recent toll is high enough to consider COVID-19 as the country’s leading cause of death through this peak period — higher than what the United States typically would lose to heart disease or cancer.

In Nebraska, flu and coronavirus figures are incomplete in their own ways. But according to the official, though underestimated, numbers, Nebraska lost three people to influenza every two weeks on average through the latest flu season.

The state has lost 14 people to COVID-19 every two weeks, on average, going back to early March.

Khan tweeted last week that he hopes to put to rest debate over how deadly the coronavirus is compared with the flu, car crashes or other causes of death.

In an interview with The World-Herald, Khan said it’s important to look beyond the total numbers of people dying from flu and coronavirus. When you do, you see something “very ugly when COVID is involved,” said Khan, an epidemiologist with the University of Nebraska Medical Center and dean of the College of Public Health.

Annually, the flu is estimated to kill anywhere from 24,000 to 62,000 people in the U.S., Khan said. But it infects anywhere from 30 million to 56 million people.

Officially, the novel coronavirus had infected just over 900,000 people in the United States as of Saturday, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Coronavirus Resource Center.

Even if a few million more people are asymptomatic or untested and uncounted, the numbers are roughly tenfold less than those infected with the flu, Khan said.

Ali Khan

While projections estimate that U.S. fatalities from coronavirus could reach 60,000, Khan said it’s easy to see how that number could grow to 200,000.

Khan acknowledged a paradox in public health: People can take the correct steps to limit a public health problem but still question why they had to do it when those steps work.

He commended people for stepping up and staying home.

“We’ve saved a whole lot of lives, but it’s hard to show the lives we’ve saved.”

Dr. Anne O’Keefe, senior epidemiologist with the Douglas County Health Department, agreed: “People don’t see what we’re trying to prevent because we’re preventing it.”

Even though O’Keefe commended the local response — “locally we are doing well right now” — she said a risk remains that cases will keep going up. She cited the outbreaks connected to meat processing plants in communities around Nebraska.

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O’Keefe said people also need to understand: “We have zero population immunity to this.”

“It’s incredibly easy to catch it from somebody because you probably don’t have any immunity,” she said.

Dr. Robert Penn, medical director of infection and prevention for Methodist Hospital, said the seasonal flu outbreak each year is always unpredictable, and the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak raised alarms at the time but turned out to be not quite so severe.

Over his 39-year career, Penn could compare the coronavirus pandemic only to the emergence of HIV and AIDS. Even so, he said, “This is much more unsettling.”

April photos: Nebraska faces coronavirus

Wi-Fi issues and disconnected students fuel concerns about Nebraska's learning gap

Vivian Landis was the only student on the video conference with her journalism teacher last week.

She was the only one the previous week, too, but that call was interrupted by Wi-Fi issues.

Physical schools are closed, but Landis is still showing up virtually. She spends one to three hours a day on schoolwork.

“I just think it’s good for me to stay caught up so I’m not behind next year,” she said. “All of my teachers are encouraging me to stay caught up.”

The freshman at Omaha North High School wishes the work was graded, but she knows it wouldn’t be fair when not everyone is doing the work.

Some choose not to participate. Others don’t have Internet access.

“It’s a choice for some people, and it’s definitely not for others,” she said.

A month into the school shutdown, a consensus has emerged among Nebraska parents, teachers and students: Distance learning is a far cry from classroom learning.

While some kids are thriving online, many others are foundering, fueling parents’ frustration and raising concerns that some students, particularly disadvantaged ones, will end the year with a learning gap.

Several districts report as many as 20% of students are not engaged in their lessons.

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As of last week, some metro Omaha teachers were still having trouble contacting some students and their families, despite repeated phone calls, emails and texts.

Other problems range from spotty or nonexistent Wi-Fi to computer hardware issues, finicky learning apps, disengaged parents and unmotivated kids. Nearly all districts are being lenient on grading, some freezing grades at the end of the third quarter, finishing the year pass-fail or not grading at all.

One lesson is abundantly clear. Despite all the sci-fi, whiz-bang technology these days, you can’t replace a flesh-and-blood teacher with a silicon chip.

Nickie Landis, Vivian’s mom, has the freshman and two college students all trying to do online learning at the same time.

The family has Wi-Fi, but the service cuts in and out.

Vivian Landis was issued a laptop by her high school, but the camera is disabled, so she has to use her phone to do video conferences with teachers and fellow students.

Vivian has stayed involved with her classes, but her mom wonders how much motivation seniors would have to complete the work.

During their weekly shopping trip, Nickie Landis said she’s seen high school students working. She wonders how many students have to support their families right now or just don’t have the technology to participate in lessons.

“There’s not a level playing field right now,” Landis said.


Laura Myslinski, a dental assistant furloughed for five weeks and waiting on an unemployment check, said she’s doing the best she can to keep her daughter Poppy, 6, engaged in schoolwork while buildings are closed.

Laura Myslinski, a dental assistant furloughed for five weeks and waiting on an unemployment check, said she’s doing the best she can to keep her daughter, Poppy, engaged.

Myslinski and Poppy, 6, live in Gold Coast Square Apartments and Townhomes. The apartments are across the street from Papillion-La Vista Community Schools’ Carriage Hill Elementary, the high-poverty school where Poppy attended kindergarten this school year.

Poppy’s been doing lessons on her mom’s phone.

Although district officials say the app Seesaw is popular, neither mom nor daughter are thrilled with it.

“Seesaw’s soooo haaard,” Poppy said.

Mom said the lessons are too advanced for kindergarten, and it’s hard to navigate on her phone. She installed it on the phone because she wasn’t sure it could be loaded on their computer.

One assignment, Myslinski said, required entering the word cat in a box on the small screen.

“I don’t have a little stylus pad, so you try to use your finger, and trying to zoom in. It’s just a nightmare.”

When school was in session, every Wednesday Poppy would bring home a folder full of papers, all the work she’d done in school. The workload now is “drastically reduced,” Myslinski said.

Poppy doesn’t hesitate when asked whether there’s more work at home or in the classroom.

“More work when I’m in school, because I have to do lots and lots and lots of work, like coloring, and like keeping in the lines, and like math problems, and lots of hard stuff I barely can do,” she said.


Laura Myslinski, a dental assistant furloughed for five weeks and waiting on an unemployment check, said she’s doing the best she can to keep her daughter Poppy engaged in schoolwork while buildings are closed.

Her mom said it’s challenging keeping the learning going at home. Poppy’s brother Cameron is 20 months old.

“Sometimes it’s kind of hard trying to be structured especially because the little guy’s here. And sometimes she doesn’t even want to do anything. It’s like, fighting to convince her we have to do the assignments.”

Across the state, the less-than-ideal situation is likely to leave children with learning gaps, according to educators interviewed by The World-Herald.

Students in the Omaha Public Schools, the state’s largest system with students of all abilities, multiple languages and deep poverty, could be most vulnerable.

The disruption of school could exacerbate the achievement gap between disadvantaged and more affluent students as the neediest students are cut off from the teachers and safe classrooms where they learn best, experts said.

More affluent students, because of their resources, access to technology and supportive parents, may weather the disruption better, they say.

Regardless of income or supports, however, all students — all across the nation — will likely face learning gaps.

Leaders expressed optimism that students can catch up — as long as major disruptions don’t persist into the fall.

How big the gaps will be, though, is hard to gauge, given the unprecedented size and scope of the disruption this spring, according to Guy Trainin, chair of the department of teaching, learning and teacher education at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Past disruptions were always local and not universal, he said.

Research suggests that the shift to remote learning will impact students differently, depending on their circumstances, he said.

Family stressors like unemployment, bills and health issues disrupt learning and make it difficult for parents and family members to support their children, Trainin said.


Outside the front entrance to Carriage Hill Elementary in Papillion, someone expressed their feelings in chalk. The building is closed for the school year over coronavirus concerns.

Studies of summer reading loss show that students react very differently depending on the level of risk in their lives, he said. Upper-middle-class students show up after summer break as better readers, while students from disadvantaged circumstances slide back, he said.

Special education students are particularly vulnerable to sliding backward if they lose their supports, Trainin said.

Students who experience family stress, come from abusive homes, have immigrant parents with limited English or have no access to technology may very well slide back, he said.

Summer, meantime, is a critical time for students to catch up, Trainin said. But right now, state officials expect summer school to look different from usual across the state — possibly no gatherings but instead more distance learning.

Trainin said that students who need to catch up would benefit most from in-person teaching, as opposed to more distance learning.

“If it is remote, it is better than the alternative, but it will be very challenging again, even more so to disadvantaged students,” he said.

He said that even though kids are losing about 30 to 40 days of quality classroom instruction, catching them up won’t necessarily take that long if the effort is focused.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said he’s convinced students can bounce back.

But he said students who already struggle are at higher risk.

The disrupted learning could “stack deficits on top of deficits,” he said.

Schools districts with one-to-one computer policies report having an easier but not necessarily smooth transition to distance learning. Kids in those schools were already familiar with receiving assignments and completing work online.

Some OPS schools, but not all, had one-to-one computer arrangements before the shutdown. According to OPS spokesman Jeremy Maskel, some form of one-to-one computer use was in place at six middle schools as well as Burke, North and Northwest high schools — at Northwest 12th graders had it.

One-to-one practices varied at the schools, he said. At some schools, students checked out the same computer during homeroom for the entire school day, then checked it back in at the end of the day, Maskel said. At others, devices were taken home.

Several principals told The World-Herald that one of their biggest and earliest challenges was figuring out if their students had Internet access and devices.

At Adams Elementary School in OPS, Principal Mark Kelln said some families had one computer for two or three kids. Some parents needed the computers for work.

Kelln said teachers were then able to tailor students’ instruction — plans for online access and plans that rely on physical materials students have at home.

But that means teachers can only see the work done on paper if students take a photo of it and email it back — Kelln said that does happen.

OPS Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School Principal Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek said Internet service proved so vital he views it as a utility — like water or electricity.

Buffett’s one-to-one system made things easier, Clark-Kaczmarek said.

At the start of the school year, students are issued HP Stream laptops, and they use them all year.

Since the school closed, most students are now engaged in distance learning, he said.

A week ago, however, teachers had still not been able to make contact with 29 of the school’s 1,133 students or their parents, he said.

Teachers were working to shrink that list, he said.

OPS Howard Kennedy Elementary School Principal Tony Gunter said his staff was able to reach 100% of students at the beginning of remote learning but that’s since dropped to 95%.

Maskel said the district is monitoring engagement but is not keeping a typical attendance file because officials want students to be able to access the material at any time and respond to teachers.

OPS students’ grades were frozen at the end of the third quarter, but secondary students could complete or redo work turned in before spring break to improve final grades.

Teachers who spoke to The World-Herald on the condition they not be named said actual participation among their students is low. They can tell some students are looking at the material but aren’t doing it.

Clark-Kaczmarek is confident the gaps in individual learning can be closed.

“No question in my mind that we will be able to get them back on track,” he said.

Kelln, the Adams principal, said some students are engaged but the opposite is also true. He said schools will have to figure out where their students are in the fall.

“We’re all in the same boat,” Adams said of a potential learning gap.

Clark-Kaczmarek said teachers have had to pivot “on a dime” from traditional learning to distance learning, while dealing with what everyone else is facing: family members losing jobs, their own children’s schools closing, and the rest.

While students are losing out on book learning, they’re still getting an education — the kind that comes from adversity, he said.

In the Nebraska Panhandle, educators in the Gering Public Schools are seeing student engagement ranging from 75% to 90% in junior high and high school, Superintendent Bob Hastings said.

His district froze grades at the end of the third quarter. Students who work hard can improve their grades, but they won’t go down because of the crisis — though a few incompletes are possible, he said.

Their high school had a one-to-one computer policy, but staff had to distribute school computers for the junior high kids, he said.

Elementary school kids are receiving lessons by mail.

Hastings said his district has moved summer school later in the summer, hoping it can serve as a kind of jump-start for the school year.

One takeaway from the experience has been the limitations of distance learning, Hastings said.

“There is nothing in education that can replace the human-to-human contact piece,” he said.

Vivian Landis is glad COVID-19 didn’t hit earlier in the school year. Even though students are missing the fourth quarter of school, it would’ve been worse if schools were closed earlier in the year.

She’s hopeful that everyone can return in the fall, and those who couldn’t do the work aren’t too behind.

“And we can get beyond this roadblock.”

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores

Omaha-area high schools ranked by 2019 ACT scores