As Some LPS Teachers, Staff Say Concerns Aren't Being Heard, District Touts Zero COVID Infections In Schools

The LPS school re-opening plan is founded on four "pillars of safety."
September 11, 2020 - 6:45am

A group of Lincoln Public School teachers and staff members say the district is not hearing their concerns about in-person instruction amid a global pandemic; they’re calling on district officials to be more proactive about listening.


"As far as safety goes and the safety plan, I feel like we're building the airplane while we're trying to fly it," said Ellen Jaecks-James, who teaches at one of the high schools in the district.

She loves her job and is happy to be seeing her students face-to-face again. But she’s one of several teachers we talked to who are concerned about how realistic the district’s safety plan is.

"They have the four pillars of safety and the first pillar of safety is this self screening," Jaecks-James said. "Well, none of my students had taken their temperature in the first couple days of school. Many of them didn't even know they were supposed to."

A portion of the LPS pandemic plan instructs teachers, staff members, and students to self-screen for COVID-19 symptoms before arriving at school. 

Jaecks-James says her principal and other school administrators have been very receptive to hearing her concerns. But when she tried to be engaged with the district over the summer, before school started, she hit a lot of dead ends – it seemed like nobody cared.

Jennifer Jorges is a very involved parent, having served as a PTO president at two LPS schools. She was asked to be part of an early planning meeting with district officials about a month before classes started.  

"It sort of felt like I was in the twilight zone of hearing very vague plans about a very dangerous situation and feeling a little bit alone," Jorges said. "And my husband and I thinking that the world is upside down and people aren't taking it seriously."

Jorges was so dissatisfied with the district’s plan that she chose the remote learning option for her three kids. One of her concerns is the way schools are reporting a positive case to families.

"It's a generic email that says you'll be contacted if we decide that your child had close contact, but it doesn't tell much other information," Jorges said. "And I understand the concern about HIPAA, but I do think that in a time of a health crisis in a pandemic that they could be more specific and let parents make the decision about whether they feel comfortable with their child in school."

Even that generic email, with no identifying information, is kept as secret as possible. Until recently, bus drivers were not informed of positive COVID-19 cases in the buildings on their routes. A transportation employee spoke anonymously to NET News, saying that lack of information put drivers at risk.

Sometime after we asked LPS officials about that policy, it was changed; the transportation director can now share information about positive cases with drivers.

LPS is also publishing limited data on an online dashboard, showing the number of positive cases among students and staff members, and how many staff members are in isolation or quarantine. It’s updated once a week, and only includes seven days of information.

LPS Associate Superintendent Liz Standish says although the public is interested in case numbers, keeping the identities of positive cases private is critical.

The most recent illness report for LPS. The number of positive cases does not include adults who work in LPS buildings but are not staff members, like substitute teachers, CLC leaders, and mentors. 

"We want everyone in the community and in the school community to feel comfortable that if they have symptoms and if they seek testing, they will not be identified," Standish said. "Because we want people to be comfortable getting tested and following the process."

Maggie Thompson, a parent with middle school students doing remote learning, said she was initially excited about the online dashboard. But she shared her disappointment during public comment to the LPS Board of Education Tuesday night.

"This tool is only helpful if it contains accurate and up-to-date information," Thompson said. "Our numbers are changing on a daily basis, so updating it weekly just isn’t going to cut it."

Teachers have also spoken up during public comments at the weekly board meetings. Several said the lunch room is a weak spot in the district plan, since students take off their masks to eat and physical distancing can be difficult.

That’s one issue the district has addressed, announcing plans this week to install plexiglass dividers on lunch tables in most schools.

Therron Stackley works in the lunch room at Prescott Elementary, a job he describes as the best he’s had in a long time.

"There are kids who really need to be there and I like being involved in feeding them," Stackley said. "At the same time, I feel like we are under resourced, especially in terms of being in a pandemic."

Stackley says things have gotten better over time, but truly distancing kids in the lunchroom would require resources the school just doesn’t have, like hiring more staff.

Superintendent Steve Joel says the district discussed countless options for in-person instruction with the local health department and chose only what those officials recommended. But in-person instruction was always the top priority.

"I think the governor has been very clear that schools need to be, needed to be reopened. And so, you know, we went at it with that perspective," Joel said.

He says they’ll continue to collect feedback from staff members at all levels and will tweak the plan if needed.

"I would encourage those teachers that are have concerns bring us some solutions, but the solution is not to go to 100% remote learning."

The plan does include the possibility of 100% remote learning for all students, if the Lincoln Lancaster County Health Department risk dial is elevated to red, the highest category. As of Friday morning, the county is in the mid-orange range.

Jennifer Jorges says they have suggested other solutions to the district, and she says the district didn't seem interested. 

"I think what probably should have happened is that middle school and high school students should have all gone remote because those kids have a greater capacity to be home alone for parents who were working, and they should have spread the elementary school students across all the buildings," Jorges said. "That was actually a proposal sent by parents and teachers early on in the summer. That was not acknowledged by the district." 

LPS Superintendent Steve Joel gives a COVID-19 update at the weekly Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, September 8.

 

Jorges says she’s been in contact with dozens of LPS teachers and staff members on social media who are concerned about a variety of issues. She says many are afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

Two additional teachers and two staff members spoke with NET News about their concerns, but wanted to remain anonymous. One said she’s not willing to risk losing her job and her whole family’s health insurance in the middle of a global pandemic.

Superintendent Joel says the district welcomes feedback and would never retaliate against an employee.

"I believe we've done a very, very good job of being willing to have conversations, and I think we're listening. We're not necessarily agreeing to the individual suggestions that are coming up," Joel said. "And we don't want anybody to be in fear, we don't want anybody to feel intimidated. There is a vehicle for them to to utilize and that begins with their building administrator, their immediate supervisor, and we're spending I think three or four times a week talking about those things."

Joel says one month after re-opening schools, he’s very happy with how the pandemic plan has been implemented. He's quick to praise teachers' flexibility and dedication to their students.

"I get that we're in an environment right now where there's a lot of strong opinions on, 'Should we have school? What should it look like? Is remote learning a viable option?'" Joel said. "But at the end of the day we have to make decisions for 42,000 students."

And health officials say the plan is working to prevent the spread of the virus in schools.

Although new cases in Lancaster County have been surging, the local health department says no one has contracted COVID-19 in an LPS school building; instead, those infections are taking place outside of the public schools.

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