When to close school? Governor and education leaders share recommendations

Published: Mar. 13, 2020 at 9:37 AM CDT
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As colleges, universities and public schools announced they're closing out of precaution for COVID-19, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts announced Friday he won't recommend statewide closure of all schools, yet.

Ricketts said he would recommend closure when one percent of Nebraskans have the novel coronavirus.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 1.9 million people in Nebraska, that would mean 19,000 people would need to contract the virus before closures of schools and large events would be mandated.

They've made this decision based of the recommendations of health officials, Ricketts said.

"What they've said is that coronavirus spreads easily and that about five percent of people who get the virus will have to go to the hospital," Ricketts said. "What we want to do is to mitigate the spread so we don't overwhelm our health facilities."

Ricketts said while young people weather the illness very well, the goal of closing schools would be to prevent the virus from spreading to those who will not.

"We're trying to protect the health of the elderly and the people who have weakened immune systems," Ricketts said.

Ricketts did say, however, that right now Nebraska doesn't have the testing available to be able to test 19,000 people, so until they do, they're basing decisions off of community spread.

For example, if there are two cases of community spread in Omaha, schools there will shut down. If there are one-to-two cases of community spread in Lincoln, schools here will shut down. If there's one case in an ESU, or Educational Service Unit, that covers several school districts in a rural area, then those schools will shut down.

Ricketts said tracking community spread is a good way to track the number of overall cases when widespread testing isn't yet available.

Community spread is when cases of coronavirus are identified that can't be traced back to a source.

Ricketts said currently, they've been able to keep track of all 13 cases of the virus in Nebraska and tie them back to travel history.

If it did come to the point that schools need to closed, they'd be closed for six-to-eight weeks to ensure there's little chance of the virus spreading once school resumes.

However, schools can make decisions on their own.

"If schools were on spring break last week and you know you have kids traveling around the country, and they want to take a longer break and make sure nobody develops symptoms, they can do that," Ricketts said.

Lincoln Public Schools is expected to make a decision regarding closure Friday afternoon.

A representative from the district encouraged parents to plan now in case classes are canceled.

Several schools have already made the decision to close for at least a week, including Omaha Public Schools, Bellevue Public Schools, Elkhorn Public Schools, Papillion-La Vista Community Schools, Millard Public Schools and Heartland School in Omaha.

Representatives from school districts in the Omaha area said these decisions aren't being made lightly and they're working to help food-insecure students get access to food while school is out.