Lexington Public Schools to start school year Aug. 17, masks will be required

There was a high turnout of district staff and community members for the Lexington school board meeting. The reopening policy was announced.

LEXINGTON — Lexington Public Schools will start in-person again on Aug. 17 and masks will be required for all students, staff and visitors.

LPS is planning on utilizing in-person instruction only, with regular attendance policies, on Monday, Aug. 17.

There will not be an alternative digital learning option, unless a student needs a different educational placement by law, such as an IEP or 504 team, or they are under a directed medical quarantine. Alternative arrangements will be made on a case by case basis.

If a child is quarantined, they will need to produce the receipt of the quarantine order, directive by a medical provider or authorized health official. Absences due to quarantine will not be counted toward a child’s chronic absenteeism limit if documentation is provided, according to LPS information for parents.

Every grade level will be required to wear a mask or an appropriate face-covering in school vehicles, during passing periods, in lunch lines and during any other time social distancing is not possible.

According to the LPS document, some discretion will be given to principals and teachers based on unique circumstances which may arise, the only other exceptions will be those required by law, such as a student’s IEP or 504 team.

Students from preschool to fifth grade will be isolated to their classroom groups during the day to minimize interaction with students in other classrooms, according to the reopening information.

This isolation means elementary students will be required to eat lunch, play and have specials exclusively with students from their classroom.

The wearing of a mask will be adopted as a safety and dress code rule by the school board, students which refuse to wear masks will face consequences consistent with the district’s student discipline policies, with discretion allowed for different grade levels.

A kindergartener who refuses to wear a mask will be treated differently than a senior with the same issue.

According to the reopening information, parents may provide a mask for their child but the district will have them available. Masks must be either cloth, multi-layer disposable fabric or other approved face coverings.

LPS staff will be required to wear masks or other approved face coverings when not teaching and to the extent possible when teaching. According to the reopening information, the wearing of a face shield instead of a mask, or not wearing a face covering may be necessary for staff at certain times.

The district will also enforce frequent handwashing in all buildings and there will also be an increase in the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of buildings.

Visitors will be required to wear masks and parents will need to schedule appointments to meet with school staff.

Superintendent John Hakonson said there was, “unanimity,” among medical experts, including the Nebraska Medical Association, UNMC College of Public Health, Nebraska Academy of Family Physicians, Nebraska Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics, Nebraska Association of Local Health Directors, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Nebraska Department of Public Education, supporting the wearing of masks in schools.

Hakonson also noted a survey given to staff, 298 responded, where 51 percent said they were comfortable returning to their building, 40.3 percent said they were comfortable returning with modifications in place like temperature checks and face masks and 8.7 percent said they did not feel comfortable returning.

Due to confidentiality laws, like HIPPA, parents may not be notified by the school district about a positive case of COVID-19 in the school or classroom, according to the reopening information, if contact tracing is determined to be necessary by the Two Rivers Public Health Department, they would be the one to contact parents.

According to the reopening plan, every effort will be made to keep the schools open, one or more cases of COVID-19 will not trigger an automatic closing of schools. The decision to close will be based upon multiple factors and include consultation with Two Rivers and local medical providers.

After-school programs are planned to be offered, but may not start at the beginning of the school year. The district will communicate with parents once their plans are finalized, according to the reopening information.

The district urges parents to closely monitor their children’s health and keep them home when they don’t feel well, even if an illness has not been confirmed by a medical provider, according to the reopening plan.

Symptoms of COVID-19 have grown in scope and now include fever, muscle aches, breathing difficulty, coughing and diarrhea in children. Symptoms can vary widely and some children display few if any symptoms.

During the school board meeting on Monday, the floor was opened to public comment, in which all of the speakers spoke on the policy of masks in schools.

Lexington Education Association president Lori Pflaster thanked the board and Hakonson for keeping the staff informed and taking their input during the COVID-19 shutdown and planning for reopening.

Pflaster said she is ready to wear a mask while teaching.

“It won’t be easy, but we can teach our kids to wear a mask,” she said.

Lexington Middle School teacher Josey Blessin, who has three children in the district, also thanked the board for, “demonstrating a commitment to staff and students.”

Blessin asked the board to remain firm on mandating the wearing of masks by students and staff.

Next was Lexington High School band instructor, Alex Woodside.

Woodside also spoke in favor of keeping the mask mandate in place but said he had great respect for parental rights. He continued to say masks might not completely solve the issue, but they are worth requiring and were better to have in place than nothing at all.

Bob Sankey, a bus driver for the district, said he applauded the efforts of the school board to reopen school with the face mask requirement. He said he is at high risk for the virus and asked about additional spacing on buses as they were tightly packed before the start of the pandemic.

Aravind Menon with Two Rivers Public Health Department said recent studies have shown, “masks are incredibly effective,” and when combined with good hand hygiene, both are, “incredibly helpful,” at slowing the virus.

Menon said children are being tested at a lower rate and the data out there may not truly reflect the actual number of children who may have contracted COVID-19.

Dr. Steve Scherr, a Lexington resident of 11 years, spoke against the mask policy and said while he has the utmost respect for teachers, he asked if a kindergartener could be made to not fiddle with their mask during the school day. He said he feels masks will be a distraction in the classroom.

Dr. Scherr also said he cannot find any evidence his child can infect a teacher.

When the board voted, Dr. Scherr asked if the members were willing to take his parental rights away.

Dr. Brady Beecham, with Lexington Regional Health Center, said ideally it would be best to keep children home until the danger of the virus had passed, but acknowledged there are priorities and the question becomes one of how to create a safe environment for students.

Dr. Beecham said this situation does create a risk for staff, teachers and family members, as students might not be at a large risk of contracting the virus, but they could pass it to adults.

On risk mitigation, Dr. Beecham said masking is important and while it will not be 100 percent effective, it is more effective the more people who wear them. She urged everyone at the meeting to wear a mask in public.

She also stressed the importance of the masking policy being consistent and kept in place throughout the school year.

Dr. Beecham said the district may consider closure if there is a 10 percent absenteeism rate.

Gladys Godinez, who has children in the school system, thanked the district for feeding students throughout the spring and summer, as these children may not have had access to a meal otherwise.

She said she supports the decision to wear masks, citing Lexington as the home of a meatpacking plant and the fact eight Dawson County residents have died due to the virus.

“Let’s be real about the community we live in,” Godinez said, “we live in a hotspot.”

Other parents commented about the difficulty of getting their children to wear a mask and not touch it throughout the day.

School board member Travis Maloley read a prepared statement before the board and the parents and staff in attendance at the meeting.

“As a pharmacist, I saw numerous patients become stricken with COVID-19 and watched their health decline,” Maloley said, “I even had several patients of our pharmacy lose their life in their battle with COVID.”

“I have not and will not take this decision lightly,” Maloley said about the masking issue, “our biggest priority was how we can educate our children while keeping them and our community as safe as possible.”

Maloley said he would be glad to look back on this situation and think they overacted but he could not look back and think intervention was needed while being happy with himself.

Hakonson said the masking will be made into a school rule, like with attire in the dress code and staff will be reasonable at the start of school, but there is an expectation for students to wear masks during the entirety of the school day.

The district has placed an order for masks, which would allow five cloth masks per student, paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

When asked about sending out information about proper mask use and washing to families, Hakonson said this would be included in materials going out at the start of the school year.

Other parents expressed their wish to be informed if there was a positive COVID-19 case in a school where their children attend.

Hakonson said due to HIPPA laws the district has to be careful about releasing this kind of information. Maloley added they need to speak with Two Rivers on how to inform parents, to the extent they are legally allowed to.

Speaking of the current situation, Hakonson said, “its fluid, we will be resilient, we will adapt.”

The board voted unanimously to adopt reopening procedures and mask requirements.

While school will officially start on Aug. 17, the elementary campuses, Lexington Middle School and Lexington High School are all taking on students differently.

Sandoz principal Barry McFarland said on Monday, Aug. 17 the elementary schools will have the kindergartners, second and fourth graders attend to teach them the new rules and how the “new normal will look.”

Tuesday, Aug. 18, the first, third and fifth graders will attend, learning the same thing. By Wednesday, Aug. 19 all elementary students will come to school. “We can take our time to get it right,” McFarland said of reopening.

LMS principal Scott West said all students will arrive on Monday, Aug. 17. The sixth graders will be introduced to the building and get them brought up to speed on the new procedures. “We want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, West said.

LHS principal Audrey Downey said on Monday, Aug. 17, the upperclassman, sophomores, juniors and seniors would arrive and handle some loose ends which were left when school shut down abruptly in the spring.

On Tuesday, the freshman will arrive for their orientation. On Wednesday there will be the typical school year start with the freshman arriving in the morning and the upperclassman arriving in the afternoon.

Downey said Thursday, Aug. 20, will be the first normal day for the high school.

After the vote about the reopening, two public hearings were held, concerning the parental involvement policy and student fee policy, as well as an American Civics Committee meeting.

During the American Civics Committee meeting, the board was informed eighth grade and senior students would take the American civics portion of the United States Citizenship test.

There would also be appropriate patriotic activities on George Washington’s birthday, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Native American Heritage Day, Constitution Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Thanksgiving Day, or on the day or week preceding or following the holiday when school is in session.

During the student fees public hearing, changes were announced, such as a $5 fee for the replacement of RFID cards, which will be used on district buses and reducing the iPad insurance fee from $50 to $25 for students in grades 6-12, no fee will be assessed for elementary students. The board approved.

There were no comments during the parental involvement policy meeting.

During the regular board meeting, the board approved the district handbooks for the 2020-2021 school year. Hakonson said most changes were recommended by their law firm as a part of their policy service. The possibility of requiring face masks to be worn was also added.

Another consideration was the operations agreement with the City of Lexington and YMCA of the Prairie for 2020-2021.

A joint meeting was held at Lexington Middle School on June 9 to review the terms of the agreement. The YMCA requested to relocate and use one of the Sandoz modulars as they are not needed due to the classroom addition.

Hakonson said the school board finance committee was supportive of the request.  Around $50,000.00 of the current $370,000.00 in the contingency fund, coming from YMCA annual payments, will be used to pay for the relocation, foundation and hookups. The finance committee would like to continue assessing the YMCA the deprecation fees to build the contingency fund to at least $400,000.00.

The board approved the operations agreement.

A more terra firma purchase was that of a lawnmower from Buffalo Outdoor Power, LLC for $10,979.00. Hakonson said they received two bids for a replacement mower and this was the lowest, including the trade-in.

The board also approved the purchase of a student data management system from Illuminate Education for $15,000.00. Hakonson said the system will help manage data for both curriculum and special education departments; it has an annual cost of $15,000.00.

The district will be adding three new sports to the roster.

The new activities are middle school soccer, middle school tennis and high school bowling. Both the legislative and finance and activity committee members reviewed the proposals and are supportive of them, Hakonson said.

Lexington High School Activities Director Phil Truax said this creates more opportunities for students to participate in.

In the technology department, the board voted to ratify a decision to purchase iPad cases, so they would be delivered before the start of school.

Hakonson said this was done right after the board approved the iPad purchase, but this was over the normal $10,000.00 limit of the superintendent, but his authority had been expanded to deal with certain issues during the COVID-19 shutdown.

The board approved a contract with Occupational Therapy Services, LLC for the upcoming school year. The contract is for 96 days at $67 per hour, reflecting an increase of one dollar per hour. This matches the state rate.

Another contract approved was for physical therapy services from Lexington Regional Health Center for 2020-2021. This also reflects an increase of a dollar per hour, with the new rate being $65.

When discussing chronic absenteeism policies, the board chose to return to the previous standard of having a medical provider needing to confirm a student was ill for the absence not to be counted toward the chronic absenteeism limit.  This had been modified before the COVID-19 shutdown. The board approved.

To make school bus travel safer, the board approved the purchase from Smart Tag for RFID cards which will be scanned by a tablet on each bus to record their presence coming and going off the bus.

It will also notify if a student is on the wrong bus, Hakonson said, “We think it will be a great safety feature for the large volume of students we bus daily.” The cost of the purchase was $28,758.46.

District Maintenance Supervisor Bo Berry said Kearney Public Schools has used a similar system for the past four years and has benefited from it.

The board also considered the resignation of Jessica Kulhanek. Her resignation was submitted after the June 1 deadline and a replacement has not been secured yet, Hakonson said.

During the voting, board members Larry Steinberger and Roger Reutlinger both voted against approval. The motion was passed after affirmative votes by Cindy Benjamin, Garth Mins, Travis Maloley and Carlos Saiz.

After the meeting Steinberger and Reutlinger both said Kulhanek had missed the deadline and there was no replacement yet, meaning the school year may start with that position not yet being filled.

Graduation will be taking place at 10 a.m. on Saturday, July 25 at Kirkpatrick Memorial Park. Downey said the students will be seated to the north of the gazebo, while the school board will be sat in the structure.

Taft and 11th Streets will be blocked off at 10 a.m. to preserve quiet while the ceremony is ongoing. The Dawson County Historical Museum parking lot will be open to the public.

Hakonson said during his report the revised Nebraska economic forecast will come out on July 23, it will be used by the legislature to guide any state budget changes in the remaining session, which begins July 20.

During board member comments, Saiz thanked the teachers for all of their efforts and the work they will put in this school year.

Mins said the staff has done amazing work planning for this year.

Maloley said the administration, staff and teachers did an awesome job in the spring and that their planning has shown “thoughtfulness.” He said nothing about this year will be normal or easy, but, “we will do the best we can with what we can. Let’s educate our kids as safely as possible.”

Reutlinger told the staff present, “we are in uncharted waters, let’s roll with the punches and have a good year.”

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