New guidance issued for Nebraska schools will allow groups of up to 20 people to gather for summer school, camps and programs, raising hopes that if all goes well kids might also return to class in the fall.

The guidance from the Nebraska Department of Education comes with a slew of recommended health practices, however, including that adults and older students wear masks.

The department developed the guidance in consultation with health experts, a spokesman said.

It takes effect June 8.

The guidance is not mandatory for the state’s schools but is just a recommendation at this point, according to department spokesman David Jespersen.

The guidance could extend into the fall, depending on what happens between now and then regarding the disease.

Twenty is the “base number” that officials are eyeing for the fall, but limits could vary across the state depending on local conditions.

“There might be some places that the 20 number makes sense, there might be other places that, no you can’t have anybody in there and you have to do remote learning,” Jespersen said.

The new guidance comes as the governor’s order that closed Nebraska schools expires on May 31. On April 1, Gov. Pete Ricketts issued a directed health measure that ordered schools to operate without students. Schools finished the year with distance learning via computer and by paper packets distributed to students.

The guidance recommends that while at school, students remain grouped with the same staffers rather than changing throughout the day. It also calls for maintaining social distance between people.

It calls for adults and children to wash hands at least every two hours and after various activities including after using playground equipment, eating, arriving and exiting the school, and using the bathroom.

It requires sick kids and staff to stay home, and recommends screening kids for sickness on arrival.

The guidance calls for adults and older students to wear cloth masks. Children under 2, and people with severe breathing difficulties, should not wear masks, the guidance says.

The guidance won’t change summer school plans for several metro districts, including the Omaha Public Schools, Elkhorn Public Schools, Millard Public Schools, Bellevue Public Schools and Papillion-La Vista Community Schools. Officials with those districts indicate that they will stick to their plans for virtual summer school, which follows an earlier state recommendation.

Annette Eyman, spokeswoman for Papillion-La Vista, said the guidance is coming too late to change the district’s plans, but it’s “definitely a step in the right direction.”

The Gretna Public Schools had already planned to have no more than eight students per classroom in its first-, second- and third-grade summer reading program.

Superintendent Rich Beran said his district won’t be raising sizes of those classes to 20. Nor will his district require masks.

The students who are enrolled in Gretna’s summer school have struggled with reading, he said, and big groups and remote learning are not ideal for teaching reading.

“When you’re teaching kids to read, you really want small groups,” he said.

Teachers will do their best to practice social distancing, but there will be times when that’s not possible, he said.

“When you’re trying to teach a kid to enunciate something, you gotta be able to see their mouth and see what they’re doing. You can’t do that with a mask.”

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said the guidance reflects “our latest and best understanding of safe but reasonable approaches.”

Although schools do not have to follow the guidance in every detail, it would not be acceptable for school officials to dismiss it outright, he said.

He said it’s generally accepted that masks can substantially limit the spread of the virus.

“I understand the limitations that may be present for some students based on age or other conditions,” he said. “Best practice, as we’ve been advised, would be to ensure that those students that are able to wear masks wear them when practicable.”

Masks may be more important where social distancing is less practical, he said. For instance, in a classroom setting, where there is room for social distancing, masks may not be as important as in hallways, he said.

Blomstedt said the state will be asking local school officials who are implementing in-person instruction this summer to report how it’s going.

“Overall, we will be working to refine (the guidance) during the summer to improve guidance and procedures for the fall,” he said.

Photos: The last day of the 2020 school year, 402-444-1077

Joe covers education for The World-Herald, focusing on pre-kindergarten through high school. Phone: 402-444-1077.

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