Daily Roundup: Unemployment Insurance Changes Announced, LPS Provides Free Lunch to Students

Items included in a lunch provided by Lincoln Public Schools to students during school closure. (Photo by Allison Mollenkamp, NET News)
March 16, 2020 - 5:20pm

Nebraska now has 18 cases of COVID-19, including one community spread case. Businesses and governments are working to adapt.


Follow the latest news and resources: netNebraska.org/coronavirus

State Government Introduces New Supports & Restrictions for Coronavirus

Governor Pete Ricketts gave an update on coronavirus in Nebraska Monday. In line with federal recommendations, public gatherings in Nebraska should be limited to 10 people. That includes weddings, funerals, and church services. Businesses may stay open for now, but if community spread increases, bars and restaurants will be asked to move to takeout only. There is currently one community spread case in Nebraska, in Douglas County.

Ricketts said private labs will have more testing capability soon, but the turn-around time on those tests will be 3-4 days. Screening procedures will stay in place to prioritize who can be tested.

Several state agencies will likely waive certain requirements under the governor’s state of emergency declaration. The Department of Health and Human Services may waive some requirements for the SNAP program, sometimes referred to as food stamps.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matthew Blomstedt, together with Ricketts, is recommending that all schools move to online learning by the end of the week. This recommendation will be reviewed every two weeks, with the expectations that closures will last around six to eight weeks. Statewide assessments will be suspended for the rest of the school year, but the Department of Education will work to find a way to provide assessments beneficial to students, like the ACT, when it is safe to do so. The requirement for how many hours schools must operate per year will likely also be waived. The governor added the hope is still to get everybody ready for the next grade next fall.

The Department of Labor will make several changes to unemployment insurance starting March 22 and likely lasting until at least May 2. They plan to waive the requirement that those receiving unemployment benefits be searching for work. They will also waive the one week waiting time before a person can collect unemployment. Labor Commissioner John Albin says Nebraska’s unemployment trust fund is well-funded. The Department of Labor will also work to move some of their services online for those who don’t feel comfortable coming to an in-person office.

Ricketts said he expects coronavirus will impact state tax receipts, but he’s not sure what that impact will be.

The Nebraska legislative session is suspended until further notice.

Omaha Works to Limit Public Gatherings

Many of Nebraska’s COVID-19 cases are located in Douglas County, including the state’s only community spread case. Mayor Jean Stothert called closing restaurants and bars an hour-by-hour decision.

Stothert will bring a proposal to give all city employees up to 80 hours of administrative leave. The number of hours would be pro-rated for part-time employees. That proposal will go before the Omaha City Council Tuesday.

Health officials from Douglas County urged business owners to think not just about the size of gatherings, but of the density. Fewer people in a small space would still be high density.

Dr. Adi Pour is with the Douglas County Health Department. She said the decision to not go to bars and restaurants makes sense.

“That's why we now make these uncomfortable decisions not to go to a bar on St. Patrick's Day,” Pour said. “That is uncomfortable. It is different. But what does it mean when people have to decide who is going to get a ventilator and who not? Those I think are the tough decisions that we want to push out as far as we can.”

If gatherings exceed the recommended limit, the city will ask for voluntary compliance. If that doesn’t work, they will look for applicable criminal statutes, with the possibility that some facilities may be shut down.

Lincoln Declares State of Emergency

Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird declared a state of emergency Monday, noting that the state of the outbreak in Lincoln may change quickly.

“Although we continue to have no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Lincoln at this moment, it’s just a matter of time before we do,” Gaylor Baird said. “It is imperative that we prevent the number of cases from rising too quickly and overwhelming our healthcare system.”

Gaylor Baird said the city government is functioning smoothly, and that some employees have been given the option to work from home.

Schools Provide Free Lunches During Closure

Many school districts are closed across the state and more will close this week. Lincoln Public Schools is offering free lunch and breakfast to kids ages one to 18, regardless of their enrollment status. Pick-up is available at seven locations across the city, with meals set up just inside schools to help prevent spread of the virus.

Monday LPS had 300 meals on hand, with plans to increase that number to 350 Tuesday when students will pick up their Chromebook computers.

Edith Zumwalt is director of nutrition services for LPS. She said the district will increase the number of meals as needed.

“I would say there’s about 15,000 students on free and reduced meals,” Zumwalt said. “The meals that we are offering in the schools during the closure are open to any students. You do not have to be on free and reduced. You can live in any part of the city. You just have to come to the sites where we’re serving meals.”

Bellevue and Ralston schools will also offer meals. Some restaurants in the state will offer free meals to students as well.

Universities Prepare for Online Learning

Many universities, including the University of Nebraska system, are moving to online classes. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is closed this week to allow professors to prepare for the change.

This week will be used to test systems and communicate with students about what they can expect going forward.

Jenny Dauer is associate director of the School of Natural Resources at UNL.

“I think the main message that we’ve been trying to tell everyone is that we need to be flexible and recognize that this is not a normal situation,” said Jenny Dauer, associate director of the UNL School of Natural Resources. “And for the instructors, in particular, to be listening to our students, as they’re going through a lot of transition right now, and they have a lot of anxiety about their learning and these classes as well as many other things around this whole issue.”

Libraries Prepare for Closing

The Omaha Public Library announced Sunday it would close.

Pat Leach is Director of Lincoln City Libraries. She Lincoln libraries are also considering closing.

"One of the things that we’re doing to prepare is to beef up our collections of downloadable materials,” Leach said. "So both audio and e-books are available to library cardholders through our website. So we want to make sure that we’re helping to meet that demand and to continue keeping people in their reading materials."

Follow the latest news and resources: netNebraska.org/coronavirus

Editor's note: by way of full disclosure, Lincoln City Libraries Director Pat Leach also hosts the program All About Books on NET Radio.

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