Start Early. Start well.

September 11, 2020

'There Are Lives at Stake Here': Inside the Massive Undertaking to Reopen One Nebraska School District

 Grand Island Public Schools decided to reopen with the knowledge that the district is one outbreak away from closing--that every day could be the last day of in-person school. Here, second grade teacher Dave White with his students at Shoemaker Elementary School.

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

The boys and girls in Mr. White’s second grade class entered the classroom on a recent Tuesday with their masks on, no big deal, as if wearing a three-ply face covering struck them the same as putting on jeans or a T-shirt.

They waved hello—no hugging, no touching—and immediately washed their hands in the classroom sink. They sat down in spaced-out desks to start the day’s lessons, some of which Dave White is teaching for the first time on online platforms so his students will be ready to learn virtually if Shoemaker Elementary School shuts down, as it did in March.

It all felt shockingly normal, even the few times when White halted teaching to take a student’s temperature with one of 1,200 no-touch thermometers Grand Island Public Schools bought and distributed this summer.

It felt positively routine, the second grade teacher thinks, until a quiet little girl approached him near the school day’s end and shattered the façade of normalcy.

When it first happened, my daddy got really sick, she told her teacher for the first time.

“Your daddy got really sick when you were a first-grader?” White asked, trying to confirm he wasn’t currently ill with COVID-19. Yes, the little girl said. When I was a first-grader.

She nodded solemnly. Very, very sick.

“We were talking about her dad getting seriously ill with COVID as we left school today,” White said, shaking his head at the memory minutes later. White, like so many teachers and students in the Grand Island Public Schools system, knows people who have been hospitalized and died this year as the virus ravaged Hall County during the pandemic’s early months.

“We know how real this is. We know how dangerous this is,” White said. “And I think it makes us all the more committed to trying everything in our power to keep each other and our students safe when we are here.”

Many gargantuan questions swirl around Nebraska school districts as they reopen this fall. Health and education experts are attempting to weigh the value of in-person education vs. the public health risk of reopening. Some teachers and their union leadership worry that not all schools are doing enough to keep teachers safe. Best safety practices constantly shift as we better understand the nature of COVID-19. And, beneath all that, a bedrock question: Is it even possible to safely reopen?

As those questions continue to swirl, what is happening in Grand Island is a sight to behold.

Consider: The 9,900-student school district sprang into action early this summer, moving faster than even its top administrators thought possible. It formed a 21-person pandemic response team, which created six design teams, recruited an outside medical advisory group, added hundreds more school district employees to dozens of subcommittees and eventually produced three distinct models for what school would look like this fall.

While producing these models, school leaders separately identified and solved logistical challenges so massive that they remind you more of a small army waging a military offensive than a district trying to start the school year on time.

School leaders put into place dozens of new protocols at each of the district’s 23 schools, and then watched as those protocols either worked like a charm—or had to be immediately altered once real-life school began.

With scant guidance from the federal government, some help from the state, and much assistance from local health officials and doctors, the Grand Island Public Schools did indeed reopen its doors during the pandemic in August.

Tawana Grover, superintendent of Grand Island Public SchoolsTawana Grover

Its leaders did so knowing that the district’s schools are all one outbreak away from closing—that every day could be the last day of in-person school in Grand Island for the foreseeable future.

“We had no idea how we would start this school year and we still have no idea how we will end it,” says Superintendent Tawana Grover. “It feels like a matter of life and death if we bring our kids to school, and it feels in some way like a matter of life and death if we keep them at home.

“At some point, after taking all sorts of information into account, we said, ‘OK, Grand Island Public Schools is going forward. We are going forward as safely as we possibly can.’”

As the planning effort got underway this summer, chief financial officer Virgil Harden kept reminding himself of a hokey, old adage that suddenly resonated. How do you eat an elephant? One spoonful at a time.

Harden needed to concentrate on that spoonful, because the beast is indeed enormous.

Starting in April, a logistics subcommittee headed by Harden debated about, negotiated for, and successfully procured the following: Roughly 100,000 three-ply cotton masks, including 30,000 from one massive Amazon shipment; hundreds more specialty N-95 masks for school nurses; 500 gallons of hand sanitizer; hundreds of plexiglass shields for employees sitting behind desks; hundreds of gallons of the ingredients used to make the school district’s sanitizing spray; dozens of atomizers to apply that spray; 1,200 no-touch thermometers; 600 Chrome books to distribute to kindergartners and first-graders in case the district goes remote; hundreds of Verizon Wi-Fi hot spots for students who don’t have internet access; exactly one omnidirectional 4g LTE network tower that will soon give the students who live within a two-mile radius of Howard Elementary free internet access.

The district will likely build more private 4G networks if the Howard Elementary experiment works.

“I spent a day or two saying, ‘Oh my gosh, how is this going to happen?’ Harden says. “And then we got to work.”

As challenging as the logistics were, the new rules of school—and how they would work when put into place—proved tougher, Harden and others say.

Take recess, for example. Many Grand Island elementary schools have fantastic new playgrounds, complete with playground equipment that’s catnip to a 7-year-old. The decision was made to rope these off with snow fence, so they wouldn’t become places where children from different classrooms mingle or high-touch surfaces where the virus could be transmitted from one student to another. And then a cascade of decisions had to be made about how to separate classrooms during recess, the timing of recess, and the sanitizing process.

White’s second-graders now have recess as a class in a specific, cordoned-off area, playing with classroom soccer balls and footballs that are then sanitized by a custodian using a misting solution that is freshly mixed every 24 hours.

The same cascading series of decisions had to be made about lunch, music, PE, entering the building, exiting the building, and on and on.

Maddie Fennell, the executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, said good decision-making is happening in some school districts—but not in all of them.

Schools like Chadron, Ralston, and Omaha Westside have opened using science, best practices, and transparency, Fennell said. She also believes Omaha Public Schools has also kept teachers and students safe by starting the school year remotely. (A future Buffett Institute story will focus on OPS and remote learning.)

But other schools are putting the health of students, teachers, and their wider communities at risk, she said. These schools’ leaders are pretending the pandemic can’t make it to their community. They are ignoring the science behind how to safely reopen. They aren’t planning, and Fennell and many educators worry this lack of planning could lead to public health disaster.

In a survey of 3,000 teachers the NSEA did late this summer, some 45 percent said they weren’t ready to return to work, based on what they knew about their school district’s reopening plan.

Even more frightening to Fennell: Nearly one of every three teachers surveyed reported that they are more likely to retire or leave teaching early.

“Chadron is different than Omaha. Even Elkhorn is a little different than Omaha. But there should be a uniformity of response to answering the big questions,” Fennell said. “What happens if there’s community spread? What happens if we get to red on our local risk dial? What are we doing, specifically, to keep people as safe as we can?”

“Not everyone is doing that, and it is deeply problematic.”

Part of the success or failure of safely reopening involves partnering with—and listening to—public health experts.

Dr. Brandon Grimm and other experts at the University of Nebraska Medical Center have done more than 50 in-person or virtual visits to schools across the state, and are advising dozens of school administrators through frequent phone calls.

Reopening an elementary school is easier than a high school or college because younger students tend to be less mobile and therefore more shielded from community transmission of the virus, Grimm says.

But there are still all sorts of hallmarks schools should hit if they want to reopen safely and stay open for their youngest children, he thinks: Constant masking of all employees and students; keeping individual classes isolated from other classrooms and grade levels; limiting or eliminating choir and band, which can dramatically spread the virus; figuring out how to keep students outside as much as possible; and consistent social distancing as students come to school, eat lunch, and leave school.

Like Fennell, Grimm is most worried about teachers, especially those who are older or have underlying health conditions and are thus at greater risk of growing very sick from COVID-19. Without healthy teachers, there is no way a school can stay open, he said.

But he is generally encouraged by what he has seen from school leaders, many of whom are taking crash courses in public health while trying to keep their school communities safe.

“Let’s be honest: We haven’t responded very well in the United States. This has been a failure, quite honestly.

“But we can still do this well for schools. We are going to see more cases in schools, we just are. But if we can catch them quickly, if we can quickly test, trace those cases and quarantine, we can still be successful.”

Grand Island has put into place most of the COVID reopening protocols that Grimm identifies as key, but not all. The school district is still holding choir and band practice. Many schools are still using cafeterias because they don’t have space to feed all students in classrooms. And, inside those classrooms, the reality is that students’ desks can’t always be placed six feet apart. There simply isn’t enough room for that in his room, Dave White says.

Grand Island is working closely with its local health department and several local doctors while also paying close attention to the online advice of Dr. Bob Rauner, chief medical officer for OneHealth Nebraska, Grover said.

After consulting with these experts throughout the summer, it came down to a decision, the superintendent says. A decision that she had to make.

“I cannot tell you how much sleep I lost this summer thinking about reopening, waking up in the middle of the night, wondering, ‘Am I making the right decision?’

“There are lives at stake here. There is so much impact here from COVID. Nothing about this is straightforward or simple.”

When Grover made her decision, with support from the district’s school board, she did not know if in-person school would last a week. Reality hasn’t been perfect. A classroom at Engleman Elementary quarantined after a student tested positive. In August, the high school football team did likewise after two members of the football staff got sick. And the number of cases in Hall County has ticked up recently, though it is still far below the positivity rates and hospitalizations that the county faced this spring.

Grand Island Public Schools is now nearing its one-month milestone. It is still open.

“The truth is that we’re grateful for every day that we have with our students at this point. And it’s another day to build relationships in case we do have to shift to another model” of remote learning, Grover says.

Back in White’s second grade classroom, the masks, the constant reminders to socially distance, and the temperature checks are starting to feel strangely routine.

But White hasn’t grown used to the goodbyes. In his 13 years at Shoemaker, he has fist bumped or high-fived or wrapped students in a joyous hug as they left his classroom each day.

Saying goodbye is so important, he thinks, especially for those students who come from challenging circumstances at home and don’t have another positive connection with an adult.

This year, there is no fist pounding, no shoulder patting, no hugging. And it still breaks White’s heart a little bit each afternoon as he watches his second-graders exit after another school day in their new normal.

“I am getting really good at the air high five,” he says. “But I don’t ever want to get used to that.”

 

Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter. Have a comment, a question, or a story idea? Reach Matthew at matthewhansen@nebraska.edu.

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