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Principal Lu Ann Jacobs embraces fourth grader Harley Hackett alongside fifth grader Samuel Kimbril as students were welcomed back for the first day of school at Wilson Focus Elementary School in Omaha on July 25, 2019.

The Omaha Public Schools board was about to approve the purchase of 54,400 iPads to help with distance learning for the next school year.

But first, school board member Lou Ann Goding wanted to know what the purchase signaled about the start of school.

Did the purchase mean the district anticipated not opening this fall? Or were the iPads there to help in case the district had to close later?

“I think if my crystal ball was working that well it would be great,” OPS Superintendent Cheryl Logan said. “I don’t know.”

Superintendents across the state are trying to prepare for the myriad ways the novel coronavirus outbreak could disrupt school in the fall. But they are dealing with a lot of unknowns.

Since last month, Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt has advised districts to draw up contingency plans in case the coronavirus crisis lingers.

Blomstedt said Tuesday that he hopes to produce a set of statewide protocols on reopening that would guide district officials as they work with local health departments to make decisions for the fall.

What health experts say about social distancing will be a crucial factor in deciding when and how to open.

The 6-foot spacing would be difficult to implement in classrooms of 20 or 25 students and next to impossible in the congested hallways of some middle schools and high schools.

If gatherings are limited, that would create problems in classrooms and cafeterias.

Logan said district officials have prepared several calendars with potential scenarios for next school year, which will be presented soon to the OPS board. Logan said she is “very certain” that schools will be called upon to participate in community disease mitigation again.

Logan said she also expects spot outages to occur, meaning classrooms and schools will have to close because someone in the school community has tested positive for the virus, which then will prompt teachers and students to stay at home.

The iPads, Logan said, will help students and staff go from attending schools to remote learning.

Millard Public Schools Superintendent Jim Sutfin sees four potential scenarios for fall: a normal opening, a delayed opening, an opening with a blend of classroom and remote learning and opening entirely with remote learning.

Sutfin said the district also must be ready to open normally but then shut down for some period because of an outbreak.

Millard, he said, will be ready to implement the right option to match the health conditions.

“We will have them worked out to the best of our ability,” he said.

The most difficult option, he said, would be to open entirely with remote learning.

In normal years, Sutfin said, teachers use those first days and weeks of the year to establish relationships and routines with students.

Westside Community Schools Superintendent Mike Lucas laid out several potential scenarios for next school year in a letter home to students and staff. He stressed that nothing is written in stone.

“It is too early to tell,” he wrote.

For example, if school can’t start until September, Westside would adjust the calendar and end the year in June.

Or if classes have to stay small, half of the students might go to school on Mondays and Wednesdays, with the other half going on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and alternating Fridays.

Lucas wrote that he’s committed to having kindergarten roundup and middle and high school orientation because “those transitional pieces are critical to our students’ success in new surroundings.”

Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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

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