Nebraska state colleges emphasize face masks, testing access as semester amid COVID-19 pandemic

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts
Published: Aug. 10, 2020 at 9:02 AM CDT|Updated: Aug. 10, 2020 at 10:20 AM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Officials from Nebraska’s private and state colleges joined Gov. Pete Ricketts for his back-to-school news conference briefing Monday morning with both stressing the importance of face masks on campuses and student access to testing.

Public and private colleges and universities across the state have been preparing for bringing students back to class, Ricketts said, working on how to create more space in classrooms and looking at PPE needs.

Paul Turman, chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, said colleges have worked to compress their academic calendar to limit the potential for exposure as classes get underway in person next week. The state has made sure that there is adequate PPE and testing capacity available on campuses so that students can attend classes feeling safe and confident that they’re healthy and that their health is a priority, he said.

Officials are compressing the fall term to limit the number of contact days and interactions that students and faculty would have. Finishing the term earlier will allow for a three-week break around Thanksgiving to allow extra time to that students can return from Thanksgiving break “if we’re not seeing significant spikes,” he said.

Paul Turman, chancellor of the Nebraska State College System, talks about their preparations for COVID-19 during Gov. Pete Ricketts' news conference Monday.

They will be limiting class sizes and requiring students to wear masks in classes, between classes, and anywhere on campus where sufficient social distancing can’t be guaranteed, Turman said.

The mask mandate will be enforced, he said, for the safety of students and faculty, and faculty will be allowed to ask students to leave if they’re not wearing a mask. Likewise, faculty could be disciplined for not enforcing the mandate, he said.

But he said that most students have chosen in-person learning when asked their preference or given the option, and he expects that students will do whatever they can to preserve that capability.

There will also be a bigger emphasis on attendance so faculty and the administration know when students aren’t coming to class to make sure they’re engaged but also won’t penalize them for not coming so that they feel they can stay home if they’re not feeling well, he said.

Campuses are prepared to deal with a few or handful or more students participating remotely for a time, or “if it had to move to (fully) remote, we’re ready for that,” he said.

It will be a different college experience from here forward, and they’re working to prepare their students for that reality, he said.

Dr. Darrin Good, president of Nebraska Wesleyan University, said the enrollment numbers at the 13 independent private schools — which have more than 35,000 students — have been about what they expected, or just slightly below. Dr. Good noted he was speaking Monday morning as a representative of the Council of Independent Colleges.

Dr. Darrin Good, Nebraska Wesleyan University president, gives an update on Nebraska private colleges' preparations for COVID-19 during the governor's update.

As for athletics, he said, they’re not sure yet how that play out, but the athletes are still working out and colleges are working out ways to keep them involved in the sports they love.

Officials are hoping that students and particuarly student athletes will help keep their peers in check in terms of social distancing and wearing face masks.

“We think the best allies are the students themselves,” Dr. Good said.

Nebraska COVID-19 stats update

Ricketts said 41% of hospital beds, 38% of ICU beds, and 82% of ventilators are available across the state. Less than 4% of ventilators are being used by COVID-19 patients, he said.

“So we’ve got very robust hospital capacity,” Ricketts said.

Hospitalizations have been the benchmark statistic for the state of Nebraska, he said, “making sure that we can provide that acute care and we’ve been able to do that all throughout this pandemic. We’ve been very successful and we continue to have capacity to be able to do that everywhere in the state.”

Even in Douglas County, the governor pointed out. “We’ve got about 6% of the beds, I think, are being used up by coronavirus patients. So, very small numbers of people in the hospital with coronavirus,” he said.

In Omaha, there’s 1,596 hospital beds, with 96 are being used by coronavirus patients; and 14 COVID-19 patients on ventilators, the governor said.

The governor encouraged Nebraskans to continue avoiding crowded spaces and to sign up with Test Nebraska. That will allow the state to identify those who are positive for COVID-19 so that the can be isolated and contact tracing can proceed, he said.

So far, the state has tested 302,000 people — 140,000 through Test Nebraska, he said.

Q&A from today’s news conference

Gov. Pete Ricketts and officials from Nebraska's public and private state colleges had a news conference Monday morning, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lincoln.

Watch today’s entire news conference

Gov. Pete Ricketts and officials from Nebraska's public and private state colleges had a news conference Monday morning, Aug. 10, 2020, in Lincoln.

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