The abrupt shift to remote learning this year has weighed heavily on Nebraskans. Teachers, students, parents, school districts — all have had to scramble. It’s widely conceded that remote learning lags that achieved through face-to-face classroom interaction. And the need for parents to stay home to tend to their children makes restarting the economy — a vital need for Nebraska and the nation — even more difficult and delayed.
It’s imperative, then, that Nebraska school leaders explore creative ideas so that schools can reopen this fall to the greatest extent possible. Such an approach would boost instructional quality and set Nebraska on a path toward economic revival.
The Nebraska Department of Education is a key player on this issue. Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt provides frequent guidance to school districts after consulting with state and local public health officials and the Governor’s Office.
“We know the challenges happening in the households across the state, for sure,” David Jespersen, the department’s public information officer, told The World-Herald. The agency agrees that in-class student/teacher interaction is best. But the agency’s priority, Jespersen said, must be “basing all of our decisions on public safety and public health of our students and their communities.”
Schools are particularly vulnerable to possible coronavirus exposure, which is why they were among the first institutions to be shut down early in the virus emergency, he said. Students come from throughout their community, congregate tightly in school and don’t social distance responsibly as adults do. That’s especially the case for younger children. When students return home, they’re at considerable risk of being asymptomatic carriers of the virus.
Nebraska’s 244 public school districts are home to 329,000 students and 24,000 teachers.
The Department of Education recognizes that the virus situation is changing over weeks and months, and it’s encouraging that the agency is looking at creative options for the fall. Its top preference, Jespersen said, is a return to traditional in-class instruction: “We are truly starting with putting everything on the table and seeing what works.” But if virus conditions warrant measures short of a regular reopening, the department is looking at various options, including:
• Delayed start. Depending on the virus situation, districts could delay opening by several weeks. That option presents complications including “a hindrance to instructional hours and timelines for different events,” Jespersen said.
• Staggered class scheduling. Classes wouldn’t meet every day but instead could be scheduled for, say, Monday/Wednesday/Friday and Tuesday/Thursday.
• Remote/in-class combination. Instruction would continue remotely but students also would visit the classroom once or twice a week in small groups.
• District-specific approaches. Restrictions would vary depending on the severity of virus conditions in individual districts. Twenty-some Nebraska counties so far have registered no positive COVID-19 cases, Jespersen noted. If that remains the case this fall, it might be possible for districts there to open on a regular schedule. At the other extreme, any counties that remain hot spots would understandably face tougher restrictions.
Another wild card, Jespersen said, is the possibility of a coronavirus resurgence later this year, creating a new wave of complications and tough choices. In the end, he said, the decisions affecting schools aren’t made by education officials: “They’re made by COVID-19.”
As Nebraska school officials face such challenges this fall, it’s important that they deliver the needed innovation. Our schools must move out of lockdown and into more flexible, effective support for students, parents and communities.