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Nebraska presses forward with back-to-school plans

Gov. Ricketts, state education commissioner give update from Lincoln
Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt gave an update Monday morning, Aug. 3, 2020, about the state plans for going back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt gave an update Monday morning, Aug. 3, 2020, about the state plans for going back to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Published: Aug. 3, 2020 at 9:07 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 3, 2020 at 3:45 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Nebraska state officials on Monday showed their support for schools getting ready to re-open across the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt each shared reasons supporting the re-opening of schools in a live news conference Monday morning.

Before getting to the specifics, the governor began his news conference with the familiar tips on containing the spread of COVID-19 in the state. He encouraged social distancing; washing hands often and for at least 20 seconds at a time; and wearing face masks in places like grocery stores where you can’t guarantee six feet of distance at all times.

“And if you see a crowded bar or restaurant, that’s a great opportunity to a different bar or restaurant, and avoiding those large crowds,” he said.

The whole point of these guidelines, Ricketts said, was to preserve hospital capacity.

As of Monday, 40% of hospital beds are available across the state; 41% of ICU beds are available; and 83% of ventilators are available, he said.

Ricketts also encouraged Nebraskans to continue signing up for Test Nebraska, and noted that anyone who wants a COVID-19 test can get one through those assessments. The governor suggested that a good time to get tested is ahead of a visit to see grandparents.

A new testing site was set up at Oak View Mall in Omaha; and at Gateway Mall in Lincoln, with 500 slots available Monday-Saturday, he said. In addition, the Crossroads Mall site in Omaha will increase to 1,600 testing timeslots each day, with the other two mall sites looking to ramp up to the same capacity as well.

Test Nebraska recently set a new single-day swabbing record with 3,791 swabbed for COVID-19 tests in one day, Ricketts said.

One of the reasons for expanding the state’s testing capacity was in anticipation of kids being back in the classroom, he said. The state is also working to create a “really robust” contact-tracing program, he said.

Ricketts outlines importance of reopening schools

“It’s really important we get kids back in classrooms,” Ricketts said. Some kids learn well in remote environments, but some do not, he said.

Socialization as well as physical, mental, and behavioral health, and even nutrition are all important reasons to get children back to school is also important for them, Ricketts said.

The governer quoted an update he said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield made last week, stating:

“But there has been another cost, particularly in high schools. We’re seeing sadly far greater suicides now than we are deaths from COVID. We are seeing far greater deaths from drug overdose that are above excess that we had as background than we are seeing from the deaths from COVID.”

Ricketts also referenced Redfield’s statement that school-aged children were relatively less impacted by COVID-19: The risk of death per 100,000 so far, six months into the outbreak, is 0.1 per 100,000 or 1 in a million, he said.

Still quoting Redfield, he said: “Now, I’m not trying to belittle that. I’m just trying to make sure that we look at it proportional because if you do the same thing for influenza deaths for school-aged children over the last five years, they’re anywhere from five to 10 times greater. So I want people to understand the risk properly as they make that decision.”

Ricketts said this emphasizes the importance of thinking broadly about getting children back into school.

Parents of students with individual needs or concerns need to work with their principals and superintendents to make sure they use the best option for their family, he said.

When questioned about a recommendation from some UNMC doctors that schools not reopen unless cases are at 50 per million per day, Ricketts said those decisions should be left to policymakers.

“Because when doctors say that, they’re only looking at the very, very narrow, um, part of the coronavirus part. When we as policymakers look at this, we have to look at the bigger picture,” Ricketts said.

If Papillion-La Vista were to use that guideline, for example, there would have to be less than two cases per day there, he said. Following those guidelines, if a couple came home from traveling and tested positive for COVID-19, it wouldn’t make sense to shut down schools, he said.

Such decisions are best left to school and public health officials working together to decide best practices, he said.

Update from the Nebraska Education Commissioner

Quality of education, flexibility, and safety are key as schools and districts work toward reopening, Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt said Monday.

Analyzing risk and being able to adjust to circumstances as they come up is also important, he said. Risk dials and phases used statewide have been helpful in quick communication about spread, he said. It’s also important for schools to work with local health officials to tailor their protocols and plan around those protocols, he said, and communicate to their staff, communities, parents, and students the plan and changes needed for reopening.

“It takes behavior change, actually, to re-enter this school year — that’s something we’ve not experienced before,” Blomstedt said. “And opening schools right now relies on individual behaviors as much as it does on our collective behaviors.”

Schools will also need to review and communicate and adjust as needed, he said.

Across the state, local health officials are working with local school districts in creating safe reopening plans, he said.

“It’s really been a critical set of partnerships that make that possible,” Blomstedt said.

State health and education departments are also offering support, gauging the level of risk across the state and providing key guiding principles, he said.

“Working together is how we’re going to get through this,” he said.

He stressed a sentiment sent out by Grand Island Public Schools: “I acknowledge what’s working today may not work tomorrow.”

Change will be needed as more understanding about COVID-19 occurs, he said.

There’s skepticism out there that schools won’t be able to remain open, but Ricketts said that’s why schools have been working on protocols to address that, including the possibility for individual schools to close down.

“We do that for the flu already,” he said. “So if you look at history, where we’ve had a school whose had a big flu outbreak, sometimes they’ve closed those as well.”

It’s part of managing the virus for the long term, and keeping focus on the bigger picture, he said.

“There may never be a vaccine, and so we can’t shut down schools permanently,” Ricketts said.

Workforce retraining initiative

Ricketts reminded those whose jobs or income has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic can apply for community colleges for CARES Act scholarships for workforce development. More information is available on the state’s website or at local community colleges.

Watch the Q&A from today’s news conference

Watch the entire news conference

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