The topic on everyone's mind — what will school look like this fall starting Aug. 13 — was addressed by the Arlington Public Schools Board of Education on Monday.
"We have made changes throughout the building to ensure students safety," Supt. Dawn Lewis said. "This is not going to contain every perfect scenario and this is not going to be a perfect plan because there is no perfect plan out there."
The topic has been on the minds of the administration, as well.
"This has been a challenge. This is something we have been thinking about and working on pretty much nonstop," Lewis said. "It has been weighing heavily on us for several weeks."
Lewis said the plan will be reactionary to a cautionary wheel put out by Three Rivers Public Health Department. The risk dial gives an overview of the risk in the department's jurisdiction, ranging from green to red. Lewis set out what things would look like in the middle range. At-home learning will only be required if the wheel moves into the red, she said.
Lewis recommended parents include face coverings as a school supply, as well as hand sanitizer for personal use. Students can ride the bus, but it will be spaced out one student per seat or with household members and the bus will be sanitized after each route. Seats will be assigned.
Temperatures will be taken twice at school and self-monitoring posters will remind students.
Desks will be adequately spaced and sanitized between classes.
In the lunch room, there will be a no touch checkout program, with social distancing markings placed. A la carte will still be available upon asking and no microwaves will be available. Seating will be spaced there, as well.
Lewis said additional cleaning times were added throughout day for the restrooms, with a limited number of people in there at once. She's added no-touch foot door pulls and hand washing and/or use of sanitizer will be mandatory.
Students will transition to a one-to-one computer so they will always use the same device, instead of only having them available in each classroom.
“I would say to our board members and the community that this is a working document, I hope that goes without saying," AHS Principal Aaron Pfingsten said. "When we learn a better way to do things or get solid recommendations of ways to do things we are going to take that advice. There are a lot of things that go into the decisions, and a lot of those things are unseen by the community. We have to consider the social and emotional well-being of our students as well. We believe that our staff does a tremendous job with our students and not having them here is a factor in that."
Much of the conversation at the board meeting focused on the use of masks at school.
"There will probably be times when we recommend masks a little more strongly than others such as when students are coming into school," Lewis said.
"All the guidance we have received which is coming from the department of education, what’s coming from our health departments and what’s coming from the CDC is that children learn best in school and everybody’s goal through this is to have our students in school again," Lewis added. "We are recommending masks, not making them mandatory."
Two parents spoke for and against mask use.
Jerusha Franzluebbers urged the board not to mandate the children to wear masks, saying it isn't justifiable based on the statistics about COVID-19. She urged the board to make a logical vs. fear-based decision.
“It's not justifiable, though, to enforce strict social distancing and mandatory masks on our kids when you look at those numbers,” she said.
Scott Miller, director of surgery at Nebraska Medicine and a member of the pandemic team at the hospital, encouraged the school to require masks.
"This is an airborne illness. All of our people that we lost in the nursing homes, they didn’t go out. Someone brought it to them. The United States right now is beating the world by leaps and bounds in how poorly we are doing because we are not doing all the things we are supposed to," he said. "If you look at the research they have done, all nations that implemented masks in their protocol within 15 days of the outbreak have the least amount of deaths and mortality rate."
Miller told the board that after the hospital went to a universal facemask policy, there has been no transmissions within the hospital that they can track.
"Even if the students are 6 feet apart, if they’re in a close community they should wear masks because you can have a buildup in the air," he said. "To me it has been proven that it is worth it to wear them."
Lewis said Arlington's plan is not going to be the same as any other plans.
"We are all trying to make the most out of the information we have," she said. "As Mr. Pfingsten said, if new information comes out we will make changes to these plans, we will communicate. That’s one thing to keep in mind. As soon as something changes we will communicate directly."
Board member Shannon Wilmott asked if they will be able to adequately keep spacing in the classrooms.
"Are you going to make sure there’s adequate distance between students and teachers and if not then are you going to require masks or what’s your plan in that situation?" she asked.
Lewis said some of the classes will be small enough that they can space adequately, but masks won’t be required.
"There are some elementary classrooms where it will be relatively easier to get them to the 6-foot distance and there will be some where it might be more challenging. We’ve talked about removing some things from the classroom so we can space them out better," she said. "We are going to do our very best."
Lewis said there’s not an answer for the way every classroom could look, including music, which typically has 75 students in a classroom.
“We also acknowledge that we may have staff members that for one reason or another are at greater risk, so we want to work with them to be able to accommodate that, as well," Lewis said.
Board member Janet Warner expressed concern for the teachers in this situation.
"I just want to make sure the teachers are considered in this," she said.
Warner said she thought it would be helpful to have everyone wearing a mask for the first two weeks of school and then after that reassess the situation.
"We would know that everybody has one, that everybody knows how to wear one. It's easier as a classroom teacher to start out stricter," Warner said. "But I don't think you're looking out for the adults if you don't have masks especially in classrooms where there's 25 kids and they can't socially distance."
“The mandatory piece is tough,” Lewis said. “That’s where we get hung up, telling someone that they have to wear a mask is not the advice that we’re getting.”
Board president Matt O’Daniel said he respects both sides of the argument.
"The topic of masks is certainly very passionate. I have spoken with parents who are vehemently opposed to their kids wearing masks at any time. I also have friends who believe they are helpful that wear them occasionally or almost always. I respect both sides of that,” he said. “I think you guys have come up with a great plan and I know this has weighed heavy on the entire admin team.”
O'Daniel noted that when the school shut down to clean due to flu, a recommendation for masks was not given.
"When you have the flu you know you have the flu," O'Daniel said. "When you get this, this is such a terrible thing that we have to test people to even see if they have it. I think we as a district are getting good advice and we need to be careful who we take our advice from."
O'Daniel said he wants to leave the masks up to families.
"I think it's important to allow our families in this community to make decisions like this for their kids," he said. "It's (up to them) how they choose to protect their families and kids. If we start mandating that children wear masks at our school, I think we're going down a pretty tough road."