Students are set to return to their classrooms on Aug. 13 after the Alliance School Board voted on a plan to safely reopen the school facilities to students for the first time since March 16.
At a special meeting on Monday evening, the board members invited people to provide input on the reopening plan before making an official decision. Two people spoke at the meeting. Dawson Quick, originally of Alliance, urged board members to add a remote option for faculty and students to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. Quick, who studies microbiology at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, asked the board members to take science into consideration before finalizing their reopening plan.
“Here in Nebraska, specifically at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, we have some of the best virologists in the world, who are a source of pride not only for us as a state, but for scientific advancement across the world. When we are thinking about our response to this pandemic, we can either take the guidance of scientists who have spent their entire careers understanding viruses, or we can design our school policies around a lack of patience, following the advice of people who currently aren’t qualified, further disgracing the intelligent scientific community, and furthering the stereotype that rural Americans are inherently unintelligent.”
Quick emphasized that opening without the remote learning option could have disastrous consequences for the community as COVID-19 would have the opportunity to spread.
“A lack of patience around this pandemic can lead to deaths within the community of Alliance and western Nebraska,” Quick said. “We can either sit around regurgitating misinformation spread through social media, or we can listen to our scientists and make the proper sacrifices right now to minimize the risk of the virus spreading throughout Alliance. Even if such an action is inconvenient right now, it is clear for so many people out there that difficulty now is a much better alternative to sickness and death.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a point in our history that will allow future generations to differentiate between those who can handle stressful situations and those who cannot,” said Quick. “Just as we can look to the Spanish Flu outbreak over 100 years ago, and look with shame toward those who let their fellow Americans die because they simply couldn’t be bothered to make proper sacrifices to save our people.”
Josh Trussell spoke after Quick, noting lack of internet access as a hindrance to remote learning options. He asked the board to make a decision on reopening.
“I’m glad you (Quick) traveled all the way out here to give us that information, but I noticed he (Quick) lacks the information that 35 percent of lower income families often say they don’t have high-speed or any internet connection at their house, let alone the ability to do that remotely at home,” said Trussell. “So, I don’t know, that the disadvantaged students of this community, that that’s going to benefit them much.”
Trussell argued against students wearing masks, noting few people in attendance at the meeting made the choice to wear them.
“I’m not buying it,” Trussell said. “I don’t think you’re going to do anything for kids under 10 years old, and I don’t think it’s going to help them at all to have them on. I think you’re going to have students fighting. They’re going to be, ‘She’s not wearing it all the time. He’s not wearing it all the time. So and so did this.’ (…) I don’t know what you’re doing for a policy on masks. Unfortunately, I think I’m going to be homeschooling based on what’s going on. I wish I had seen something, but I haven’t seen anything come from you (the board). That’s why I’m here. I was hoping this was at the end of it, but here we are at the beginning of it, just to see where we’re at.”
Trussell urged the board to take action, and to form a specific reopening plan, noting that other countries have allowed children to return to school.
“How long is this going to go on?” Trussell asked. “Where’s the science? Where’s the proof? You see all of Europe went back. They went back in May. If it’s not a problem there, why’s it a problem here? (…) I’d just like to see what you’re doing, so I know where I need to go with my children. Like I said, I think this needs to be between the school board and the parents of this school, and the kids of this school. Not outside influence. This is between us.”
Board President Tim Kollars said the board has been working to develop a plan to reopen, noting the need to get students back into the classrooms.
“Our experiment with online learning last spring was, oh, disastrous, so to speak,” said Kollars. “We had 13 to 15 percent of kids that did all their work. That many also did none, and we still had to pass them. We did a disservice to our kids. So, what we are proposing is that we open up school in a fairly normal manner. (…) We want our kids to get their education and not be hiding behind things that just are not that serious right now. In the future, this board will look at what’s going on as far as infection rates, the general health, and if we have to, we’ll make some changes.”
Superintendent Dr. Troy Unzicker explained that changes to education due to COVID-19 came last March during the state basketball tournaments. He said when the boys basketball team returned on March 15, superintendents from each of the Panhandle’s school districts were advised to close their buildings, which they did on March 16. On March 17, Governor Pete Ricketts issued a Directed Health Measure closing schools throughout the state.
As the school board planned the reopening process, Unzicker invited people to provide input on the preliminary plan via a survey. He said roughly 300 people responded to the survey. Their responses were shared with each of the board members.
Kollars proposed reopening school at the low risk category of the plan, with modifications, including dropping the risk assessment from Panhandle Public Health District.
“The board and the administration will keep track, and we will also look at what the Panhandle Public Health numbers are, but as of right now, I’d like to get schools open for these kids so they can get back to learning and not have to deal with online learning, which, as I said, did not work out well for us.”
Board Member Tim Richey agreed with Kollars, that the students did not progress as much as they would have liked to see.
“I know it was unexpected, but I feel like this next time, if we have to shut down, we need to be better,” said Richey. “We need to do more for our kids. They can’t be going fishing whenever they want and not do their work. It’s 2020, we should all figure out how to do Facebook or whatever.”
Kollars emphasized that the board is there to serve the children.
“We’re not here to make it bad for the students or the parents, or the teachers or anything else,” said Kollars. “As a school board, we’re here for the best interest of the students. High school and grade school are a once in a lifetime thing for them, and that’s where they need to learn to be successful for the rest of their life.”
Richey addressed Quick’s comments, noting that the board understands the risks involved with reopening.
“Every day in my job, I put myself at risk of being exposed to it,” Richey said. “I deal with airways every day at my job. I just want you (Quick) to know that we are not taking this ignorant people up here. We think it’s real. The virus is definitely real. We want to make sure that everyone understands that we take this into consideration with the kids, their benefits, their wellbeing.”
Unzicker asked the board whether they wanted to add an option for online learning. After some discussion, the board decided to offer the online option for students with medical issues, though the board expects the online option to be built around the classroom teaching.
The board voted unanimously to approve the reopening plan.